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A Thought on Fiction

Christians have a bad track record in being good readers of fictional literature.  Often Christians evaluate whether fictional books should be read based on whether they cohere with their version of “the Christian worldview”.  In other words, for many Christians, fiction simply serves the instrumental purpose of bolstering Christian convictions and books that don’t do that should be ignored, at best.  However, I think this is just a very impoverished way to live.  Reading fiction should not primarily be about reinforcing our beliefs about God and the world, but about learning how to inhabit, play, and imagine inside of a fictional world.  Certainly some fiction is ideological, but most good fiction isn’t about pushing an agenda, it’s about inviting the reader to imaginatively enter another world, simply for its own sake.  I propose that Christians shouldn’t seek to strictly measure the Christian-ness of their fiction reading.  The purpose of fictional reading is to not have a purpose, it is simply to read and play in another world.  In fact, I suspect that if Christians were able to read fiction in this playful manner of learning to indwell a fictional world, we might learn far better how to read the Bible.

16 Comments

  1. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden said:

    . . . The purpose of fictional reading is to not have a purpose, it is simply to read and play in another world. . . .

    You mean this isn’t purposeful, i.e. “to play in another world”? Imagination is great, and fiction is a wonderful medium; but my question is what “defines” that “other world”? Is it defined by “good” or “evil” “light” or “darkness”, etc. There are plenty of “good” fictional worlds out there . . . but then again there are plenty of “bad” fictional worlds. I think your thoughts here are “good” to a degree, just oversimplified too much.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    It seems to me that reading about either of those kinds of worlds could be a good exercise of the imagination for a Christian. I don’t think you can determine what a Christian shouldn’t read simply because it may have something “bad” in it. For example a book with many murders in it may be a great book to read if it shows well the horrific impact of taking human life. In other words, reading about a world defined by “darkness” might be a great way for us to learn better how to think about the “light”. After all, if the story of Judah and Tamar wasn’t in the Bible no good Christian parent would let their kids read it.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  3. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I don’t have a problem with your clarification, Halden, I think if the intention of the fictional lit. is to enhance how horrific the taking of human life is, then it is good; on the other hand, if the intention is to magnify a “romanticized” view of murder and intrigue, and death in general, then I don’t think this is healthy “good” literature.

    And the intent of placing Judah and Tamar, or the Priest and his concubine in Judges, for that matter, has specific intention to “instruct” in manifold reasons, i.e. the futility of living life apart from a right relationship with Yahweh . . . I think you draw a false parallel, by implication.

    I just think discernment is in order . . . and that not ALL fiction lit. is “good”, by way of authorial intent.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I wasn’t making any sort of parallel with the Judah-Tamar story, just making the point that “bad” content does not equal a “bad” book.

    But overall, I don’t know how we’re even using the terms “good” and “bad” here. What do we mean? I think you’re speaking morally, as in a book is “good” if the intent of the author is to reinforce a “Christian worldview”.

    I guess I just disagreee with that idea. There are plenty of books that aren’t trying to endorse any sort of worldview which still make for great reading. And I’d say that there are some books that are pushing an anti-Christian agenda that are still good books to read. Sure, discernment is key. But I think what’s more common is to shortcut the task of discernment by simply saying books with X are “bad”, thus no Christian should read them.

    Just out of curiosity, Bobby do you personally only read “Christian” books?

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  5. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I don’t think “good” necessarily has to be consciously informed by a Christian world-view, in order for it to be fruitful for a Christian to read . . . but when the intent of an author, i.e. Stephen King, is to magnify “evil” or darkness, then morally (you’re right) I don’t think this is fruitful reading for the Christian.

    Whether or not a book is “trying” to forward a “worldview”, they implicitly are.

    Halden said:

    . . . But I think what’s more common is to shortcut the task of discernment by simply saying books with X are “bad”, thus no Christian should read them. . . .

    I agree with you here, and I’m not advocating this.

    I suppose the “intention” and “critical-eye” of the reader also has something to do with this. In other words “why” would I read “Stephen King” [?], just to be entertained, or to critically understand his worldview, to provide others with a “Christian” perspective on his writings and intentions.

    Halden, on your last question, no, in the past I have read “non-Christian” lit. and have benefited greatly from it . . . currently, and unfortunately, my time is so strained between the things of life, that I have to choose very selectively the books I’m going to read. So typically, in this season of life, I read theology, herm., etc. books—some of it could be characterized as “Christian”, and some not, I suppose ;) .

    Peace.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Where do you get the idea that the intention of Stephen King’s books is to “magnify ‘evil’”? Admittedly, I haven’t read more than one of his books (Cell) which was a great sci-fi book and a wonderful critique of technological society. However, I did love his mini-series Storm of the Century, which while long and a bit tiresome was an amazing commentary on how communities go about making moral decisions in relation to one another, and how horrifying “perfectly reasonable” compromises turn out to be. The story was full of death and dark sorcery, but the message being put forth was about what happens when people compromise with such powers because of fear. I thought it was a great experience to watch.

    But your question about why we read gets back to the thrust of my original thought. I don’t think that every act of reading should be seen as a moral or specifically christianized act. Certainly there’s probably not a good reason for reading books that are just about gratuitous sex and violence, that goes without saying.

    But, should Christians read ancient Greek mythology, which is based in a polytheistic worldview? What about Grimme’s fairy tales? The legends of King Arthur? Cinderella? Snow White? All of these stories are couched in worldviews that are at odds with the Christian one, but for the most part Christians love them and find them innocuous simply because they are a world in which the reader can play and let their imagination be drawn into a story. I think that is good thing.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  7. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden,

    if you want to defend Stephen King, that’s up to you.

    Halden said:

    . . . Certainly there’s probably not a good reason for reading books that are just about gratuitous sex and violence, that goes without saying.

    I don’t think so, I mean I think it needs to be said in our Americanized Christianity.

    Halden said:

    . . . All of these stories are couched in worldviews that are at odds with the Christian one, but for the most part Christians love them and find them innocuous simply because they are a world in which the reader can play and let their imagination be drawn into a story. I think that is good thing.

    I suppose as long as the “right” apparatus is in place, to think Christianly/critically, reading anything could be justified. That’s why I previously said:

    I suppose the “intention” and “critical-eye” of the reader also has something to do with this. . . .

    The question is “why” and to what “end” do we read . . . is entertainment a legimtate reason, sure, but to inoccously do anything doesn’t make sense to me.

    Oh yeah, you forgot Charlotte’s Web in your list . . .

    out.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  8. Shane wrote:

    Hi Halden (& Bobby),

    Thanks, Halden, for the always intriguing/enlightening blog.

    Alastair at Adversaria has a post that may be germane. I would be curious for your response Bobby. Here’s the post:

    http://alastair.adversaria.co.uk/?p=700

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  9. Hi Halden. Interesting post. As one of finishers of Harry Potter 7 (and trying not to giving anything away to the still impoverished) I am reflecting myself on the draw of the fiction. Rowling has spent a long time saying she didn’t want to get preachy like Lewis and was happy to just tell a good story.

    What was amazing is that she couldn’t do it. She was drawn to the Great Story. Lewis path to conversion, via Tolkien happened on long walks discussing what drew Lewis to ancient Greek and Roman myths about good vs evil, self-giving, redemption. Tolkien said these were all hints of the Great Story, the story that has come true in the incarnation of Jesus.

    Rowling, I think, finds herself in a similar place. HP7 is about laying down your life for others (literally), resurrection, forgiveness of your enemies and seeing yourself in your friends (her most Thomistic installment). We are drawn to this story just as we are repelled by others. Our hearts are restless….

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  10. Jon wrote:

    My uncle, who is a self-confessed Tolkien nerd, once relayed to me in a conversation about the world fashioned by Tolkien, including “The Silmarillion”, that for Tolkien the very act of creating a “world” wad a form of worship. A kind of imitation-by-creating of the One who is Creator.

    The idea strikes me as powerful, that the capacity for human imagination, the creativity of our species, may be a great deal part of what it means to be made in God’s image–we are creative because He is Creator.

    Granted that our creativity is marred by the same sinfulness that taints the rest of our humanity–and yet we still seek to create.

    From paleographic cave paintings to vast mythologies, the epic poems of Homer, or the natural sciences, the Mona Lisa, the Lord of the Rings, and even Star Wars.

    And if all this, here in the fallen state of what is, what worlds might there be awaiting us in the Olam Ha’ba?

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 5:54 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Melissa,

    I totally agree with you about HP, though I am not yet the avid reader of the series yet that I hope to become. I am however a horrible cheater and know the outcome of the story, and you’re absolutely right. The great theme of HP is the face off between kenotic, self-dispossessing love and the promethean pursuit of pure power and immortality. And just as in the Great Story, it is the giving away of the self in love that triumphs over death and brings new life.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 7:02 pm | Permalink
  12. Derrick wrote:

    Very interesting discussion piece halden! I think its interesting that Harry Potter and Tolkien were mentioned in this relationship because elsewhere in my experience I have seen a lot of strange Christian anxieties unearthed in relation to the HP series, which seems to be, by extension, a relation to “secular” literature in general. I remember when HP first came out (and maybe the outcry persists…) there was a lot of uprorious fundamentalist Christians decrying Rowling for influencing kids into witchcraft and wizardry. The strange parallel was that at this time the LOtR trilogy was first appearing in films, and was recieving generally glowing reviews from the Christian public (which may or may not have a little to do with the fact that, while Rowling was a neophyte on the scene, Tolkein had already received his hayday). The divide between the two didn’t seem to be their subject matter (because both have wizardry and magic in them) but rather the perception that, since Tolkien was a Christian, that obviously everything that seems to be an offshoot of “pagan” thinking in his fantastic trilogy was really either allegorically related to Christianity (which, as an “explanation” of the text, was just as much “explaining away” Tolkeins actual story and seems to be rooted in a basic fear of incarnational truth (!) or the more direct approach that simply understood the story as itself dealing with “Christian themes.” I took a Tolkien class at PSU (to fulfill a literature credit no less, what a deal!) when I was attending there, and interestingly enough we learned (and I unfortunately cant remember the source right now) that Tolkien explicitly denied that his story was a “Christian allegory.” In fact what he wanted to portray was Middle Earth as a pre-Christian cosmos, and as such the reflections of Celtic and Nordic cosmogonic myths in his Silmarillion, as well as many of the same thematic elements that play into the Lord of the Rings (e.g. in Nordic mythology the enemy was always to the East and the South, which is where Mordor and the Haradrim respectively are located…) are, in fact, a reflection for Tolkiens love of these mythologies and their abilities to represent the world, and are not merely disposable signifiers veiling an underlying “Christian” story. Like Jon said above, Tolkien understood creating a universe as itself an act of worship, one not intrinsically dependent on a story mirroring line-for-line the passion narrative. Now of course what we might call “Christian” themes show up all over (Tolkien, like the rest of us, cant escape our roots) but these are themselves ‘incarnationally’ related (my professors terminology, oddly enough) to the truth of the medium of their expressions, rather than allegorically. I guess in all of this what I’m trying to say is that one cant decry Harry Potter (and by extension nonChristian fiction in general) as “paganistic” despite all the Christian themes that show up (as if these themes were devoured by some greater occultic thrust) while at the same time glorifying Tolkien by explaining away a polytheistic universe, or magic use (both good and bad) etc… The Christian God is the One God, and as such is related to the whole world, so that if truth springs up in different places through different mediums, these dont have to be “sanitized” or “colonialized” for the Christian to understand or accept the truth they convey.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  13. Eric Costa wrote:

    Halden, you wrote:

    “…if Christians were able to read fiction in this playful manner of learning to indwell a fictional world, we might learn far better how to read the Bible.”

    An implication seems to be that the Bible is the same kind of “fictional world” one would enter by reading playfully. I would assume you don’t mean that, but rather that learning to use the imagination to enter a written story-world would benefit one’s understanding of Scripture stories. Would “learning to indwell a story world” be clearer?

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    Erica,

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the Bible is a fictional world. Rather, simply that learning to indwell a fictional world is, helpful I think in helping us learn how to indwell the Bilblical world as well. A world, which of course I consider to be the true one.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  15. Ben Myers wrote:

    I once heard an evangelical friend say that he was planning to read Shakespeare’s plays because they would give him “some good sermon illustrations”. That remains one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever heard.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    That is frightening indeed, Ben!

    Thursday, July 26, 2007 at 9:52 am | Permalink

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