A well-told story has the ability to shape your heart in unexpected ways. Growing up in my particular brand of evangelicalism there was a staunch effort placed on defining (and consequently enforcing the separation of) that which is sacred and the secular; in other words: a quest to determine that which is holy and from God and that which is not. When a piece of culture was in question, a Christian alternative was suggested. If you liked a certain secular band there was a “Christian” band sounding similarly enough to be marketed as the “Christian alternative.” Youth groups were bused to Christian concerts, Christian movies, wearing their Christian FBI T-shirts , that is Firm Believer in Christ of course. There is nothing particularly wrong about these experiences, but they leave one with few tools to find God in the unexpected. Certainly, the undeniably sacred has formed me, but so has the subtly sacred like a good work of fiction.
One such fiction writer puts it like this:
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
-Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Although I have no doubt I was influenced by books even from the earliest moments of childhood, the first field of purple I distinctly remember came from my encounter with Chaim Potok’s The Chosen my senior year of high school. Reading Potok’s words pushed me to cultural humility and the beginning of religious literacy. It also sparked my interest in interfaith dialogue, something that still calls to me these years later.
The Chosen tells the story of two Jewish boys from different sects that find themselves in an unlikely friendship. Ironically, the book itself wrestles with the question of sacred versus secular, something I could relate to despite the unfamiliar religious traditions.
It was through this fictitious story that I learned that not all Jews believe the same thing, much like not all Christians share the same beliefs. I learned true friendship was possible between people who found themselves on the opposing end of political movements (in the case the Zionist movement for the State of Israel) without “losing their own faith.” I learned how dialogue with someone different can enrich your faith instead of threaten it, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or comfortable, and yet in loving someone, it’s worth it.
This book didn’t need to be “Christian” to spur deeper faith questions. Good fiction brings the unexpected challenge to change and grow. It tills the heart’s soil.
“As you grow older you will discover that the most important things that will happen to you will often come as a result of silly things, as you call them –“ordinary things” is a better expression. That is the way the world is.”
-Chaim Potok, The Chosen