We were gathered around our dinner table with friends and a home-cooked feast, and the conversation turned to reading. My friend mentioned that in the past twenty years he has read, at most, three fiction books—out of hundreds of nonfiction books. “With so many things to learn in the world, I don’t have time for fiction.”
I barely held back my cry: “Who has time not to read fiction?
Warm apple pie and the knowledge that I wouldn’t change his mind cut short our discussion, but I have thought about it since.
Can we learn anything from fiction? Is it profitable to read something that is “all made up”?
Sure, there’s worthless fiction out there that shouldn’t be defended. But the stories that are True—though born in the imagination—teach our hearts who we are and how the world is, in ways that nothing else can.
How can fiction be True? It adorns the greater Story. Good is good. Evil is evil. The war between the two is fierce and fiery. But no matter how long the battle lasts, no matter how far off is the ending, no matter how much is lost through it, Good wins in the end and all will be restored. We are made in the image of God and yet are broken by the Fall: lovely, and yet often repellent. Glorious ruins, as Francis Schaeffer put it. The noblest saint sins, and the vilest offender may repent. People are complex.
These truths course through good fiction like magma under the earth’s crust, churning, bursting forth, creating new topography and bringing forth both the aroma of life, in fertile volcanic soil, and of death, in the destruction of lava flows. The Gospel Story deals in both the horrors of darkness and the newness of life.
My five-year-old daughter routinely wakes up at the crack of dawn – which in Taipei is around five a.m. — to write and illustrate her own stories (especially “mistrees”) about pirates and princesses, bunnies and bats. At bedtime we read Charlotte’s Web or The Silver Chair, and she falls asleep listening to Jim Dale tell the stories of James Herriot or Mr. Tickle. She doesn’t know a thing about literary theory and we’ve never taught her how to construct a narrative. But she gets what makes a good story. And she loves it.
This love is not a product of e-readers or the printing press; early oral communities gathered together to hear the great stories of their people. It goes back to the very beginning, to how we were made. God placed us in a story. As His image-bearers, we are drawn toward stories that resonate with what His creation whispers and His Word shouts.
In Dear Mr. Knightley, a new favorite of mine, the protagonist Sam reflects on ruthlessly and self-protectively winning her race with a fellow (younger) foster kid.
“This was more than a race. Kyle was running for his life.… No one bolstered me or gave me encouragement. I could have done that for Kyle. But I hate to lose.… He showed me the real Kyle, and I crushed him. Is this the adult I’ve become?”
My heart aches as I think about the times I’ve crushed another person to protect my fragile pride. Truth in a story can glide past our defenses in ways an argument cannot—Jesus and Nathan the prophet knew this well.
And for those who don’t know the weariness and clumsiness of forging into adulthood without a family, Sam leads you through unimagined hardships into compassion. When she is given a gift of great joy, I wept for the longing it stirred up in me and for the tender, unfurling tendrils of her hope. Knowing someone from the inside out is a privilege rarely afforded us in normal life.
Fantasy in particular is sometimes dismissed as frivolous, which neglects its inherent power. Fantasy strips away the surface layer of things and provides spiritual realities with a fundamental physicality. Orcs do not hide their treachery in their hearts; their very bodies are twisted. The White City is luminous, a bastion of the way of light and life.
In our more subtle real world, the true nature of things is typically tucked away beneath careful facades or the reality that people are like onions — we have layers (thanks, Donkey). Good fantasy picks out and magnifies what is underneath those layers — both what is and what could be.
The way stories draw us in is why compelling-but-false fiction is so dangerous. When we believe the false stories, we often believe so deeply that it’s hard to dislodge deceptions for the truth, and many stories in this world are a knotty mix of both. The enemy is clever enough to know that feeding us a few sparse lies is not nearly as effective as enticing us with a rousing life story that could come true for us, if we do things his way.
And so, our work of True story-telling becomes all the more vital: not because we are reactive, though we do sometimes tear down shams, but because hungry people will believe something. We have all been hungry, before we were filled, and some of us chose false stories at first because of their shine and shimmer. Left to ourselves, we are like raccoons with their balled-up paws caught in traps as they cling to shiny things (as in Where The Red Fern Grows). Now in Christ we see the cheap, flaking veneer of the false stories, and the solid-to-the-core luster of the True Story.
I have loved fiction longer than I can remember—“I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun”—and I have hope that the best stories will shape my children as they shaped me. True fiction furthers the Great Story and trains our imaginations to love and yearn for what is good. It is well worth our time.