Christians Should Be Lovers Of Fiction

"We should not fear literature, nor avoid it, but embrace it."    

I am always surprised and somewhat heartbroken when I meet people who say they don't read fiction, or don't read at all.

Even more surprising to me are the many interactions I've had with Christian adults over the years that go something like this: “I read all the time, but only nonfiction. Reading fiction is a waste of time. As Christians, we should use our precious and limited ‘spare time’ to read the Bible, theology, biographies of those who came before us, that sort of thing, as they're much more important. Reading fiction is, at best, a waste of time, and at worst, dangerous. Fiction often is, in fact, bad for Christians. If you do read it, make sure you only read Christian fiction, like C.S. Lewis and stuff like that.”

Once I am able to pick my jaw up off the ground and reassemble the pieces of my broken heart, my automatic defense is to think of this line from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, the sarcastic response of the novel-loving heroine to the man who looks on her love of novels with masculine disdain: "Oh! it is only a novel! . . . or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough rough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."

Rather than maligning novels and works of fiction, Christians, of all people, should devour them thoughtfully, enjoying the story and learning about humanity in ways that only story can teach.

For those of you who are more scientifically minded, there is enough research out there over the past few years that reveals the human mind discovers more empathy and human understanding by reading fictional novels than by other forms of reading (nonfiction) or entertainment (television, sports, movies, video games, etc.). Reading stories about humanity helps us understand each other better, and feel more empathy. As Christians, this is a necessary tool as we are called to love our neighbors, to love even those who are hard to love. Love is difficult to do without empathy, compassion, understanding.

For more information on the research behind the benefits of reading fiction, check out this article:

Science Still Shows Something Surprising About People Who Still Read Fiction

Christ himself often chose parables and stories, all fictional and many metaphorical, to teach his followers. The Bible itself is not completely made up of histories and nonfiction, but includes many genres such as poetry (the Psalms), pithy proverbs and aphorisms (Proverbs), love stories (Song of Solomon), and the aforementioned parables (the Gospels). Story is powerful, and we often learn lessons more readily and remember them more permanently when they are in a narrative format. If the Bible is the only time Christian readers are confronting this type of literature, it becomes more difficult to understand. Metaphor takes practice, but is worth the effort as it often reveals more meaning than mere literal representation. As an English major who then went to Bible college, I was one of the strongest at Biblical exegesis in my class because of my previous work explicating poetry. Skills which were new to my classmates came naturally to me because I had already applied them to poets from Shakespeare to Plath. If you want to be literate in reading the Bible, you need to be literate in more than one genre. You need to be literate in fiction.

This is not to say that all fiction is created equal. Some literature is more worth our time than others, and some will reveal more truth and beauty than others. Don't get me started on Nicholas Sparks' books . . . But I am a ravenous reader of most fiction, from classics to modern, from sci-fi to mystery to historical fiction to fantasy, from children's lit to young adult to books for grown ups, from poetry to comic books to the longest classic novel. I have found great value in all of the above, and have been able to converse with my students about deep life issues based off all of them. If the writer is a good one, then you will find truth reflected. The truth of our world, our humanity. The good, the bad, and the ugly. And this is not something we should shy away from, but rather confront with our worldview firmly planted in God's word and the knowledge that He is necessary to overcome the bad and ugly, and He is the maker of all that is good.

As Christians, we should be reading more great literature and encouraging others to do so. The greatest thoughts of mankind throughout the ages are shared on the written page. God himself chose the written word as the main way by which to reveal himself. Truth and beauty is reflected in the greatest books, as well as the fallen nature of man, the consequences of sin, the need for forgiveness and redemption, and the importance of grace.
Imagine the conversations we, as a Christian community, could start having on a regular basis if each one of us, from the youngest to the oldest, was always in the middle of a novel or two?

Imagine the depth of discourse that would follow? We should not fear literature, nor avoid it, but embrace it. Entering into the world of fiction allows us to take part in the Great Conversation that began when man first put pen to paper, and will continue as long as language exists. So this month, head to the library, browse the shelves of one of the few bookstores left, skim your Kindle store, or use that Amazon Prime 2-day shipping and read a story that is new to you. Then, when you're done, if it's any good, loan it to a friend.