A People of Books: The Value of Reading Fiction as a Christian
It is often said that Christians are “people of the book.” The Bible—as God’s authoritative word—is a bedrock for the Christian faith.
While Christians may be people of the book, they have not always been people of books.
Many Christians have a dismissive attitude toward literary fiction, which is generally relegated to playing second fiddle to nonfiction books on Christian living, theology, and current events. The usefulness of fiction seems to begin and end with its entertainment value as a “beach read.”
The diminished importance Christians assign fiction is unfortunate, and I believe it stems from a misunderstanding of fiction’s role. Books are not just sources of information; they can be far more than that.
Nonfiction books are crucial as a whetstone for the mind, keeping Christians informed and cultivating critical-thinking skills. At the same time, God did not create humans as robots with computer brains. Healthy growth—both mental and spiritual—involves more than downloading intellectual knowledge into the crowded storage compartments of our minds.
At our core, we are emotional beings. We feel, desire, and love. We dream and despair; celebrate and lament. The Christian life is not about stuffing our brains with theological doctrine but about transforming our character to look more like Christ. We must reorient our entire being, not just our thoughts. It is not surprising, then, that when God revealed Himself through His Word, He did so with intellectual discourse and captivating stories. Both literary modes have immense value for the Christian life.
Perhaps one reason many Christians have little desire to read fiction is because they do not understand fiction’s role. In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis draws an important distinction between “using” and “receiving” literature. He asserts that “users” are people who “rush hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them.” They approach fiction like a miner digging for digestible didactic nuggets or anecdotes to utilize in their intellectual arguments or presentations. But an object’s value is inseparable from its designed function. A cello is a lousy shovel, and a garden rake contributes nothing in a symphony. By approaching fiction through the lens of nonfiction and asking it to provide what it is not designed to give (raw intellectual content or philosophical soundbites), we miss out on the real benefit of fiction—its ability to shape us.
In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior writes that the value of reading fiction is not that it “informs” but that it “forms.” Reducing literature to its ideological content strips it of its purpose. A SparksNotes summary can provide a novel’s intellectual or historical content, but the difference between reading a summary and reading the novel itself is as vast as the contrast between looking at sheet music and listening to a symphony.
Jesus repeatedly demonstrated this point with his parables. He did not add stories into his teaching simply to hook people into his teaching— the story was the teaching. The enduring impact of the Good Samaritan is not just the “Aesop’s Fable” didact moral teaching at the end to love your neighbor; rather, it is the imaginative experience of the story itself that shapes the listener’s character. By entering into the imaginative experience of the story, the audience comes to truly understand the command to love your neighbor.
This principle applies to all great literature. The strength of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is not just that it can be employed as a cautionary allegory about revenge and pride; its potency lies in experiencing Captain Ahab’s obsessive decent into egomania. The formative power of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is not the author’s “message” on the importance of balance but in experiencing this this lesson through the trials of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Reading The Lord of the Rings is edifying not because good triumphs over evil but because of the reader’s experience of that journey and how good overcomes evil.
People learn more by doing than by being told what to do. By providing a wide range of imaginative scenarios, great literature enables readers to learn through experience by stirring untapped emotions, showcasing the world from a different perspective, and filling in gaps in our real-life histories. Literature should not form the reader to the characters (or the author); it uses the characters to form the reader. As C. S. Lewis writes, “Reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.”
Literature offers Christians a window into the human heart and an opportunity to improve their character. Such a valuable resource should not be too quickly ignored.