The Power of Story
The great nineteenth-century evangelist Charles Finney once declared, "I cannot believe that a person who has ever known the love of God can relish a secular novel."
Ironically, it was during Finney's lifetime that Christians turned a secular novel into a great weapon for Christ: Uncle Tom's Cabin. It's an illustration of the power of a story.
Probably no other novel has made such an impact on a nation. Uncle Tom's Cabin sold 300,000 copies in its first year and two million copies by the end of the decade. These are incredible figures, considering that America's population was less than a tenth of the size it is today. The book helped millions of Americans understand, for the first time, what a terrible thing it was to be a slave.
Today, "Uncle Tom" is a derogatory term, applied to blacks that treat whites with fawning servility. But in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Tom is a Christ-like figure. He suffers the worst evils imaginable, yet refuses to strike back.
ONE OF THE REASONS WE READ FICTION IS BECAUSE FICTION HELPS TRAIN THE MORAL IMAGINATION.
The book seared the consciences of Stowe's readers, and helped them realize that slavery was a great evil, not merely a problematic social institution.
Anti-slavery activists had been trying to get that message across for almost thirty years. But nothing they did had the impact of this book. In fact, most abolitionists didn't read novels. Like Charles Finney, they considered novels frivolous, if not downright immoral. The last place they would have looked for help in their cause was the bookstore fiction shelf.
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a reminder that one of the reasons we read fiction is because fiction helps train the moral imagination. As the late Russell Kirk put it, the battle for our hearts and minds is fought in the "land of the human imagination."
I know that when it comes to learning moral lessons, I've often been much more affected by works of fiction than by abstract theological discourses.
Biblical figures understood the power of a good story. Remember the prophet, Nathan, confronting King David about his affair with Bathsheba? Nathan did not offer David a dry lecture on the sin of adultery. No, he spun a story about a rich man who took the only lamb belonging to a poor man. In order to get past David's defenses, Nathan told an allegorical story.
Harriet Beecher Stowe received much of her insight into slavery from carefully documented abolitionist accounts. She then used her creative ability to teach the message that all men and women are created in God's image, and are infinitely precious to Him.
Twentieth century Christians ought to use the same strategy as we fight modern social evils like abortion, pornography, and the breakdown of the family. We must use books, film, music, and television to shock Americans out of their complacency.
One good book we can use, which shows the power of the story, is Tim Stafford's new novel, The Stamp of Glory. It tells in fiction the marvelous story of the abolitionist movement.
In reading this book, you'll learn some of the forgotten details of how Christians led this noble battle -- and you'll learn how we can fight modern evils through the weapon of a great story.