Why Should Christ-Followers Read Fiction?
By: Mary E. DeMuth|Published: June 3, 2009 10:06 AM
Two years before I penned my first novel, a BreakPoint transcript dated May 23, 2000, transformed my life. In it, Chuck Colson discussed the power of fiction to change culture.
He chronicled the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, how a simple story did more to abolish slavery than any didactic treatise. He writes, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a reminder that one of the reasons we read fiction is because fiction helps train the moral imagination.” This fueled my desire to aspire to something so great, to write words that captured readers’ imaginations.
But not everyone views fiction in such an ethereal light. As a novelist, I’ve heard many objections to indulging in fiction. Consider these four:
Reading novels is a waste of precious time. We should be building the Kingdom instead.
While we should seek to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this broken world, we should not neglect the idea that the Christian life is not always praxis, or the physical working out of our theology. It is also internal. What flows to a thirsty world comes from what is inside our hearts. And our hearts are typically instructed through story, not bullet points. I’ve never experienced healing or salvation from a list. But people’s stories and the stories I read in literature stay with me, move through my heart, and open a surprising door for Jesus to heal me. Taking time away from the rush-rush of the world to read a story may just be the best thing I can do for the Kingdom today.
Stories are untruth. Why would we want to read lies?
I love how author Ron Benrey addresses this objection. He writes, “Some Christians say that fiction is a lie, that Christians should only read the truth. Actually, the opposite of fiction is fact, not truth. Good fiction conveys truth even though it’s not factual.” Stories, when told winsomely convey far more truth than fact-filled treatises.
We are a culture addicted to entertainment—isn’t reading a novel succumbing to that addiction?
Consider the difference between gaming (highly addictive), movie and TV watching (a passive experience), and reading a book (engages the mind without the usual tendency toward addiction). Editor Mick Silva of WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group writes, “Television and movies offer a passive experience. Books require engagement—the reader must actively create the story in their own head as a participant in it, emotionally, and consciously.” Simply put, reading a novel engages the imagination as it entertains.
Reading fiction is a form of voyeurism, preventing us from participating in real life community.
It’s true that reading novels is like spying on folks—though it is a literary or imaginative form of voyeurism. And if we bury ourselves away from the world, only nosing our way through books, our engagement in genuine face-to-face community will suffer. However, fiction serves as a vehicle to thrust us into community. Novelist Meredith Efken writes, “Fiction gives us common ground and something thought-provoking to talk about. It builds relationships when we share what we’re reading with other people.” After I read Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, the first thing I did after wiping away a few tears was tell my friends about the book. We shared that book together, and its story defined our own stories together. This is the beauty of the book club, after all. Reading something stunning and interacting with others about it.
Despite these objections, it is true that many today do value novels. And the fact that novel sales continue to increase confirms this. Beyond experiencing escapist entertainment or appreciating an underlying message, what are some compelling reasons for Christ-followers to delve into a novel? Here are ten:
1. Our view of the world beyond our door widens.
I’ve better understood (and wept over) genocide after reading stories. My prayers have deepened for those experiencing human trafficking. Why? Because a novel took me to places my visa wouldn’t take me; novels widened my American-centric view of the world.
Memoirist Jeanne Damoff, author of Parting the Waters, satirizes this point. “Christians should definitely not read fiction. They risk opening their minds to vain imaginations and puffing themselves up with knowledge. Who knows what they might be emboldened to do? Engage their atheistic neighbors in conversation? Take a stand against social injustice? Travel to heathen countries and mingle with uncivilized people groups? The world is a broken place, and we can’t risk the possibility of story painting pictures that open the eyes of Christians to its pain. Think what might happen if we do!”
2. We learn empathy as you walk in a character’s different-sized shoes.
In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, I understood more about autism through Christopher’s eyes than if I had simply watched a documentary about the condition. Fiction plunges us into people. I am Scout in wide-eyed wonder outside a lone jail cell. I am Anne with green hair. And in that being, I understand.
Jesus knew this. It’s why He used stories to engage folks—and impart truth. Multi-published author Terri Blackstock writes: “Jesus used story to teach His principles because He knew that if you stepped into the skin of a character and felt what they experienced, you’d remember that principle. Instead of preaching that God is always there, waiting to give us a second chance, Jesus said, ‘There was once a man who had two sons.’ Instantly, His listeners were in the story. And later, when they thought of God’s love for them, they remembered the father who ran to his son and kissed his neck.”
3. God uses stories to heal.
I received a letter from a reader of my novel Watching the Tree Limbs: “As I met Mara, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking in a mirror. I relived all of the emotions of having been through much of what Mara experienced. But I also lived through so much of her—my—healing. Somehow I’m a little less frightened of taking that Hand now.” Ironically, in the act of writing that book, God chose to heal me of some deep wounds too. His healing then poured out into another life.
When I read The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr., I did not know I’d experience a radical bout of healing. Pertelote, a young hen, mistook a good rooster, Chauntecleer for Cockatrice, the poultry world’s Hitler. She recoiled in the good rooster’s presence. Later when he gently asked why, she replied, “Chauntecleer, what I thought I saw in you was not there. What I saw I should not have seen. My seeing was not true: The thing was not there, nor could it ever be there in you. I know that. My imagination made me afraid.” In reading those words, I understood Petelote because when I saw God, His goodness was masked by the pain of my past. This opened the door for healing.
4. Fiction unmasks us.
Similarly, fiction serves to probe beneath our masks, helping us perceive, reveal, and understand our secrets. “Everyone has secrets,” says novelist Susan May Warren. “Fiction allows people to see themselves in characters, to discover healing and truth when their ‘reputation’ or shame won’t let them pick up a non-fiction book. They can watch characters struggle, then experience the truth that sets them free.”
5. God’s redemptive story permeates.
When I read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini in its stark, horrific, life-altering prose, I clearly saw redemption. It can’t help but shine on such a dark tableau. While some may argue that the only proper novel is one written by someone with a decidedly Christo-centric worldview, I would counter that God’s great redemption weaves it way through many stories, which is why C. S. Lewis cautioned, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” God’s stories are everywhere.
6. Novels allow for paradox, causing us to ask the kinds of questions that help us search for God.
Some might argue fiction should always tout an obviously-redemptive message in order to impact the world for Christ. Barbara Nicolosi, the executive director of Act One, adds nuance to that notion, expanding the purpose of art to posing and allowing for questions that spark a spiritual journey. She writes, “Too many Christians think we are supposed to use the arts to give people the answers. We’re not. We’re supposed to use the arts to lead them into a question. And that is just one stage in their personal journey of divine revelation. Once they have a new question, they will be on a search—consciously or subconsciously. . . The arts can definitely send people delving.”
7. Reading novels critically helps us navigate the Scriptures better.
“Because the Bible is a text, a well-read, sophisticated interpreter will have an easier time parsing difficult passages—not to mention easy ones,” asserts J. Mark Bertrand, author of Rethinking Worldview. “This is why, in seminaries and law schools, there ought to be an emphasis on reading ‘outside the discipline.’ At a time when fewer people are reading, and those who still do gravitate toward increasingly simple texts, it’s important for people committed to a notoriously unsimple one to develop skill at handling it well. Reading novels helps.” In fact, The Literary Study Bible employs literary criticism to help understand the biblical texts.
8. Reading a novel connects us to the Creator
Participating in the creative process of a fellow Christ-follower helps us better understand our Creator. Novelist Tosca Lee affirms, “I think we do great honor to God when we indulge in creativity or appreciate the work of another creative—a great act of worship considering that we are made in the image of the most creative Being in the Universe. It’s quite a legacy that we are given to appreciate and to honor within ourselves—a legacy we often ignore living up to, despite being made in that image. I think we forget that God is not ascetic in nature, but the author of gorgeous details, panache and aesthetics that sometimes serve no other purpose than to reflect the extravagant character of the creator.”
9. Reading a novel builds community.
First, it creates community between writer and reader. Mick Silva adds, “God designed us for community, which despite the façade this hyper-connected 21st century is severely lacking. In some small way, across any space and time that might come between us, fiction rekindles that simple unity between writer and reader through one of the most powerful ways we have of knowing another’s mind and understanding it.”
Second, it widens our human community. Meredith Efken believes “fiction is another form of art that helps us explore what it means to be human and helps express emotions and experiences in a way that connects us together. Like poetry or painting, it describes the world around us in a way that makes us appreciate it more.”
10. Reading stories brings us face to face with Jesus, the grand storyteller.
Jesus told life-changing stories. As we explore stories, we come to appreciate His genius. Mick Silva writes, “Jesus was a master storyteller, possibly one of the greatest who ever lived, in the sense that he understood his audience and spoke to them in ways that required their heads to catch up to their hearts—and only if their hearts were capable of catching it in the first place. In this way, he showed fiction to be one of the highest forms of theological discussion and evangelism one could employ.” So if you want to improve your theological discourse and flavor your evangelism, study and read stories, not neglecting the great stories Jesus told.
Some novels have destroyed lives, wreaked havoc. But there are novels that have instigated revolutions, restored hope, enacted life-giving legislation. We understand the landscape of redemption between the covers of a well-told story. And for those of us who have been transformed by The Greatest Story, the power of novels comes as no surprise. Dare I say our spiritual lives depend on story? I will, and I do.
This article originally appeared in BreakPoint WorldView Magazine, June 2009.
Mary E. DeMuth is a novelist, speaker, and book mentor who loves to help people turn their trials to triumph. Author of three parenting books and three novels, her latest novel, Daisy Chain released March 2009 and has been compared to Peace Like a River and To Kill a Mockingbird. You can meet her at http://www.marydemuth.com or http://www.thewritingspa.com.