Why Read Fiction? (And How?)

On an email list I am a part of, someone recently raised a series of questions about Christian literary criticism—essentially, how can we be good readers but at the same time critical readers?  or do we have to be critical readers to count as good readers?  Must we theologize about books in order to be good Christian readers, or can we simply enjoy them for what they are?  In response, I offered a brief account of the phenomenon of fiction, and what we should be looking for when we read it; a friend suggested I adapt these thoughts for sharing here.  (Almost everything I say here about fiction, I should add, could equally apply to film.)

First, I tried to address the worry of how one can can give oneself over to the fictional world as a Christian.  If the author might try to lure you in unacceptable and immoral directions, you must maintain detachment, allegiance to your Christian commitments.  On the other hand, such detachment—filtering everything you read through your worldview categories—can get in the way of actually hearing what it is the author is trying to say.  I wonder if this is indeed altogether a unique problem of fiction, as many people often imply, or rather a feature of all good reading.  My recent reflections on “intellectual empathy” (see Matthew Lee Anderson’s original articulation of the concept here, and my follow-up remarks here) lead me to think the latter.  To read any author fairly and justly, sometimes we need to be able to enter mentally into the universe that he is working from, to imaginatively adopt his starting points and see from that standpoint why he values what he values.  There is always a certain detachment in this, since we are not really leaving behind our commitments, but precisely because we are so confidently grounded in them, we can imaginatively bracket them out for a moment, knowing that they’re not going anywhere.  But although the intellect can perhaps abstract in this way, the will cannot.  I cannot, for the sake of argument, make myself temporarily love a position I take to be falsehood.

This is where the additional difficulty of fiction comes in—its emotional element.  Not that nonfiction (good nonfiction at any rate) is necessarily devoid of pathos, but clearly the passions are more intensely engaged in reading a work of fiction, so that we it would seem we must surrender ourselves to the experiences the author presents, and let them transform us in the way he wants them to.  Or do we?  If we assume some concept of the virtues, we would want to say that a well-formed reader is one who has learned to govern his passions in certain ways, to teach them to respond to certain stimuli and prompts and to resist others, to love certain things, and to be repelled by others.  The mature reader is not a blank slate when she approaches a book.  It will not, accordingly, do to her whatever the author wants it to.  If the author glorifies certain vices, and intends the reader to be moved to approve of them as well, or to be amused at the misfortunes of the virtuous, etc., then the good Christian reader will, not because she is being an over-analytical cerebral critic, but instinctively, resist the experiences the book is trying to move her to.  This is not because she is refusing to enter fully into the world the author has created, but because this world will impact her in a different way than perhaps the author means for it to, since the author imagines a different, or more malleable reader.  I have often had this jarring experience with a book or a film—to realize, halfway through, that I am simply unable to cheer for the characters that I am being asked to see as “heroes”—not because I’ve been maintaining a skeptical distance, but simply because I will not be moved to love the same things they love.  Now, inasmuch as all evil loves are distorted loves of the good, or rather, inordinate loves of partial goods, I should be able to see to some extent why they love what they do, and thus perhaps overcome my instinctive revulsion to sympathize in part with them.  But this may not be what the author intends.  To this extent, you do not enter fully into the world of the story; though of course, you may not for this reason be an unappreciative reader—you can still be marvelously impressed by the author’s skill with words, or in weaving a narrative, or with the lifelikeness of his characters.

So, for a second set of questions, what is it that makes a book good or bad, and what should we, as readers, be looking to get out of both?  Is there anything to be gained from the latter, and as for the former, to what extent do we have to be conscious critical Christian readers to profit from them?

At the risk of cliché, I would propose the old triad of “truth, beauty, and goodness” in answering these questions, although of course the three run over into one another, all the more so as they approach their highest manifestation.  A good book is one that is true to the world as it is created and as it has been revealed to us in Scripture.  A true story is one whose logic reflects the logic with which God has programmed the world, which is true to the mind of God (although of course the imitation need not be conscious to be real).  As readers, we are edified when we discern this logic (whether through critical analysis or more immediately and less consciously) and are confirmed or aided thereby in our grasp of the reality God has put around us.  Needless to say, in fiction this correspondence can take place at a deep level, rather than a superficial one (true people, places, events, or even basic principles of nature, like “animals can’t talk”).  A story that takes place in a world quite other than this one can still be true to reality, as I think Tolkien argues very persuasively in “On Fairy-Stories.”  But although we can point to ways in which good literature points to metaphysical aspects of this reality (the world is ordered, not chaotic) and epistemological aspects (the world is rational, not absurd), the primary way in which good literature is true is in its reflection of moral order, so that leads directly into consideration of “goodness.”

Good literature is good in this moral sense, by leading us to praise, value, and emulate virtue, and to condemn, despise, and avoid vice.  Not, of course, in any flatly moralistic way.  Stories which simply assert the goodness of virtue or make it transparently attractive by having all the virtuous characters live happily ever after and which simply condemn vice or make it transparently unattractive by having all the vicious characters suffer all manner of misfortunes are hardly effective in instilling moral goodness.  For one, they lack truth, for the world in which we live is not one in which virtue is so readily and quickly rewarded and vice so quickly punished.  For another, if we are already inclined to virtue, they insult our intelligence and make us turn away in disdain; if we are not inclined to virtue, however, by merely preaching rather than persuading, they are unlikely to lead us to it.  So good literature slowly and patiently reveals the shape of the moral life by developing characters who possess various combinations of virtues and vices, and revealing the gradual growth and diminution of each, so that we can see how these work and what their tendencies are, and can come to admire the former and dislike the latter.  In general, literature does not bring about such reactions in us the reader by holding up these characters to our view and inviting us to reflect on them from a distance and form moral judgments about them, but by drawing us in emotionally, and causing us to passionately identify with the good and be repelled by the bad (or, as mentioned above, sometimes vice versa, but then this will not be “good literature” in the fullest sense of the word).  As readers, we are edified when our passions are thus formed to cause us to love the good more and shun the evil, and our understandings are enlightened so as to better discern the shape of each—sometimes, we will even be prompted to explicit self-examination.  (There was a recent email on this list aboutGroundhog Day.  I still remember the self-examination that film prompted in me about my own egocentricism, a realization that I like to think helped launch a wave of personal moral reformation at that time, however impartial.)  Being an intelligent, thoughtful, critical Christian reader perhaps helps here, but it is not necessary.  Anyone intelligent enough to digest a story can build character through good literature, even if they have not bothered to reflect self-consciously on the nature of the virtues and vices there displayed.

Finally, good literature is beautiful.  This is presupposed, of course, in what I have already said about moving the emotions.  Beauty is thus the greatest handmaiden to goodness, as also to truth, moving us to love and pursue them.  Beauty is one of the things that distinguishes the way in which fiction teaches truth and goodness from the way non-fiction does; the former employs beauty to a far greater extent and is thus often far more persuasive, at least, at a deeper, more formative level, if not always at an immediately rationally-conscious level.  To this extent, beauty might be considered a sine qua non of fiction (understanding, of course, that we operate here with a very broad definition of beauty as “that which is aesthetically compelling,” which includes many things that we would probably not at first blush describe as “beautiful.”  But I wouldn’t want to entirely instrumentalize beauty as merely a means to an end, merely a way of sweetening the moralizing pill so it goes down smoother or whatever.  Beauty is to be valued in itself, as is clear from the extent to which God has so superfluously lavished it upon creation.  So good literature moves us and awes us with its beauty, whether that be in the delightfulness of its prose, the beauty of the scenes it describes, the intricacy of its narrative, the neatness and fittingness of its plot resolutions, or the ironies of its plot twists, or, most of all, through the beauty of its characters and the traits they display or the emotions they experience (in this last, beauty can become very closely related with goodness).  As readers, we are blessed simply by taking delight in this beauty, but also by having our aesthetic capacities expanded by perception of it, and our understanding of all other created beauties sharpened.  Again, the well-trained critically reflective reader can be at an advantage here, but any attentive reader will profit from good literature.

What about bad literature, then?  Here we can be much briefer.  Bad literature, which is neither true to the world, nor praising of virtue, nor woven with beauty, cannot be good for us directly.  However, few books are altogether bad, and the discerning reader can of course still gain a great deal from those things in a book that are true, good, and beautiful.  Not only that, but as the true, good, and beautiful can be identified partly by contrast with their opposites, the thoughtful and critical reader may learn more about them by seeing how a bad author has gone astray.  So of the bad book, we must ask (a) where it goes astray with respect to truth, what false convictions about the world drive the author who wrote it and/or the culture he inhabits; (b) where it goes astray with respect to goodness, what moral universe the author inhabits, what goods he is seeking to promote, and why these false goods render the story incoherent; (c) where it goes astray with respect to beauty; is it simply clumsiness and lack of skill, a story ill-told, or a flawed understanding of what constitutes beauty?

Here, then, is where learning “literary criticism” (though not what they teach in schools these days) is most important.  For while a good book does good to any reader, whether or not they’ve learned how to read critically and Christianly, a bad book can only be a source of good to a reader who knows what sort of questions to put to it.

Of course, I should add to all this that I think we needn’t feel like we need to always watch good films and read good books, or else have our critical antenna up and running if we’re watching anything less.  For those things that are merely mediocre, that are of relatively low quality rather than positively bad in their tendencies, there is a time and a place just to relax and enjoy—a Tom Clancy novel, for instance.  Though the more often we indulge in mediocrity, the more we should seek to be self-critical about the ways in which even what we deem shallow and harmless media might be shaping us.
I would like to say a good deal more about what a specifically “Christian” literary criticism looks like.  For instance, do we need to be always looking for “Christ-figures” and redemption-narratives and so forth in books, explicitly theologizing about them?  Well, no.  Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit.  We could do a lot of fruitful thinking about how this principle should inform the lenses through which we seek to interpret literature—I tend to think that very often, specifically theological lenses will prove quite illuminating, but we should have other sets of lenses too.  This, however, should await a future post, time permitting (which I’m doubtful it shall).



6 thoughts on “Why Read Fiction? (And How?)

  1. Excellent, excellent post. I have so often struggled with defending my reading habits to other believers, who often make the case that only books published by Tommy Nelson and Zondervan are appropriate reading materials. I read a lot of speculative fiction and enjoy the themes and motifs played out in alternate worlds where the physical rules of our universe don’t apply. Yes, I immensely enjoyed Harry Potter, for which I have often been condemned solely on the grounds of the magic in the story. My argument has always been that the magic is a plot device, a rule of an alternate universe, and that the themes of Harry Potter are often very much in line with the "truth" and "goodness" guidelines you shared. Besides, if we reject Harry Potter on the grounds of magic alone, we have to reject The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. Few Christians I know are ready or willing to do that!

    I do hope that your schedule affords you the opportunity to write further on the topic of "Christian" literary criticism as I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts!

    J M


  2. AJ

    I love this. Can you answer a burning question that’s tangential: Do you see a legit place for Christians reading popular novels, like Stephen King or detective lit like Michael Connelly? Thanks.


    • Brad Littlejohn

      Sorry, AJ, I’ve been pretty swamped (all the new posts I’ve put out this week were all things I’d had to write up anyway and just copied in here). I think the answer to this question, though, is given already in the penultimate paragraph of the post. Obviously, I’m saying in this post, it’s fine to read bad fiction, as long as we’re being thoughtful and critical about it, so to the extent that popular novels constitute "bad fiction," they would fall under that description. The question is whether it’s ever OK to relax and read popular books that may not be that great, just for leisure and without needing to be all thoughtful and critical. My brief answer in the post was: occasionally, as long as they’re not that bad, and as long as you’re able to be self-critical in negative ways that they might shape you. Perhaps a better answer, though, would be to emphasize the concept of virtue I explored earlier in the post. If you have cultivated the virtues of a good reader and a mature character, then you won’t need to self-consciously have your critical antennae up when reading popular literature—they’ll be doing their job automatically, so that if the book is utter rubbish, you simply won’t be tempted to keep reading it, and if OK with some rubbish mixed in, you’ll find yourself automatically filtering out the rubbish. That, certainly, has been my experience with film: as I’ve spent more time thoughtfully watching really good films, I still sometimes watch mediocre popular films, but either (a) don’t enjoy them that much, and may not even finish them, or (b) enjoy them for what they are, but instinctively recognize their shortcomings and the unhelpful messages they’re trying to convey.


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