Fiction & Truth: The Perils and Joys of Writing
by Elizabeth Cunningham
Author of Magdalen Rising
You cannot make God a fairytale!
declared the woman in the second row, her face blotchy
with outrage. The Blessed Mother and Mary Magdalen
are holy people. They would never act like the people in
your book. (Who are guilty, from time to time, of
humor, outspokenness, and occasional irreverence).
This appearance at a public library was the last of long
drawn-out book tour. Id presented my novel The
Passion of Mary Magdalen close to eighty times all over
the country in all sorts of venues. People always asked
if my book had stirred up controversy, but in all that
time I had never come up against this. Until that night.
Your book is offensive. It is blasphemous. It has
hurt me. God has anger, the woman warned. If
God were in this room right now, (which apparently
he was not) God would be so angry with you. You
cannot escape the anger of God.
The rest of my audience -- mostly senior citizens from my
aunts Congregational church -- sat in embarrassed
silence, except for one seminary student in the front row
who clearly wanted a theological brawl. But this was my
I hear that you are hurt, I said in my best
counselor mode (my other hat) and for that I am
truly sorry. But I am not sorry I wrote the book. It was
not written with intent to offend. It is my witness, my
act of faith. But I will take what you say into my prayer
life. Thank you all for coming.
And so I claimed the last word, the high moral ground,
and a semblance of control and brought the harrowing
evening to a conclusion.
The woman who informed me of Gods wrath was the
last to speak that night of a phalanx of conservative
Roman Catholics. (At the other end of the continuum I
count a Dominican Nun who once embraced me and said,
On with the revolution, sister!) The group
did not identify themselves at the beginning of the
presentation, just said they had seen the flyer for the
event and were interested in the subject matter. I opened
my performance with a dramatic recital of the prologue,
set in the hottest holy whorehouse in the
Galilee, so my goose was well-cooked from the
start, and there was nowhere to retreat when I finally
realized who -- and what -- I was facing.
Doesnt your conscience bother you? one
of the men had demanded, giving me my first clue.
God has given you a talent. You are responsible for
its use. Dont you think you should use it for good?
For telling the truth instead of misleading people?
No, my conscience doesnt bother me, I
answered brightly. And Ill tell you why.
There are four Gospels, each one a different account,
told from a different point of view for a different
audience. The chronology of the Gospel of John in
particular differs from all the others. The Gospels are
much more like novels than they are literal, historical
accounts. They are sacred stories intended to bring
meaning to the lives of the listeners.
Needless to say, this claim that the Evangelists were
fellow novelists did not cut it. Repeatedly I was told
that my book was harming peoples faith, because
they might think my story was true. And if I wanted to
know what Mary Magdalen was really like, I should read
The Lives of the Saints, which tells the true story.
As people were leaving, my husband, who could not resist
a parting shot, suggested to the delegation that perhaps
they ought to buy the book and read it.
Oh, no, said one of the men. I never
Interesting, I think, that this man eschewed all fiction,
not just my blasphemous novel in particular. In our time
fiction has come to mean the opposite of fact, and fact
has become synonymous with truth. The concept of story,
of poetic truth has gotten lost. Witness the furor over
the not-very-original theories presented in the
conventional thriller The Da Vinci Code. Do we even know
anymore what a theory is? It is not fact. It is someone
using their mind -- their imagination -- to tell a story
that might, or might not, turn out to be fact. Now the
faithful are in an uproar over James Camerons
documentary about the discovery of what might (or might
not) be the bones of Jesus and (gasp) his wife and child.
One Baptist was quoted as saying that if the bones turned
out to be authentic, it would destroy his faith, because
then the doctrine of bodily Resurrection could not be
I want to say to this man: Why would you allow some dry
bones to rob you of a powerful, living story? Bones or no
bones, the Resurrection is, always has been, and always
will be a Mystery. Yet I am sympathetic to anyone
undergoing a crisis of faith for whatever reason, as I
did when I lost my belief in orthodox Christianity, not
because of facts, but because the Christianity I knew
could not encompass a powerful and unexpected encounter
with the divine feminine. The church had been my
container, and I had spilled out of it with no structure
to take its place. No matter what I believed or
didnt, I felt anguish and even terror to think that
I might be abandoning and betraying Jesus. One sentence
in a book by The Reverend Alan Jones got me through that
time. I paraphrase: If you have to choose between
belief in Christ and your experience of the truth, choose
the truth and trust that Christ will reveal himself to
you in a new way.
Christ did reveal himself to me anew through the eyes
Maeve, my fictional Mary Magdalen, a feisty, unrepentant
Celt, who loves Jesus with all her heart, yet refuses to
be a disciple. People frequently ask me if there is any
evidence that Mary Magdalen came from the British Isles.
My answer is: No. There isnt. The fourteen
scriptural references to Mary Magdalen tell us very
little except that she traveled with Jesus, helped
support him, and stuck by him to the end and beyond. She
is an open invitation to Midrash -- a Jewish tradition of
storytelling to fill scriptural gaps. And I mean
storytelling. The Rabbis were not out digging up facts,
collecting evidence to mount new theories. They were
spinning numinous tales to give us a deeper experience of
divine and human nature.
C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist, was also a brilliant
novelist, best known for The Narnia Chronicles. I have
never forgotten Lewiss spirited defense of story in
The Silver Chair. The true prince of Narnia is a prisoner
in an underground realm, and the children (from our
world) accompanied by the dour Marshwiggle Puddleglum,
have been captured by the wicked queen in their attempt
to rescue the prince. She tries to hypnotize them,
telling them that their memory of the world above ground
is just a fairytale. At last Puddleglum rallies himself
and cuts through the spell she is weaving:
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those
things -- trees and sun and moon and stars and Aslan
himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in
that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more
important than the real ones . . . Thats why
Im going to stand by the play world. Im on
Aslans side even if there is no Aslan to lead it.
Im going to live like a Narnian even if there is no
The best stories teach us to be courageous in the face of
danger, resourceful in times of hardship, kind to
strangers and animals, discerning in making choices that
are often not what they seem. They teach us listen to the
wisdom within and beyond ourselves.
Maybe you can find God in a fairytale.
Copyright © 2007 Elizabeth Cunningham
Elizabeth Cunningham is the author of The Maeve
Chronicles, featuring the Celtic Mary Magdalen. The
Passion of Mary Magdalen, published to acclaim in 2006,
is followed by the prequel, Magdalen Rising, April, 2007.
The author is at work on the sequel, Bright Dark Madonna.
For more: www.passionofmarymagdalen.com