Why I Read Fiction

Action, adventure, mystery, romance--stories encompass all of the journeys through life. Jeremy Taylor explains his penchant for fiction in this post for OneWord Journal.

Occasionally I am asked to submit a “summer reading list” (or “winter reading list” or whatever—pick your season) so that interested church members can see my literary interests and perhaps even mimic them. Whenever this happens, I’m generally chagrined and a tad embarrassed to note that my reading list is predominantly fiction. Whereas our august church leaders are reading classical theological works by church fathers or lengthy and important treatises on doctrine by contemporary preachers and theologians, I am reading books by John Grisham and Stephen King. Is there something wrong with me?

Is reading fiction something Christians ought to be embarrassed about? I don’t think so.

In fact, I would argue that reading fiction is not only acceptable, it’s beneficial. Now, if you’re reading Fifty Shades of Gray or other trashy novels filled with explicit sex or gratuitous violence and foul language, that’s arguably a different matter. After all, we are exhorted in Scripture to be careful what we think about (Proverbs 4:23), what we dwell on (Philippians 4:8) and what we see (Matthew 6:22-23). All three commands certainly apply to the material we choose to read. But there’s a lot of room between being careful and refusing to read anything other than the Bible.

It’s true that fiction should be approached with caution. For every great book that communicates—or at least is informed by—the truth of the gospel, there are many others that glorify evil. You can lose yourself in a good book, and it’s not healthy for believers to be immersed in material that is vulgar or that entices us to sin. That doesn’t necessarily mean we should only read “Christian fiction.” One of the most complete and compelling gospel presentations I’ve ever read was in a Tom Clancy book. And even purely secular stories contain elements of universal human experience that illuminate man’s search for the divine.

With that in mind, here are five reasons I read fiction.

1. I love stories. I read fiction because I love stories—just like pretty much every other person throughout history. For as long as humans have been able to talk, we’ve been telling each other stories. Storytelling has been part of every culture that has ever existed. From rich oral traditions, to crude drawings scratched on cave walls, to elaborate pictographs etched on Egyptian papyri, to hand-inscribed scrolls, to hardcover books and mass-market paperbacks and audiobooks and e-books, stories have always been a part of our humanity.

2. Stories and literature are part of our Christian heritage. Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites maintained careful oral and written accounts of their rich history. The psalmists and prophets used lush imagery in describing who God is and what his plans are for his people. And of course Jesus used stories—parables—to communicate important truths about the Kingdom of Heaven. The parables he told about the Kingdom of God contain characters, plot, conflict, action, mystery, redemption . . . the same elements that make up a good novel today. Through the ages, stories have remained a crucial element in the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel. Medieval writers like Dante Alighieri penned epic works of poetry, truths about the Christian life and man’s eternal destination. During the renaissance, authors like John Milton and John Bunyan took up the torch. In the 1800s, George MacDonald worked weighty theological issues into his children’s books, influencing other writers like C. S. Lewis and Hannah Hurnard, who came along a century later. More recently, authors like Frank Peretti, Jerry Jenkins, and Ted Dekker have penned international bestsellers with Christian themes, proving that there are millions of people from all walks of life who are willing and eager to read about ultimate truth in the form of a good story.

3. Fiction communicates truth. Fiction doesn’t just entertain—it communicates truth. We read fiction because it can teach us things about ourselves and the world we live in. Why do you think Jesus was a storyteller? Because stories are a terrific vehicle for getting truth across to people. Humans are naturally story-oriented beings. I think six of the most anticipatory words in the English language are: “Let me tell you a story.” That’s what Jesus did. And that’s what fiction writers do.

4. Fiction conveys experiences. I read fiction because through stories I can experience things I’ve never done, go places I’ve never seen, meet amazing people who are either dead or never existed. When you read a good book, you become immersed in it. Fiction allows the reader to experience the world in a way that facts could never match. It’s one thing to read about something. When you read nonfiction, you get lots of facts. But you don’t experience things the way you do when you read a story about that same thing. You can read a hundred nonfiction books about war, but when you read a book like The Things They Carried (by Tim O’Brien) or Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes), you experience the sights and sounds and fears. It’s one thing to read about a concentration camp. But read The Auschwitz Escape (by Joel Rosenberg), and you’ll be there. And fiction helps us understand other people, too. When you read, you develop a bond with the characters whose experiences you’re sharing. You can empathize in a new way because you've lived through someone else’s struggles. A recent study indicates that kids who read a lot have more empathy than kids who don’t. This is science! Not only that, but reading and discussing a novel with a non-Christian friend can be a gateway to discussing deeper issues.

5. Fiction speaks to the heart. Not only can fiction allow you to experience the subject matter in a personal way, it can also make you feel things deeply. Do you remember crying when you read Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows in elementary school? Or being filled with pride and exhilaration when Peter defeated Fenris Ulf in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Fiction opens a window to a place deep inside you where emotions live and breathe and where you can find new insights about yourself. That’s a place where God can speak to you.