Using Fiction to Explore Spiritual Reality


by Steve McCutchan


Have you ever hit your thumb with a hammer? If so, you experienced a critical factor that contributes to many of the problems in the world. When you hit your thumb, at that moment the only reality in your universe is your pain. To get help, you have to step back from your pain and see the bigger picture. Maybe it is to get some ice for your thumb or ask someone for a band-aid, but you can’t do that if you stay focused on the pain.


We are all familiar with the creation story in Genesis where the earth was without form and void (utter chaos) and God spoke a word and order began to emerge out of that chaos. Perhaps the creation story can serve as a parable for how God can work in our society to bring order out of chaos.

In Walter Brueggemann’s Israel’s Praise, he develops the idea that words create worlds. It is not the objective experiences we have but the way we interpret those experiences that constitute the world in which we live. If my mind is filled with medical terms and health statistics, then I see events as relating to the world of health. If I am a chef who continually is reading about new recipes, then I see food in terms of taste. If the words that dominate my life are dollars and debts, then I see food in terms of cost. In lay terms, the words that fill our lives become the spectacles through which we see and interpret the world of experiences around us.

In our confusing and anxious society, people are too close to the pain to get any perspective on their options. They feel helpless–trapped–a victim. Their lives, at that moment, have no order or direction. Like your hurting thumb, they are focused on the pain.

We can use our capacity to write fiction to help people, including ourselves, to step back and see the bigger picture. We regain their power to exercise choice. We are no longer just a victim of the institutions and conditions around us.


Words have the power to both create and destroy. Probably the worst maxim ever devised was, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Words can hurt people, and frequently once spoken, the damage is difficult to repair. However, words can also help people explore the future, heal our fractures, and resolve crisis. Words can also help us create a future.


The problem with our ideological splits today is that we have lost the capacity to listen to each other with any anticipation that we might learn from the other person.

Jesus told parables to engage people in thinking about issues. When the lawyer asked Jesus who was his neighbor, he could have given a straight definition. Then the issue would have been whether the lawyer agreed or disagreed. Instead, he told a story that engaged the lawyer, and continues today to invite our reflection.


Let me use abortion as an example. Regardless of your position on abortion, if the subject comes up, do you first find yourself looking for clues in the opening comments about which SIDE the person is on? When you are in the discussion, as the other person speaks, do you find yourself only half listening while you try to decide what the best counterargument will be? Do you enter into such conversations assuming that someone will win, and someone will lose the argument? Do such discussions tend to build community or divide people into camps?

You might have more fun, and it might result in a better community, if you approached the subject through fictional stories that engage each other.

There are several ways that you can set up this experience. It can take place in a variety of configurations of small groups–within a congregation, among a group of friends in a home, among several clergy, or even among several congregations some of whom can be either in a different state or country.


For example, five clergy friends, and they have agreed to participate via Internet to write a story. To create an orderly process, each is assigned a number–Participant 1, Participant 2, Participant 3, Participant 4, Participant 5, and Participant 6.

Each of you agrees to participate in jointly composing a fictional story addressing the topic of abortion. You provide an initial story setting. Perhaps it’s a female seminary student who wants the perspective of two experienced pastor friends who hold slightly different perspectives. You provide names and a brief description of the three characters, and the triggering incident that brings them together for a conversation about abortion. Maybe they meet in a coffee house or at a retreat.

Participant # 1 (probably you) will complete the initial prompt that begins their conversation. After that, each participant in the order of his or her number will only be able to offer a one or two sentence response. The short response of each participant can be from one of four possibilities.

The sentence can build on and continue the initial speaker’s comment. The sentence can be spoken by the second character as a response. The sentence can describe an action by one of the characters. For example, “The pastor stood up and removed a book from his bookshelf.” The sentence can introduce a third minor character to the scene. For example, “The secretary entered the office with a tray with cups of coffee.”

Each participant must develop a sentence or two that has integrity with the previous sentences and scene. If the participant thinks the conversation is going in the wrong direction, this person can always have a character give voice to that concern.

There are several advantages to this process. One, it eases people’s discomfort of feeling like they don’t know how to write because anyone can write one or two sentences.

Second, no person or ideological position controls the direction of the story, but all are dependent on the others.

Third, even if they are fictional, the discussion involves live people and not just an abstract theory.

Fourth, it allows the topic to move beyond one person’s strong opinion.

Fifth, it builds anticipation for how the story might develop.

Sixth, as it proceeds, you will build community rather than divide it because all of you are developing the story.

Agree that each person will forward the additional sentences within twenty-four hours. That allows for one complete round within a week, with one day of Sabbath rest. By the end of two months, eight rounds, you will consult with each other as to how long you will continue.

If you agree to compose your story on a service like One Drive, or Google doc, you will be able to keep your story together where all can see it as it develops. After you have completed the first round, you may want to alter the rules and allow each person to add up to a paragraph or two. Always agree that whatever wild turn you take must build on the previous contribution.

My booklet, Using Fiction to Explore Spiritual Reality, contains a variety of ways to use fiction in engaging people and communities to examine the issues in life. If you are interested, contact me at