Fiction versus Nonfiction in Gospel Songwriting

Fictional books outsell non-fictional books by a long shot.

Country outsells Southern Gospel by a long shot.

Those two facts are not necessarily coincidental. Our culture prefers fiction to truth.

There are countless admonitions throughout Scripture to be truthful. Does a Christian have an obligation to sing the truth? If not, and if a Christian is singing a fictional song, as in a country-style story-song, should that be clearly noted?

It has been said that Jesus’ parables were fictional. But isn’t that an assumption, based on our assumptions about our culture and theirs? Jesus, as God, is omniscient, and could have easily known a true-life story in every case. Over the four thousand years of earth history prior to that point, there is a high likelihood that a true story had occurred that matched every parable.

One more question, in case this doesn’t stir the pot enough as it is! Proverbs 26:18-19 states: “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking!'” Does that verse have a bearing on this discussion?


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45 Letters to the Editor

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  1. Perhaps I should have developed this post to the point where I offer answers to the questions I propose. But that was not feasible, since it looks like my car, after the experience detailed in Sunday’s post, will need to be replaced. So it was a challenge to even find the time to ask the questions, let alone propose answers!

    • What was the matter with it?

  2. “My Name Is Lazarus”
    “Rise Again”
    “He’s Alive”

    Those are the first ones that come to mind that take a Biblical basis and make them fictional. Rodney Griffin may have included the line, “If we may create an illustration” into the lyrics, but the other two are first-person accounts that are obviously fictionalized.

    Jimmy Fortune did a song called “Be With Me” which was similar to “Rise Again,” only this time having Jesus speak directly to God in Heaven (“Father, it’s me….”).

    Other fiction (not necessarily based on Biblical accounts) include “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor,” “Two Shoes,” “The Last Sunday”….the list goes on and on….

    • As you mentioned, “My Name is Lazarus,” at any rate, states that it is an illustration.

      A song like “Two Shoes” could be fiction, and it could be fact; if fiction vs. nonfiction is genuinely an issue, Biblically speaking – and, honestly, I haven’t come to firm conclusions yet – it would be worth asking the author if it really happened.

      A song in a similar vein, though less of a tear-jerker, was “Mexico,” which, I understand, was based on the author’s true-life story.

      • The question you seem to be posing is whether or not fiction of any sort is unacceptable (unless I’m reading this wrong)….

      • You’re reading it partially wrong. That’s my opening question. But then, assuming it is acceptable, and whether it is or not, I am assuming a majority of commenters will say that the answer is yes, my follow-up questions pertain to the limits on fiction.

      • I would think that anything considered blasphemy would be unacceptable, but I view much fiction as metaphorical, just as the parables were – using examples to prove a point.

      • More precisely, I’d say, “as many assume the parables to be.”

        With how many prodigal sons there have been since, could there have been one before Jesus came to this earth? There were probably quite a few.

        Was there a man to whom God said, though more likely in Hebrew or Aramaic than in King James English, “Thou fool! This night will thy life be required of thee”? Quite probably.

      • Daniel, you are going based on an assumption either way. We can either assume the parables to be fictional, or we can assume that they are true stories. They could even be fictionalized accounts of true stories.

        Since it is unknown, we are going based simply on the information provided to us and must interpret it as best as possible. That’s part of the reason we have different denominations!!

      • To me, there’s not much question that Jesus’ parables were fictional. The word itself is used in the Bible (parabole in the Greek), and strongly implies something fictional, but relevant for comparison. The disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in parables, and He said it was so that the lost could understand the mysteries of the Kingdom.

        If your definition of fiction is “something that could never have happened”, then I guess the parables wouldn’t be fiction. There’s little doubt in my mind that Jesus was creating these stories to illustrate His message.

      • Kyle and Brian – I’m not saying they’re definitely factual. All I’m saying is that the statement that they are definitely metaphorical or fictional is one that cannot be proven. 🙂

      • Daniel,
        It’s not one of Jesus’ parables, so it isn’t a direct example, but consider the story in Judges 9 where Jotham tells a story in which the trees are talking. I’m convinced THAT is a metaphor. If not, you could probably make a case for C S Lewis’ Narnia books being fact based.

        Besides, isn’t the word “parable” by definition a fictional illustration?

        Have you ever noticed that the story of the rich man in hell wanting Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth as a witness to his family ISN’T referred to as a parable? My pastor brought this out. He believes that story is true, and that Lazarus actually did come back as a witness. It all hangs together if you think about it.

      • DBM – you mean the same Lazarus we all know? That’s a mind-boggling thought—especially if Jesus told it before Lazarus died!

      • One story is in Luke and the other is in John, so it’s difficult to verify whether the story was told before or after Lazarus’ resurrection.

      • are we talking about two different Lazaruses (Lazari?) here?

      • I believe the parables are fiction. DBM, nice distinction there.

      • The “Lazarus” in the parable is named that only in church tradition; it’s not in the Bible. He was also a beggar, so I don’t think it’s the one who was in the tomb for three days.

      • Umm, is the KJV classified as church tradition? 🙂

        Luke 19:20: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke%2016:20&version=KJV

      • I believe most Bible authorities agree that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is not a parable, but a true story, precisely because specific name is given.

        The Lazarus in that story is, of course, different from the Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead. That was a very common name in Jesus’ day.

      • And the beggar Lazarus definitely did not come back as a witness to the rich man’s family. Father Abraham clearly rejected the rich man’s request: Luke 16:29-31

        29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.

        30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.

        31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

  3. How about “Show Me the Cross”, “He Saw It All”…there are a few that would fit on the new Kingdom Heirs CD, including “Where’s John”. Any song that talks about a dream is likely fictionalized (“Pile of Crowns”, “Faces”, “Thank You”, etc.)

    I don’t see any problem with it, as long as the message is not confusing or deceiving. Jesus’ parables were fictional in that he wasn’t referring to specific events, although a lot of them were mundane enough so that they likely would have happened often. He used them to put the Truth of the Gospel into a form that those around Him could understand easily. I don’t think these songwriters are doing anything differently.

  4. What about the man who repeatedly sent servants to his vineyard only to see them murdered, and wrapped it up by sending his son? I can’t see that one happening in real life.

    However, I’ll be honest and argue from your side – it kind of makes your point. It was so preposterous to think of that happening on Earth, that it became very obvious that it was just a lightly disguised account of what was happening between Earth and Heaven. And that’s what the parables were generally intended to do.

    I don’t see any problem with fiction. I think its primary place is for children, who just naturally fill their lives with make-believe. It takes them a few years to even sort out reality from their make-believe and even their dreams. It seems to be a natural process. An adult who needs a steady diet of fiction, though, to be entertained, probably needs to mature a little more.

    On your next question – I’ve observed that pretty much any art form used to be kind of fair game to be fiction. I have some older books with beautiful stories, and with much sadness I had to accept that they are almost certainly fiction. An author tried as hard as he or she could to make his fiction realistic. I think that in many of our story-songs, the same rule applies. It’s a beautiful art form, but unless the author clearly states that it’s a “true story” … buyer beware! 🙂

    My last point is, fiction is much more about truth than many people realize. Take some of those tear-jerker stories. (I’d use “Two Shoes,” but I haven’t heard the song, only seen the story discussed, and my memory’s fuzzy.) Such stories have been floating around our world for aeons. What is the secret of their longevity? Maybe something like that really did happen once. But the real truth is, those stories chime with our sense of what is right and true. We know that in similar situations, that’s what ought to happen. Good fiction takes a moral or emotional truth and makes us identify with it. (This was the subject of my senior paper, although I’d be the first to confess I did a sloppy job of writing it then.) I believe when we really understand fiction, our question stops being “Did this really happen?” and we just look for it to be in harmony with the truths God established when He created the universe. One of my primary questions in evaluating fiction is, “Does good win out in the end?”

    That’s not to say that we should deceive people into believing something really happened when it didn’t. That’s disgusting (and wrong). But I think that as “art consumers,” we should come at it from the other direction, and recognize that many narratives are mainly artistic. (The parables are NOT, and they don’t really fall under this discussion, as convenient as it would be to drag them in.)

    • My response is longer than the original post. 😳

      • Answers to a question are often longer than the original question. 🙂

    • Thinking some more, “The Fourth Man” illustrates my point about fiction and truth pretty well. Although we all know it didn’t really happen, it presents a situation to us that illustrates a profound truth. It juxtaposes two events – the resurrection of Lazarus, and (whatever your problem may be). In real life, Lazarus is never going to walk up to you and make those comments. But if you’ll give Rodney permission to walk you through his little “illustration,” you’ll get a new, accurate concept or perception of God’s power. So the song is ultimately true, in my sense, and definitely worthwhile.

      (I know you aren’t saying otherwise.)

  5. It seems to me that there is a basic assumption that fiction does not contain truth. Now I assume someone will point out that fiction is made-up, and by definition it couldn’t be true. My point is that truth can be found in anything which God inspires. Whether that is a parable, a song, a painting, or anything else. God reveals truth in many ways, and I personally do not think southern gospel music needs to eliminate story songs or other “fiction” based lyrics. The only issue I would have would be if a song presents a story that could mislead the listener. For example, in “My Name is Lazarus” a listener who is not familiar with all of the events of the gospel (a new convert perhaps) might become confused without the line about “creating an illustration.” On the other hand, in “He’s Alive” we know from the scriptures that the disciples feared for their lives, so having the story talk about expecting to hear swords and soldiers’ feet and the other details from the lyrics does not present the potential for confusion. But in returning to my main point, aside from theological issues I’m not sure the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is necessarily important. The truth of God’s love for His children can be seen through a lyric whether the story it tells is factual or weaved from the creativity of the composer. “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor,” to use an example mentioned by another commenter, is a wonderful tale of how God’s transforming grace can change a man and affect his family.

    • Since I couldn’t reply straight to the Daniel/Kyle conversation, this runs along the same theme. There is certainly truth contained in fiction. Along some type of book or movie or song, there is some type of human condition or emotional response that is done entirely because those types of conditions or responses are very real. I don’t think ANYBODY could write ANYTHING without some truth or fact.

      As far as parable, it is largely allegorizing or metaphorical. I think we ‘could’ assume if these events actually took place, but by assuming we would ultimately be wrong anyways or stripping the parable of its intent and focus. Parable weren’t meant for assumption. For instance The Prodigal Son…everyone would want for every single detail of that story to symbolize something, and that’s losing the forest for the trees. If we focus on every single detail being true then we lose the essense of the mystery of the Gospel and what is trying to be conveyed. I would agree however, that some writers are better at that than others.

      So in Christian fiction, whether in song or book, I believe freedom (albeit, limited freedom) is given to ‘Christians’. But if you do so, you better be right and do it well…and if problems arise, you better back the focus of your story up Biblically.

      Just because we Jesus told parables that sent a message, doesn’t mean that we can. But don’t be discouraged either if questions arise about your story. I could count numerous times in the Gospels where Jesus would tell his disciples something and they would stare at each other trying to figure out what he even meant.

  6. The discussion is starting to remind me what a old country lawyer who lived in the big city near me told my father and I long time ago and alot longer that I would like to remember.

    Christian and evangelical rationale is the fact realizing that evangelicals never lie but just tell you half of the story. The evangeical lawyer encouraged us to use our discernment in our decision making.

    I think its okay for a little parable just as long it doesn’t confuse the issue of salvation or disillusioned the
    believers

    I concurred with what Brian stated May 24, 2011 at 8:29 am on this thread.

  7. I don’t see how that passage from Proverbs fits here. Lying to your neighbor and saying “I was only joking” doesn’t seem to have much of a connection to parables/allegories or fictional gospel songs like “Love the Broken Ones.”

    • It would fit if you hold the position that Christians should only sing true (non-fictional) songs, as opposed to fictional songs that include some elements of truth.

      If that is the case, then singing something that is not true and saying, “it doesn’t matter because I didn’t intend for you to understand it as true” would fall exactly under the discussion at hand. 🙂

      • Oh, I see.

  8. As a follow up, in case I wasn’t clear in my earlier comment…

    I don’t see how you can say parables might be literally true, unless you’re allowing that the scripture writers (or later translaters) didn’t know what the word interpreted as “parable” really meant.

    A parable, by the earliest definitions we have available, is a parallel story, a comparison. It’s one thing being expressed in terms of something else.

    If you equate “fiction” with a “lie,” then you must by rational necessity exclude parables from your definition of fiction. Lies are told with the intent to blind and deceive. Parables are told with the intent to illuminate.

    My point in bringing up story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus and my pastor’s view on that situation is to say there appears to be a clear distinction in scripture when a story being told as an illustration is a true story vs. a parable. It’s one case from the four Gospels where a story is so supernatural in nature that it SEEMS it must fit with the other parables, but it’s the only one not clearly labeled as such.

  9. Not that it matters, but “Show Me The Cross” was a true story that Barbi and I adapted into a song. A little boy that was lost told police authorities that if they could get him to the church with the cross on the steeple that he could find his way home. It seemed like a good idea for a song.

    • Whether or not it matters, that is a fascinating story!

    • I always loved that son either way and it is a GREAT story either way. However, I think it cool that it did happen too. Like you said, it doesn’t matter. The message in the song is a great one both in the earthly way, and in the way you made it spiritual too.

      • Well, I love the Son, but I meant the song. 😀

  10. Wow.

    This is food for thought.

    I personally enjoy listening to “country-style story-songs” (as long as they have a clear Gospel/Christian message), and enjoy writing story songs, as well.

    Stories and illustrations often drive the message home, as demonstrated through Jesus’s parables – especially if they are personal testimonies and other people can relate to them. But, if they aren’t neccessarily truthful (based on a true account), should Christians be writing them or singing them? Hmmm…

    I don’t have any answers, but I do know there can be no compromise in a Christian’s life. If God’s Word clearly states something, shouldn’t we try to live His Word?

    Those are just my random ramblings!

    Thanks, Daniel. I’ve been pondering this all yesterday and it’s still bugging me today. 🙂

    -Taylor for TGF

    • This has been bugging me for months, and I still haven’t arrived at any firm conclusions.

      • I take for granted that most people are savvy enough to realize that songs, comedy, TV shows etc. often have some exaggerated facts or are not necessarily true. It is part of the art forms.

      • Wow, you sure said that in a lot fewer words than I did! 😀

  11. Daniel, should this lead us to believe you’re not a big fan of people like Mark Lowry or Tim Lovelace?

    • Umm . . . interesting point. I hadn’t thought about Christian comedians.

      • And I mentioned the essentially twice before that post.

      • them.

      • Well, this week has been tumultous; after my car falling apart on Sunday, I’ve been spending practically every waking hour, except those at work, in search of a replacement (and I’ve been taking half-days off, too). So it goes without saying that while I’ve been doing what I can to keep up with comments, I haven’t necessarily kept up with everything!