Christians are not always fans of fiction, so should we avoid the fantastical or is there some value to be had in made-up stories?
Most people are at least passingly familiar with Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. It’s required reading in at least some schools, though how many students actually read it is still a matter of debate. Still, most people know the general ins and outs of the plot.
In a post-apocalyptic world, books are brutally abridged to accommodate shorter attention spans, but then the government decides that they are only a source of confusion and malcontent. The solution is to get rid of them. Enter Guy Montag, a fireman; but unlike today’s firemen, he doesn’t put out the flames. He starts fires. He’s paid very well by the government to burn books and the houses where they’re hidden away.
One day, however, Montag witnesses a woman who chooses to burn alive with her books rather than leave them. He’s badly shaken and ends up stealing a book.
Not knowing how to read, he seeks help from another character who tells him, “The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They're Caeser's praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caeser, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can't rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven't time, money or that many friends.
“The things you're looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.”
Montag then discovers that the book he stole from the burning woman’s house is actually a copy of the Bible, and he slowly begins memorizing the book of Ecclesiastes.
Is Fiction Dangerous or Not?
Fiction books have not always been welcome in church. Even to this day, a substantial portion of the Christian world view fiction books as suspect, and here are the most commonly cited reasons:
Reading anything other than the Bible (or books about the Bible) is taking time away from spending time with God or engaging in Kingdom work.
Fiction can make you lower our guard against unbiblical values and cause us to empathize with characters who promote poor behavior, eventually causing us to adopt those values or approve of those individuals in real life.
Books can…well, this view: “A third danger is when the line between reality and fiction begins to blur. A child watching a Superman movie may put on a cape and jump off a roof to be like Superman—clearly, the line was blurred. This blurring of lines is dangerous, particularly for children and teenagers whose minds are still developing. Some fantasy books, like the Narnia books, are Christian based and make a clear distinction between reality and fiction, but many secular works out there make no attempt to do so.”
I loved books as a child and distinctly recall a well-meaning church goer warning my mother that she was destroying my ability to tell fiction from reality with speculative fiction.
As an eight-year-old, I felt insulted. Who reads about Peter Pan and actually thinks that they can fly? Many years later, I still feel vaguely offended. If children, teens and any adults are incapable of differentiating between the imaginary lands between the pages and the world they walk around in, then the issue is probably more medical or psychological than the fault of the book.
The other two points, however, do present honest concerns of Christians who want to live in a God-pleasing way. As Jim Cymbala, World Challenge board member, notes in a devotion, “Holy, separated living isn’t preached about much anymore because we fear it might offend…but when the Spirit starts his work, we will always have a new desire for holiness and a quest for Christlikeness. ‘As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 14-16).
“The word holy speaks of separation and purity. It must be important to God, for he tells us that ‘without holiness no one will see the Lord’ (Hebrews 12:14).”
So where do we place fiction in terms of godly living?
The Saving of the Unsaintly
Immersing one’s self in a fictional world, regardless of the degree of fantasticalness, does take us away from the events around us. Sometimes this is harmful because it means we’re neglecting real world work, but many times, it can actually be helpful.
Sometimes, for some children (and adults), stories can save.
Terri Windling, now acclaimed author and professor, was just such a child. “Mine was not a Brady Bunch family; it was troubled, fractured, persistently violent, and I needed the stronger meat of wolves and witches, poisons and peril. In fairy tales, I had found a mirror held up to the world I knew — where adults were dangerous creatures, and Good and Evil were not abstract concepts….
“This was the early 1960s, before strict child abuse reporting laws — when jaded, overworked doctors (all too common in working class neighborhoods) routinely stitched my brothers and me back together and sent us home. Silence surrounded those cuts and bruises, those scalded hands and broken bones. We didn't use the word ‘abuse’; this was just something that fathers did. Fathers, I'd learned from fairy tales, were sometimes good and sometimes wicked. Mine, it appeared, was wicked, and so I needed a fairy godmother's advice.”
When her father’s abuse turned sexual, she fled home, taking inspiration from the many girls in old tales who knew similar darkness and found light elsewhere. I’ve often read Windling’s beautiful works and wished that she would follow the path to safety that another book offers, a path up to the cross.
The saving of a mind through books might not always be so dramatic. Fiction can do important work in our minds through more subtle means.
Author Barnabas Piper wrote, “[W]hen I was young, Puddleglum and Faramir were the characters that helped me realize how stupid my Picture Bible was, and they made me want to get to know the ancient saints ‘for reals.’
“Fantasy fiction helped me look past the evangelical neutering of the Bible that is all too common, and see things without all the modernist PG filters that have been imposed on it. I realized Gandalf was directly downstream from (and inspired by) Moses—that old man leaning on his staff in Pharaoh’s court. I learned that the entire superhero genre was spawned from the Book of Judges (and Messianic yearnings). Lewis and Tolkien (and Chesterton and Wodehouse) helped calibrate my eyes and my mind to see things that would’ve remained unseen otherwise.”
The best stories discuss incorrect worldviews, unhealthy individuals and broken relationships without endorsing them. The Bible very clearly does just that throughout almost the entirety of the Old Testament. The lives of those kings, prophets and judges aren’t exactly saintly more often than not.
Unfortunately, no book outside of the Bible can perfectly capture the truth. Some get close. Many more go far afield. The task of a believer is to suss out where book (and author) stands and sift out the good and true from the faulty and incorrect.
Learning to Listen While We Read
Figuring out whether every story we come across is good or not can feel like an overwhelming task. Is this character admirable or not? Is this book’s conclusion about its own events accurate to spiritual truths or not?
Let me offer another way to see this issue of discerning whether or story is worth reading or not. Are you willing to listen to the convictions of the Spirit while you read fiction? Are you willing to empathize with a certain type of person or understand an unfamiliar situation in a new way?
Jeanne Damoff, author of Parting the Waters, makes this point with a delightful dash of satire. “Christians should definitely not read fiction. They risk opening their minds to vain imaginations and puffing themselves up with knowledge. Who knows what they might be emboldened to do? Engage their atheistic neighbors in conversation? Take a stand against social injustice? Travel to heathen countries and mingle with uncivilized people groups? The world is a broken place, and we can’t risk the possibility of story painting pictures that open the eyes of Christians to its pain. Think what might happen if we do!”
What if fiction were one potential way for the Spirit to get our attention, convict us about an old sin or open our eyes to the pain of another? If Christ told stories to bring home spiritual truths for his audience, there’s no reason the Spirit can’t do something similar today with a good, old fashioned book.
As Dr. Rosalie de Rosset, professor at the Moody Bible Institute, insightfully noted, “the difference between a good book and a bad book is that a good book takes you deeper into life and a bad book distracts you from life.”
So let’s allow ourselves to be drawn into a good book. We might see and learn things we would’ve never imagined otherwise.