It’s Just Fiction?


I don’t know about anyone else, but stories have always been a big part of my life. One of the most fond memories from my childhood is sitting with my grandfather while he told me tales about growing up in the Southside neighborhood of Greensboro. Not only were they entertaining, they made the history of my hometown come alive in a way that a non-fiction book never could. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that was a major contributor to my becoming a history nerd, so I guess it’s a wash.

Albert Einstein once said “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Al and I agree on this because, as I said just a minute ago, I’ve learned a lot from stories and fairy tales, probably more than I have from text books, biographies and other types of non-fiction. I believe that’s true for most of us. But, for some reason, we are incredibly dismissive of the former, saying “Oh, it’s just fiction”. As if something has to factual to be true.

It wasn’t always that way. In the days of the oral tradition, knowledge was passed through folktales, songs, ballads, etc. These methods of transmission weren’t necessarily true, but they conveyed truth. Take the creation story in Genesis, for example. The author of Genesis tells us the earth was created by God in 7 days and humans and animals sprang into being in their current form during that span. Science, however, has shown that the universe was formed in the The Big Bang and the earth in its inhabitants evolved over almost 14 billion years. From a viewpoint ruled solely by facts and “truth”, the Genesis story is bunk, unworthy of serious consideration. But, if we read it as a fairy/folk tale, it is so much more.

Scholars believe that most of the Old Testament assumed written form during The Babylonian Exile (6th century BCE). Before that, the stories that made up what became those books existed primarily in oral form, stories told to impart wisdom and knowledge. Now, it could be that those early Israelites believed the world was created in a literal seven days, that there really was a Garden of Eden and the Fall occurred because a woman listened to a snake and ate some prohibited fruit. But, there was another level to the story, one that still informs us today: this story may not be factually true, but it is truthful because it tells us we were created for more than eating, sleeping and screwing our way through life.

It’s this kind of thing that keep from getting too upset when someone refers to the Bible as a fairy tale or fiction. It grieves me, though, that fairy tales and fiction have gotten such short shrift in our modern world that they’ve become an insult, a dismissal. One of the more intriguing and, for me, encouraging, aspects of this post-modern era we are entering into is the re-emergence of the importance of story in passing knowledge on to the next generation.

So, by all means, read your children fairy tales and bible stories, tell them tall tales and stories about your childhood, embrace all manner of other fiction. As Einstein said, it will make them intelligent. But, while you’re reading and telling, pay attention yourself. Because no dog is too old to learn a new trick.