Why Read Fiction? A Perspective

So, what's this lady in a boat got to do with anything?

When was the last time you read a book for fun? For education? For spiritual enlightenment?

When was the last time it was all the same book?

If you’ve been studying here under the Hogwarts Professor, I’m guessing that might be pretty recently. But I think for many readers—including myself, in fact—the association between basking in a good story, didactic reception of knowledge, and the spiritual apotheosis of great art isn’t immediate or easy. It’s an old trope but it’s a true trope: we of the West have learned how to compartmentalise.*

The problem with implicit assumptions about the world, of course, is that they’re implicit. It takes a lot of self-scrutiny and a willingness to succumb to an outside critique from art and truth to expose them.

So what do you do when you’re too busy to read those sorts of books, watch those sorts of films, visit those sorts of galleries? What do you do when you’ve been trained to operate within rigid compartments and methods of scrutiny that ignore the silent power of Story? What do you do when you’re supposed to be the one with all the answers?

Mike Duran of deCOMPOSE, author of The Resurrection (Realms/Strang, 2011), asks similar questions in a recent blog post: ‘5 Reasons Why Your Pastor Should Read Fiction.’

Duran is an adroit, down-to-earth writer and a sharp thinker, and I recommend his blog to anyone interested in how writing—and a writing career—can and should interface with Christian faith and practice. And, as a former evangelical pastor himself, in this post he confronts times when they don’t: when working clergy implicitly (and explicitly) put Faith and Teaching in a compartment marked ‘Urgent,’ and Art and Stories in a compartment marked ‘Irrelevant.’

Duran writes:

There are probably lots of reasons why pastors don’t read fiction. When one enters the ministry, a whole host of demands start pressing. Suddenly, time management becomes an issue, as does doctrinal integrity, church government, and the care and feeding of troubled souls. Reading fairy tales, frankly, seems irrelevant to someone dealing with such heady issues as the Atonement, Salvation by Grace, and such practical issues as resolving marital conflict. Compound this with the fact that we tend to see fiction as make-believe. And being that pastors traffic in Truth, it cuts against the grain of their fundamental mission.

Either way, pastors often develop a utilitarian view of life, one in which art and imagination become tertiary, non-essential, expendable, if not altogether perilous. [emphasis in original]

Duran’s own stories about how, as a busy working pastor, he rediscovered Narnia and the wonders of the Perilous Realm makes for fascinating reading. As someone with a degree in pastoral studies (for my sins), I found myself treading familiar territory.

There is, as Duran suggests, a Dumbledoresque utilitarianism that prevails among much of the clergy.** Whatever is not directly related to the success of the Cause—growing the church numerically and spiritually, helping people with practical problems, explaining theology, and so on—isn’t important. Certainly it isn’t important enough to merit profound, serious contemplation. And, at a cultural glance, it’s hard to see exactly how Little Red Riding Hood can help you offer sound premarital counselling, or how Blyton-like stories about a boy wizard can help you understand the walk of faith.

This is a problem. Myself, I was spiritually starved in the middle of seminary, and started coming to life again when I started reading again. By letting the stories interrogate me and my assumptions—and the assumptions of the system of which I was a part—I was able to revalue myself, see my flawed utilitarianism, and realise that, in fact, yellow shirts with blue parrots on and six-shooters can be instruments of grace.

In that spirit, Duran offers his five reasons why pastors should read fiction. I summarise briefly:

  1. Reading good fiction heightens your awareness to the power of language. As tradesmen in the market of words, pastors need that awareness.
  2. Reading fiction stokes the imagination.” This, too, is profoundly needful. “If anyone should explore and articulate the wonder and mystery and sublimity of creation,” Duran says, “it should be believers.”
  3. Stories speak louder than fact. Jesus himself, as Duran observes, taught primarily in story. “It’s one thing to be told God is gracious and merciful. It’s another to watch the prodigal leave his home, blow his money, and come limping back, only to see his father running towards him, arms outstretched, with plans for a big party.”
  4. Reading fiction connects you with popular culture. And if you’re trying to minister to people who live in popular culture—which is everyone—you need this. Badly.
  5. Reading fiction can break the monotony of ministry and save you from burnout and disaster. Mike Duran doesn’t know me except for the stray comment I’ve left on his site, but he might have written this after pondering my testimony. Believe me—it’s true.

These are, of course, five reasons among many. And they have a rather pragmatic bent to them. But that makes sense if, as Duran is, you’re addressing a pragmatic audience. Taking it a step further, I want to extend the discussion not just to the clergy but to all readers of faith. I suggest that the sixth and primary reason we should read fiction is that Story is real. Story is true.

By submitting ourselves to the experience and vision of story, we allow ourselves to be wounded and to be healed, to despair and to hope, to have “the courage to stand up and die in order to be able to utter a word or a poem.” Story, like all art, opens our mind and imaginations to the beautiful—which is to say, the true. And if we believe anything about God, we believe that he is true.

It says something that the bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures are stories of varying sorts. It says something that Jesus taught most frequently in story and imagery, in narrative and word-pictures. It says something that the so many great spiritual traditions find the roots of their teaching in stories—even strange and esoteric stories. Think, for instance, of the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, or the stories of the Chasidim. It says that stories are important—vitally so.

Little Red Riding Hood, by the way, is a story about sexual and societal initiation, discovering the self and the perils of gender relationships. Perhaps weirdly apropos for someone trying to understand the strange, beautiful, and terrifying thing called marriage. And that story about the boy wizard is nothing less than an alchemical journey of spiritual transformation. Just thought you’d like to know.

(And if that interests you, you should read the book…)

So, read Duran’s article and tell us–what do you think? Why do you read fiction? What are some of the other reasons pastors and readers of faith should read fiction? Do we need more stories in the pulpit? If you are or were a member of the clergy, what’s your take on this? What stories have you found helpful? Questions, comments, corrections, and elaborations are—as always—welcome.


*Heck, we’ve even compartmentalised the world into East and West.

** I’m referring here to Protestant, and particularly evangelical, traditions, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of similar situations in the other traditions as well.

Comments

  1. Why “Dumbledoresque”? He placed a pretty high value on the tales of Beedle the Bard, as I recall.

    Loved Duran’s article. I’d add (because I’ve had to edit a lot of it) that fiction that in any way resembles a typical sermon illustration doesn’t count.

  2. I wouldn’t say that anybody should read fiction specifically – there is also poetry, and drama and there is prose of ideas – the point is perhaps that The Good consists of (at least!) The Beautiful as well as the True and The Virtuous.

    The Beautiful cannot be neglected without gross distortion.

    As a further pragmatic point, Fr Seraphim Rose (a Christian Orthodox monk) recommended fiction as a way of ‘warming the heart’, which may be a necessary preliminary to developing Christian love:

    http://josephpatterson.wordpress.com/2007/08/27/the-emotional-development-of-the-soul/

  3. Eric beat me to this… I was going to say that whatever the utilitarianism (or was it the underlying desire to save as many lives as possible?) that drove Dumbledore to make some ethically unsound choices, it doesn’t seem to have extended to a dichotomy between truth and art. It was Dumbledore, after all, who contrasted Voldemort’s cold selfishness with “house-elves and children’s tales, love, loyalty, and innocence…”

    Okay, got that over with. Now onto the good stuff. 🙂 There’s so much to think about in this piece! Favorite line: “So, what’s this lady in a boat got to do with anything?” The answer is everything. It reminds me of the end of Dante’s Purgatory, where Dante is greeted on the outskirts of Paradise by apparently irrelevant beauty. As Anthony Esolen points out:

    “If usefulness forgoes the parading of beauty for its own sake, or play that is other than preparatory for wars foreign and domestic, or praise poured out from a grateful heart, then a beautiful woman singing while she picks flowers in a meadow is as useless a creature as can be conceived. Interesting that she should be the first being we meet in Earthly Paradise.”

    I haven’t been evangelical in a while, and can’t answer for what the priests I know all read, but Fr. Qui-Thac has made a point of encouraging me in my writing. And he knows I write fiction.

    Loved Duran’s point about the stoking of imagination and the need for believers to “explore and articulate the wonder and mystery and sublimity of creation.” I agree, and I believe that when done well, faith breathes a life into all that exploring and articulating and wondering. It certainly touches Harry Potter and Narnia and Lord of the Rings (and Austen’s novels, and Card’s, and it’s the thing I love most about Twilight, and and and…)

    P.S. You keep talking about Little Red Riding Hood, and it keeps getting that Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs song stuck in my head. I suppose that’s fitting. 😛

  4. Fr. Seraphim (Rose)’s article on “forming the soul”.

    “Tending the Heart of Virtue – How Classic Stories Awaken A Child’s Moral Imagination“, by Vigen Guroian

    More later!

  5. Actually, my first encounter with the spiritual through literature happened when I was a young teenager. After a childhood of inadequate religious education, mainly memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, I was living close to the Jewish public library. This was in the 60’s and well before Elie Wiesel , or Isaac Bashevis Singer were well known. I read every piece of Jewish fiction in that library, some books they let me take out at that time were from the previous century.
    The books were heavy with looking for the divine in the mundane.
    This was my intro, very far away from C.S. Lewis.
    I have nothing but the greatest respect for those books

  6. Carrie-Ann Biondi says:

    Since I didn’t know the name of the lovely–indeed, enchanting–painting at the top of this piece, I had to look it up. For those who didn’t know either, it’s “My Soul Is an Enchanted Boat,” painted by Walter Crane, and inspired by a poem by Percy Shelley called “Asia: From Prometheus Unbound”:

    “My soul is an enchanted boat,
    Which, like a sleeping swan, doth float
    Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing;
    And thine doth like an angel sit
    Beside a helm conducting it,
    Whilst all the winds with melody are ringing.
    It seems to float ever, for ever,
    Upon that many-winding river,
    Between mountains, woods, abysses,
    A paradise of wildernesses!
    Till, like one in slumber bound,
    Borne to the ocean, I float down, around,
    Into a sea profound, of ever-spreading sound:

    Meanwhile thy spirit lifts its pinions
    In music’s most serene dominions;
    Catching the winds that fan that happy heaven.
    And we sail on, away, afar,
    Without a course, without a star,
    But, by the instinct of sweet music driven;
    Till through Elysian garden islets
    By thee, most beautiful of pilots,
    Where never mortal pinnace glided,
    The boat of my desire is guided:
    Realms where the air we breathe is love,
    Which in the winds and on the waves doth move,
    Harmonizing this earth with what we feel above.

    We have past Age’s icy caves,
    And Manhood’s dark and tossing waves,
    And Youth’s smooth ocean, smiling to betray:
    Beyond the glassy gulfs we flee
    Of shadow-peopled Infancy,
    Through Death and Birth, to a diviner day;
    A paradise of vaulted bowers,
    Lit by downward-gazing flowers,
    And watery paths that wind between
    Wildernesses calm and green,
    Peopled by shapes too bright to see,
    And rest, having beheld; somewhat like thee;
    Which walk upon the sea, and chant melodiously!”

  7. I’ve linked both this article and Duran’s on my Facebook page.

    Circa 1994, members of my church were abuzz with reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and my pastor and his wife named their fourth daughter Evangeline–Eva for short. I didn’t read the book myself, but I understood this as their way to start understanding and confronting racism in our society.

    I recently appropriated someone’s real-life story–an incident–without their permission (I won’t give the details here). Reading this article, I realize I did so because the incident pointed to a typical dilemma about wanting to please someone else versus wanting to do what’s right for you.

    Unfortunately, much of the church has been taught to be afraid of the arts unless the work of art is specifically “Christian”, and unfortunately, much of what passes for Christian or Christian-approved art is strangled by right-leaning political correctness, blandness, too little risk, too much “safety”, and, I suspect, a WASPy cultural sentiment to which many non-WASPs cannot relate.

    As an artist, I struggle to just let loose and say what I need to say. I feel the censure of both the Christian world and the secular world, as if neither “side” really wants to hear me.

  8. Check-out the wisdom of Peter Kreeft on this topic:

    http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/12-ways.htm

    Way 5 ‘Art also reveals God’ is suggested as one of twelve complementary ways to know God:

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