Most of our stories don’t begin that way any longer. We start with action or a catchy bit of dialogue. But still, that is what our fiction is—once upon a time. And for those of us who write international fiction, our story may well take place in a land far, far away from our readers, if not from ourselves, the authors.
Luke, the first-century doctor turned biographer and church historian, didn’t begin that way. Saint Luke’s story was true, and he wanted to be sure his readers knew it. He didn’t just choose interesting details to give a realistic feel for time and place. (In fact, I often wish he had included more of those to help me understand the cultural context.) His goal was to “write an orderly account” (Luke 1:3). He must have researched the existing literary sources by those like Mark and Matthew who had “undertaken to draw up an account of the things that [had] been fulfilled among [them]” (Luke 1:1). But lots of other stories had been “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:2). So Luke tracked down those eyewitnesses and interviewed them. He must have met with Jesus’ mother Mary, an old woman by now, living in the house of Jesus’ dearest friend, the Apostle John, who would later write his own biography of Jesus. How poignant it must have been for her to sit with the Greek doctor and talk over all those personal details that she had “treasured up … and pondered … in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Luke didn’t have a microphone to record his interviews or a computer to write them up. He didn’t have Evernote or Scrivener to juggle his drafts. He didn’t even have index cards or cheap legal pads!
Luke did his homework, like any good writer.
He made sure his biography was grounded in history. This is not a magic dreamtime of fairy tales:
“In the time of Herod king of Judea” (Luke 1:5)
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree” (Luke 2:1)
“Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2)
Luke’s story happened in a real place:
“Nazareth, a town in Galilee” (Luke 1:26)
“to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David” (Luke 2:4)
He even gives us Jesus’ family tree (Luke 3:23-37) to prove this is a real person, not historical fiction set in the time of King Herod. (I know, this part is pretty confusing because it doesn’t match the family tree given in Matthew 1:2-16 once the Kingdom of David had been destroyed and the people sent into exile. It may be that Matthew and Luke picked different names to emphasize since there are skips in the earlier parts as well. Or it may be that Luke gives us Mary’s heritage and Matthew gives us Jesus’ legal heritage as the adopted son of Joseph.)
Luke’s times and places could be checked out by the sceptical. They were real.
When I write historical fiction, I spread out maps; I study costume books; I search the Internet for cultural details; I’m careful not to introduce anachronisms. But in the end, real as they seem to me and, I hope, to my readers, my characters are made up. Even if my plot is based on things that really happened in the time of King Henry VIII, the events of my story are not real.
The amazing thing to me as we approach this season of the year is that there really was a young girl in a small town in Galilee who saw an angel. That angel told her the shocking news that she would become pregnant without ever sleeping with her boyfriend. She really did give birth in a stable, and shepherds came and told her a crazy story about angels in the night sky who told them where they would find the baby. A first-century researcher investigated and wrote it all down so that we “might know the certainty of the things [we] have been taught” (Luke 1:4).
My faith is grounded in history—real people, real places, real events—a real Savior who came to save me from a very real sin problem. This Christmas crawl out from under the giftwrap, the cookie recipes, and mounds of guests and remember: Luke 2 is NOT International Christian Fiction.
LeAnne Hardy has celebrated Christmas in six countries on four continents. She loves the music of the season and the story that goes far beyond a night in a stable. Her fiction reflects her faith, her passion for storytelling that stretches the mind and soul, and the cultures she has lived in. Learn more at www.leannehardy.net .