Theology and Fiction: Telling Stories of Order Amidst The Chaos


I just this week finished John Yorke’s book Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. It was recommended by a good friend who’s a director in theatre and is also now writing for television. She insisted that I read it before I began any more writing.

I’m really glad I did, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the book is excellent. Yorke is the creator of a number of very well known and highly respected TV series, and knows his topic inside out. I read Christopher Booker’s seminal tome The Seven Basic Plots some years ago; Yorke references it quite a bit, but his own book is more about application: why do we tell stories, and how should we go about creating great story-craft?

This is where the book became doubly interesting for me. As you may have read here recently, I have been awarded a grant by Arts Council England to write my next book. It was quite an arduous application process, with lots of stuff about proving artistic merit etc. etc., and there has been part of me that still felt out of place in it all, moving from – albeit tangential – works of theology to literary fiction.

So it was hugely reassuring to read Yorke arguing that the two projects I have been labouring at are really one and the same thing:

“Once upon a time ‘God’ was the story we told to make sense of our terror in the light of existence. Storytelling has that same fundamentally religious function – it fuses the disparate, gives us shape, and in doing so instils in us quiet.”

“Storytelling, then, is born from our need to order everything outside ourselves. A story is like a magnet dragged through randomness, pulling the chaos of things into some kind of shape and – if we’re lucky – some kind of sense. Every tale is an attempt to lasso a terrifying reality, tame it and bring it to heel.”

“Whether psychological, sexual or societal, each of our storytelling definitions is built around the same principle: an inciting incident blows a seemingly ordered reality into a thousand fragments, then a detective arrives to hunt down the culprits and restore things to their rightful place.”

Seen this way, religion – and theo-logy as a narration of it – is a very ancient, primal and vital form of storytelling. Each religion has inciting incidents – the fall, the exodus, the incarnation, Paul’s conversion, Mohammed’s visions – and the struggle to reorder the world in the aftermath of them is the task of a community that inhabits this story, a story that is examined and expanded in enormous detail, a little like a Dungeon’s and Dragon’s game, by theologians.

However, for anyone who has followed my writing for a while will know, I’ve come to doubt whether ‘terrifying reality’ can be lassoed, tamed or brought to heel. Radical Theology, as it has become known, is an attempt to re-narrate religion as a force that is perhaps an ‘unhelpful fiction’ in that it purports to have the power to do this taming, when actually it not only can’t do it, but often adds to the fragmentation. Far from being infallible sources of divine revelation, theologians and priests have always been unreliable narrators.

This, to be clear, is not a rejection of religion in the style of Dawkins or other New Atheists. Rather, it is a reinstating of religion to its original, primal form: a telling of a story to make order out of chaos. It is the hyper-elevation of religious stories to the level of unimpeachable, universal truth that has precipitated huge violence – both psychological and physical – as tribe and cultures and individuals have fought to impose their ordering of things. (Perhaps ISIS is no more than a group of people insisting that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not only true, but REALLY TRUE, and woe-betide anyone who doesn’t believe it.)

What I love about fiction is that, in being upfront about the fact that the story that follows isn’t true, it can get on with the job of being true. The power in Hamlet is not in the fact of it being true, but in the enduring truth that lies in its being fictional. The order it attempts is more limited, and temporary. It doesn’t pretend to be able to perfect the world.

It is perhaps then unsurprising that – like the Bible itself – Radical Theology has evolved a huge amount of story. Peter Rollins’ parables are an excellent example of this: they are true because they fictional. The order they attempt isn’t universal, but more local… even though their localised settings (a jungle, a bar in rural Northern Ireland) resonate with universal themes.

Yorke again:

In a godless universe, the abject horror of meaningless existence is too much for any individual to bear. The idea that we are here and then we die, that all circumstances are random and all achievements are finally futile, is too overwhelming to contemplate. [Yet] staring into the abyss, we find we are incapable of not ordering the world… 

I suppose what I want to bring from Radical Theology into the fiction work I’m going to be launching into shortly is exactly what I explored in the final chapter of Getting High: that a godless universe doesn’t have to mean abject horror or meaninglessness.

Yorke’s book will, I hope, be an excellent guide in that process, because it so beautifully shows how the classic 5-act structure takes characters – and readers – on a journey from imagined order, to exploding of that order, through crisis and into a more mature sense of imperfect order. These are the woods we enter, daily – woods that contain our monsters, and yet – we find to our amazement – the understanding we need to be able to shrink them.

‘Faced with the ultimate crisis,’ Yorke writes, ‘the structure asks of the protagonist one simple question: will you revert to your old self and die, or change and live?’ This will be the ancient skeleton on which I too hope to build a drama.

So, this is a long-winded way of saying that, for now, I’m changing form: non-fiction to fiction. Always onwards. Change and live. Hope you’ll enjoy the journey too.


One response to “Theology and Fiction: Telling Stories of Order Amidst The Chaos”

  1. Rosie Paylor

    You might be interested in this book along similar themes:
    I only started reading it last night but it looks to be good.