In Defense of Fiction
Christian Love for Great Literature
ABSTRACT: With so many valuable nonfiction books available to Christians, many wonder if reading fiction is worth the time. Others view fiction as a form of escapism, a flight from reality and the world of responsibility. But rightly understood, reading fiction clarifies rather than obscures reality. The subject of literature is life, and the best writers offer a portrait of human experience that awakens us to the real world. Fiction tells the truth in ways nonfiction never could, even as it delights our aesthetic sensibilities in the process. Reading fiction may be a form of recreation, but it is the kind that expands the soul and prepares us to reenter reality.
My goal for this essay is to awaken my readers to a resolve to taste the benefits that await them if they will devote a modest amount of time to reading fiction. For some, this will mean reversing a process of having unthinkingly slipped into neglect of something they once enjoyed or that they know would be good for them.
For others, the neglect of reading fiction is more principial, based on settled reservations about the worth of it. These reservations have been part of the Christian tradition since the early days of the Christian church. For example: Isn’t reading fiction a form of escapism that takes us away from the real world of human responsibilities? Shouldn’t we limit our reading to religious writing that informs and exhorts us? And if we choose to read fiction, shouldn’t we limit our reading to explicitly Christian fiction?
These are time-honored and important concerns. I will speak to them as space allows, and beyond that I will suggest further readings on these subjects. Before I do this, though, I need to begin by defining the terms and scope of what I will cover in this essay.
Definition and Challenge
The label fiction denotes something that is imagined or made up rather than something that has literally and factually happened. That by itself does not yield a methodology for reading and absorbing a work of fiction, so we need to add that when we speak of fiction, we really mean a narrative or story, so the analytic tools we need to apply are the narrative ones of plot, setting, and character.
Fiction is a very large realm, existing on a continuum with realism on one end and fantasy on the other. Most stories fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum, being a mixture of what is lifelike and unlifelike. My discussion is designed to extend equally to realistic novels and fantasy works. Of course, not all fiction is equally worthy of our time. The defense of reading fiction that I am about to mount should be understood as covering fiction of acknowledged worth.
“God deserves a higher level of stewardship from us than mere diversion to avoid boredom.”
To anticipate where this article will end, I want to extend a challenge to my readers. I will, indeed, give my own defense of reading fiction, but equally important is the defense that anyone can produce based on his own reading of fiction. I therefore end by asking my readers to undertake a two-week experiment in which they commit to reading a fictional work of acknowledged greatness. At the end of the experiment, readers can take stock of what has happened to them as a result of their reading. I believe that the conclusions they reach will resemble what I am about to present by way of a formal defense of reading fiction.
Evenings with Ivan Ilych
I will take the lead by reconstructing a recent reading experience of my own. The work of fiction that baptized my imagination (to borrow a formula from C.S. Lewis) was Leo Tolstoy’s novelette The Death of Ivan Ilych, which I first read as a college freshman. (For documentation of quotations and further information about topics covered in this article, see the notes at the end.) This work opened my eyes to the fact that a work of fiction can (a) be thoroughly Christian and (b) have a similar kind of impact on me to what the Bible does. Instead of saying more about the specific content of this classic story, I will simply describe the nature of my rereading of it, and after that I will use my brief personal narrative as a reference point for the specific points I will develop as I make the case for why Christians should read fiction.
When I decided to reread The Death of Ivan Ilych, I spread the reading out over a week (though if I had chosen a longer work, such as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, I would have allotted a month). My chosen time for reading was the evening. With book in hand, I found an easy chair and assumed a relaxed posture. Each time I began to read, my attention was riveted on the book and the events narrated in it. I entered a world of the imagination set apart from the responsibilities and worries of everyday life. But paradoxically, as I thus removed myself from the actual world around me, I was fully aware that the world I had entered in my imagination was like the world in which I lived. Further, despite the seriousness of the issues portrayed in Tolstoy’s story, I relished the style, craftsmanship, and verbal beauty of the performance, in an awareness that this fell into the category of recreation and entertainment. I was also aware that this enjoyment was at the same time edifying.
Everything that I will say now in defense of reading fiction is present in kernel form in the reading experience I have just recounted.
Reading Fiction as a Form of Recreation
The overall umbrella under which I will defend the reading of fiction will surprise some of my readers. It is that of enlightened leisure. As I have written about work and leisure over the course of nearly half a century, a leading theme has been that leisure is just as much a Christian calling as work is. God expects and commands it. I do not have space to prove that, so I will just assume it as a premise (and I again refer readers to the notes at the end of this article). Practically speaking, nearly everyone has some free time for recreation, and anyone who does not needs to make an immediate adjustment. If we dignify the concept of leisure as it deserves, we will want to raise the bar high in regard to the quality of our leisure activities. I am fond of the statement of a Christian leisure theorist that leisure is meant to be a growing time for the human spirit.
At this point we need to make a distinction between high-quality leisure experiences, and mere time filling and diversion from boredom. Watching the usual fare on the moving screen or smartphone is mainly a way of passing the time, not a growing time for our human spirit. I do not intend to disparage all light diversions, but their limitation is that they leave us with nothing permanent to carry away from the time we have allotted to them. Better options exist, and God deserves a higher level of stewardship from us than mere diversion to avoid boredom. Most of the fiction that I read becomes a permanent possession — something that at the very least I remember but more likely revisit, in part if not in whole.
Let me return to my reading of The Death of Ivan Ilych and extract the relevant strands from it. The first gift that my reading conferred on me was that of transport. The moment I began to read, I was whisked away to an imagined world. I experience this transport with a sense of exhilaration and in an awareness of the momentousness of what I have committed myself to when I take my book in hand. Everyone needs beneficial escapes from burdensome reality; our psychic health depends on it. C.S. Lewis was very much of the same opinion, and he observed that a natural feeling when we read fiction is the sense that “I have got out” — out of the confining world of monotonous routine and limited perspective. Lewis also claimed that readers usually do not realize how much they owe to their reading until they enter into conversation with a nonreader, and then they are startled to observe what a tiny world many nonreaders inhabit.
The transport that reading fiction provides confirms that it fits the category of leisure, because an essential component of leisure is that it is a break from work and duty. If we trace the word leisure back to its origins, we find that it includes the idea of “to halt or cease,” as well as being related to our word for school, with overtones of being educational and broadening.
Fiction as a Journey into Reality
I have defended reading as an escape, but of course much depends on what we escape to in our excursions into fictional realms. So, to what do we find ourselves transported when we read a work of fiction? We find ourselves transported to a world of human experience. The subject of literature is not ideas but human experience — experience presented so concretely that we vicariously live it in our imagination. In a study guide that I wrote on The Death of Ivan Ilych, I called the work a mirror of modern life. The story is as up-to-date as the daily news and the advertisements that accompany it. People who never see the point of fiction are likely the ones who fail to grasp that the subject of literature is life.
Good fiction writers are careful observers of human experience, and additionally they are gifted at expressing what they observe. Fiction writer Flannery O’Connor famously said that writers should never be ashamed of staring, by which she meant staring at life. As readers of fiction, we are lured into a similar act of observing human experience. And as we stare at the human experiences that are held before us, we come to see them more clearly. Fiction provides knowledge in the form of right seeing. Truthfulness to life is the domain of literature. Unfortunately, this is a category of truth that is not on most people’s radar screen. Truth is more than ideational, but our whole cultural situation, and our Christian subculture preeminently, tends to limit truth to the realm of ideas.
I want to relate what I have said thus far to the minister’s life. Ministers love theological discourse. They also immerse themselves, quite rightly, in Bible commentaries and other forms of biblical scholarship. In many churches, the typical sermon is heavily ideational and rooted in the world of the pastor’s study. A certain artificial quality, removed from the actual life of the person in the pew, tends to permeate the sermon. Unless something intervenes, preachers and Sunday school teachers can produce sermons and lessons that transport us to a world of theological abstraction and Bible commentaries and “shop talk” of biblical scholars. Reading fiction can be a form of intervention.
I do not mean to imply that the problem of being enclosed within a world of personal experience and frame of reference is unique to preachers. All of us face the same situation of limited perspective and range of experience. Accordingly, we all need to be liberated from the confines of our personal world. As a teacher, I need to work just as hard as anyone else to move beyond my personal and professional world. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “We demand windows. Literature . . . is a series of windows, even of doors.”
“Rightly considered, reading fiction is not a flight from reality but a flight to it.”
Reading fiction thus presents us with an unexpected paradox. It begins by removing us from actual reality. For people who do not value the reading of fiction, this escape quickly telescopes into a charge of escapism. Rightly considered, though, reading fiction is not a flight from reality but a flight to it. It is a truism that everyday life tends to obscure what is really before us. Even truth becomes a cliché to which we pay scant attention.
The fictional imagination presents human experience to us in heightened and clarified form. It makes us take note, just as a still life painting of a bowl of fruit awakens us from our normal inattentiveness. Heightened awareness of human experience is one of the greatest gifts that reading fiction stands ready to give us. I have long thought that this may be part of what is encompassed in the biblical command to sing a new song (Psalm 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; 149:1) — to create a new metaphor, a new fiction, a new portrayal of human experience, a new poetic reflection on a Christian doctrine.
Literature as a whole is the human race’s testimony to its own experience. It is also a leading means by which the human race has grappled with reality and attempted to understand it. Devoting three hours a week to that testimony and that grappling is time well spent.
Reading Fiction as a Form of Holy Hedonism
Thus far I have explored the usefulness of reading fiction. This is the utilitarian defense of literature. But there is another equally important defense, which throughout my career I have labeled the hedonistic defense. As a context for this, let me take a brief excursion into the history of the subject. Writing twenty years before the birth of Christ, Roman author Horace bequeathed a formula for the twofold purpose of literature that has stood the test of time. Horace’s terms utile et dulci — “useful and sweet” — have most often been perpetuated by the words wisdom and delight (though other synonyms also have been common). Literature is edifying and enjoyable. The particular kind of edification that fiction offers is what I have covered above: it puts us in touch with bedrock human experience so we see it clearly.
The pleasures of fiction are multiple. Losing oneself in a book offers the pleasures of transport, self-forgetfulness, and self-transcendence (getting beyond ourselves). Fiction is also an art form, offering the pleasures of verbal beauty and narrative craftsmanship. Stories offer the narrative pleasures of plot construction, characterization, and delineation of settings.
More important than an anatomy of the types of pleasure that fiction reading can give us is the principle of the thing. We need to embrace what the Puritans called “the goods” of life — the earthly pleasures that God gives to his children and to the human race generally (James 1:17; 1 Timothy 4:4–5; 6:17). Enjoyment is just as strong a reason to take time to read fiction as is the edification that it imparts. The capacity and desire for this particular type of enjoyment comes quickly once we commit ourselves to making reading part of our life. After all, one of the most universal human impulses can be summed up in the four words “tell me a story.”
Having made the case for why Christians should read fiction, let me address the resistance that might have been collecting in some of my readers’ minds as this article has unfolded. An understandable objection is this: leisure should be relaxing, and I find reading difficult. I will begin by conceding that reading requires more mental effort than sitting in front of a television set and simply watching what passes before us. In past ages and generations, children had the taste for reading instilled in them at their parents’ initiative. Today most people need to acquire it at their own initiative, perhaps as adults.
The way to acquire a taste for reading is to read. To spur us in that direction, we should stop to consider what happens when we do not make reading part of our leisure life. When I find myself drifting into passive and mindless forms of recreation, an inner voice tells me, This is ignominious; you are made for something better. A routine of reading quickly restores my self-esteem.
It is a relatively recent development that people find reading to be a laborious chore, but a long-standing objection can be phrased this way: Shouldn’t Christians read only literature that espouses a Christian viewpoint? For anyone who believes this, I recommend dusting off Calvin’s Institutes, and specifically his remarks on common grace (see notes at the end of this article). Calvin is rapturous about how non-Christian writers can express the true, the good, and the beautiful, and when they do, says Calvin, they are following the prompts of the Holy Spirit. A specimen statement from Calvin is that when we find the good, the true, and the beautiful “in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts.”
Much of the greatest literature has been written by non-Christians, just as much of the greatest music and painting have been produced by them. Not to read what they have produced would be a missed opportunity of massive proportions.
“Reading fiction activates our minds and imaginations in a way that passive forms of entertainment do not.”
Let me propose a helpful way to think about this. The fiction writer’s task is threefold — to embody human experience for our contemplation, to offer an interpretation of the experiences that are presented, and to create beauty of form and skill of craftsmanship for our artistic pleasure and enrichment. It is a rare work of fiction that does not allow us to endorse it at one or more of these levels, even if the author’s interpretation of life is wrong. Virtually all of the fiction that we read can be assimilated in a devotional way, even when that is not an author’s intention.
To answer the objection that we should read only religious nonfiction would take more space than I have here, so I will offer only a summary statement: Nonfiction covers less of life than fiction does. It does not offer the quality of transport that I discussed earlier. And it does not speak to our aesthetic sense and longing for beauty in the way that literature and the other arts do.
Making Reading a Part of Life
My goal in writing this article has been to enlist Christians, including pastors and church leaders, to join the ranks of those who read fiction. The purpose of this concluding section is to offer practical steps for moving in the right direction. (Everything that I say briefly here is elaborated at length in my recent co-authored book titled Recovering the Lost Art of Reading.)
I hope first of all that I can awaken the conscience of those who have grown weary in well-doing in regard to the quality of their leisure life. Most people in our culture have never been avid readers, but even readers have been negatively affected by the electronic and digital revolution. It is time for a wake-up call in regard to the stewardship of our free time.
We need to begin at a theoretical level in regard to both leisure and fiction. Our theory of leisure needs to include a conviction that God wants us to take time for refreshment, and further that he holds us responsible for the quality of our leisure pursuits. We should aspire to be all that we can be in our free time, embracing the ideal that our leisure life can be a growing time for our human spirit. Perhaps we can call this step “beyond mere diversion.”
If we then ask what leisure pursuits attain this higher level, fiction reading emerges as a leading candidate, but only if we accept the literary theory (for that is what it is called in my profession) that I have presented in this article. We are likely to become readers only if we accept the premises that reading fiction can be a superior form of entertainment, and further that it is a way of clarifying our understanding of human experience and our zest for it. Reading fiction activates our minds and imaginations in a way that passive forms of entertainment do not, and the fact that it requires more effort than viewing a moving screen is a mark in its favor because it offers richer rewards.
If we have a correct theory of leisure and its stewardship, and an accurate understanding of how fiction works, we have positioned ourselves to spend some of our free time in reading fiction. At this point the key ingredient is commitment. We need to commit ourselves to setting aside time for reading. It need not be a major time commitment if our time is limited. The important thing is to erect a protective barrier against the inroads of our work and the anxieties of life.
This brings me to my challenge. I am asking you as a reader of this article to commit to a two-week experiment in reading fiction. Choose a novel or collection of short stories or Shakespearean play that you know you like or have reason to believe that you might like. Commit to a regimen of twenty to thirty minutes per day for five days each week. The chief impediment to reading is not lack of time but lack of commitment.
At the end of the experiment, engage in some introspection and take stock of what has happened as a result of your reading. The pointers I have given throughout this article can serve as prompts to your reflection. Four centuries ago, essayist Francis Bacon claimed that reading makes a full person; what are the dimensions of that fullness? And remember C.S. Lewis’s claim that we demand windows — windows out of our personal world into other people’s worlds. As a parting shot, may I build on the title of my latest book — Recovering the Lost Art of Reading — and say that nothing would please me more than for you to become a reader of the lost art?
Quotations from literary figures
The now-familiar formula of having one’s imagination baptized comes from C.S. Lewis, in reference to his purchasing a copy of George MacDonald’s Phantastes at a train station and reading it on a night train ride; Lewis recounts this in his autobiographical book Surprised by Joy (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1955), 171. All additional quotations from Lewis are taken from the concluding pages (138–140) of the only book of literary theory that he published, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965).
Flannery O’Connor famously said that “the writer should never be ashamed of staring” in Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962), 84. The twofold formula that literature combines what is useful and pleasurable appears in Horace’s treatise Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). Francis Bacon offered the verdict that reading makes a full person, conversation a ready person, and writing an exact person in his essay titled “Of Studies,” published in 1597 in his book Essays. My reader’s guide to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych is available online.
Leisure in Christian perspective
My fondness for the formula that leisure at its best can be a growing time for the human spirit is apparent; the statement comes from Robert Lee, Religion and Leisure in America (Nashville: Abingdon, 1964), 35. The whole passage deserves to be quoted: “Leisure is the growing time for the human spirit. Leisure provides the occasion for learning and freedom, for growth and expression, for rest and restoration, for rediscovering life in its entirety.”
Biblical data on leisure is just as extensive as biblical teaching on work, but as with common grace (see below), it is not proven so much with proof texts as with inferences drawn from biblical data. The Genesis account of creation gives us a picture of God at rest (cessation from the work of creation on the seventh day), leaving us a model to emulate, and this is reinforced by the fourth commandment of the Decalogue. Old Testament festivals and feasts required a complete break from ordinary work, and these festivals were social as well as spiritual in their nature. The life of Jesus shows that God intends us to call a halt to work and to refresh ourselves. Although I have written books on this subject, I commend a brief summary, published in the online journal Ordained Servant, titled “Leisure as a Christian Calling.”
Most of the available scholarship on common grace (the belief that God endows unbelievers as well as believers with a capacity for the true, the good, and the beautiful) has been written by scholars in the Reformed or Calvinistic tradition, starting with Calvin himself. One can adduce passages devoted to the topic from many places in Calvin’s writings, but the most succinct passage is chapter 2 of book 2 of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. An out-of-print guide to Calvin’s views of common grace is Herman Kuiper’s Calvin on Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Smitter Book Company, 1928). Other books with promising titles tend not to discuss the implications of common grace for literature and the arts; I therefore commend my essay “Calvinism and Literature,” in Calvin and Culture, ed. David W. Hall and Marvin Padgett (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010), 95–113.
If we inquire into the biblical basis for common grace, although the books on the subject are laden with biblical references, we need to acknowledge that the doctrine rests largely on inferences drawn from these scattered Bible passages. That does not make the doctrine invalid, but it means that proof texting is less conclusive than with most doctrines. For example, Philippians 4:8 enjoins us to think about whatever is true, honorable, lovely, and commendable. The verse says nothing to imply that the test of whether something meets these criteria depends on the author’s being a Christian. The test is empirical: we can see for ourselves that we can find the true, the good, and the beautiful in the literature, art, and music of the human race generally.
This does not mean that there is no direct proof from specific biblical verses. For example, in Titus 1:12–13 Paul quotes from memory and with approval a pagan author from Crete, adding his commendation, “This testimony is true.” Paul’s address to the Areopagus as recorded in Acts 17 is an important source on common grace and its companion doctrine of general or natural revelation. In support of his claim that God is “not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27), Paul quotes from two Greek poets, again showing that he regarded literature from non-Christian writers as capable of expressing truth.
In other spheres of life, we apply an empirical test for truth, goodness, and beauty. We trust accountants if their figures are accurate, and interior decorators if a room is beautiful. When Solomon needed craftsmen to beautify God’s temple, he concluded that “there is no one among us who knows how to cut timber like the Sidonians,” so he wrote to the pagan king Hiram, who sent his craftsmen to work on the temple (1 Kings 5:6, 18).