This is part of a series. You can also read “In Defense of Christian Romance,” “In Defense of Christian Fantasy,” and “In Defense of Christian Horror.”
At my apartment, I have two bookshelves. One is open for all to see, and the other closes up like a cabinet. It took me awhile to strategize for best shelf placement. Should my favorite books be on display for all to see? Or should it be like a treasure hunt, where a reader has to seek out the best behind the door? Finally I compromised with a little of both. My favorite series are in the open bookcase, while all other books – favorite and otherwise – are behind the closed doors.
One day a friend was over and an idea struck her. “Where are your books?” she asked, though the bookshelves were right in front of her.
“Right here,” I responded, pointing to the shelves.
Of course she only saw the books on the open shelf, and said, “No, your real books.”
I opened the other bookcase, and she found a great nonfiction book she was looking for.
I know what she meant. I really do. But that exchange sticks with me still. Perhaps because I’ve received that reaction many a time in various forms.
Upon hearing I have a B.A. in English Lit, multiple people have gone to talking Plato or Freud. In Christian circles I can get a similar response, only with wanting to discuss great literary sermons past and present, Christian Living books, or maybe C.S. Lewis. When they then ask what book I would recommend to them, I say that I tend towards a different genre they probably wouldn’t enjoy. What I want to say is, “Read some real literature already!” Okay, so you get my point; I’m a little toward the opposite end of things.
It just comes across sometimes as if nonfiction readers must be more spiritual than fiction readers. I want to take some time to expose that as a lie, if to no one else, than to my own heart.
Disclaimer: This post is in no way meant to discredit nonfiction. Nonfiction reading is a very excellent pastime, equal to fiction. Nonfiction can train, equip, offer new perspectives, and reveal unseen and abstract realities.
1. God uses story (fiction and otherwise)
A wide approximation is that about half the Bible is story. I can’t remember whose sermon I heard that mentioned that God could’ve written the Bible with a list of to-do’s, spiritual principles, theology, and proverbs. Instead, He included that and put a whole bunch of history and stories in there as well.
People who read Ephesians can be just as spiritual as people reading Esther, because it’s all the Bible. In fact, most Christians would agree that it’s important to read every part of the Bible, not just focus on a certain portion. If that’s the case, I wonder why Christian Living books can be viewed as more important than Christian Fiction books. Knowing that God wants us to learn of His character through story, it seems that story is valid reading material.
2. Jesus uses fiction
Jesus went from place to place for His ministry teaching sermons. About as much, He was actually telling fictional stories (parables.) Allegory, fables, metaphors, that sort of thing. Obviously Jesus is not opposed to fiction.
Why didn’t Jesus just say “God seeks those who abandon Him, not the other way around,” instead of telling the story of the Prodigal Son? Clearly story is important.
3. Left-Brain & Right-Brain Reading
Sermons, Christian Living Books, and the like engage the left-side intellectual side of our brain. Stories engage the right-side relational, emotional side of the brain. I think this gives a lot of insight into the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Some people are more dominantly left-brained, others right-brained, which may be one reason certain people prefer one type of book over another. There’s nothing wrong with that. But notice that it’s important to move material from one side of the brain to the other.
Left-brained, nonfiction material needs to be applied to everyday life scenarios.
Right-brained, fiction material needs to be delved into intellectually in order to understand what the story means for our life.
It takes both sides. Both are important, no matter which side you begin with.
4. Going to Church is Like Well-Rounded Reading
I have a friend who struggles listening to sermons. She wants to. She tries to. She scribbles notes every time to force herself to listen. But it doesn’t change that it’s difficult. And that’s okay, because she’s still engaging with God and learning from His Word – on her own time and at church, through sermons and through the other half of the service – worship. You see, she’s more right-brained, and music takes theology to the relational, emotional, right-brain side.
It doesn’t matter which type of reading you enjoy most, it just matters that you are gleaning from the material. Whether nonfiction or fiction is your primary reading, it can be good to jump into the other on occasion. Either way though, try to move what you’re reading to the other side of your brain in some way, too. What is the story saying thematically? What’s an example of living this message out in your life? Think outside your typical box.
5. Redeeming the Imagination
Some people can be very concerned about the imagination, thinking it’s evil. More usually though, using imagination is dismissed as childish, unnecessary, or futile – it’s not bad, it’s just not quality use of your time.
Imagination is amoral, though, just like emotions. It can be used for good or for bad. Jesus used His imagination to teach His messages in ways His audience could relate (parables.) God used His imagination to create the world. Psalm 139:16 – God imagined each of us before He created us.
The church should be fighting for the imagination. The imagination can and is used for evil, but we can redeem imagination by using it for God’s glory. We can use our imagination to create or to relate to others, and that’s good.
6. The Complexities of Biblical Fiction
This is one of the latest fads in Christian Fiction. Retelling a story from the Bible as it might have happened. Using our imagination to think about the possibilities. Sure, some and probably most of it is not actuality. But seeing the possibilities makes it a little more relatable, applicable, understandable. Seeing it in a new way. More right-brain-y type stuff. If someone were to write these stories claiming divine inspiration I’d have a problem, but writing it as fiction goes back to getting deeper understanding of the general scenario.
One qualification to that: it’s important to distinguish truth from fiction.
Remember those Bible trivia games in Sunday School? Racing through the Bible for the verse with an answer to whatever question was asked. One question asked during this game is “how many wisemen were there?” Well tradition is three, but the Bible does not explicitly say. Or “What fruit did Adam and Eve eat?” Tradition is an apple, but the Bible doesn’t state which fruit (I’d personally take a guess that we aren’t still eating the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil today.) One time the question was if the Drummer Boy came with the shepherds or wisemen – that’s a trick question because there is no actual Drummer Boy in the Bible.
It’s great to have these stories and traditions, as long as we know it’s fictional. When we start claiming it as Scriptural truth, there can be danger there. (There probably won’t be an issue with thinking there’s really 3 wisemen, but believing that Noah fought against God to preserve the human race could ruin your theology.) Know your Bible, so you can know what’s fiction. Biblical Fiction should not be a replacement for Biblical Truth.
7. The Subliminal Messaging is in All of It
“As a writer, you have to be careful to portray the law of sowing and reaping correctly.” A friend’s comment (not directed at me) long before I decided to write. But it stuck with me, and she’s right. Along with all of the other physical and spiritual laws – there are a lot! Some (probably many) I would admit that I am not even aware of.
I once was thinking of the millennial reign, and how probably a lot of the wonderful literature I loved would not be a part of it because of immoral or unbiblical elements. I then determined that I could write literary Christian novels, so that there were be a start of a library for Literature Studies programs in the millennial reign. Ignoring that we’re probably differing in end times theology, how ‘bout the fact that I didn’t realize that maybe there would be something I’m missing in my books that God might need to at least tweak before considering it up to, ya know, His perfect standard. Because I’m not perfect and all-knowing and all-understanding yet.
There’s this idea amongst at least some Christians that we have to be careful that when we read fiction, we’re aware of what exactly the story is implying. Whether author intended it or not, their beliefs are coming through, and chances are something’s not quite right.
And yet, that’s the case with every single book you read – fiction or nonfiction – besides the Bible. Everyone, even the greatest Bible scholars, have their own beliefs that God is still purifying or correcting and changing to His likeness. None of us have the perfect book to be entered into the hypothetical Millenial Literary Canon. Yet. We’ll work that out when we come to it, whether God keeps the great but flawed stuff since we’re aware of the lies, or whether He just starts it all new – doesn’t matter, it’ll be good. For now, we just have the slightly or greatly flawed, and should be aware as much as possible of everything we read.
8. It’s All in the Reader
If you’ve been reading these posts, you’ve probably noticed a common theme. A lot of the benefit, or detriment, is not in the reading material but in the reader. Readers should be noticing what represents truth, what represents life as God designed it, what lies the book is implying or downright stating, and what can be gleaned from each story.
We need to be like the Bereans (“searching the Scriptures daily”), not just with sermons, but in our reading, too. Whether reading nonfiction, fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, or some other book, the reader needs to be recognizing what they’re reading and how they’re being persuaded to believe and live a certain way from that reading.
What do you think? Have I forgotten anything in this series? Do you disagree with me in some place? Let me know in the comments below.