Fiction can have incredible power over audiences. I recall once feeling such wretched suspense over a book that I forced myself to take a break. It was called The Painter’s Daughter, a historical fiction novel set in 19th century England that focused on two people in a reluctant marriage of convenience. The girl needs immediate support and the man takes compassion on her, so they agree to marry, despite barely knowing each other. The story intensifies when they are separated by war just as they begin to warm towards each other.
It was at this point that I started feeling so anxious that I stepped away for a bit. I wanted to ground myself in the present again and remind myself that this story was fiction. I even wondered if my strong feelings were unhealthy. Should readers enter a fantastical context and spend time sympathizing with imaginary people? My lifelong love of stories has led me to four conclusions about why all of us, but especially Christians, should read and enjoy fiction.
1. Fiction hones our empathy and understanding of others.
Most of us have been taught to sympathize with other people’s feelings. When I was young, my mother constantly told me to think about how I would feel if someone had said to me what I had just said to my sister. This lesson is usually the basis for how we develop our ability to sympathize. For Christians, we also receive instruction from our pastors and Bibles. We are commanded to love one another, be gentle with one another, and bear one another’s burdens (John 13:34, Galatians 6:2, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13).
Instruction is essential for learning compassion, but reading fiction helps to deepen and expand our ability to understand others. Fiction has helped me empathize with the full range of human experience, from pain and frustration to joy and hope. I don’t experientially understand the feelings of a friend who has endured infertility, but my ability to sympathize and imagine her pain has grown after reading The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, a deeply moving novel that explores the pain of a couple battling infertility and miscarriage. Similarly, I probably won’t confront the dilemma of English class differences when deciding whether to marry someone, but few people have taught me more about the importance of humility and recognizing personal blind spots than Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice.
2. Fiction develops the moral imagination.
Twentieth-century literary critic and historian Russell Kirk explained moral imagination as “implying that men and women are moral beings and that the power of the imagination enables them to perceive, beyond mere appearances, a hierarchy of worth and certain enduring truths.” This capacity to draw a moral from something that isn’t written solely as instruction is an fundamental part of human nature. Stories have unique power to hone that understanding of right and wrong because they put moral questions that may have become mundane into a new or imagined context.
Jesus led us to reconsider moral questions when He taught in parables. In the story of the prodigal son, Jesus presented a moving picture of a father’s unconditional love for a rebellious, profligate son. With thoughtful consideration, the listener can easily imagine himself into the story and ask if he could forgive like the fictional father did. Similarly, in the Old Testament, David’s notorious sins of impregnating Bathsheba and orchestrating her husband’s death only appeared in their true ugliness when he heard them in a story from the prophet Nathan. He was blind to his covetousness, selfishness, and pride until he saw in his mind’s eye a fictitious man acting on the same impulses.
We naturally cast ourselves into stories and imagine what we would do in the characters’ situations. Their choices stretch our moral imaginations and help us contemplate what we would choose in their situations. I love how Kenneth Branagh’s new film version of Cinderella does this. The film tells a simple, well-known fairytale that’s a delight to watch, but its underlying, memorable message is a consistently moral one. Cinderella repeatedly tells herself to “have courage and be kind,” even when her stepmother and stepsisters become most cruel. At the end, as Cinderella joyfully walks out with the prince, she pauses to tell her stepmother, “I forgive you.” It makes the viewer wonder: Could I do that? If I’d been treated that unjustly, would I be able to forgive so freely? Seeing the story’s portrayal of forgiveness challenged me to examine my tendencies in this area.
3. Fiction gives fresh power to familiar truths.
Christians need constant reminders of the gospel because in our fallen state, we grow accustomed to it. We lose our wonder at its power and our love for it can become lukewarm. A good story can reawaken our senses, as C.S. Lewis pointed out in an essay entitled, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said.” Drawing from his childhood experiences, he reflected on stories’ capacity to separate us from our preconceptions while reviving the beauty of well-known theological truths:
I thought I saw how [stories] could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings…But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.
While fiction won’t give me new information about the gospel, it does have the power to present truth I already know with renewed vitality. I enjoy a lively discussion about hard doctrine, but few things have developed my love for Jesus and His Word like Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. On the surface, the Narnia books draw the reader into a fun adventure story about children, magical talking creatures, a beautiful imaginary land, and a fierce but gentle lion. At a deeper level, that lion’s love for a traitorous boy, rescue of the children from dire situations, and glorious triumph over evil have deepened my wonder over Jesus’s power, sacrificial love, and redemptive work in the world.
4. Fiction reveals God as our Master Storyteller.
Finally, storytelling reflects God’s creative nature. His creativity is clear in His intricate design of the created world and His grand orchestration of human history. Furthermore, God has revealed Himself to humanity through a written story. The Bible is His story of how He is redeeming the world. We are players in God’s great story of redemption, and the best stories we have on earth are dim reflections of it. The beloved Disney classic Beauty and the Beast provides one such reflection in charming fashion. In the story, a selfish prince and his servants have been cursed for their wrongdoings and an outside rescuer is their only hope of release. To their eternal benefit, that rescuer eventually does come, redeeming them all by sacrificial love.
Experiencing stories and their emotional power has helped me to grow as a person and a Christian. Fiction helps me to better appreciate a hardship I haven’t personally experienced. It challenges my moral capacities. It brings new aspects of the gospel to light, and it points me back to God’s redemptive narrative. Even when I’m not explicitly looking for moral lessons, stories have a profound impact on how I perceive God and other people by reaching me on a subconscious level. That’s why they have such emotional power, and that’s why I continue to read, imagine, and engross myself in good stories.