A few weeks ago I was teaching youth Sunday school. For almost a year now we have been going through the Bible and talking about different bible stories. On this particular Sunday we were talking about the story of the woman at the well found in the fourth chapter of John. As I explained the cultural context that this woman lived in, one of the young women in the class exclaimed, “I want to know her story.”
She went on to explain that she wanted to know what were the situations that led her to have so many divorces, what was her childhood like, and after her encounter at the well what was her life like for the next several years. I responded with a question, “Well obviously we do not know the answers to those questions, but what do you think her story is?”
The eyes of this young woman lit up as her imagination started to fill in the blanks and the scripture became more real to her. Yet she quickly stopped this exercise and asked, “Am I allowed to do this? Am I allowed to imagine details about the bible that are not in the bible?”
Without meaning to on a Sunday morning we had stumbled headlong into one of the great geek debates: Canon vs. fan fiction. The Bible has a canon. The biblical canon are the books that the early church agreed are authoritative and divinely inspired. The canon is closed and established. All fictional universes from Star Wars, to Middle Earth, to My Little Pony have a canon. The canon of these fictional universes are the details, characters, and stories that official compose that fictional universe. Lucasfilm created a lot of controversy in 2014 when they reset the Star Wars Canon. They declared that all of the books, comics, and other media properties that were created before then were no longer official canon. This caused several beloved characters to no longer be officially part of the Star Wars universe and this created a lot of angst and heartache for many Star Wars fans.
In our internet age, nearly all fictional universes also have fan-fiction. Fan-fiction allows the fan to engage with what the love in a very immersive way. They get to put themselves in the universe and in the minds of their favorite characters. For various reasons fan-fiction has a lot of critics. That is putting it too lightly. Fan fiction gets a lot of hate. Ignoring the complaints about quality, one of the biggest complaints against fan-fiction is that it is “lesser” than the cannon. Essentially a lot of criticism against fan-fiction can be boiled down to since the fan-fiction is not canon it is naturally inferior.
Those arguments are missing the point. The point of fan-fiction is not to create canon, it is to immerse oneself into the canon by exploring aspects of the universe not fully explained in the canon. While fan-fiction is often written to be consumed and shared with others, it’s primary purpose is to deepen the engagement of the writer into the fictional universe they love so much. Even if I do not personally read fan-fiction I think it is great that people love something enough that they want to immerse themselves in it to that degree.
In that Sunday school class the young woman was essentially asking is biblical fan fiction OK? Is it acceptable to imagine and fill in the aspects of the scripture not present in the text. In my function as the church’s pastor my official answer to her was yes it is OK. Reading scripture with an active imagination can help us better understand scripture. Doing so is not really adding to the scripture as Revelation 22:18 warns. The point of reading the scripture with imagination is not to add to the canon but it is to better understand the canon. By imaging the details that would bring the woman to gather water at the well in the middle of the day when no one else is around, we get a better sense of why the message of living water made such an impact on her.
Nearly every story in the Bible has an untold side. Even the epistles contain an untold story as those letters were written to real people with very real struggles. When we take the time to imagine what is going on off the page we can get a more full understanding of what is on the page. The best fan-fiction writers really know their stuff. They know the details of the universe and the motivations of the characters better than anyone. In the same, to read the Bible with imagination we need to know the appropriate cultural and historical context. When the reader takes this effort to know the background and the read the bible imaginatively it comes alive and has a deeper personal impact than just being words on a page. The bible, the story of God’s love for humanity, becomes a story that we are more fully immersed in.