Note: This article by Christy Tennant was Originally published in Bible Study Magazine May–June ’09
“We live in a time where the Bible is increasingly minimized,” says Randy Alcorn. “I am committed to doing everything I can to uplift and honor God’s Word.”
The best-selling author of more than forty fiction and non-fiction books, including Heaven, The Treasure Principle, and Safely Home says, “The Bible is the lifeline of my work.”
Alcorn, raised in an unchurched family, first picked up the Bible when his mother brought him to church. “It was the Sunday they gave out bibles to third graders,” Alcorn laughs, “and I was a third grader, so I got a Bible!” He put it on a shelf, where it remained for years, until his curiosity was piqued after visiting a high school youth group. “I went home and finally started reading the Bible.”
For months, the good news may as well have been the Daily News—little more than ink on paper. “I had been reading the Bible almost daily, for about six months, when one night, as I was reading the gospels, I realized that I believed it. I had first thought it was just a story book, but then it suddenly dawned on me that I actually believed what I was reading.”
Alcorn knelt down and surrendered his life to Christ that very night. He says, “I always felt like God used his Word directly to draw me to himself. My interest in Bible study started before I became a Christian, and God has used it powerfully in my life ever since.” Now, Alcorn is the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries which is dedicated to teaching principles of God’s Word and reaching the needy.
Telling a “Story” to Tell the Truth
“I have always loved stories,” says Alcorn, “and the Bible is the greatest story ever written. The unfolding drama of redemption is a story, but it is a true story. When we write fiction, what we are doing is making up a story as what J.R.R. Tolkien called, ‘sub-creators.’ Creators with a small ‘c.’ We are made in his image, so we can invent a story, and that story, though invented, is not ‘false.’ ”
Like Jesus’ parables, which Alcorn points out are sometimes based on actual events and are other times fictional stories (e.g., the parable of the prodigal son)—“fiction can, and should, contain many truths. It can be true to life. People have said to me, ‘I thought fiction is just a bunch of lies. How can you write lies?’ But they’re not lies, because lying is when you are trying to convey the impression that something happened that really didn’t. When someone picks up a novel, they know the story really didn’t happen—it’s made up—but it tells truths about life. Novelists provide people with an imaginary world they want to participate in. Likewise, through his parables, Jesus made up stories that had specific components. He used them as illustrations to convey a point. This is what I try to do in my fiction as well.”
“Any time I try to reflect God in a story, I want to make sure that it is biblically based. Occasionally I’ll write stories where Jesus is in heaven speaking to a character that has died. I’m especially careful with that, because if you’re going to put words in God’s mouth, they better be true to Scripture. So I’ll have Jesus say to a faithful servant, ‘Well done good and faithful servant’ (Matt 25:23). There are novels now that put words into God’s mouth that are not consistent with what the Bible says, and I don’t want to do that.”
By incorporating Bible verses into stories, Alcorn hopes people who might not read a Bible will be confronted with biblical truths. “One of the reasons I love writing fiction is that it can help readers open up the gates of their minds. Through good fiction that contains biblical truth, both non-Christian and Christian readers, who may not believe in certain things the Bible teaches, can discover truth.”
A person who wouldn’t read a non-fiction book on suffering and pain might read a novel like Alcorn’s Deception, which addresses the problem of evil and suffering in one man’s life. “Through this story, which is actually a murder mystery, readers may be more open to biblical concepts, they might have resisted if they had seen them directly in non-fiction form.”
Alcorn calls this creative writing maneuver the Trojan Horse effect. “You open up the gates of your mind, and here comes this big horse. You don’t realize that hidden inside are soldiers. Fiction has a subversive element. Often that’s bad, because people will read fiction not realizing how a non-biblical, anti-Christian worldview being portrayed in a novel can affect their thinking about God. But the Trojan horse can also smuggle in what’s true and good. People who are resistant to faith may open their minds and hearts to truths they would not have been open to in a non-fiction form. Likewise, people who wouldn’t have gone to church may hear truths, not through preaching, but through the lives of the characters.”
Approaching Bible Study
Alcorn’s Bible study method is eclectic. “Sometimes I read through the Bible in a year-long program. Other times, I simply open God’s Word and meditate on it, asking God for guidance. I don’t mean that I stick my finger in the Bible and just read wherever it lands—although I have done that and it actually can be fun—but my normal approach to Bible study is to pore over texts that relate to something on my heart. Also, if one of our pastors preaches from a certain passage I might go back to it later and spend more time meditating on it.”
Alcorn’s book projects influence his approach to Bible study. Right now, he is finishing a book that deals with theodicy, the effort to explain the presence of evil and suffering in light of a good and loving God. “Every morning for the last two or three weeks, I have been reading and re-reading Romans chapter eight. I have read nearly one-hundred books on evil and suffering, and my mind keeps going back to portions of this chapter in Romans.
Morning after morning, reading that chapter, I find new things. Now, if you had asked me a few weeks ago whether I planned to study one chapter of Scripture for the next three or four weeks, I would have said no. But here it is: Romans 8. It is on my heart and on my mind, and it’s so rich.”
“This morning, I went from Romans 8 to the book of Job. I was thinking about God’s sovereign plans and the tests he put Job through, as well as the significance of Job chapter one, which gives us a backdrop that even Job didn’t know! The focus of the book of Job is not simply evil and suffering; the book is also about the testing of Job’s faith. Sometimes my Bible study is systematic, other times I find myself going wherever I sense the Spirit of God leading me.”
Bible Study in Relationship
Alcorn relies on his wife and best friend, Nanci, to help him both spiritually and creatively.
Randy and Nanci both love studying Scripture, but over the years, like many couples, they have found that Bible study is most effective for them when they study on their own and then discuss what they’ve learned. “We both have our own time studying the Word with the Lord, and then we will often share with each other what we have discovered. I feel like it’s a double blessing, because I’ve had the one-on-one time with the Lord, and the fruit, the overflow, of Nanci’s relationship with him.”
Alcorn also encourages couples to study the Bible and pray together, maintaining a balance between their time together with God, and time on their own. “Sometimes people try to make hard and fast rules, but there are none in Scripture when it comes to this. If there were a mandated way for husbands and wives to study and pray together, I am certain God would have told us. However, that doesn’t minimize the importance of finding the best way that serves your marriage.” Alcorn cautions against couples maintaining their spiritual lives on completely separate tracks. “Some people say, ‘Well that’s my private time with God and I am not going to talk to you about it.’ If anybody has that attitude, something’s seriously wrong.”
The Bible is real life for Alcorn. The success of his fictional books illustrates that story telling can be powerfully true to life and transform the spirit. The effects of Alcorn’s Bible study are evident throughout his writing. When God’s Word is at the center, so is his story.