Why you should waste your time reading fiction

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I am in the process of self-publishing my first work of fiction, and as I’ve started talking more openly about my book, I’ve been shocked by the number of people who have stated they, “don’t waste their time with fiction.” I’ve had several women tell me that they only read books that will help them to be a better person or books that will strengthen their walk with the Lord.

May I say something? I have become a better person and have had my walk with the Lord strengthened through many beautifully written works of fiction. How? Dr. Mark Eckel, author of When the Lights go down, explains it this way, “No matter what books we read or movies we watch, the stories point up, to the Author of all things. Earthly stories excite, persuade, satisfy, and surprise because they originate from The Heavenly Story.”

This statement couldn’t be truer. Some of my favorite novels are written by authors who are not Christ followers, yet they can’t help but point to Christ in their writing because it is He who gives the ability to write and the basis for all story lines.

I have not read (or watched) the Twilight Series, but a dear friend of mine expressed her reaction to the series in this way, “I was blown away at how much I learned about myself and my sinful nature through this story. I recognized my cravings for danger and waywardness and by the end, I recognized more than ever my need for God! I walked away with a tremendous desire to resist evil and cling to my Savior!”

Would you have guessed someone could have such a self-awakening and have their walk with the Lord strengthened through the Twilight Series?

“Stories change us,” says Dr. Eckel, “they change how we view the world.  It should come as no surprise that God used narrative–story–to communicate His Truth.  The Bible is God’s answer to the desire of every person who says, “Tell me a story.”  The reason we love stories is because we live in one, as Frodo says in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, “We belong to a larger story.”’

We seem to understand this concept when it comes to our children, but why don’t we apply it to ourselves as adults? Some of the same women who said they don’t waste their time reading fiction are the same women who set stacks of fiction novels in front of their children. We know that our children can learn invaluable lessons from works of fiction. We want our children to read books that will teach them morals and character, how to be dependable and wise, how to be a faithful friend and how to accept others that are different from themselves. We know when we hand a book to our child, we are placing them before a window; helping them to see our world from a new perspective or perhaps to see an entirely different world that will spark their imagination. We encourage our children to read fiction because we know fiction is important. Why then don’t we think it’s important for us as adults?

Have you ever heard someone say that finishing a novel is like saying goodbye to a friend? The reason we find ourselves caring so much for fictional characters is because we see pieces of ourselves and our friends in them. Authors pour pieces of themselves into their characters and each story line, in some way, reflects a personal experience or an experience that has been passed down. Fictional stories are held together with threads of truth; pieces of reality that help us see ourselves, the people around us and the world we live in through a different lens – a lens that sometimes makes us more aware of the broken world we live in and sometimes a lens that allows moving past pain and disappointment and seeing the beauty and calm that can come through love and friendship.

I’m amused when I see the words, “Based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events” written on a book cover, because that could be said for every single work of fiction out there. Every work of fiction (including works with vampires and zombies) echoes real life. Sin, sickness, death, love, sacrifice and survival are all aspects of real life. We can learn valuable lessons from fictional characters in the same manner we learn from figures in biographies and history books.

Non-fiction books teach us valuable lessons with facts, ideas and suggestions. Fiction teaches us through observation. With every page, we are given the privilege of watching someone else’s life in a very intimate way; giving us the opportunity to learn from their good and bad decisions. We grieve with them, rejoice with them, hate the sin in their lives and speak to the pages offering caution as we see the characters making decisions that will most certainly alter the outcome of the story! We see ourselves and the people we love in the characters and if we are attentive, we can learn from the lessons the author is offering.

Fiction draws us in and allows us to experience situations we would otherwise never experience; think of things we would have otherwise ignored. John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas revealed the holocaust to me in a way I had not considered before becoming a mother. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner opened my eyes to a culture and it’s brutality that I knew very little about. Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone gave me insight to a dear childhood friend of mine. Classics like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women have impacted the way I mother my children and have fueled my desire to be a strong, respected woman of character.

Obviously we must choose our fiction wisely. Fiction can sway our hearts towards evil as easily as it can sway our hearts towards betterment.  We all draw our lines in different places with what is and is not acceptable when it comes to filling our minds. But, we should not discount all fiction simply because “bad” fiction exists. There is truth in fiction, it mirrors our everyday lives, teaches us valuable lessons, points back to the Author of all things and is quite simply…important.

I leave you with the six reasons Marc Cortez, a Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, gives us for “Why you should waste your time reading fiction.”

  1. Fiction reveals truth. There’s something about a good story that reveals truth in ways that non-fiction cannot. Why do you think Jesus chose to tell so many stories? A good story makes us experience truth. Although non-fiction is great for conveying information, fiction can make that same information sink into our bones in powerful ways.
  2. Fiction strengthens the imagination. Ours is a pragmatic culture. As a result, we often fail to appreciate the importance of the imagination. At best, it’s a diversion. At worst, it distracts from real concerns and takes time away from what truly matters. But imagination is the skill of seeing the world as it could be. And, when we’re facing a world ravaged by sin, what could be more important that the ability to see what could be?
  3. Fiction manifests beauty. Like any art form, good fiction has a unique ability to display beauty. The right combination of words, a powerful metaphor, a well-described scene, each of these uses the written word to display beauty in ways that no other art form can. And, although non-fiction has the same ability to manifest beauty through the written word, there’s something in the beauty of narrative that’s impossible to capture in any other medium. Soaking up a good story can be like watching a beautiful sunset – a reminder that there is still beauty in this broken world.
  4. Fiction expands horizons. We are storied beings; our stories define us. If you want to understand another person fully, you need to know his or her story. That’s one reason that biographies sell so well. They are a window into different world, a world other than my own. Fiction does the same. A good story draws us in, unveiling reality from a new perspective. For a short time, I can “become” a modern housewife, a 19th century slave, or something else dramatically removed from my own experience. Fiction expands my window on reality, letting me see reality through another’s eyes. And by drawing me in and making me part of the story, it reveals these new perspectives in ways that non-fiction typically doesn’t.
  5. Fiction makes better writers. One pragmatic issue to consider is that reading fiction makes you a better writer. Fiction authors use language differently than non-fiction writers. And any good writer needs exposure to a variety of writing techniques. Indeed, I’d suggest that any writer should seek exposure to a wide range of literary genres – poetry, fiction, history, philosophy, religion, etc. Each reveals a new way of writing that can expand the tools available to the aspiring author. And, in this way, good fiction shapes good writers.
  6. Fiction is fun. It would be easy to conclude that merely being “fun” isn’t a good enough reason for reading fiction. Why not? Unless I’m missing something, God created us for both work and play. Each manifests his glory in unique ways. So enjoying yourself is simply part of being who God has created you to be. And reading good fiction is fun. Enjoy it.

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