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Truths We Learn from Fiction

Published May 26, 2010
Truths We Learn from Fiction

For Christians, the value of fiction has been in question for at least 1,600 years. It was then, roughly, in his Confessions, that Augustine lamented the hours he'd squandered studying Virgil. It was time spent on "empty vanities," he said, "mere smoke and wind," and a "sacrifice offered up to the collapsed angels." He yearned for the misspent time, wishing for a way to reclaim it, to spend it "on God's praises in Scripture."

Many believers today sympathize. If they're going to invest time with a book, they want to learn history or theology or be inspired by a stirring memoir. Why, they ask themselves, would they fritter away time on a mere story?

The power of fiction, one might have thought, was settled some 400 years before Augustine when, somewhere on the road between Galilee and Jerusalem, Jesus stopped to preach. At the end of His talk a lawyer asked about eternal life. Jesus told him to love God and his neighbor. But the lawyer, Luke tells us, wanted "to justify himself." He pressed further, asking Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

Without set-up or explanation Jesus replied: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…." Jesus, in response to a pointed question, told a story, the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the space of just seven verses, Jesus developed characters the lawyer recognized. He placed the story in a setting that made it easy to imagine. There's tension, first with the robbery and beating, then with the arrival of the priest, again with the appearance of the Levite. And then, in the middle of the story, comes the unexpected twist: the approach of a Samaritan.

Scene-by-scene we listen as Jesus weaves a fictitious tale that—more vividly than any direct answer—confronts us with profound, moral truth.

The renowned literary critic Harold Bloom says that there isn't, necessarily, a best way to read fiction, but there is, he believes, a single reason why: "Information is endlessly available," Bloom says, but where shall we find wisdom?

Annie Dillard, the author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and several other novels, understands. "Why are we reading," she rhetorically asks in The Writing Life, "if not in the hope of … life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?" Fiction, Dillard explains, "vivifies" our experiences. Good stories "magnify and dramatize our days," they "illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness…" Stories, the novelist assures her readers, press upon our minds "the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power."

More Social Than a Facebook Friend

Some have speculated that novels have become less popular with the advent of social media; that people gravitate to the more interactive and communal aspects of the online sites where so many now gather. Further thought might lead to a better conclusion. Novels are, in fact, more deeply social than your best Facebook friend ever imagined.

In the best fiction, writers reveal themselves. Through characters, dialog, action, and reflection they disclose their philosophies, emotions, and beliefs. Gene Veith, the writer and media critic, says that, "Reading a poem or a novel puts the reader inside the author's consciousness." Readers come face-to-face with the writer's assumptions, Veith says. They understand his or her emotional responses, they glean something of the author's priorities, they know—page-by-page—what's worthwhile. "The reader," Veith says, "has access to the author's imagination…."

A novel or poem then is no "tweet" that can be consumed in passing. Rather, in novels and poems we read and reread and ponder another's worldview. We interact with attitudes, opinions, and assumptions that have taken, in most cases, years—not seconds—to compose.

It is true that we read alone. Reading is, Harold Bloom says, "one of the great pleasures of solitude—"a healing pleasure," he calls it. But somehow, even in the solitude, reading "returns you to otherness…." It makes you more aware of friends and family members, it helps you sympathize, and it broadens your perspective. Imaginative literature, Bloom says, is otherness, and as such eases our loneliness. "We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life."

Freed from our Chronological Captivity

When asked about the value of reading fiction, C.S. Lewis replied, "The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being." Lewis expressed what any thoughtful human feels: that we want to be "more than ourselves." We are—with the one mind, with a single frame of reference, with our narrow range of emotions —too limited. How wonderful, Lewis thought, to see, hear, feel, and understand what's been revealed to others, to can gain, through literature, an entry point into other worlds.

Harold Bloom echoes Lewis's thought. "We read, "frequently if unknowingly," he says, "in quest of a mind more original than our own."

With old-fashioned books—the kind stacked on library shelves, bound in musty book boards, printed with ink on paper—we have a repository of profound thought. Old novels, Lewis believed, carry us through the ages and around the world; they put us in touch with the best thinkers of earlier eras, they are the means by which we transcend our "chronological captivity…." Books, he said, "free us from the intellectual and imaginative constraints of the one [time] that we happen to inhabit."

"We read Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Dickens, Proust, and all their peers," Bloom adds, "because they more than enlarge life. Pragmatically, they have become the Blessing in its true Yahwistic sense of "more life into a time without boundaries." 

Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine. He's also the author of two novels, Safe at Home (2008) and Crossing the Lines (2009), both published by David C. Cook Publishers.

**This article first published on May 12, 2010.


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