First off, I wouldn’t normally compare myself to a street preacher on a soapbox. But as an English major at a small Christian liberal arts college, I can’t think of a more fitting analogy to convey how I often feel when I talk to my friends about books.
As it usually goes on busy street corners, the conversations typically begin with civility. It starts with the evangelical heavyweights: Lewis, Chesterton, even Tolkien. Then we make the rounds through heroes of the bygone eras, tossing around names like Bunyan, Edwards and Spurgeon. And before I can get a word in, we’re spiraling through the contemporary, pop-Christianity canon. A John Piper fan sternly rebukes a lover of Rob Bell’s work. Donald Miller gets a nod, and Henri Nouwen a gentle sigh of approval. Someone mentions The Shack and a debate about the Trinity ensues, then someone brings up Narnia and common ground is established once again
And that’s when I start wailing on the bullhorn. “But guys, what about fiction?! What about Faulkner? Melville! Does the name Steinbeck ring any bells?!” I cry, as the crowd trickles away, whispering about the guy with crazy eyes and a copy of East of Eden in his hand. One bold soul hands me Calvin’s Institutes and is on his way.
Perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit. OK, a lot. But my frustration stems from a deep belief that fiction deserves a place in these conversations. And this is not to say the established canon of great Christian literature is anything less than just that. We need those books. We need the words of wise thinkers to keep our theology tight, to keep our minds sharp and filled with good things. And of course, we need the Bible most of all.
But, putting my bullhorn aside, I’d like to make a case for the imagined stories, the ones that can throttle our hearts and challenge our biases, and for the fictional characters who, if we get close enough, can become real.
It’s dangerous to approach any art form with the intention of finding some sort of personal benefit. When I started reading fiction years ago, I didn’t do so because I was seeking anything, except, perhaps, the thrill of saying I’d finished The Brothers Karamazov. But aside from that typical bit of teenage vanity, I did it because I liked stories. And that is, on the surface, the one qualification for reading fiction. That being said, I could ramble for days about the unexpected joys, benefits and lessons I’ve learned from the novels I’ve read, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll distill it down to two practical ways that reading fiction can benefit Christians: beauty and empathy.
The first is both simple and vast. I wouldn’t be so bold as to name the purpose of art, but I think one thing that unifies its many forms is the desire to distill the chaos of existence, in all its wonder and tragedy, into a single, unified image of beauty. An abstract painter offers a canvas of lines and colors to present her own unique slice of what she finds beautiful. A folk-singer puts a melody on top of a chord progression as his offering. Robert Frost said poetry gives “not necessarily a great clarification … but a momentary stay against confusion.” Storytelling is, at its core, the very same thing. The writer takes the chaos of what he sees, and does his best to weave a unified story that is somehow reflective of that experience. And it’s not necessarily his message or theme that is his offering of what is beautiful. The story itself is the offering. The story is the prayer.
So, if stories can be prayers, the danger here would be to think that it’s only safe to read books by people who believe exactly as we do. But with our roots planted deep in the truth of Christ, even the darkest, most secular-seeming work of fiction can refine, highlight and remind us of our own beliefs. (But wait, I’m not saying you should go pick up 50 Shades of Gray to remind you of what you believe. Please, please, no.) In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says fiction “helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest to us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.”
I’ve never put down a novel and said, “Phew, I can now confidently say this author is a Christian.” I have, however, found myself deeply affected by a sense of God’s immense beauty in made-up stories. I’ve been floored by the truth of grace in the redemption of made-up people.
Listening with full attention and commitment to another person’s story is perhaps the first step in learning to love them. And when we give our imaginations over to the stories of imaginary characters, especially ones who are seemingly unlike anyone we would ever dream of meeting in real life, we engage in a similar process. Though it may sound bizarre, engaging with fictional characters on a deep emotional level can be a sort of thought experiment in empathy, where we briefly step outside of our self-constructed glass boxes and engage with people who are both vastly different and the same on an intimate level.
Obviously, I’m not saying if you stay in your room all day and commune with imaginary characters then you will achieve the virtue of empathy. I’m saying we shouldn’t overlook the power of stories, both real and imagined, to move us, break down our walls and send us out wanting to love more.
Because the more novels and short stories I read, and the more times I feel an unspeakable connection to imaginary characters and their stories, the more convinced I become that every story is, in some mysterious way, my very own. So, why wouldn’t I listen?
If you’re like me, you know your own story like you know the streets of your hometown. I think it’s about time that we get lost in another city.