C. S. Lewis once said, “Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people's minds under the cover of fiction without their knowing it.” In Jesus' tale of the prodigal son, he begins with these words. “There was a man who had two sons.” I am immediately drawn into this tale, wanting to know more. I can relate to both sons on a certain level, but it is the father’s heart that touches me most. If I close my eyes, I am there on the rich estate, seeing the son ask his father for his inheritance. Perhaps such a request came after a fight with his father or maybe the son just wanted out, to live his life his own way. The Bible doesn’t tell us the reasons, perhaps because there can be so many.
As the story progresses, I can feel the heat of the desert and smell the slop of the pig’s pen with the wayward son. When the scene changes, I can see the father standing at the edge of his estate, hand shading his eyes, straining to see into the distance. I can feel him praying that the next person rounding the bend will be the son who is so lost to him. Then I sense his heart skipping a beat when he blinks, sure he must be seeing things, yet no! There he is! He hurries down the steps, tucking his long robes into his girdle as he runs. And then my heart hears the gut-wrenching sobs coming from both father and son as they embrace.
Jesus’ story brings us into the world of his characters, but on a subtle level, he is inserting theology into the hearts of his hearers. He addresses themes such as rebellion, anger, grace, and forgiveness. He even had an understated message aimed at the men who wanted to kill him. Some of them got it right away, but if they understood, it was because the story focused on the characters and what they were going through—people Jesus’ listeners could relate to.
The prophet Nathan told a similarly powerful story to King David (read it in 2 Samuel 12). You could say Nathan had an agenda. He had a message for King David straight from God and it wasn’t pretty. He also knew that preaching at the king wasn’t likely the smartest way to reach his heart. So he told a story, letting the characters, the rich man, the poor man, and his little lamb, first evoke David’s emotion. Then he preached. And the message God intended for David was well received.
Novelists are, in a sense, teachers. The words we put forth in a story will invite our audience to believe in our characters and engage in their journey, learning along with them. What our hero learns, our reader learns, and perhaps in the end they will see the world a little differently than they did before they read our book.
The thing to remember as we write is that the best stories are not agenda driven or even plot driven, they are character driven. The challenge is to do as C.S. Lewis suggests and as Jesus and Nathan did so brilliantly, and that is to express our theology, themes, or topics without preaching, to smuggle truth into the reader’s heart without their knowing it. The message will come through for those who are seeking.