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. Read More