I’ve heard pastors and longtime Christians argue against reading fiction since it’s “not true.” But great literature can be an avenue of profound blessing and an ally to teach us to anticipate the kingdom of God in all of life.
If we’re moved when we come across an ancient oak swaying beside a brook in a sunlit valley, we don’t immediately try to justify its existence. If we’re sensible, we don’t think, You know, this tree would be much better if it had a Bible verse carved into it. We let it be, and we praise God for it.
It’s like this with stories—they’re best enjoyed at their natural best. If you’ve lived beneath the sheltering shade of great tales, you can think of a thousand ways they’ve proved their importance and helped you to give thanks.
Here are five such ways.
1. Stories help us escape into reality.
My friend Heidi Johnston, author of Life in the Big Story, says the best, most faithful stories aren’t an escape from but into reality. God made the world. It is enchanted. There is magic in the wind. We only need to see it. Sometimes stories unlock the part of our hearts that refuses to acknowledge wonder. The best tales can open us to gratitude and enable us to see glory. They can awaken longing and help us find what’s real but hard to see. We are, as C. S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, in need of a powerful enchantment:
Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.
2. Stories shape our identity.
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre observes, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” Stories give shape to meaning. We begin to see who we might be in them. We’re shaped by the choices we make when we choose whom to root for. But more than rooting for someone, we become them. We see through their eyes. Lewis describes the feeling of reading and inhabiting characters:
In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.
Seeing through another’s eyes cultivates empathy. And the tales we inhabit shape our choices; and our choices, piled brick on brick, build our character. Even the finest instruction often fails to do what a story can to shape our lives. We are, after all, living a grand story. As Michael Horton points out, “The gospel is not just a series of facts to which we yield our assent, but a dramatic narrative that re-plots our identity.”
3. Imagination is a crucial capacity for faith.
What if I told you a Sky King was coming back to make all things new and set the world right? What if I told you the Son of God was going to defeat a dragon and save his beloved? What if I told you a feast was coming that would make all the bright joys of the past feel like the dimmest flickers of delight? Do you see it? Do you seek it?
We need muscles to lift heavier things as we grow—muscles of faith to see what’s true but not yet present. We’re commanded to seek first the kingdom of God, and we need faith to glimpse it. Imagination is seeing what’s not present. It’s not limited to lies. When I’m far from home, I imagine embracing my family. This is a real longing that’s always found fulfillment, by God’s grace. But with my imagination, I saw when it wasn’t yet “real.” Make-believe makes believers. Exercising the crucial capacity of imagination through faithful tales is a gift to children. But it’s not for them alone. You and I need it, too.
Make-believe makes believers. Exercising the crucial capacity of imagination through faithful tales is a gift to children.
4. Stories reinforce—or undermine—our allegiances and affections.
The imagination is a crucial capacity to form faith, but the imagination, like the intellect, will serve any master. This is why holy imagination is essential. N. D. Wilson, author of Outlaws of Time [interview], has described stories as “catechisms for our bones.” A good story doesn’t usually attempt to subvert the will of the reader by just barely disguising a moral lesson in a thin tale. The best stories call out beauty in the canyon of our hearts, and the echoes are truth and goodness. Stories get past what Lewis called “the watchful dragons” of our intellect.
Faithful stories form and strengthen our moral imagination.
5. Experiencing vicarious pain and conflict is a good primer for life.
“Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something,” the Dread Pirate Roberts says in The Princess Bride. We all know children will eventually experience the bony finger of grief scraping across their souls. They’ll feel inconsolable sadness, terrible loss, and will one day walk the valley of the shadow of death. And they will lose. What can prepare them for such pain?
What if, by imagination, they’ve already walked through the Dead Marshes of Mordor? What if they’ve seen with sadness the sun set forever on Narnia? Are they better armed against the pain they will face when cancer comes? When loss robs them? When grief invades the sanctuary of their souls?
Grief through stories inhabits us for only a few moments, but it promises to reap resilient rewards in the inevitable dark days ahead.
What the Best Stories Do
Darkness threatens. But I’m optimistic. I believe in the true new world. I believe we’ll see the King in glory reign. I believe we’ll see God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And I believe good stories have given me as much fuel for that fire as have the 10 best books of spiritual non-fiction. And make no mistake: I love theology. I love the Bible.
But few things have caused me to love God’s Word and its hero like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. That’s not because I’ve found more information about the big story of God’s victory in them, but because they’ve helped develop a deeper capacity to love the story and person of Jesus.