Biblical Fiction Isn’t Inspired by God, But It Can Inspire Our Imaginations
Behold this continuing series Discerning Biblical Fiction! Last week’s article, part 1 of 4, sought to define biblical fiction and its purposes. This article, part 2, explores early answers to two more questions:
- Is biblical fiction “inspired” by God?
- Why does imagination feel so inspirational and even spiritual?
That series debut also noted in passing that The Chosen drama series can be labeled biblical fiction. This actually caused some concern among The Chosen fans (at least on social media). They seemed to believe the word “fiction” was a soft slander—as if to dismiss the research and faithfulness behind the series creators who state their desire to keep their adaptation as biblical as possible.1
This concern is exactly why I started the series with general definitions of not just biblical fiction, but fiction. These are not dismissive labels, any more than referring to a song we sing in church, or a story we tell at dinner. Fiction, stories, and songs are descriptions of human imaginative works. God gave us these gifts to glorify him!
If we suspect deep down that any kind of fiction, including biblical fiction, is separate from God’s gifts, we might reveal we’ve accepted unbiblical notions. Like the notion that some things we enjoy (like fiction) are “neutral,” or belong nowhere near our Christian practice. If that’s what we believe, such a belief is nonsense. Every single thing in life can be used for worship or for sinful purpose. There is nothing neutral.
… Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23, ESV)
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4–5, ESV)
With that in mind, let’s suppose that we know biblical fiction is a gift of God we can receive with thanksgiving. If we believe this, how do we think God gives us this gift?
5. Is biblical fiction “inspired” by God?
Like any kind of fiction, biblical fiction can be very powerful. Well-made stories can draw us into new worlds alongside imaginary people. Our God-given imaginations are fully engaged! We feel their emotions and dreams. We may feel immersed in that story-world. Then we may even feel moved so deeply that we feel we are having a spiritual experience, as if God is speaking directly to us via the story.
If so, does this mean that the story is somehow “inspired by God”?
Could we even say that the creators of the story were “inspired” to make that story, especially if the Holy Spirit uses that story to help people grow closer to our Lord?
Let’s be careful how we use the word “inspired.”
Our answer depends on the meaning of the word inspired. People often use this word in different ways. For example, after a great church service, people may say they felt inspired to give to the needy or recommit their lives to Jesus. Elsewhere, an artist may see a beautiful sunset, and she may feel inspired to make a new painting.
If we say we “feel inspired” by a story, that makes sense. It makes even more sense if that feeling drives us to do something, such as worship God by song or action.
When we say we “feel inspired,” this is not like the Bible’s inspiration.
However, this is not the same way Christians believe the truth that God inspired the Bible. Christians use this word as a “substitute” for words the Bible uses to describe its divine origin, especially the word God-breathed. The apostle Paul uses this word when he says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness …” (2 Timothy 3:16).
When God inspired people to write the Bible, God was so personally involved that we can say the Bible’s words are God-breathed. Each Bible book reflects the human author’s personality and word choice, but we still credit God as the ultimate Author.
When people enjoy God’s gift of imagination, this is normal, not miraculous.
This is very different from how we credit the human authors of stories. Their words are not inspired the way Scripture is inspired. Sure, God has given people the gift of imagination. We use this gift to make stories that can be very powerful and even make us feel inspired. Christians, however, do not believe our imagination requires special work of the Holy Spirit in the same way God breathed his words of the Bible.
Yes, God stays active in the world! But our imagination is part of the world’s normal acts. It’s not miraculous like God’s “breathing” of the Bible is miraculous. Similarly, we can see a thunderstorm and worship God for his majesty in creation. But we wouldn’t call this a miracle like the Holy Spirit’s “mighty rushing wind” in Acts 2.
6. Why does imagination feel so inspirational and even spiritual?
If imagination is normal and not miraculous, why does this do such amazing things?
How can people acting out stories on a screen, or the simple words on a book page, reach deep into our hearts and create a kind of miraculous feeling deep inside us?
God gives us himself and his gifts, like creativity, to help make us happy.
Christians are sometimes tempted to believe God doesn’t want us to be happy. We say things like, “God wants us to be holy, not happy.” Or we pass along the phrase, “God is interested in our joy, which is something not at all like happiness.”
People who say these things usually mean well. They’re trying to help others (or themselves!) avoid the temptation to seek happiness only in God’s gifts, or in sin.
However, the Bible is full of direct instruction for God’s people to rejoice and delight as they worship him.2 We glorify God when we worship him according to the Bible. Anything less is, at best, a flawed worship. At worst, it’s idolatry! But as we worship God in truth, we should also at least get close to those feelings of happiness, just as the Bible has promised we will receive.
If we believe that we can glorify and honor God by enjoying stories, including biblical fiction, then it’s natural to assume these stories will bring us happiness. Really, really good stories will bring us even stronger feelings. That includes the kind of happiness we feel even when we see people creating stories very well.
God’s blessings move us to happiness according to his written word.
To be sure, even many well-meaning Christians can separate their belief about good feelings from their belief about God’s truth. Many stories, even from good Christian creators, try to make fans happy while ignoring God’s truth. Other stories unfortunately include plain lies about Christ, the gospel, or other biblical truths.
These stories may make some people feel happy. But we must always be asking whether these stories make us happy according to God’s word, or in other ways!
Coming this Monday, May 17, in this Discerning Biblical Fiction series: What’s the difference between “un-biblical” false teaching and “extra-biblical” creativity? Can biblical fiction include extra-biblical words and dialogue? Can biblical fiction include extra-biblical people and storylines? Consider how great biblical fiction adds extra-biblical creative images yet honors God’s word.
- In a public conversation in reply to one critic, The Chosen creator Dallas Jenkins noted: “It is inaccurate to say that I’ve presented this show ‘as if it happened the way we present it.’ I have never once even implied that the storylines outside of scripture are anything other than artistic license. I’ve said many times our standard is, ‘Is this plausible?’ But while we haven’t used the phrase ‘Biblical fiction’ (it’s not a book, it’s a show, and we don’t need to categorize it), I’ve never said anything contradicting that.” ↩
- For more about God’s desire for his people to be happy, see “Randy Alcorn: God Wants You to Find Your Happy Place,” interview by Jen Pollock Michel, Sept. 27, 2016, ChristianityToday.com. ↩
What do you think of the general concern some people have about representing Christ in any visible way, which can lead people to soft-idolatry? The issue, as I’ve seen it stated is thus: if seeing a painting of Jesus or watching a movie about Jesus causes the viewer to feel more “connected” to Jesus or in some way more “drawn” to Jesus, does this not constitute a violation of the Second Commandment, in that the physical depiction of our Lord is a worship aid, an image, and as such generates a false worship via the imagery–the eyes–instead of a true worship via faith–in the heart?
I think you are asking and answering many very good questions, and maybe you’ll get to mine in the next couple of segments.
Hey drewnchick! We just replied to your question while recording Episode 94 of the Fantastical Truth podcast. Look for our answer on Tuesday 1/11/22 when the episode is released. Great question!