I have been reading Christian fiction for some 35 years or so, and for the most part have loved it. It has ministered to me in many ways. I always wince a bit when I hear someone “slam” it. Especially when they say “All Christian fiction is…” whatever it is they don’t like about it. My snarky(and probably fleshly) inward response is “You haven’t read all of it.” 🙂
I’m probably not going to convince anyone who is dead set against it, and that’s fine. We can still be friends. 🙂 But I wanted to share why I find it valuable, and to do that, it seems to me I need to start with reasons to read anything in the first place, and then reasons to read fiction, and then Christian fiction.
God chose to communicate to us through words. He created the world by speaking. His Son is called “the Word.” The Bible contains a number of different genres (poetry, history, letters, narrative, forensics).
To gain information
To learn – about other people’s experiences, other points of view, any of the many things we don’t know yet or know as much as there is to know
To understand how things work
To understand how others feel and develop empathy.
To gain perspective
To gain wisdom
To broaden horizons. There are places you’ll likely never go, experiences you’ll likely never have, except by reading about them. On the other hand, something you read may spark an interest in a new venture.
To understand your own culture better
To understand other cultures
To strengthen your views
To know you are not alone in your views.
To test your own beliefs against others
To understand others’ views
To improve reasoning skills
To find others who express thoughts you’ve had but couldn’t quite put into words
To improve concentration and focus
To improve vocabulary and communication skills
To be amused
To be challenged
To profitably pass time
To be surprised
To stave off boredom
To be inspired
To become a more well-rounded person
To become more creative
To immerse oneself in a subject. Randy Alcorn wrote at the end of Courageous that they wanted to write a full book after the movie partly so that people could spend 10 hours in a book thinking over the topics involved rather than just 2 hours of a film.
For enjoyment and pleasure
To understand cultural references so that when someone quotes Dickens or Frost or Shakespeare you have some idea who they’re talking about. If someone mentions “Two roads diverged….,” knowing the poem and its subject enriches your understanding of what the person is referring to.
To have a point of contact with one’s fellow man or woman. A friend’s son was planning to go into a vocational job working with his hands and struggled with literature classes. She felt that her son’s time and mental powers would be better employed just reading and studying the Bible. But even the apostle Paul quoted poets and took time to understand other people’s culture as a way of understanding them as a people and having a point of reference from which to share the gospel (Titus 1:11-13, Acts 17:21-23).
To inspire “noble action.”
“All literature, all philosophy, all history, all abounds with incentives to noble action which would be buried in black darkness were the light of the written word not flashed upon them.” – Cicero, Pro Archia
“I believe stories can broaden our empathy, helping us to love. They tell us we’re not alone. But they can also give us something to live up to, whetting our appetite for virtues we don’t yet have.” James D. Witmer, Stories That Lead By Example
To think. I found it interesting that a daughter of a friend teaching English and American culture in a Communist country said that parents there did not read books to their children for pleasure.
“Books are weapons in the war of ideas.” – U.S. Government Printing Office, Office of War Information, S. Broder (artist) 1942 World War II Poster. In totalitarian societies, books that disagree with national policy are banned.
“The books that help you most are those which make you think the most. The hardest way of learning is that of easy reading; but a great book that comes from a great thinker is a ship of thought, deep freighted with truth and beauty.” Theodore Parker (1810 – 1860) (seen at Carrie’s)
To glean from the minds of great thinkers.
“The reading of all good books is indeed like a conversation with the noblest men of past centuries who were the authors of them, nay a carefully studied conversation, in which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.” Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) (seen at Carrie’s).
To comprehend right and wrong
“The great fairy tales and fantasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong, or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds.” Vigen Guroian, Tending the Heart of Virtue
To gain power. Thanks to Janet for this one. She shared that
“In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass writes that his owner forbade his wife to teach a slave to read on the grounds that it would ‘forever unfit him to be a slave.’ ‘I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man,’ writes Douglass. ‘It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom… I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.’”
Why Read Fiction?
You may agree with all the reasons listed so far for reading, but you want to read what’s “real” and have no room for fiction in your life. Here are some things to think about regarding reading fiction. I believe all of the above reasons apply to fiction as well as non-fiction, but here are some that apply primarily to fiction:
God employed fiction in the Bible (Nathan to David, parables in the NT, story of the bramble in the OT, plus many others). We have to be careful not to fictionalize or label as myth what the Bible indicates as fact – as someone once said of Bible interpretation, “Where common sense makes good sense don’t seek any other sense.” Some people want to categorize much of the Old Testament as myth, and that is going way too far for too many reasons to go into here. But God does make use of stories.
God created imagination and stories employ it.
A story might provide conviction and instruction when we see ourselves in the story (Nathan to David in the story about a lamb, Aesop’s fables). A lecture or direct confrontation is not always the best approach. In It Takes a Pirate to Raise a Child by Daniel B. Coupland, he tells of a time when he was trying to get across to his young son why the way he was acting towards his sisters was wrong. The son did not comprehend or agree with what his father was saying until he said, “You’re acting like Edmund” in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. Then he “got it” and not only realized where he was wrong, but “The reference to Edmund hit my son in a very deep place in his heart, which only stories can reach.”
Fiction fleshes out truth. Sometimes during a sermon I am following along and understanding but find myself wondering what that truth looks like in real life. A story or illustration helps us know how to apply truth or helps us understand the truth better.
Fiction appeals to our minds. Somehow most of us are wired to tune in to a story. I read one preacher who lamented that his listeners got drowsy while he exposited Scripture but perked up when he told a story. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are unspiritual and shallow. I have often fought sleepiness during a message I really wanted to hear but then found myself wide awake when the preacher began to tell a story. That’s not to say preachers should tell more stories than preach the Bible – we do need to discipline ourselves to hear sound doctrine. But it is not always due to laziness that are minds are attracted to stories.
Here are what greater minds than mine have said about fiction:
“The appeal of stories is universal, and all of us are incessant storytellers during the course of a typical day.” Justin Taylor, How Stories Work
“Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuctu.” ~Mario Vargas Llosa, Seen at Semicolon
“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. As by the one, health is preserved, strengthened and invigorated; by the other, virtue (which is the health of the mind) is kept alive, cherished and confirmed. But as exercise becomes tedious and painful when we make use of it only as the means of health, so reading is apt to grow uneasy and burdensome, when we apply ourselves to it only for our improvement in virtue. For this reason, the virtue which we gather from a fable, or an allegory, is like the health we get by hunting; as we are engaged in an agreeable pursuit that draws us on with pleasure, and makes us insensible of the fatigues that accompany it.” -Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, The Tatler No. 147
“Stories give children the opportunity to think about morals, lessons, and conflict resolution. With practice, children begin to search for the moral at the end of the story, and some will even structure their own stories around a specific message. Children who listen and tell many stories begin to recognize trends in human behavior. Their perspectives expand, and they become more critical, observant thinkers. They begin to consider in broader terms what it means to be helpful, mean, practical, hopeful, spiteful or considerate. Creating characters – which teaches that multiple perspectives exist at every moment – gives children invaluable tool for understanding others and for finding their way in the world.” (page 13) Show Me a Story: 40 Craft Projects and Activities to Spark Children’s Storytelling, HT to Carrie.
“Some Christians view fiction as the opposite of truth. But sometimes it opens eyes to the truth more effectively than nonfiction.” – Randy Alcorn, seen here.
“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 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” ― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
“Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” – G.K. Chesterton
“It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back into our daily lives unsettled and discontent. I do not find that it does so….Story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous [speaking here of The Wind in the Willows] sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual” –C. S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, p. 14
Since it is so likely [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. – C. S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, p. 39
“The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the ‘veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book [LOTR] applies the treatment not only to bread and apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.” – – C. S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, p. 90
Why Read Christian Fiction?
In addition to all of the above reasons for reading, which I believe can be applied to Christian fiction as well, here are some reasons particular to Christian fiction:
The missing element. Even the best of secular stories tends to leave God out of the picture and have the characters acting on their own initiative. Christian fiction shows how a Christian might act in dependence on God in some of these scenarios.
To see how Christians act in everyday life. I’ve mentioned here before that my mother was not, as far as I know, a Christian as I was growing up. In her later years she had some questions and concerns about it, but she did not want to discuss it. It was too sensitive, too personal for her to open up about it. I began sending her some of the Christian fiction I was reading. Not only did she enjoy the stories (Terri Blackstock and Dee Henderson were a couple of her favorites), but it helped her to see what Christianity in action looked like (we lived 1,000 miles away, so though we talked and wrote, we didn’t have that everyday life contact back when there was no texting or Facebook to keep in touch every day).
To display the gospel. I don’t think every Christian story has to include the plan of salvation or show a conversion, but if the gospel affects every aspect of our lives, that would be displayed in the stories in some way. I went into this further in an earlier post titled The Gospel and Christian Fiction. To repeat one thought from that post, while not every Christian story needs to explain the whole gospel, what it does share needs to be accurate. Because some have accused Christian fiction of being too “preachy” (more on that later), the pendulum has swung the other way lately, and some authors have tried to make their message a little more subtle. That can be fine: some stories would call for the book’s message to be a little more explicit, some call for more subtlety. But in some cases subtlety has generated obscurity or even misleading statements. I would not have sent those kinds to my mom so as not to confuse her, though a mature Christian might benefit from them.
To learn spiritual truth.
To be helped in your own life by another’s example. Just one instance of this in my life: for several years of our married life, my husband had to travel quite a bit, and I was often discouraged about it. During one of those periods I was reading Janette Oke’s A Quiet Strength, and the young wife in the story was experiencing something similar with her husband having to be away much of the time to work. Even though our ages, life situations, time in history, and number of years married was different, I was still encouraged by what she found that encouraged herself.
It’s clean – or should be. There is a growing trend to use bad language or sexual scenes to be more “realistic,” but I think explicitness in either vein is detrimental. I wrote about these elements in The Language of Christians and Sexuality in Christian Fiction, so I won’t reproduce those thoughts here.
Charges against Christian fiction:
Here are some complaints about Christian fiction that I have heard or read:
“It is predictable.” The person who is not a Christian becomes one or the problem a Christian has is solved or the lesson learned. But isn’t there a measure of predictability in every genre? Usually the guy and the girl get together in a romance, the detective figures out the mystery and “whodunnit,” the good guys win in the Western, the doctor helps save the patient, etc. (unless it is a series, and then a few lost cases are thrown in for realism). We expect a certain ending with most of the books we read, and the fun is in seeing how it is done and what unexpected twists and turns arise on the journey.
“It’s too preachy” or it is more of a sermon in the guise of a story. I’ve only found that occasionally. Of course authors, Christian or secular, usually do have some kind of truth they are trying to convey, but usually they try not to be blatant about it. Sometimes they are accused of being blatant when they are not: in C. S. Lewis’s book On Stories, he quotes Dorothy L. Sayers as saying, about the assumption that she wrote to “do good”: “My object was to tell that story to the best of my ability, within the medium at my disposal — in short, to make as good a work of art as I could. For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not good and true in any other respect” (p. 93). An author’s worldview is going to seep out into his story in some way. Lewis said that the Narnia stories were not intended as an allegory. They started with a couple of pictures in his mind, one of a faun, and some “supposings,” and developed from there.
I mentioned earlier that Christian fiction will show the everyday activity of Christians, so obviously there will possibly be prayer, reading and discussing Biblical truths, going to church, etc., in the story. But those elements should be woven in as naturally as possible and not just tossed in to label a character as Christian. One of the best at this is Jan Karon in her Mitford books, which are not even marketed as Christian fiction but convey a definite element of faith.
“The characters are too perfect.” I have rarely found this to be the case in the Christian fiction I have read. Most writers strive to make their characters realistically flawed.
“It’s poorly written.” I have only a handful of times found a Christian fiction book that I thought was truly terrible. There are some Christian novels that are mediocre, but, again, that could be said of any genre. I have found plenty of Christian fiction that has kept me glued to the page, instructed or inspired me, and some that had me looking up at the ceiling thinking, “I wish I could write like that.”
“As soon as someone becomes a Christian in the book, all of their problems are solved and they live happily ever after.” Again, I have rarely found that to be the case in the Christian fiction I have read, especially in recent years.
I think some of these charges might have been more true of some of the earliest Christian fiction, but most authors I have read over the last 25+ years have striven to make their characters and plots and realistic as possible.
If someone truly feels convicted that they should not read Christian fiction, of course one shouldn’t violate conscience. I have mentioned missionary Isobel Kuhn many times. For a time she came to a place of laying aside fiction because one time, after finishing a very exciting novel, she tried to read her Bible and couldn’t engage with what she was reading. She felt the Lord was telling her that trying to read the Bible after a novel was like trying to eat dinner after ice cream. She felt the fiction was stunting her taste for the Bible (I don’t know what kind of fiction it was). To that I would say, as parents the world over have, don’t eat your dessert before your main course. 🙂 Make sure to put Bible reading before any other reading. Probably that same kind of thing would happen if trying to read the Bible just after an exciting ball game or social gathering or play: it takes a bit of time to “change gears.” But I wouldn’t argue with someone who felt this way: sometimes God does call us to put aside things that aren’t harmful in themselves in order to give first place to the best things. Later on when Isobel’s husband became a superintendent for their mission and had to travel frequently, and she was left alone in lonely mountain villages for long periods of time, she did come back to the classics for moments of respite and company. She felt like she was visiting with old friends, and because she was familiar with them, she didn’t have the temptation to neglect duties to stay glued to the book to see what happened.
I am not saying Christians should only read Christian books – not at all. One good post I’ve seen on that subject is Three Reasons to Diversify Your Reading.
I am also not endorsing all Christian fiction. Just as I wince when someone says they think it is all bad, I would also wince to hear someone say it is all good. We need to use discernment in everything we read. I have found some Christian fiction that I did feel was either poorly written or was off-base in something it said, but those have been the minority.
Conventional blogging wisdom would suggest that I divide this up into several posts – but personally I like having it all in one place even though it makes for too long a post. I hope you don’t mind. I also have a few more quotes I was going to share about books and reading, but I think I will save those for another time.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about reading fiction and Christian fiction.
“Every great story tells in some part The Great Story. Each truth revealed helps us make sense of our world. And through each tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale, the Truth is woven through the fabric of our being.” – Julie Silander, Threads