Truth Through Fiction

Guest Post

The senior editor of Zondervan came to my agent last year and asked me if I would update my 30-year-old book The Mormon Mirage. I did more than update – over 50 percent of it is all-new material. The heavily-documented new edition addresses many contemporary LDS issues such as the role of the Internet, race and gender issues, and the responses of the LDS church, both formally and informally, to those who oppose it. However, at the same time I was researching for this look at the Mormonism of the 21st century, I was also writing a novel, Latter-day Cipher.

Why would someone whose lifetime body of work (13 books and hundreds of magazine articles) was predominantly non-fiction turn to writing a novel with a similar subject to three previous nonfiction books?  For many years I looked down on fiction writers – at least those who dealt with religious subjects – as having a much less rigorous task.  No fact checking.  No footnotes.  Creativity and imagination reign. (Much to the contrary – fiction writers most often get in trouble when their work most closely approximates the truth about an individual or specific situation.)

But increasingly over the past years, I have felt a desire to explore ways new for me, of conveying truth through fiction.

One reason for this goes back all the way to a high school English class assignment and the impact it had on me. Though I have almost nothing in common with Upton Sinclair, the activist and writer of the early 20th century, I have never forgotten some of the images of his novel, The Jungle.  Sinclair tried for years to write journalistic articles to raise public consciousness about the meatpacking industry, but not until he wrote his novel did people really pay attention (and the Pure Food and Drug Act resulted from the outcry.)

We are living in a new world where people access information in twitters, on blogs, and through fiction and visual effects as much as through straight expository reading.  Young people communicate with quotes from movies that make their conversations incomprehensible to those who haven’t seen the films.  It’s all about the story.

This is reflected in Mormon culture through the explosion of the number LDS-backed (and/or themed) movies and Mormon fiction in print as well.  The characters struggle with those things that make Mormonism unique.  In a similar way, my novel, Latter-day Cipher, has sympathetically-portrayed LDS characters who wrestle with an element unique to Mormonism:  the fact that for a faithful Mormon (such as I once was), something can be true and doctrinal for one generation, and then be repudiated in the next.

Other great writers (and I do not class myself with them, you understand) such as Dostoyevsky have used fiction to convey truth. Do you believe that fiction –either as a short story, a novel, even a movie — is an appropriate vehicle for important faith concepts?

Latayne C Scott

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21 Responses to Truth Through Fiction

  1. mobaby says:

    I work in an area of storytelling – film and video. So I very much appreciate the art of telling stories, both fiction and non-fiction. One thing I have noticed though is that the truth can often be compromised for a good story. For fiction, that would mean creating a world that is removed from our own, where the writer can manipulate reality to conform to their views – which is fine, because it is fiction after all, but often people will read it and not take this into account, forcing the non-real view of the novel back on to reality. Not to say that fiction cannot be written, but I think care must be taken. What is the proper balance, I don’t know. There have been Christian novels recently that people incorrectly read as Bible truth, for instance, the “Left Behind” series. Even though they are fiction, readers will often look to these books as a source of truth about the end times.
    With the issue of Mormonism, I would take care to be as accurate about the religion as possible, even with fictional characters, because any small thing that is seen as not true will be used to smear the book. That said, even if true, readers may object to things they don’t like and use rationalizations to try and undermine the novel. But truth is God’s hammer, knocking down and destroying idols so that we will acknowledge Him as the one true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As the theologian Calvin said, our hearts are sinful and wicked “idol factories” and we must always be submitted to God, allowing Him to destroy those things which lead us away from Him. I pray that LDS readers will get beyond any offense they may perceive in your novel, to the truth and God would work that truth to their salvation.

  2. Ward says:

    Latayne wrote: Other great writers (and I do not class myself with them, you understand) such as Dostoyevsky have used fiction to convey truth. Do you believe that fiction –either as a short story, a novel, even a movie — is an appropriate vehicle for important faith concepts?”

    I come to this blog from the arena of Crosscultural missions, as well as the appreciation of metaphor and other literary concepts. In my arenas, the process of “storying” is quite prominent, especially as it relates to the translation of Scripture, like the Wycliffe Bible Translators, in specific. Instead of being translated lock step from Matthew to Revelation, the New Testament is translated in terms of parts of books which have stories relating to metaphors in that culture and language group. For example, the first books translated into Seninke (a language from Mali) have the book of Jonah, and parts of books like John.

  3. Ward says:

    Continuing: This becomes more important when we consider that many cultures in the majority world transfer their important information through stories. In addition, millions of people are functionally nonreaders, and the story is the mode by which most information is past on. The translators carefully put the biblical truths in a way that they become more compelling to the seekers. In addition to being truth, they are good stories, and they are easily acquired by the curious. In time, the entire Bible becomes translated, but with the storying approach, the scriptures are more easily and earlier available.

    Sorry for this digression, but I think that this indicates that Latayne’s question above can be answered in the affirmative. Sure, as MoBaby points out, there is room for misperception and misappropriation, but that exists, it seems from reading this blog, even when two people read the same bible verses! Or, maybe I have not answered Latayne’s question at all, merely walked down an interesting rabbit trail. Perhaps my point is more in a missiological vein. We need to work hard to communicate truth in ways people can be compelled to stop listen and dialogue. We need to be where the people are, contending for our faith. Sometimes we will do so in an entertaining way, sometimes in a serious way. Sometimes verse by verse, sometimes by story. Write on!

    If anyone was interested in learning more about this storying stuff, they could reference, and the website for the International Orality Network –

  4. falcon says:

    I picked-up a book from Jim Spencer titled “Holy Murder”. I didn’t know if I’d like it, but I had enjoyed reading Jim’s factional rather than fictional book “Beyond Mormonism” so I decided to give it a shot. “Holy Murder” was very good. It was about a Mormon polygamist cult. Great story. Fiction is a terrific way to dramatize fact. You know, one of those “based on a true story” movies we see. It’s a great way to get a point across in an entertaining way. It can also have a great impact.

  5. Latayne,

    Great minds think alike. If you you were to ask Christians, or even non-Christians in western culture, what their favorite or most memorable parts of the Bible are they would probably give you a portion from the Old Testament narratives (possibly portions of the gospels but those are narrative too). People just seem to “get” stories better than straight teaching. Even Jesus told parables.

    That is why as writer I have started to gravitate more towards fiction. People listen more and its funner – or more fun :). I am really attracted to horror narratives these days. It seems as though the horror genre speaks a similar language as religious narratives do. Plus, those associated with the genre tend to be way less corporate. Only sci-fi fans rival their loyalty.

    Chew on this facts:

    The movie Halloween is the most successful independent film ever.

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin swayed pre-Civil War opinion more than any single piece of non-fiction.

    If there exists a way to wed horror,religion, fiction, and the dominant story telling format for our age (movies) then one could have a powerful tool for social commentary.

  6. I love reading fiction. It’s a bit of an escape from all the heavy, serious reading and research that consumes most of my days. I used to be a big fan of the genre called “historical fiction” but eventually became frustrated at not being able to discern between the truth and the fiction presented. I found that I could not actually learn history from these books because I didn’t know the difference between actual people and events vs. fictional characters/words/incidents. And this, I think, is a big drawback to trying to teach through fiction.

    Consider, for example, the movie September Dawn. The dialog in that movie attributed to Brigham Young is (for the most part) traceable as actual statements made by that man. But the words spoken by the Brigham Young character in the movie were so shocking, so unbelievable, that people who knew no better dismissed them as pure fiction — and ridiculed and marginalized the film as a result.

    Having said all that, let me also say that I believe that if the object of the fictional vehicle is to teach concepts rather than facts, I think fiction is a great tool. As David said above, Jesus used parables to teach true concepts, and He’s the best teacher ever.

  7. chanson says:

    Fiction can absolutely be used to illustrate points that are true — indeed, one can argue that some of the deepest truths about the human condition are expressed better through fiction than through non-fiction.

    That said, you should be wary of setting out to prove a point when you sit down to write a story. An obvious agenda on the author’s part can make the work suffer as a story. When you stack the deck — create a bunch of straw-men and fictional evidence in favor of your position — it won’t be convincing (or even interesting as a story) to anyone except those who are already sympathetic to your chosen ideology. Anyone can prove anything at all if allowed to use fictional evidence. If your goal is to convince people of a specific fact or set of facts, then real evidence works better.

    Of course there are noteworthy examples in which a work of fiction had a profound effect on people’s attitudes, such as “The Jungle” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In both cases, the author wove together and re-worked/re-told stories that were based on things that actually happened. However, in both cases, the audience had little prior access to real-life memoirs on the subjects that were covered. By contrast, tons of real-life Mormon memoirs have been published — positive, negative, and neutral — and for anyone who’s interested, they’re a dime a dozen on the Internet (or, more accurately: hundreds of them, absolutely free; some quite gripping as literature). Plus, even if there’s plenty to criticize about TCoJCoL-dS, they can’t reasonably be compared to the horrors of slavery or even to the Jungle-era meat-packing industry.

  8. chanson says:

    I don’t mean to discourage you, however. I imagine you have an interesting perspective and tale to tell. If you’re interested, I would be happy to read your manuscript with a critical eye. This is a serious offer. I read many LDS-interest fiction manuscripts (as well as published and indie-published LDS-interest fiction) from all over the belief spectrum (faithful LDS to disgruntled exmo). Helping to iron out distractingly heavy-handed preaching (either direction) is one of my specialties. I think you have my email with this comment and may contact me if you’re interested. 😀

  9. mobaby says:

    chanson – I was just talking with my wife last night about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and how Lincoln credited that one fiction novel with the beginning of the end of slavery.

    Latayne – If you can make your novel have broad appeal, meaning it goes beyond just those interested in Mormonism (believing or non-believing) the book could have an impact on the wider culture and their perceptions.

    Since you come from an LDS background, I doubt you will have trouble “making it real.” But I would be wary and double check “facts,” because one tiny error or mistake will be used to cut down the entire book as an inaccurate depiction and “merely fictional lies.” I am not trying to be a wet blanket, I think it’s a great idea and would probably enjoy reading it, I just think you should be aware (which I am sure you are) of the risk that comes with the territory.

  10. mobaby says:

    David Whitsell,

    Interesting that you like horror. Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti I think would be the closest to Christian horror novelists. I think they made a movie of one of Dekker or Peretti’s books, but I did not see it. But I wonder about the dark nature of horror, not that I am not attracted to it myself, but is it a good? When does it cross the line? Is it my sinful heart that attracts me to horror? Suspense would have to be my choice (which is close to horror, but without the gore).

  11. Latayne says:

    I appreciate all the insights about fiction (funny, I had forgotten about Uncle Tom’s Cabin — that is a great example of socially-effective fiction). Chanson, thank you for your offer. That was a generous thing to do.

    The caveats are also very valuable to me. I depicted a deacon saying the prayer for the Sacrament in one scene; will address that in a reprinting.

    Which — apparently there will be. Latter-day Cipher has been out for a month now, and is selling strongly. The reviews have been good (you can google about it or see on Amazon.) The publisher (Moody) wrote me this morning about a second printing.

    In Latter-day Cipher, I tried not just to write a consciousness-raising story. I tried (and only time will tell if I have approached any success with it) to write what is called “upmarket” fiction — a publishing industry term for literary fiction that’s commercially viable. (For more on that term, see )

    Keep those comments coming — I am enjoying enormously all the interactions.

    Latayne C Scott

  12. Ralph says:

    I would have to agree with a few other people on this – it is better to teach a factual concept by fiction rather than trying to teach/show a factual event/thing. Those who read the book or watch the movie would be hard pressed to determine what parts are fact and what has been created to pad the storyline out. Especially in these days and ages where movie effects are very good that they can splice current images into archive footage – for example Forrest Gump. Then there was that big uproar about the Da Vinci Code even though the book had printed in the front that it was only fiction.

    One does need to be careful to try and represent what is factual as true to history/fact as possible. I have seen a couple of movies/TV shows that have not done this effectively. For instance the Jet Li movie ‘Fearless’ is claims to be based on the life of a famous Chinese person, but most of the movie is false – it just made the story better to write it that way. It wold have been better to just promote it as a fictional movie but have somewhere that it draws its inspiration from that person’s life.

    But I love fiction as most of what I read are formal scientific papers, so fiction is a break and escape/holiday for me. I’m more into SciFi and medical/psychological fiction.

  13. Brian says:

    Dear Latayne,

    Thanks for sharing about your books and experiences. They sound quite interesting.

    To answer your question: Yes, I do believe that fiction can be an appropriate (even helpful) way of sharing and examining the faith.

    Why? Let’s consider the following:

    1. One of the most popular fantasy series ever is The Chronicles of Narnia. In the series, many aspects of the faith are explored. I have read the series and really enjoyed it. Aspects of the faith can be explored in allegory in a way they can’t in a theological book. And the author mentioned that he hoped by clothing the faith in such a garb this would allow it to get past the “dragons that stand watch,” that is, the hardness toward the faith that may be harbored by the reader.

    2. The Pilgrim’s Progress. This is a novel. A fantastic novel that explores Christianity in great detail. It presents the Good News about Jesus Christ in a very powerful, clear way. An excellent book to share with those who otherwise might never consider opening a nonfiction book in the theological isle of the bookstore.

    3. A few years ago, Josh McDowell wrote a book called “The Witness.” It is a novel that has been quite popular. Whether by word-of-mouth, or large book fairs, this book has been fairly widely read. Most of us have never heard of it, of course, because it is not an English book. It is written in a language found in closed nations. In nations where it would be dangerous to share a Good News tract or nonfiction book exploring the faith. Campus Crusade for Christ has assisted in its distribution. As a novel, it is much less threatening to its readers than a nonfiction book about Christianity would be. It is also safer to share with others. It presents the Good News and explores Christianity within a fictional story.

    Best wishes to you, Latayne, in updating your books, and in your latest effort to write a novel.

    God Bless

  14. Kevin says:

    In my experiences with the LDS faith I have found that most of the lessons revolve around story telling. I use general conference as an example, most of it is just a story about an experience that the person had, or one they heard about, they apply some principle behind the story to convey the message they wish to get across to the listener. One LDS member told me once that they condemn themselves with “mixing scripture with the philosophy of men”. He quoted that from somewhere but I do not know the original source. At any degree, I think the LDS culture is all about the stories; therefore I think a book of fiction would be highly successful. As an example, look how popular Big Love is. (To our LDS friends, I do know that Big Love is about FLDS, point ly in the same about the attraction to the story.)

  15. I’m fully behind the idea of telling truth by story.

    There are two reaons;
    1 Most of the Bible is story
    2 Most of the Bible is story, and even the didactic bits are based on story

    Oh, and Jesus made an art of it in his parables.

    Another reason I like story is that, to me, it is more memorable and meaningful than a bunch of abstract “facts”.

  16. Ralph mentioned Jet Li’s “Fearless”.

    Ralph, I agree fully with your synopsis. I enjoyed the film right up to the point at which it tried to re-converge on reality, then I thought “this is getting bogged”.

    Its an interesting illustration, though. If you present fiction as fiction, then people seem to be comfortable with it, and it seems much easier for them to ingest whatever “truth” there is in it.

    Remember the “hoo-haa” over the Da Vinci Code? Reasonable objections (IMO) were raised in the Christian community because it was presenting itself as more than fiction (especially in its treatment of Church history). What undid the film, however, was not that it presented historical falsehood as fact, but that it was a really, really boring film.

  17. Latayne says:

    Ralph, Martin (and others)– how remarkable that a discussion about written fiction can so easily slide over into a discussion of films. I say remarkable because the connection between books and movies is more and more noticeable. A fairly new genre called a book trailer uses film to publicize a book. (You can see the book trailer for Latter-day Cipher on my web site if you want to see an example.)

    Latayne C Scott

  18. A lesser known book that my wife really loved was “The Ins and Outs of Mormonism”, by Dan Carlson. It presented a lot of the traditional information you’ll find in countercult books, but the whole book was in a fictional conversational format. It made all the difference, as that was exactly the kind of genre that clicks with my wife.

    We need more books like that. False teachers like Brian McLaren or questionable teachers like William P. Young have been jumping on the gun faster, pushing bad theology through the same genre/medium, and authors with good theology haven’t seemed to used it that well. Most Christian fiction at Christian bookstores is pure fluff. I’m glad to see Latayne use the genre for good. So far my wife likes her book.

  19. Latayne says:

    Aaron, I had never before heard of “The Ins and Outs of Mormonism.” I’d welcome a review of it, if you’d like, on the section of my Web site called “Cult Fiction.”

    In fact, i welcome any Mormon Coffee readers to submit — or at least point me to — any reviews of fictional works that deal with cults.

    Latayne C Scott

  20. Latayne says:

    Chuck Colson has an interesting column about the use of fiction to address issues.

    Latayne C Scott

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