How do you view fiction? Simply as mindless amusement? A waste of time better spent studying Scripture or reading edifying nonfiction? Or do you appreciate excellent fiction for the ways it generates delight and proclaims truth?
The biblical Preacher “sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (Eccles. 12:10, ESV). Through the ages, literature’s twofold purpose has been viewed as delight and truth.
Readers and writers may revel in novels with beautiful language and complex characters, which engage and entertain far more than shallow or poorly written books. Fiction can be a legitimate leisure pursuit, particularly when novels reflect the Truth.
Fiction entertains. After a busy day, many people love to sink into an easy chair and pick up a novel. Imaginative stories refresh weary minds and spirits. God established a creation pattern of work followed by rest, and his image-bearers may delight in his good gifts of literature and leisure.
Leland Ryken writes, “A person with a Christian worldview has a reason to value enjoyment and the enlightened use of leisure time in ways that the human race at large does not. Christians are the last people in the world who should feel guilty about the enjoyment of literature” (The Christian Imagination, p. 149).
As Bible believers and image-bearers, Christians should be discerning readers who enjoy fiction’s many pleasures: expanding personal horizons, promoting authentic empathy, continuing civilization’s conversation, and revealing biblical truth.
Christians should primarily read God’s Word. And the more carefully we read Scripture, the more we see our freedom to read imaginative stories.
In Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination, Brian Godawa writes: “Roughly 30 percent of the Bible is rational propositional truth and laws, while 70 percent of the Bible is story, vision, symbol and narrative—that is, image” (p. 53).
The Bible extensively uses creative devices to convey truth. Prophets told imaginary narratives, including Nathan’s story convicting David of his sin (2 Sam. 12). Jesus taught truth through fiction: A man scatters seed or buys a pearl or discovers buried treasure. A father loves the libertine as well as the legalistic son. A sheep wanders off, and a coin rolls out of sight. “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it” (Mark 4:33, ESV).
Godawa writes, “As we enter into the stories and see ourselves in them, we see truth in a way that mere logical or doctrinal discourse simply cannot evoke” (Word Pictures, p. 70).
Christians should study God’s Word and read secondary literature (see Andrew Compton’s compelling arguments in this issue) as well as other fine works of nonfiction. But Scripture shows that we may also embrace quality fiction.
Created in God’s image, people have intrinsic dignity and creativity. They can read, speak, reason, love, and worship. They imagine and make, crafting quilts or sculptures, cakes or paintings, blog posts or fiction.
When we exercise creativity, we dimly reflect the Creator. In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers draws analogies between the Trinity and the threefold nature of human creativity. About reading, she writes: “For the reader . . . the book itself is presented as a threefold being. First: The Book as Thought—the Idea of the book existing in the writer’s mind. . . . Secondly: the Book as Written—the Energy or Word incarnate, the express image of the Idea. . . . Thirdly: the Book as Read—the Power of its effect upon and in the responsive mind” (pp. 113–15).
The author images the Creator in crafting a fictional work, but the reader reflects God’s triune nature in assimilating a book’s idea, energy, and power. Both writing and reading implement imagination and creativity.
God created a marvelous cosmos, teeming with amazing features and incredible creatures. He crowned creation with us as his image-bearers. Why shy from artistic expressions of creativity?
A discerning reader views every novel through a robust Christian worldview that includes biblical knowledge and artistic appreciation.
Like the Bereans, discerning readers compare what they read with what Scripture teaches. This doesn’t mean constantly and consciously assessing every sentence. But biblical knowledge must govern the thought process in determining whether or not a book is good. Does it portray humanity as essentially good or essentially sinful and in need of redemption? How does it reflect God’s truth or the devil’s lies?
A discerning reader may read dark fiction depicting the biblical reality of broken people living in a fallen world. Genuinely realistic fiction, however, must be pierced by glimmers of redemption’s light. (Pornographic or gratuitously violent material should be avoided, despite possible claims of redeeming value.)
The discerning person does not read only safe or banal fiction that never causes uncomfortable feelings or engages the brain. Such novels fail to acknowledge life’s pain or beauty. Reading only novels that generate warm, fuzzy feelings is like eating only cotton candy.
Christians may read a range of styles, according to personal limits and taste, as long as we determine fiction’s value on biblical principles. But there’s more to being discerning than simply knowing sound doctrine. God’s artistry shines in His Word and His world, and we should learn to recognize and appreciate artistic expression.
Scripture repeatedly shows God’s love for beauty and excellence. Artisans skillfully wrought valuable textiles into priestly garments, glinting with gold and colorful gems, which God designed “for glory and for beauty” (Exod. 28:40, ESV, emphasis added).
God’s creation testifies to His love for splendor and intricacy. From the glowing red of a lunar eclipse to the elaborate mechanism of a tiny cell, we see how much our Creator enjoys astounding beauty and complex design.
Well-written fiction demonstrates artistic and literary excellence. In an engaging narrative, believable characters progress through conflict to resolution. Vivid imagery and figurative language add beauty and meaning while propelling the plot.
Discerning Christians read through the dual lens of biblical truth and literary excellence.
Some Christians advocate realism that embraces disturbing images and words. Others promote work that is overtly evangelistic but aesthetically poor. Still others believe art should be judged by aesthetic standards within biblical parameters. Fiction can be realistic without being vulgar, evangelistic without being didactic, and beautiful without being esoteric.
Bret Lott explains fiction differences this way to his college students:
I tell them that literary fiction is fiction that examines the character of the people involved in the story, and that popular fiction is driven by plot. Whereas popular fiction, I tell them, is meant primarily as a means of escape, one way or another, from this present life, a kind of book equivalent of comfort food, literary fiction confronts us with who we are and makes us look deeply at the human condition. (Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, on Being a Christian, p. 14)
Excellent fiction goes beyond page-turning action and predictable plots to a skillfully constructed narrative about complex characters. As it engages the mind and emotions with beautiful language and meaningful story, the reader enjoys multiple pleasures.
Through fiction, our self-contained existences transcend geographic, ethnic, and time barriers. We experience the underbelly of Victorian London with Pip, whose Great Expectations end up inverting his perspective as much as a convict on a desolate marsh once inverted his small body. We travel by spaceship to Perelandra with Ransom, who slogs through an interminable fight with evil. Though settings and struggles of characters may be far removed from personal experience, we share common fears and hopes.
Why explore fictional places and feelings? C. S. Lewis answers in An Experiment in Criticism:
What then is the good of—what is even the defence for—occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist . . . ? The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. . . . We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own. (p. 137)
Reading literary fiction expands our horizons and enriches our lives. We discover shared emotions that touch our heartstrings, reverberating humanity’s common chords.
Christians should be known for their compassion. Sadly, we are often judgmental, insular, and unloving. Excellent fiction cracks our self-absorbed shells and pours empathy into our souls. Fictional struggles of realistic characters cultivate more understanding for real people.
Julianne Chiaet described a study supporting this in an online Scientific American article entitled “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Subjects who read literary fiction displayed an increased ability “to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions” over those who read genre or popular fiction.
With Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, we grow in our understanding of black victims and social outcasts. Through reading Island of the World by Michael O’Brien, we share Josip’s trauma—due to horrific destruction of his Balkan village and dehumanizing torture in a Communist concentration camp—and rejoice in his redemption and healing through faith.
Reading about unfamiliar struggles increases our compassion for others. It may even help us better understand the sin within ourselves.
When we read fiction, particularly classics, we participate in civilization’s ongoing conversation. In The Two Towers, Sam Gamgee speaks about the “the old songs and tales . . . that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind” (p. 321). Classic stories multiply experiential knowledge and share timeless meaning.
No individual can conceive or encounter everything in one lifetime, but through fiction we learn from many lives. Gene Edward Veith Jr. writes, “When ideas and experiences can be written down, they are, in effect, stored permanently. People are no longer bound by their own limited insights and experiences, but they can draw on those of other people as well. Instead of continually starting over again, people can build upon what others have discovered and have written down” (Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, p. 19).
Christians can benefit from classics that distill the accumulated wisdom and beauty of the ages in an accessible form.
Truth in fiction reflects God’s truth. Postmodernists and literary deconstructionists deny this axiom, but it reflects a Christian worldview espoused by theologians through the centuries.
Augustine urged every “true Christian” to “understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master” (On Christian Doctrine, II.18). John Calvin wrote: “All truth is from God” (Commentary on Titus 1:12). Herman Bavinck proclaimed God as “truth in its absolute fullness . . . the original truth, the source of all truth, the truth in all truth” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p. 209).
The Canterbury Tales, told by fictitious pilgrims of dubious character, convict readers of their own hypocrisy. Macbeth depicts the power of evil warring within a heart. Rev. John Ames, dying in his hometown of Gilead, awakens our souls to life’s piercing beauty.
Fiction—classic or contemporary—advocates the author’s view of what is true. Christians must consider the “truth” being communicated in light of the One who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
When reading fiction, we should aim for an appropriate balance. We need neither reject it as a waste of time nor immerse ourselves in poorly written work.
Leland Ryken writes, “Christians should neither undervalue nor overvalue literature. Literature is not exempt from artistic, moral, and intellectual criticism. Yet its gifts to the human race are immeasurable: artistic enrichment, pleasurable pastime, self-understanding, clarification of human experience, and, in its highest reaches, the expression of truth and beauty that can become worship of God” (The Christian Imagination, p. 32).
Christians may embrace the delight and truth of excellent fiction. While we enjoy its beauty and other pleasures, we participate in an ongoing conversation that increases our understanding of ourselves and others. We may even discover that fiction brings us closer to God.
Glenda Faye Mathes writes across genres for all generations. Her fiction and nonfiction convey timeless truths about literary excellence. She and her husband, David, live on a wooded acreage in Iowa and teach catechism to fourth-grade students at Covenant Reformed Church (URC) in Pella. She regularly blogs at her website: glendafayemathes.com