Why Read Fiction as a Christian?
By Alan Noble

Advocates of the humanities would answer the question in the title by pointing out the positive benefits of reading fiction: attentiveness to the text, broader understanding of the world, and increased vocabulary. While this is all true and worth saying, we can all agree that none of these benefits are as valuable as reading the Word of God itself. 

Put differently, since we are called to make “best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16), isn’t reading fiction a waste of time? We could put that time to use reading the Bible or sharing the gospel or caring for the poor or needy. 

Modern Christians aren’t the first to question the value of reading fiction in light of other priorities. C.S. Lewis dealt with a related question 70 years ago in a 1938 lecture called, “Learning in Wartime.” In that lecture, Lewis addressed young men in Britain who were struggling to see the value in pursuing an education when Europe was in an existential crisis. 

Today, we might similarly ask what the purpose of reading fiction is when the culture is in chaos. Lewis’ response was that the problem is actually much bigger than learning during a time of crisis. The real question is, why pursue an education when people haven’t heard the gospel and are going to hell? Shouldn’t evangelism be all that we do?

Lewis responds that humanity has always existed on the edge of a precipice, and yet humanity has always taken the time to build, create, and enjoy beautiful things. We might say that this is how God created us, to mimic Him in creating and delighting in creation. It’s simply part of our nature. In addition, Lewis notes that we will participate in culture whether we think it’s a good use of our time or not. 

We will read things other than the Bible and biblical commentaries. It’s only a question of whether we read good books or Twitter feeds. But we will read something. We ought to make the choice to read volumes that edify us rather than whatever the algorithm chooses to show us next.

Which brings us to the question of this article, why read fiction as a Christian?

The first and most important reason to read good fiction is that it is good for us to delight in beauty. As Paul admonishes us in Philippians 4:8, we are to think on things that are true and honorable and lovely and commendable. And good fiction is all those things. Reading a good work of fiction brings a sense of pleasure that honors God. For there is no true beauty in the world that is not a gift from God. As Reformed art historian Hans Rookmaaker titled one of his books, “art needs no justification.”

But it does bring tangible benefits to the Christian reader. For example, Christians ought to be people who read. Our Holy Scriptures have been passed down to us in written form, and to know God is to know his Word. Practically, Christians should be excellent readers. Reading fiction makes you a better reader, a more attentive reader. Every Christian should cultivate the ability to perform what literary scholars call “close reading,” the practice of carefully, word-by-word, image-by-image, theme-by-theme interpreting a text’s deep meaning. Novels allow us to practice this skill. 

Reading “The Great Gatsby” forces you to question the imagery of the green light across the bay, reading “Moby Dick” forces you to consider the nature of evil. Fiction pushes you to contemplate words, images, and ideas and their relationships in a way that directly prepares you to read the Bible well. 

The Word is a literary text, and our Savior read it as a literary text. When Christ said he would give them no sign but the sign of Jonah, he was interpreting the Old Testament story of Jonah as a symbol for his bodily death and resurrection after three days. The Bible is filled with examples like this of figurative readings. Simply put, carefully reading fiction prepares you to read the Bible. 

Fiction also reveals to us the hidden complexities and mysteries of God’s creation, even when that fiction comes from the mind of someone who denies the Creator God. All fiction tells the truth, to one extent or another. Great fiction tells a lot of truth. Poor fiction has very little truth in it. But inevitably all fiction tells the truth because the author exists in God’s creation. The author cannot imagine him or herself outside of God’s creation, even in works of science fiction or fantasy. They can distort creation and deny God, but they still live and move and have their being in God’s world. 

We know the apostle Paul was familiar with Greek poetry and saw value in it despite its pagan origins. In Acts 17:28, he quotes from Aratus’ poem when he told the Athenians, “For we are indeed his offspring.” Paul points out to the Athenians that their own poets stumbled into the truth even while claiming that God could not be known. The same is true with modern literature.

What this means is that even ardent atheists can write novels that tell us some truth about the human heart and our need for a savior. J.D. Salinger has taught me profound truths about the human heart, even as he denied the God of Christianity. Great fiction does this. It reveals mysteries that we might never have discovered if we stayed hidden in our own private stories. 

This is even true about “dark” or “depressing” fiction. People often think I’m strange to love novels that deal with tragedy or depression or hopelessness. But, if they are good stories, they actually give me a kind of pleasure, because in that hopelessness they often tell the truth about life without God. 

For example, I love to teach Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” a story which revolves around an attempted suicide, because Plath accurately conveys the sense of crushing hopelessness of modern life. Reading Plath allows me to better diagnose the problems of the contemporary world and empathize with my neighbors, both Christian and non-Christian. 

We read fiction as Christians to delight in beauty, to better read His Word, and to better understand His world. You are going to read something, so it might as well be something edifying instead of doom scrolling. And when you do so, you please God with your time.

Alan Noble (PhD, Baylor University) is associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He is the author of Disruptive Witness, You Are Not Your Own, and On Getting Out of Bed.

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