“Why are you wasting your time reading something that’s not even real?” I remember my teacher asking that question when I brought C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader back from the school library. Back then, I didn’t know what to say. But after many years of fervent fiction reading, I’ve got at least five legitimate reasons why people—Christians especially—should be serious about fiction. And stories in general.
5. Your brain likes stories. It just does. Let’s start with the basics: stories stick with and engage us. Psychologists and neuroscientists have been observing this phenomenon for years. In her article “Your Brain on Story: Why Narratives Win Our Hearts and Minds,” Michele Weldon observes, “Your brain on story is different than your brain when it is receiving any other form of information, including straight facts and data. There are proven intersections between neuroscience, biology, and story that we cannot ignore.” Your brain “lights up” when absorbed in a story, to the point of actually engaging parts of your mind that deal with experience.
To put it in theological terms, we were made for stories. This allows us to communicate important truths in ways that stick and move God’s people to action. While I have trouble recalling the points from last week’s sermon, I still remember stories my pastor told when I was a child. These stories compelled my young heart to love God in ways that cold hard facts never could. They transformed me.
4. Stories help us understand the significance of conflict. My ninth grade English students and I discovered a profound connection between conflict and significance. All the stories ever told—from children’s books to multi-million dollar movies—include conflict. Our favorite stories are almost always the ones that have the greatest conflicts; the ones in which evil has all but won the day before that glimmer of hope bursts to life and conquers the darkness.
On the other hand, our culture is all about making life easier. Everything from microwave-safe Tupperware to the latest smartphone promises to make our life easier: in other words, less conflict. We seem to be obsessed with eliminating all forms of conflict from our lives because, well, easier is better right?
Then why are so many people dissatisfied, restless, purposeless, and hungry for something more? The answer can be found in the pages of your favorite story. A good story cannot exist without conflict that needs overcoming, and the same is true of a significant life. When our desire for conflict-free lives influences our choices, the way we work, the way we conduct our relationships; when we consistently choose the easiest possible path, we are actually uprooting the potential for significance, the possibility that our stories will be worth telling.
Following Jesus isn’t about finding the easiest way out of conflict; it’s about living lives of significance. Whether that means standing up to peer pressure, confronting addiction, or befriending the “least” at the risk of losing our reputation, following Jesus always leads to conflict. And, as we learned in Freshman English, conflict always leads to a better story.
3. Stories inspire virtue. Characters are vessels that bring stories to life. In terms of transmitting virtue, mere command is not enough; we need example. One author wrote, “We might know that courage is a virtue, but having watched Maximus in Gladiator or Jo March in Little Women, we find ourselves longing to be courageous.”
Think of Atticus Finch as he defends a man wrongfully accused in a case he knows he can not win; Jean Valjean refusing to let another receive punishment for his mistakes; Gandalf confronting Saruman and his quest for power. These fictional characters stir in us a desire for virtue. In stories, we see men and women and children who do the right thing in the face of dominating evil, and we long to be like them. What better word for the next generation of Christ followers who are striving to live as citizens of light in the dominion of darkness?
2. Stories ignite imagination. Imagination is one of the most valuable—and perhaps most overlooked—elements in Christian communities today. Eugene Peterson calls imagination “among the chief glories” of being human. “One of the essential Christian ministries in and to our ruined world,” he writes, “is the recovery and exercise of the imagination. . . . Imagination opens things up so that we can grow into maturity—worship and adore, exclaim and honor, follow and trust.”
Imagination allows us to see what wasn’t there before. And story is nothing if not the practice of imagination. Those whose hearts and minds have been touched by the magic of story will be the ones who lead the church to engage culture in new and transformative ways. The ones who’ve learned to trust the promise of dawn in the middle of the night.
1. Stories tell the truth. There is a difference between something that is truthful and something merely factual. A Westerner may tell you that the story “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is not true because it didn’t really happen. But tell the same story to someone from a story-centric society, and they’ll likely disagree. Because it is true, isn’t it? The squandering of one’s integrity is very serious business. Every time you break your word, the value of your word decreases. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” tells truth, though not necessarily fact. This is an exceptionally significant distinction. And it is, in my opinion, the very best reason to read fiction.
Stories like the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia are stories that tell the truth. Friendship is more valuable than power. People are more than appearances. Humility and self-sacrifice are greater than pride. Courage in the face of overwhelming odds does make a difference. Love is stronger than death. The light does shine in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it.
There is great and nourishing power in stories that tell the truth—even when the stories aren’t comprised of facts. Jesus himself dealt almost exclusively in fiction to communicate truth to his audiences (Matt. 13:34). “There was a man who had two sons. The younger son came to his father and demanded his share of the inheritance. . . .” “Suppose one of you has 100 sheep and one of them runs away. . . .” “There was a woman with ten silver coins. . . .” “A wealthy man was preparing a great feast. . . .” Even Jesus’ I am statements found in the gospel of John are fictional snapshots designed to tell the truth in a way that fact simply can not match. Jesus really isn’t a gate. Nor is he bread. But these creative declarations help us understand who he is in fresh, new ways by inviting us into mini-stories that point to Christ’s very real sustaining identity.
Fiction is more than superficial entertainment. The very best works of fiction are invitations to experience the deeper magic of God’s Story from a new perspective. “This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia,” says Aslan to Lucy, “that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
Which, by the way, is a quote from C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader—a story I’m so glad I read!
- What is one of your favorite works of fiction? Why do you like you it so much?
- According to the article, “following Jesus always leads to conflict.” How do we distinguish between the necessary conflicts that arise from faithfully following Jesus and those that arise from our sinfulness?
- Why have Christians overlooked the value of the imagination? How does your church’s practices foster or suppress your imaginations?
- The article distinguishes between something truthful and something factual. What other non-factual stories do you know that convey truth to live by?
- How might distinguishing truth from mere facts help us in reading and applying Scripture?