Reading fiction is useless. So is poetry. All imaginative works of beauty are useless, and praise God for that.
Stories and poems are meant to be enjoyed in and of themselves, and while they have transformative effects on their readers, heaven forbid they be used as such. In fact, one of the great reasons to read works of the imagination is to overcome our habitual disposition toward utility. Ever since John Stuart Mill, the modern founder of utilitarianism, suggested that utility was not merely trendy but necessary, we tend to assume that all our actions must be of use. We long to be busy and productive members of society.
But this is not our end. We are meant to be human beings, made in the image of a God who is Love, who is Beauty, who is Goodness, who is Truth. In an essay I often teach, “Why Should Businessmen Read Great Literature?” Vigen Guroian reminds us: “We are created to be principally lovers, not laborers.” We are made to love, first God and then neighbor. And indeed, by loving “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable (Phil. 4:8),” we will better love God and neighbor.
Imagination Can Be More Real Than Reality
For Christians, the hesitation to stock their shelves with fiction and poetry stems from a misunderstanding that conflates “imagination” with “illusion.” Made-up things are not illusory, nor is fiction merely false.
Is not this world governed by time, whereas we are eternal beings? And did not Jesus tell us stories that showed how upside-down this world is, compared with his right-side-up kingdom? Here the Devil prowls around unseen, but fiction unmasks him. No matter how covert his operations, poetry undoes lies with truth. “Such power in the naming of things,” I think Thomas Lynch’s poem goes.
The hesitation, for Christians, to stock their shelves with fiction and poetry stems from a misunderstanding that conflates ‘imagination’ with ‘illusion.’
We also suffer from a worldly sickness engineered by the Enlightenment project, a misapprehension of reason as the highest faculty and as dislocated from our imagination. Such an assumption leads us to consider literature as unwarranted; Novels and poems play with our emotions, we think, and clutter our pure reason. But what if our emotions help us register our humanity, guiding us in moral decision-making? C. S. Lewis argues as much in The Abolition of Man. How we imagine God, the world, and our place in relation to both transforms how we act. Great literature trains the moral imagination.
Training the Moral Imagination
In his excellent book How to Think [20 quotes], Alan Jacobs notes how even Mill was pulled from his depression by useless poetry. Mill contemplates how Wordsworth offered a balm for his soul, expressing “not mere outward beauty but states of feeling and of thought colored by feeling under the excitement of beauty.” Poetry trained Mill in how to feel rightly. It was not enough that Mill had been taught the right principles, memorized the commandments, been catechized in true claims. He needed to love the beautiful and be drawn to the good. Jacobs writes:
To have your feelings moved by the beauty of a landscape is to respond to that landscape in the way that it deserves; to have your feelings moved in a very different direction by the sight of people living in abject poverty is to respond to that situation in the way that it deserves. (44)
Literature acts upon the soul in this way.
Our imaginations need such education because we are fallen, sinful creatures who easily become desensitized to evil. As Flannery O’Connor writes in one of her prayers, most of us have “lost the power to vomit” over sin, especially our own. The most powerful stories are those that have us cast stones at our own reflections. To quote O’Connor again, they show us the devils that possess us—and hopefully help us exorcise them, by the grace of God. In O’Connor’s story “Revelation,” for instance, when the prideful, Job-like Mrs. Ruby Turpin cries out at the Lord, “Who do you think you are?” the question reverberates back over the field in an ominous echo. As readers, we hear the question addressed to us. Yes, we think—and hold our breath with Ruby—who do we think we are?
Did Jesus Find Stories Useless?
As a teacher, I am confronted by Christian students who assume such stories would be worthless. I remember a student arguing in my office that he would rather take a course in philosophy than literature because that discipline instructs you in how to live.
“I wish Jesus would have thought like you,” I responded (rather snidely, I confess). “He wasted so much time telling worthless stories.” We know Jesus taught in parables, but we rarely consider why. Might it be that stories can communicate how to live? Russell Moore has argued that you cannot have ethics without stories. Even the Ten Commandments are set in narrative, beginning with, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt” (Exod. 20:2). In addition to the stories of the Old Testament, God reveals himself in the historical story of Jesus: his birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection.
To answer students’ questions of why we read literature, I just want to write on my white board, “Because the Bible is Literature. And Jesus Christ is the Word.”
To be clear, we cannot conflate “literature” with “fiction.” Literature stems from litera, the letter. In this case, the Bible is the book of true letters. Jesus is the true Word. And those who follow Jesus are called the people of the book. All of these connections emphasize how much Christians should esteem the literary.
Ten Thousand Places
If we desire to know our Author, perhaps we should attend more to words, practicing reading and becoming better readers.
The late Eugene Peterson was an advocate of reading poetry. He titled one of his works of spiritual theology with a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”: “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” The poem lets us experience the gradient radiance of God’s light, from the wings of a bird or dragonfly to the sounds of water falling over stones, and ultimately to the lovely limbs and eyes of our neighbor. The visceral reminders of beauty in this sonnet communicate a type of knowledge that cannot be conveyed with the same conviction in mere argument.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.