23. Fiction, fake news, and finding perspective | God's World News

It's our June giving drive! Help more kids see God at work in the culture.


Kelsey Reed • 06/14/2023
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Kelsey Reed
Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. Our mission is to come alongside you, learning and laboring with you as you disciple kids and teens through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.

Jonathan Boes

Together we want to model conversation and apply tools you can use at home or in the classroom. We would love for you to send in your questions for us to address in future episodes. Please send your questions to newscoach@wng.org.

So at God’s WORLD News, we have a mission. It’s “building news literacy to better live out the gospel.” News literacy in today’s world is hard. If you’re listening to this, it might be because you feel that in your own life. We’re trying to sift out fact from falsehood and fake news. We’re trying to be aware of bias, and it can feel like an overwhelming task. Today we’re going to explore just one way you can build news literacy in yourself and in your kids or students. It’s a method that, at first, might sound counterintuitive. It’s something we’ve brought up on this podcast before, but we really want to take this episode to zero in and bring it into focus. Our question for today is: How does fiction equip us to discern fake news?

So I’m really excited to dive into this topic area. And I think Jonathan is too, because we both are fiction lovers. And when Collin Garbarino, I believe it was, mentioned how being well-read really helps you to discern what you’re reading in the news, what you’re seeing in culture—I think it began to tickle our fancies right away for this episode.

And that was in our episode on how to find accurate information, where we had Collin and Juliana Chan Erikson also on that episode.

Yes, and—that conversation—there will be so many things, I think, that we can tease out through future episodes, because it was so very rich. But this concept again, it excites us. And it connects to me as well with some of those restorative type practices we mentioned in our episode of late, as we look into the summer, as we think about what it means to engage a different season than the academic season. And to me, summer was always a huge moment for getting to read what I wanted to read, to play what I wanted to play, to have less structure and to just let my boundaries increase. And we’ll return actually to that idea of feeling boundaryless, or expanding our horizons. That’ll come back.

But I want to start today—it’s my turn to use some Lewis. I need to get my own Lewis quotes and Lewis badges on the wall. Today, I want to quote from a man who loved fiction, who wrote fiction as even a way to work out some of his own thinking and theology. Fiction gave him the opportunity to explore and to think well, and to think more resourcefully, expansively, creatively. And he says: “The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. . . . [I]n reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

Now that quote is found from a TGC article, The Gospel Coalition, from back in 2014, I believe it was. And we will post that in the show notes, so you can see some more of their thoughts regarding Lewis’ relationship with fiction. But for today, this quote really launches us well into our discussion, just wide-ranging thoughts of what it looks like to see, and to see well, and to see broadly.

So what C.S. Lewis is bringing out in that quote is the idea that good stories let us see through the eyes of others. He even connects it back right to the Greeks, which reminds me also that we’ve been telling stories as humans for literally as long as we can remember as a species. There’s no point in human history where we do not see stories happening.

And that gets to what I think should be one of our first questions, maybe before we even get into the exact importance of fiction, because I’m somebody who loves fiction naturally. That is my go-to. When you brought up this topic idea, I was like, “Let’s go for it. I love it. I could talk about this all day.” But I am fully aware that there are many people who say to themselves, “Why would I spend my time reading fiction when there is so much to know about what’s going on in the world? When there’s so much to learn about facts, about history? Why would I devote time to reading something that’s made up?”

Where do we begin to unpack that idea of why should we devote time to fiction, specifically as Christians?

So Lewis, again, in his quote, begins to address some of that, about seeing through another’s eyes. I do see in that, that sense of him seeing himself in that as well. So in a loose sense of some of the points we might make throughout, I’m going to name three things that I think are great ways to answer that question: We see ourselves better. We see the person across from us better. We have greater others-awareness along with greater self-awareness. And then we actually create and foster a greater global awareness.

I want to start with that global awareness, because that’s kind of a big topic area, and I think it connects really well with the news. Because, of course, we’re telling what’s going on in a broader sense in our communities, what’s going on between our communities across the world.

Nations, cultures.

Exactly. So when I say “global awareness,” I mean all of those things. We’re talking about larger communities, but also many large communities operating together all across the globe, or not operating together as the case might be. So starting from that place, one of my all-time favorite forms of fiction is actually cross-cultural fiction. I think of Khaled Hosseini, one of my all-time favorites, as well as Chaim Potok, who was a Jewish author who wrote mid-century, in the ’60s and up all the way to the end of the 20th century. He was writing about a culture that I just did not have much insight into. I wanted to understand how Jewish culture in particular responded to World War II, because I found World War II in and of itself fascinating as a historically important, pivotal moment. So I got as much nonfiction as I could get my hands on. But I also wanted to understand the Jewish psyche. So I read things that he wrote for that sense of a cultural awareness, a deepening understanding of how a person, a modern day Jew, might perceive the world based on their commitments, their values, their ideology, and also their response to that heightened suffering in World War II.

So not just reading facts about what happened to Jewish people in the wake of World War II, but actually entering into a story to understand, what was that experience like? What was it like to be in that person’s shoes, in that cultural context?

I love what you said in our preliminary conversation. We always have conversations with one another, and often with many other people around the office as we develop these episodes, and they are so rich. I wish that I could invite you, listener, to be a fly on the wall in those conversations, because we always find that we are stretched in our thinking, stretched in our feeling, and even in our actions. So when Jonathan and I were doing our preliminary conversation, he said something so good about what it means to “stand in the shoes of another person’s perspective.” I liked the way that you said that, in particular. It’s not just standing in somebody else’s shoes, but you had that extra little bit of color by saying, “standing in the shoes of another person’s perspective.” You’re trying somebody else’s perspective on and walking around in it for a little while to see what it’s like to kick around in a person’s thought process, maybe in their value system. So cultural, cross-cultural, and historical fiction for me, gives that moment for trying on a different perspective and seeing how it stretches my thinking, feeling, even my actions.

And while we’re on this subject of global awareness—fiction can open our eyes to larger cultural trends. My mind goes to the great dystopian writers, the writers who give us visions of the future, people like Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World, and George Orwell, who wrote 1984. They show how fiction can take a philosophy, political philosophy, or an idea, and just speculate out—how does this idea play out in culture? So looking specifically at Huxley and Brave New World, he shows what our modern hedonism and reliance on pleasure, and all these things we do to numb ourselves—he shows how those play out over time, and what kind of horrible culture that could lead to. And when good writers honestly wrestle with ideas like that, and let those ideas loose in their worlds to show us, “How do these ideas play out in actual human experience?”—that can also help us approach the news, because you can see what this new policy being suggested or what this government across the world is doing, those ideas, how will they play out down the road? We have these great authors who have dealt honestly with those ideas and given us a picture of what those things could look like. And it’s not all dystopia. That’s just one example. But the ability of a good fiction storyteller to show us the natural results of these different cultural philosophies we might see in the news today—that is one really important way fiction can equip us for the news.

It’s interesting. We’ve talked about banned and challenged books. We see that there’s a reason why fiction like that is viewed as dangerous. It allows us to trace those outcomes to see what the potential is there. And again, with Orwell, that totalitarian culture and regime—what are the outcomes of a totalitarian society? We can see that traced, and we can look at that and determine whether or not that’s something we want to explore in reality. And of course, we’re going to see that there’s a lot of resistance. Those who are in power, who would like to maintain that, are not going to want even fiction writers to question.

Just last year for WORLDteen, I was writing about the novelist Salman Rushdie. There was an attempt made on his life just last year, because of a book he wrote questioning Islam. And the leader of Iran at the time actually put out a fatwa on him that has still not been revoked, and he is still living in danger for his life, because he wrote fiction.

So we see fiction has so much to bear on reality, that we’re even seeing consequences for those writers of fiction, because world leaders perceive that to be impactful. I’m thinking, as we talk about fiction, about history as well, because of course we’ve dipped into historical fiction. And then it made me think about that adage, “Those who are not students of history are doomed to repeat it.” I think we could argue the same, that if we are not students of fiction, there are many ways we are doomed to repeat bad ideas, or things that have been tried out and shown to be proven false or lacking. They’ve been tried out in fiction. So a broad reader will see that these ideas, they are going to not really pan out well for the one who tries to adhere to them in reality. So reading fiction, for a sense of how the world works on a grand scale.

But I want to pivot and go closer to home. As we look at people, they’re always placed within communities. I read these stories by Chaim Potok, like I said, and I think about the individuals in those stories. And I think about, okay, who do I know in my more proximate sphere that this helps me to understand their thinking, helps me to ask them better questions, to even love my neighbor better? And so when we read fiction, it also functions to inform our neighbor love.

I can think to so many times, whether it’s myself or overhearing somebody else looking at a news article about what people on the other side of the political aisle are doing, and just having this response of, “How on Earth could somebody do that or think that? Why don’t these people have common sense?” But fiction, like we said, puts us in somebody else’s perspective. If we have a neighbor who we do not understand how they could have that perspective, fiction can actually help us understand. What are their values? And how do those values play out in the way you look at the world and interact with the world? Because when we’re reading fiction, we can read through the life experiences of so many different types of people from so many different backgrounds, even from perspectives we might disagree with.

I think this is a good place for us to even throw out some terms and try to define them the best we can. Sometimes, within popular culture, we use terms and throw them around to the point where they actually lose some of their intended meaning. So I did some digging to try to carefully extrapolate the word empathy, as opposed to sympathy, and then even compassion. And what we’ve been talking about so far, about standing in somebody else’s shoes, that I think is, to me, a very easy way of understanding empathy, being em- or en-, both of those are prefixes that mean in. And then path, or pathos, the emotions. So when we are empathizing, we are in somebody else’s emotions, in someone else’s shoes, like we’ve been saying. But there’s something different about sympathy. And I think this is the term that has often not been used very well in culture, and that we’ve lost an understanding of what the prefix syn- or sym- means. When you think of “synthesis,” we’re having multiple ideas that are together there with one another. When you’re doing sym pathos or sympathy, you’re actually having many emotions together. We might be feeling the emotion of the person across from us, and then also beginning to feel that motivation towards compassion. We’re feeling both their emotion and a motivation at the same time, and we are with them, even wanting to move towards them. And compassion, you know, it’s got that C-O-M, another “with.” Con- and com- are both with. And so we’re thinking about what it means to be with that other person in their emotions and to initiate a compassionate action, one that is caring for them and seeking to come alongside of them. So just trying to define those well. What do you think? Do you have some more color to add with those definitions?

That makes sense to me. I think, at least most of the way the word “sympathy” is used nowadays, it’s usually a little bit of a negative term compared to empathy, where “sympathy” is often used as either a superficial understanding of somebody’s sadness or trying to apply an easy fix. I really love the word “compassion” though, and the biblical background for that word. The idea of empathy—we’re feeling somebody else’s sorrow—but we’re not just leaving it there. We’re entering into some kind of response. And that’s what we see Christ did for us, that Christ experienced every temptation we experienced. Scripture tells us that. But He also saves us. He does something with that. It’s not just the empathy, but also compassion.

And this connects again to some of our preliminary conversation about this, some more of your wisdom coming out on our little sketch board this afternoon, where you were talking about how our loves being shaped—our emotions, or our affections being shaped—that shapes our response. And when you talk about that, that Jesus looked out on the crowds, and He was moved with a compassion towards them—that compassion moved Jesus towards a specific action. Compassion is something that, as our hearts are being shaped, it doesn’t just stay there. It moves towards an appropriate response towards neighbor, our love of neighbor.

Compassion has hands and feet.

That’s good. That’s really, really good.

Where’s the connection then between—we’re reading fiction, it’s helping us stand in somebody else’s perspective, helping us understand them—where’s that connection then, how do we get from that place to action, to compassion?

I think it’s a good time to actually talk about where the news helps us with that in particular. We’ve been talking about a complete story. In a work of fiction, we can see its beginning, middle, and its outcomes. We see something in its entirety. A good news story also does the same, where it paints that full picture of what’s going on, and it paints the characters in that true story, not as these one-dimensional flat beings that you can dismiss because they’ve made a wrong decision or a wrong action and therefore they must be evil, and easily ignored or written off. A good news story explores the complexity of those characters, just like a fiction story does. And you know, you think about a great work of fiction—what’s so compelling about it is that those characters are complex, and the story about them and their development as persons, that’s a complex and arduous process. And you get brought into that. A news story does the same for us if it’s written well, so that we can move into it with a greater perspective, that this is a person, an image-bearer, with potential for good as well as potential for evil. And it just does something different in terms of our response.

So we started out talking about, how does fiction help us navigate fake news? And, to me, it seems like a lot of fake news is painting people—especially the people you disagree with—as just monsters, caricatures of the most evil version of the person you disagree with. Fake news often leaves us with the sense that our neighbor who has the opposing political opponent sign in his yard is really, underneath the surface, a monster who can’t be trusted. Fiction, though, helps us build an understanding of the complexities of people.

I love something you said—again, in our discussion before this—that we can see somebody’s value system played out over a whole story, and really get to know it and experience it. Fiction, I think, can actually help us build our “smell test” of fake news. When we encounter a headline portraying the people we disagree with as no complexity, flat, evil caricatures, if we’ve developed this sense of understanding people as whole persons—who, like you said, are capable of both good and evil—then we will be better at detecting those fake news caricatures when we encounter them. Because something’s going to smell wrong about them.

Even as you speak about this discernment we’re having towards the other, it very easily, for me, begins to pivot towards that self-examination and awareness. We think of the values, looking at somebody play out values that we might even share. And we’re looking into that work of fiction in a way that I would like to compare to James 1, like the man who looks into the word or looks into a mirror and sees himself. In James, we’re talking about hearers and doers of the word. But to me, that image of looking into something in order to understand more of ourselves, looking into the scripture to understand who we are as human beings, who the Lord says that we are—sometimes we’re actually looking into a work of fiction, because we relate to a character and we see a value system that we’re like, “Yeah, I agree with that.” And then we start seeing that value system play out.

A great one is Meursault in The Stranger. I look at some of the decisions that he makes out of being uncomfortable. For those who need either a refresher or even a little introduction into the story of The Stranger, it’s about a character whose name is Meursault. I had to study him and this work because I was a French minor. And so in order to understand something of French culture and French philosophy, we had some exposure to this particular book. Camus is the writer of this, and he is working out his own philosophy, an existential philosophy, just as Lewis worked out some of his theology in the science fiction trio and The Chronicles of Narnia. Many existential writers worked out their philosophy in fiction as well. And so you see this character who believes that every choice he makes is good, because it was made by him, himself. So it very quickly becomes rotten, at least to the discerning reader. You see how making a decision for your own comfort, for your own pleasure, very quickly goes south. But we see that his value of self and his own comfort is so high, and we talked about comfort being an idol. I’m recognizing and kind of confessing that there’s an idolatry of comfort I’m seeing at work in this character, that if I’m going to also serve it, like this character serves it— Meursault in The Stranger—the outcomes could be very real, dangerous, destructive things. And so this self-examination that comes, the chance for fiction to be that mirror into my own heart—fiction gives me greater self-awareness, not just others-awareness or global awareness.

So like you said, a story like that turns the mirror on ourselves. What am I using as a basis for my decisions? Am I being self-serving? And then how will that play out? For me, fiction can be such a great source of conviction. You know, I think God can use fiction to convict us even.

Yes. It convicts us. It stretches us. It allows us to sit in one place, and yet the entire world to be open to us. I love to travel, but don’t get to do it nearly as much as my appetite for it. And yet fiction allows me to stand inside those places, culturally speaking, that I would only otherwise get a chance to do if I went abroad. In that experience, again, hoping that there is an equipping of my thought, my feeling, my action, my engagement of the other, as well as of all the other things I get to read. So I actually wanted to ask you a question, Jonathan, about how it—and I mean, the reading of fiction—equips you as you even write the news.

For me, writing news, it’s for the kids and teen level, and the teen level even is only going up to about 13 or 14 years old. So it’s about often finding the story threads, finding the gist of the story. Often you have these source articles that were written for a grown-up audience and have a lot of details, so much detail you just can’t really fit it all in, especially at the kid level. Reading fiction, for me at least, gaining a sense of story structure and character can sometimes help me find, okay, what is the important through-line of the story? There are all these facts that support it, but which of those facts are giving the gist of the story? From that point, it’s easier to simplify it and make it more digestible for younger readers. And I think, even if you are not writing the news—so I’ll throw out there that we do have our God’s WORLD News magazines, God’s Big WORLD for the younger children, WORLDkids for those middle ages, and then WORLDteen for those older kids and early teenage years—doing that work of trying to find those through-lines and those biblical themes in the news stories. But even you listening to this, when you’re reading something in the news, if you are equipped with a good knowledge of story, that will help you take what you’ve read at the grown-up level and convey it to your kids at a level they can understand, because you’ll have developed that skill of finding the story threads that make it explainable to younger ears.

So now you’re making an amazing case for the narrative in general, whether it is narrative nonfiction, whether it is fictional narrative, or, as you’ve even mentioned in this response, talking about the narrative of scripture. Narrative is something that shows up maybe a lot more than we’re conscious of, in that with a little bit of intentionality, we can recognize genre a little bit better, even recognize and discern the difference between an opinion article versus straight reporting. So we’re acknowledging that the diversity of narratives helps us to even tell a narrative better, name what kind of narrative or genre we’re in.

I’m thinking now about scripture, because we’re at that point where we’re really wrapping up our thoughts for today. And we want to return to that most excellent of narratives, and in prophetic work by Isaiah, where he is promising of the outcome of the blessing that was poured out on Israel, that the outcome of that was going to be an expansion of a much greater Kingdom than they ever imagined. So in Isaiah 54, this really helped me think in a larger way about the Lord’s world, about what we’re doing when we are expanding our minds through fiction, and all narrative really. And so maybe imagine with me and read with your whole person, not just the analytical portion of your being but also with that affection, because this really reminds us about enlarging our hearts when it says: “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.” To repeat some of what I said, this is an enlarging of not just our physical spaces, but an enlarging of our hearts towards the vision the Father has for His Kingdom, to spread abroad to all nations, tribes, and tongues.

And that reminds me of my final thought about fiction, and the way it can equip us for engaging culture and current events. You know, good fiction, honest stories written by people from other perspectives, other religions, belief systems, often shows us the holes where the gospel fits. Because a really honest writer coming from, for example, an atheist perspective, is going to sense something missing. And in so much incredible fictional work from atheist writers, we see this gaping sense of something missing, a lack of meaning. And we know that there is meaning. We know that there is a God who gives meaning and purpose. We see where the gospel can fill those holes. So fiction can equip us to see those places where the Kingdom can expand, not in a sense of necessarily, you know, conquering, but in a sense of meeting the needs of the brokenness of the world that we see all the time in the news.

And those needs, they are sometimes very much up close as we examine our own hearts. Sometimes it is in our community around us, our next door neighbor, and sometimes, as Jonathan said, it is the need across the globe. We have a great God with abundant provision that has been poured out on us by His Spirit. Parents, teachers, mentors of kids and teens, older teen listeners who are also with us, we want to remind you: He has equipped you for the work.

Show Notes

In a world of fake news, developing news literacy takes work. But we might find help through an unexpected practice: reading fiction.

Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week's downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study

We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at newscoach@wng.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.

See more from the News Coach, including episode transcripts.

Further Resources:

Kelsey’s 2023 Convention Schedule:

Denver, CO | 6/14 - 6/17 | Rocky Mountain Homeschool Conference
Phoenix, AZ | 7/13 - 7/15 | Arizona Families for Home Education

Concurrently is produced by God’s WORLD News. We provide current events materials for kids and teens that show how God is working in the world. To learn more about God’s WORLD News and browse sample magazines, visit gwnews.com.

This episode is sponsored by Unbound.

Help your high schooler make the transition to adulthood through Christian coaching and skill development courses. The Equip program from Unbound comes alongside teens and parents to provide coaching, accountability, and study and life skill courses. Free eBook available at http://beunbound.us/worldpodcast.

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