Storytelling, Imaginary Worlds and Being Human

Carl Spitzweg's 'Der arme Poet', 'The Poor Poet'. (1839) via Grohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering, used w/o permission.
Carl Spitzweg’s first version of “The Poor Poet”. (1839) via Grohmann Museum at MSOE.

Storytelling is a very “human” thing. But not all of us are storytellers. And some of us don’t even care for reading stories. Which is just as well, since we’re not supposed to be all alike.

“Fiction is Lies”

John Tenniel's illustration: looking-glass world's chessboard landscape, for Lewis Carroll's 'Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There'. (1871)
John Tenniel’s illustration from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass…”. (1871)

John Tenniel's Alice and the Knitting Sheep, Alice Through the Looking-Glass.Most of my writing is non-fiction, but I’ve done the occasional story, including an ongoing saga starring two avian fugitives:

Oddly enough, although I’ve been criticized for talking about both religion and science, I’ve yet to be told that storytelling and my faith don’t mix.

On the other hand, I have heard a few folks declare that they read only non-fiction: because it’s “real”. They’ve got a point.

“Fiction is lies…. All those things are essentially untrue….”
(attr. George R.R. Martin)

I could cobble together “Biblical” support for shunning fiction. Along with a rule that Christians should stay inside after sundown: taking 1 John 1:6 at literal face value.

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
(John 14:6) [emphasis mine]

“Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ,”
(Ephesians 4:15) [emphasis mine]

“Now this is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.
If we say, ‘We have fellowship with him,’ while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth.”
(1 John 1:56) [emphasis mine]

That kind of trouble I don’t need.

However, ‘blessed are the storytellers’ isn’t one of the Beatitudes. (Matthew 5:312)

So I could invoke ‘absence of evidence is evidence of absence’ and say this proves that telling stories is sinful. But I won’t. Again, I don’t need that sort of trouble.

Argument from ignorance is an anti-logic landmine1 that’s easy to spot. When it’s defending 24 carat tinplate hooey.

When a person really believes the hooey: that’s another topic.

Giving and Getting Impressions

Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland', pp. 92-93, John Tenniel's illustration (1865) London: Macmillan (1928) edition, via Library of Congress
The Cheshire Cat and Alice, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. (1865)

The 64-dollar question, since I haven’t been warned against the sins of storytelling, is why I thought that fiction might be considered “unbiblical”. Well, maybe a $63.95 question.

For one thing, some — not all — of the folks I’ve heard announce that they never read fiction did so with a tone that mantled their preferences with an air of moral superiority.

Photo of Carry A. Nation with a hatchet. (ca. 1900)For another, I’d gotten an earful of imaginative ‘End Times Bible Prophecies’ on “Christian” radio, back in the 1960s. One chap even said that a Bible bit prophesied a specific item in the then-current Soviet armament inventory.

Then there was the steady drip-feed of guilt, shame and despair. Along with strong implications that ‘blessed are the miserable, for they shall spread misery’ was a Beatitude.

That sort of thing leaves an impression. Not a favorable one.

Bear in mind that I don’t have access to transcripts from that station, and that my memories are of those of a teenager who was experiencing undiagnosed clinical depression: among other issues.

The point is that I’m not surprised when folks afflicted with “Biblical” versions of malignant virtue are — ah, let’s say alternatively-reasonable.

“There are times, Charles, when even the unimaginative decency of my brother and the malignant virtue of his wife appear to me admirable.”
(Lord Peter Wimsey, in “Murder Must Advertise“, Dorothy L. Sayers (1933))

“…counting every thing which the most malignant virtue could shrink from, I have culled eighty lines. Eighty lines out of nine thousand!…”
(“The Good Gray Poet. A Vindication,” William Douglas O’Connor (1866))

And that, finally, brings me to how I could possibly imagine that anyone might regard storytelling as a Satanic snare.

John Tenniel's Cheshire Cat illustration for Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.' (1865)I’m a Christian. And a Catholic, which isn’t oxymoronic, and that’s yet another topic.

Among other things, being a Christian means I think truth matters.

Fiction is about things that haven’t happened, often happening in places that don’t exist.

That sounds like pretty much the opposite of truth.

Coming at Reality from Different Directions

George Bellows' cartoon for Metropolitan magazine, illustrating Billy Sunday's preaching style. (May 1915)So how come I’m not denouncing novels, short stories, “I Love Lucy”, “Seven Samurai”, and “Star Trek”?

Basically, it’s the same reason that I’m not denouncing science and insisting that the wonders we’re finding in this amazing universe somehow threaten my faith.

I think truth matters, and that objective reality exists.

But I also think that expecting a poem, a telephone book and a travel guide to express truth the same way would be silly. Even if all three truthfully described the same town.

Recognizing that there’s more to truth than my preferences and favored viewpoint isn’t a new idea.

“…It’s something too many of us forget, that reality has layers. Occasionally people ask me how I can be Catholic and a science journalist. The answer is simple: Truth does not contradict truth. Both science and religion are pursuit of truth. They’re after different aspects of truth, different layers of reality, but they’re still both fundamentally about truth….”
(Camille M. Carlisle, Sky and Telescope (June 2017))

“…Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against scepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: ‘On to God!'”
(Religion and Natural Science, a lecture delivered in May, 1937, originally titled Religion und Naturwissenschaft.
Complete translation into English: “Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers“, Max Planck (1968); via

“…Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))

Now let’s look at the rest of that George R. R. Martin2 quote.

“Fiction is lies; we’re writing about people who never existed and events that never happened when we write fiction, whether its science fiction or fantasy or western mystery stories or so-called literary stories. All those things are essentially untrue. But it has to have a truth at the core of it.”
(attr. George R.R. Martin, (George R.R. Martin Quotes,

“Little Less Than a God”

Brian H. Gill's 'Are You Going to Finish That?' (June 5, 2015)
My “Are You Going to Finish That?” (June 5, 2015)

I can’t say “let there be light” and expect illumination. Not unless I’ve got voice activated lights, or use a wall switch as I speak. God’s God, I’m not, and that’s a good thing.

I am, however, human: and we’re pretty hot stuff.

“God created mankind in his image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
(Genesis 1:27)

“then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
(Genesis 2:7)

“What is man that you are mindful of him,
and a son of man that you care for him?
“Yet you have made him little less than a god,
crowned him with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:56)

Since I’m human, I’ve got an imagination. As far as I can tell, that’s standard equipment. What sort of an imagination each of us has varies.

Each of us is unique, and made in God’s image. We share a common nature and dignity, but we’re not all alike. That’s a good thing, although we can misuse our differences. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355ff, 1934-1938)

And that’s yet again another topic.

I can use, or misuse, my imagination. It’s my choice. The extent to which I can make good decisions and stick to them? That’s complicated. (Catechism, 1730ff, 2520, 2708)

Imaginary Worlds and Human Dignity

Brian H. Gill's 'Island Flight'. (September 11, 2015)
My “Island Flight”. (2015)

We’re made “in the image of God”, so it’s hardly surprising that some of us try making our own worlds: in our imaginations. It’s a reflection of God’s creativeness.

I was going to talk about God, secondary causes, human nature and how we got into the current mess. (Catechism, 279-314, 355-379, 385-412, 1701-1709)

But it’s late Friday afternoon, and I’ve got maybe an hour to wrap this up, so that’ll wait for another time: apart from this overly-brief summary.

God started/starts with nothing — picking the right tense may be impossible when talking about God, who’s not ‘inside’ time and space — and is creating everything we see. And that part of reality that we can’t see because it’s not part of the visible world.

Humanity as a whole and me in particular: we’re not God.

But we’re made in the image of God, so I figure it’s hardly surprising that some of us try making imaginary worlds.

I see no problem with using our imagination.

Provided that we remember both who we are, and what we are: people, with a share in humanity’s transcendent dignity.

Our imaginary worlds aren’t “real”, with the profound complexity and interdependence of the visible world. But they can seem real, partly because we start with images, ideas and experiences from the reality we live in.

If we’re doing it right, our imaginary worlds, and stories we make for them, will reflect some truth that’s worth the time and effort spent by both writer and reader.3

I’ll close with an excerpt from what Pope St. John Paul II said to folks in the Los Angeles communications industry, back in 1987. He’d been talking about human dignity:

“…None is excluded because all bear the image of God. Physical and mental handicaps, spiritual weaknesses and human aberrations cannot obliterate the dignity of man. You will understand why the Church attaches such importance to this principle found on the first page of the Bible; it will later become the basis of the teaching of Jesus Christ as he says: ‘Always treat others as you would like them to treat you’ (Matth. 7, 12).

“In particular, social communications must support human dignity because the world is constantly tempted to forget it. Whether in news or in drama, whether in song or in story, you are challenged to respect what is human and to recognize what is good. Human beings must never be despised because of limitations, flaws, disorders, or even sins….

“…I would encourage you in yet another way: to respect also your own dignity. All that I have said about the dignity of human beings applies to you.

Daily cares oppress you in ways different from those arising in other kinds of work. Your industry reflects the fast pace of the news and changing tastes. … It places you under extreme pressure to be successful, without telling you what ‘success’ really is. Working constantly with images, you face the temptation of seeing them as reality. Seeking to satisfy the dreams of millions, you can become lost in a world of fantasy.

“At this point, you must cultivate the integrity consonant with your own human dignity. You are more important than success, more valuable than any budget. Do not let your work drive you blindly, for if work enslaves you, you will soon enslave your art. Who you are and what you do are too important for that to happen. Do not let money be your sole concern, for it too is capable of enslaving art as well as souls. In your life there must also be room for your families and for leisure. You need time to rest and be re-created, for only in quiet can you absorb the peace of God.

“You yourselves are called to what is noble and lofty in human living, and you must study the highest expressions of the human spirit. You have a great part in shaping the culture of this nation and other nations. To you is entrusted an important portion of the vast heritage of the human race. In fulfilling your mission you must always be aware of how your activities affect the world community, how they serve the cause of universal solidarity….”
(To the people of the Communication Industry in Los Angeles
Pope St. John Paul II (September 15, 1987))

More of my take on writing and making sense:

1 “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, but evidence of absence is a real thing:

2 An American writer:

3 Reflecting truth:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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3 Responses to Storytelling, Imaginary Worlds and Being Human

  1. I like how you played with that George R.R. Martin quote, which reminded me of how I learned about the “Curiosity killed the cat” rejoinder that goes “but satisfaction brought it back” through some boys from the virtual YouTubing scene, which I currently feel could do better by trying to take pages from Andy Kaufman. And then there’s that Pope St. John Paul II excerpt, which feels fresh even though it’s from 1987, and reminds me about my fears of having to do things like how the Holy Family went to Egypt to escape Herod. This piece of yours, Mr. Gill, also had me thinking of fiction as very elaborate trick shots that are very difficult to track yet are wonders to focus on as long as you believe with all you have, and doesn’t that sound like how God works? More strength and worthwhile times to fictionists as well, then.

    • 😀 Indeed, stories and storytellers can reflect God’s work. And thanks for reminding me of the “Curiosity killed the cat” saying.

      Andy Kaufman – I haven’t seen his name in some time. Remarkable talent, short life. Thank you for the reminder.

      Pope St. John Paul II and human dignity? Yes. Details change, that doesn’t.

      I’d have responded sooner, but this has been and is an – interesting – week. More so than usual, that is.

      Finally – Yes! More strength and worthwhile times to fictionists.

      Fictionists: I like that word.

      • I feel like I heard “fictionist” over at my university when I was going through the Creative Writing course. It’s not something I usually hear, too, but it felt like something common enough for those talking shop. XD

Thanks for taking time to comment!