Mary E. DeMuth is an expert in Pioneer Parenting. She enables Christian parents to navigate our changing culture when their families left no good faith examples to follow. Her parenting books include Authentic Parenting in a Postmodern Culture (Harvest House, 2007), Building the Christian Family You Never Had (WaterBrook, 2006), and Ordinary Mom, Extraordinary God (Harvest House, 2005). Mary also inspires people to face their trials through her real-to-life novels, Watching the Tree Limbs (nominated for a Christy Award) and Wishing on Dandelions (NavPress, 2006). Mary has spoken at Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, the ACFW Conference, the Colorado Christian Writers Conference, and at various churches and church planting ministries. Mary and her husband, Patrick, reside in Texas with their three children. They recently returned from breaking new spiritual ground in Southern France, and planting a church.
Why Should Christ-Followers Read Fiction?
“Copyright 2009 Prison
Fellowship Ministries, reprinted with permission.
Two years before I penned my first novel, a Breakpoint transcript dated May 23, 2000, transformed my life. In it, Chuck Colson discussed the power of fiction to change culture. He chronicled the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, how a simple story did more to abolish slavery than any didactic treatise. He writes, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a reminder that one of the reasons we read fiction is because fiction helps train the moral imagination.” Reading those words refueled my desire to write the kind of stories that shape the reader’s imagination.
But not everyone sees fiction in such a worthy light. As a novelist, I’ve heard many objections to indulging in fiction. Consider these four:
Reading novels is a waste of precious time. We should be building the kingdom instead.
While we should seek to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this broken world, we should not neglect that the Christian life is not always praxis, or the physical working out of our theology. It is also internal. What flows to a thirsty world comes from what is inside our hearts. And our hearts are typically instructed through story, not bullet points. I’ve never experienced healing or salvation from a list. But people telling their stories and reading others’ stories in literature stay with me, move through my heart, and open an unexpected door for Jesus to heal me. Taking time away from the rush-rush of the world to read a story may just be the best thing I can do for the kingdom today.
Stories are untruth. Why would we want to read lies?
I love how author Ron Benrey1 addresses this objection. He writes, “Some Christians say that fiction is a lie, that Christians should only read the truth. Actually, the opposite of fiction is fact, not truth. Good fiction conveys truth even though it’s not factual. That’s why Jesus told stories so often.”
Truth, housed in the four walls of a story, cements itself to us, nails us when we least expect it. And we remember the shape of that truth years after the telling.
We are a culture addicted to entertainment—isn’t reading a novel succumbing to that addiction?
Anything we do can turn into addictive behavior if we become obsessed with it. But consider the difference between gaming (highly addictive), movie and TV watching (a passive experience), and reading a book (engages the mind without the usual tendency toward addiction). Editor Mick Silva of WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group writes, “Television and movies offer a passive experience. Books require engagement—the reader must actively create the story in their own head as a participant in it, emotionally, and consciously.” Simply put, reading a novel engages the imagination as it entertains.
Reading fiction is a form of voyeurism, preventing us from participating in real-life community.
It’s true that reading novels is like spying on folks—though it is a literary or imaginative form of voyeurism. And if we bury ourselves away from the world, only nosing our way through books, our engagement in genuine face-to-face community will suffer. However, fiction serves as a vehicle to thrust us into community. Novelist Meredith Efken writes, “Fiction gives us common ground and something thought-provoking to talk about. It builds relationships when we share what we’re reading with other people.”
After I read Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, the first thing I did after wiping away a few tears was tell my friends about the book. We shared that book together, and its story defined our own stories together. This is the beauty of the book club, after all. Reading something stunning and interacting with others about it.
Despite these objections, it is true that many today do value novels. And that novel sales continue to increase confirms this. Beyond experiencing escapist entertainment or appreciating an underlying message, what are some compelling reasons for Christ-followers to delve into a novel? Here are three of ten ways. We’ll look at the other seven next month:
1. Our view of the world beyond our door widens.
I’ve better understood (and wept over) genocide after reading stories. My prayers have deepened for those experiencing human trafficking. Why? Because a novel took me to places my visa wouldn’t take me; novels widened my American-centric view of the world.
I love how memoirist Jeanne Damoff, author of Parting the Waters, satirizes this point. “Christians should definitely not read fiction. They risk opening their minds to vain imaginations and puffing themselves up with knowledge. Who knows what they might be emboldened to do? Engage their atheistic neighbors in conversation? Take a stand against social injustice? Travel to heathen countries and mingle with uncivilized people groups—savages like, say, the Irish? The world is a broken place, and we can’t risk the possibility of story painting pictures that open the eyes of Christians to its pain. Think what might happen if we do!”
2. We learn empathy as we walk in a character’s different-sized shoes.
In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, I understood more about autism through Christopher’s eyes than if I had simply watched a documentary about the condition. Fiction plunges us into people. I am Scout in wide-eyed wonder outside a lone jail cell. I am Much Afraid scaling craggy heights. I am Anne with green hair. And in that being, I understand.
Jesus knew this. It’s why He used stories to engage folks—and impart truth. Multipublished author Terri Blackstock puts it beautifully. “Jesus used story to teach His principles because He knew that if you stepped into the skin of a character and felt what they experienced, you’d remember that principle. Instead of preaching that God is always there, waiting to give us a second chance, Jesus said, ‘There was once a man who had two sons.’ Instantly, His listeners were in the story, in the skin of that poor father who was scanning the horizon, watching for his prodigal to return. I guarantee you, they never forgot it. When they thought of God’s love for them, they remembered the father who ran to his son and kissed his neck.”
3. God uses stories to heal.
I received the following correspondence from someone who read my novel Watching the Tree Limbs: “As I met Mara, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking in a mirror. I relived all of the emotions of having been through much of what Mara experienced. But I also lived through so much of her—my—healing. That’s how I view this novel: God’s hand reaching down and touching a broken, shaken child. Somehow I’m a little less frightened of taking that Hand now.” Ironically, in the act of writing that book, God chose to heal me of some deep wounds too. His healing then poured out into another’s life.
When I read The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr., I did not know I’d experience a radical bout of healing. Pertelote, a young hen, mistook a good rooster, Chauntecleer, for Cockatrice, the poultry-world’s Hitler. She recoiled in the good rooster’s presence. Later when he gently asked why, she replied, “Chauntecleer, what I thought I saw in you was not there. What I saw I should not have seen. My seeing was not true: The thing was not there, nor could it ever be there in you. I know that. My imagination made me afraid.”2 In reading those words, I understood Petelote because when I saw God, His goodness was masked by the pain of the past. This opened the door for healing.
the author of The
Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction. You can purchase