The Theological Importance of Reading Fiction

Several months ago, I wrote a post called “The Theological Importance of Imagination” in which I attempted to dispel that nasty Modernist rumor that imagination is childish at best and evil at worst. I discussed how imagination is childlike and as such, essential to faith, hope, and love.

Since imagination is so vital to Christianity, we ought to be keenly interested in developing our capacity for imagination and prayerfully disciplining our hearts and minds, for imagination can be employed viciously just as it can be employed lovingly. This, like most true Christian work, is countercultural.

I argue today, as you may guess from my title, that reading fiction is one of the best ways to cultivate our capacity to “envision that which is not,” as JK Rowling puts it, and reading good fiction is a way of disciplining ourselves in virtue.
This is not Anna Karenina.
(Fan-fiction is the funnest!)

The most common expression of a loving imagination is empathy, the ability to “think [our]selves into other people’s places.” Empathy always results from reading good stories. When we read good stories, we enter a reality through the perspective of an other: a narrator or character or multiple narrating characters. When we’re reading a fictional reality through first person narration, we’ve put ourselves, not merely in the shoes, more like in the skin of that other, walking around in that new skin for sometimes hundreds of pages.

I’ve never been to Russia in “real life.” But I’ve spent months there, in the 1870s no less, with Anna Karenina. And through the people I met in 19th-century Russia, I learned about human nature, love, forgiveness, and a tiny bit about early turn-of-the-Industrial-century farming too.

Fiction helps us empathize with individuals and people groups we don’t understand, whether because of long distances of time and space and/or large gaps between their ideology and ours. This is huge. What we don’t understand we fear. When we act out of fear, we fail to live by faith and act out of love. So fiction serves as a bridge to other people, but it also works to connect us to the Other, to God. We need imagination to envision the Kingdom of God, a world which Jesus said is here but not yet here. We need our God-given imaginations to pray, Father, make it on Earth as it is in heaven. Fiction helps us go there, helps us engage our imaginations by journeying us to otherworldly places like Narnia and Hogwarts and Middle Earth. When stories depict light and life and love, they are, whether we realize it or not, whether the author intended it or not, pointing us to the Source of light, life and love; to Light, Life and Love himself.

I have a difficult time imagining the world completely devoid of hope, but when I first read Heart of Darkness, my capacity for understanding and empathy expanded. Heart of Darkness is a stunningly crafted world that is horrendously bleak, desolate, and violent. It’s a world in which depravity has rejected grace. I have never experienced such a world in “real life,” but reading this story gave me compassion for those who have.

Even when novels and short stories show us the shadows, when we’re forced to face all that is dark and dead and ugly in the world (and in our hearts), this too points to Christ. Like the negative of a photograph shows us what should be fully there but isn’t, dark, “ugly” art shows us our fallen condition and points to the realities that begin to take shape when God is taken out of the picture, when sin has pushed him out of the framework of our lives.

Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite writers, puts it this way:

There would be a strong argument for saying that much of the most powerful preaching of our time is the preaching of the poets, playwrights, novelists because it is often they better than the rest of us who speak with awful honesty about the absence of God in the world, and about the storm of his absence, both without and within, which, because it is unendurable, unlivable, drives us to look to the eye of the storm [to God himself]. (Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale 44)

In short, reading good fiction… by which I don’t mean only 1000-page Russian novels and horribly dark high school required reading… reading good fiction is a remarkably fruitful form of spiritual discipline and spiritual formation.

October is National Book Month. We here at Thinking through Christianity, naturally, are celebrating. In the next few weeks we’ll be discussing our favorite books, so I thought I’d tee up the ball and introduce our upcoming series by talking about why we think good books are worth celebrating and discussing on a site about a faith tradition that sometimes eschews itself from fiction.

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