Faith through fiction

September 11, 2001|By Jim Sollisch

CLEVELAND - For $100 you can get the Beverly Hillbillies Bible Study Kit, which includes four episodes and 10 study guides that help you find connections among the words of Jethro, Jed and Granny and the word of God.

Also available are Bible study books and lesson plans for The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy and The Brady Bunch. In fact, thousands of churches are using sitcoms to teach spirituality.

Next month, a serious book by a religious writer for the Orlando Sentinel is due out called The Gospel According to the Simpsons. As you might expect, the critics think this trend is stranger than fiction and they scoff at the notion of Bart, the prophet. At first glance, it does seem laughable, but I have to confess, I owe my belief in God, in large part, to Holden Caulfied.

For years, I was a member of one of America's smallest minorities: the 5 percent or so of people who don't believe in God. I did, however, believe in ghosts, sold completely by the golems of Cynthia Ozick's fiction.

I believed in the witches of Shakespeare. And I believed in the existence of Holden Caulfied, who I'm sure is still wandering the streets of New York, wondering where the ducks in Central Park go in the winter. I just couldn't get my head around the idea of God.

My problem wasn't scientific. I didn't need rational proof. Nor was my trouble spiritual. I simply had a suspension-of-disbelief problem. What came so easy to me as a reader of literature just never clicked for me when it came to God.

Then my wife, a Jewish studies teacher, offered to be my guide through the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. So I actually started reading.

What a story. Serpents that talk. God appearing as a burning bush. Plagues more horrible than anything Stephen King could imagine. At first I had trouble suspending my disbelief, so I couldn't enter the story.

But we kept reading and talking about the events and characters just like we would discuss a novel. We talked about these things as if they had happened. As if they had meaning.

And then something really happened: The book became as real to me as the fiction I love so much. The main character, a hothead named God, became as real as Holden Caulfield. The more I talked about God like a character, the more real he got. The curtain lifted. I was no longer reading a dry, sacred text. I was reading a book filled with emotion, drama, conflict and metaphor.

For years, I had avoided reading the Bible because I thought the price of admission was the unconditional acceptance that it was holy.

Now that I was free to see it as profane, it became what fiction is to me - sacred. I didn't exactly become a believer, but I did start to not disbelieve.

So who am I to take potshots at the spiritual power of Bart Simpson or Barney Fife? Some of us need the make-believe to begin to believe. So if you don't like the idea that someone can find God through Bart Simpson, then I say, "Eat my shorts."

Jim Sollisch is a free-lance writer who lives in Cleveland.

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