Doubting Thomas: The Reader’s Journey

Bird in Forest

Bird in Forest

I was critiquing a short story for a friend of mine that dealt with expectation and belief in the unexplainable. Sometimes a written critique can’t convey the concerns I have well enough so we met up on instant messenger to discuss it further. The question, in this case, was when disbelief is overwhelmed by evidence and transforms to belief.

Especially when a story involves something outside of the norm and yet is set in a contemporary world with contemporary concerns, it’s critical that the author bring the reader on that journey. It’s not enough that the reader can see the same evidence the character can. The reader must experience the character’s journey from doubt to acceptance in order to counteract the sense that the author is driving the reader to a specific conclusion without foundation or context. What’s important to the story is not the facts but how the character responds to those facts. The character is the window through which the reader peers, and the character’s reactions are what brings the reader along.

In trying to figure out what I was quibbling with in the critique, my friend brought up Doubting Thomas. I was raised Roman Catholic so the parallel made sense, only not in quite the way she meant. (That it was almost Easter at the time couldn’t have had anything to do with that story coming to mind, could it?)

The story of Doubting Thomas, for those not raised on it, is about how he could not accept the miracle of the resurrection on faith. It wasn’t enough to see. He had to touch.

Now my take on the story might be a little different, and it’s that very difference that’s critical to the question of acceptance. Bear with me for some amateur biblical analysis, please. It’ll be worth your while.

The short version of this tale is that Christ appeared to the disciples who accepted his resurrection without question, all except for Thomas. He’s immortalized in the Bible as the one who refused to believe, who didn’t have faith, but maybe he’s the one who believed the most in the end because he took his belief a step further.

There’s a saying: seeing is believing. It’s one you hear a lot when people are told something they didn’t see themselves and so must take someone else’s word for it. But the truth is that seeing is not believing. There are magicians who perform all sorts of slights of hand, mirages that transport distant objects to close enough to reach…only they aren’t really there. And then there’s our minds that prefer to catalog everything we experience in neatly labeled boxes no matter how unlikely, and does so well at this that it transforms what we see so we have to concentrate to realize the monster we expect is actually a robe draped over a chair, or the bird in the sky is just a cloud.

So Thomas didn’t just accept, but he also didn’t take the chance that they were being tricked, that a false god was attempting to win them over. He asked for proof that it really was Christ standing there. Or at least that seems to be the common interpretation.

The story has always seemed a little different to me. Thomas wasn’t asking for proof it was true to my mind. He’d already accepted that it couldn’t be. He was confirming the event was false.

As covered by Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one.

Which would seem more plausible: that these disciples had been blessed to live in the time of the coming but that God wouldn’t step in to save his only son? Or that, as Muslims believe, Jesus had been an incredible, miraculous person, a prophet even, but he was dead.

They’d all seen him die, seen him buried. Everyone knew the story from the Torah of the coming. How easy would it have been for someone to trick them into believing the last step, into bearing false witness. After all, if Jesus had been the Son of God, why would God let him be crucified?

So when Thomas demanded physical proof that what stood before them was actually Jesus and not a mirage or a charlatan, he didn’t step forward in faith. Those who had the blind faith already accepted this person at his word. They were the gullible ones, open and ready to be taken advantage of had someone tried to. Thomas stepped forward in disbelief, in confidence that what they saw could not be true and would fall apart when challenged.

Acceptance came when he challenged what he saw, what he wanted to believe though he knew it impossible, and found it true.

Like there are stages of grief, there are stages to the transition from doubt to acceptance and belief. Blind faith is easy. Reasoned faith is so much harder.

Taking this back to writing, think of my description of Thomas. He didn’t take what happened on blind faith, and in not just accepting, he gave the reader/listener something to hold on to. There’s a reason two people raised in different Christian traditions could share the words: Doubting Thomas and know what they meant.

We’re told to accept Jesus’s resurrection as true right until the moment Thomas says, “No, this cannot be.”

This is the voice of the reader: “This doesn’t make sense. This cannot be.”

The writer must bring the reader along, not just state what is fact and expect blind acceptance. The moment of transition, when doubt becomes acceptance, is crucial in overcoming that sense of being told a falsehood, sold an illusion. This concept is an extension of “show not tell” in the sense that if you tell the reader this is a normal world with all the normal circumstances, and then tell them that something is happening to break that normalcy, why should the reader follow you? You’ve proved yourself an unreliable narrator. But if that tell comes in the form of a show, if the reader hears the same doubts and denial from the main character that they hold in their own minds only to have the concerns dismissed or disproved one after another, when that moment comes, when hands touch wounded flesh and realize, despite all logic, despite what has always been known to be true, this miracle has happened, a transformation occurs. Doubt gives way to acceptance, and the reader completes the journey with the character.

The risk with blind faith is that the reader will say no. Blind faith is asking for trust. It’s the opposite of “seeing is believing.” It’s the releasing of agency, giving the power of belief into another’s hands. This is a dangerous step in real life with all the people out to take advantage, but in story life the danger falls not on the reader but on the writer. Depending on the reader’s acceptance without the transition means that any slight moment of doubt, a slight shift outside of the story world, and that reader is lost. There’s no foundation of shared experience, there is only a slender thread of trust easily broken.

Building the journey toward acceptance, however, gives the reader the right to doubt, and the reasons why those doubts are false within the created world even if they’re true in the real one. The writer has not one opportunity to capture the reader’s faith but many, and the impact of that acceptance when it comes is stronger than any based solely on blind faith, that of the character or reader.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with the need to bring the reader along, whether speaking as a reader or a writer? What are some stories you feel did that job exceptionally well?

Bird? in Forest

Bird? in Forest

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4 Responses to Doubting Thomas: The Reader’s Journey

  1. maripat says:

    Oh yes, I do believe the best stories are the ones where the author takes the reader through a marvelous adventure and that the ending especially must be as strong and rewarding as the story itself. As you know, I have fumbled that part myself. But when an author does it right it is a magical.

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      Oh, I’ll bet even the best you’ve ever read was fumbled at some point in the process before publication :).

  2. Dawn says:

    I enjoyed this post, Mar. That particular story benefited from our discussion. The challenge is making sure what I the writer believes is the character reaction/journey and transfering it properly to the reader. I hope I’ve done that. Time will tell?

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      That it will. Glad you enjoyed the post you sparked…and that the story was helped by the underlying reason for the post.

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