By Mark Clavier
Human beings have a real weakness for fiction. Most of us can’t resist a good yarn and are bitterly disappointed when we begin one that’s promising, only for it to be no good. We want a story that’s engrossing, sympathetic, and filled with compelling characters and evocative backdrops.
If we have those ingredients, we’re not much fussed whether it’s told through a book, in conversation, on the radio or TV, or in a comic book or narrative-based computer game. And while we may make a distinction between qualities of stories — high literature vs. pulp fiction — in most cases we expect the same thing of the author: be a good storyteller.
You can tell the finest storytellers when their readers can’t help but expand upon the original stories and characters. Readers make judgments about the character of the characters — Frodo is this kind of person and Huckleberry Finn is that kind of person — or work out things about the imagined world that the author never imagined. Fans even take up the story and spin it in directions the author never imagined. We see this in spades with The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter.
The thing about fiction, though, is that by definition it’s not real. It may be set in the real world, may even claim real people as characters, but it remains make-believe. Even if the described world reminds us of the real world or the characters carry the names and descriptions of real people, they remain entirely works of the imagination. When I read Henry V, I’m not encountering a late 14th-century monarch or even a late 14th-century world; I’m encountering the imagination of Shakespeare: no more, no less.
Most people, of course, won’t mistake The Lord of the Rings or Henry V for the reality they encounter in their daily lives. But that distinction becomes hazier when fiction is set within the world we think we know; the distinction becomes almost impossibly hard when it purports to be the real world we encounter. Then fiction quickly becomes our reality.
In 1922, the American journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann drew on earlier works by Gustav Le Bon and Sigmund Freud to explain the growing gulf between reality we know firsthand and social perceptions of reality that people mistake for reality. In Public Opinion, he described the “pictures inside people’s heads” that are shaped less by our everyday experience than by presentations of reality found in mass media. Mass-mediated words, stories, and images create “pseudo-environments” that we mistake for reality. Lippmann called these the “medium of fictions.”
By fictions I do not mean lies. I mean a representation of the environment which is in lesser or greater degree made by man himself. … A work of fiction may have almost any degree of fidelity, and so long as the degree of fidelity can be taken into account, fiction is not misleading. In fact, human culture is very largely the selection, the rearrangement, the tracing of patterns upon, and the stylizing of, what William James called “the random irradiations and resettlements of our ideas.” The alternative to the use of fictions is direct exposure to the ebb and flow of sensation. That is not a real alternative, … For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. To traverse the world men must have maps of the world (Public Opinion, p. 16).
What Lippmann recognized was that the world was becoming far too complex for people to make sense of it for themselves. In the old days, really the only knowledge one needed was of the place and people in one’s location and the skills and know-how required for survival. For most people, reality extended not much further than a day’s walk in any direction. They knew their people, their home, their jobs, their religion, and something about how they related to each other (fiction crept back in this latter example).
But thanks to mass transport and mass media, the scope of our world has expanded exponentially so that reality comprises things of which we’ve no experience. We’ve been told about Donald Trump, the situation in North Korea, people’s beliefs about sexual ethics, what kind of food people eat, and so on. While some of these stories can rely on strong scientific evidence to demonstrate their veracity, really the vast majority of things we consider real are, in fact, works of fiction. We accept them on faith. There are even things we know aren’t real but we agree to treat as real: Contemporary cash (fiat currency) is a prime example of this, though perhaps borders have a more political resonance. Neither exists except in the minds of people.
The thing about these fictions is that if they have any rhetorical power — as Augustine would say, if they can teach, delight, and persuade — they can lay claim to our loyalties. We move from thinking that the fiction is reality to wanting that fiction to be reality. Thinking and desiring come together to draw us into the fiction and then to see all else from its perspective. We, in effect, become characters.
Now, if we could step back for a moment, we’d recognize this as a form of madness, no less peculiar than someone self-identifying as an elf, the Duke of Bedford, or a real member of Gryffindor. But we don’t step back. We double down by doing our bit to convince others that the fiction we’ve accepted is the reality other people should accept. This is one reason why the age of mass media is marked by conspiracy theories. To an extent, all of us hold fast to a fictional reality that only exists because enough people conspire to evoke it.
This kind of thinking, of course, can quickly lead to madness or postmodern relativism (often the same thing). But people really can only pretend that there’s no reality after they’ve yielded entirely to fiction. Keep in contact with real things — the actual people around you, the actual place where you live, the actual body and mind you’ve been blessed with, the actual God who underpins and suffuses all — and you’ll be inoculated against relativism. Unmoor yourself from that reality and you’ll come to believe almost anything, especially in an age when the Internet and other technologies allow us to inhabit fictional worlds nonstop. For the moment, we can do that without facing the consequences of our being useless to ourselves and everybody else.
This tension between fiction and reality can teach us all sorts of things about society, economics, and beliefs. I think it also has much to teach us about mission and evangelism, and my forthcoming book Reading Augustine: On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church, and the Rhetorics of Delight will spell that out. Here, I will briefly propose how this can shape our understanding of the Church.
A besetting problem of the Church today is that we’re all too caught up in the fiction of the Church rather than its reality. What is that fiction?
First, it’s all the organizational stuff. The bureaucratic systems, regulations, power structures, initiatives, and committees are human devices that only exist because we believe they ought to exist. For the most part, you can identify these kinds of fiction because they require offices. And these fictions can compound their harmful potential by treating themselves as the reality of the Church. Thus, provincial or diocesan bureaucracies are treated as more essential than real churches where real people gather to engage in real worship.
Second, the fiction consists of much that we debate and legislate on. But, you may say, these address important issues. My response is that they certainly do, only most are issues that depend on our accepting the fictions that undergird them. Just think about how many church issues exercise people in offices or online communities but have absolutely no effect on the people you sit next to in your pew. People pay lip service to the debates or issues that invade their churches by acknowledging the policies insofar as they don’t obstruct their prayers and fellowship.
Finally, the most insidious fiction takes on the guise of the Church. This fiction partakes of, or encapsulates elements of, the first two fictions but isn’t the same. It’s hard to define but is evoked whenever people say things like The Church does this or The Church should do that or The problem with the Church is. What they mean by the Church doesn’t actually refer to anything concrete; it’s like complaining about the world, or people these days, or the poor.
What then is real? First, those that you’re called to love: God and neighbour. Both the real God you encounter in Word and sacrament and the real people who sit next to you in the pews or live next door to you. Second, it’s the place where you encounter the real God and your real neighbours: your home, neighbourhood, town, and church. And, finally, it’s the real, meaningful things you do, be that buying someone flowers, celebrating their good fortune, sacrificing for their good, or kneeling with them in prayers.
That’s the reality of the Church. Almost everything else is fiction. Part of our sanctification is learning, for our good and the good of the whole Church, how to discern the one from the other.