It felt like a guilty pleasure, like scrolling through pratfall videos on TikTok. I could have been studying I Corinthians or poring over the latest John Piper paperback. I could even have been slogging through The Scarlet Letter for AP English. But there I was sitting on my bed, turning the pages in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
When Harry wanted to die, tormented with unbearable pain, he overpowered Voldemort through his capacity to love. I cried, reassured. It reminded me of when the Apostle John said, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18 ESV).
I had always believed fiction was nothing more than entertainment; reading theology was a better use of my time. However, I realized that fiction can do something mere theology can’t, which makes it especially valuable to the Christian’s intellectual and spiritual transformation.
I did not grow up an avid reader. I enjoyed a few books but never the ones assigned in school. But when I became a Christian, the Gospels awakened my love for reading. Alongside my morning Bible reading, I devoured all the theology and Christian living books I could get my hands on.
My senior year of high school brought my second reading awakening. Ms. White, my AP English teacher, opened my eyes to Shakespeare as she enthusiastically taught King Lear. I’d always assumed any book assigned in school was either drab, irrelevant, or impossibly abstruse and, thus, something that would only help me get a good grade. However, Ms. White dismantled my utilitarian view of literature by delighting in the beauty of wordsmithing and storytelling. For the first time, I marveled at the author behind the well-crafted words. That class made me want to be an English major.
I’ve since realized how much reading fiction has enhanced my journey of sanctification in a number of ways.
First, reading fiction helps us love people. C.S. Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism makes a helpful distinction between using and receiving art. To use art is to treat it as solely practical, rather than delightful. Instead of meeting the author on her terms, we read selfishly to improve our vocabulary or be known as a “reader.” According to Lewis, receiving art is an act of surrender. It’s about getting yourself out of the way and seeing through the eyes of another. As you do so, you realize that people are not just caricatures but image-bearers who hurt and want to be loved. Literature has exposed me to people I would usually push away—the addict, the adulterer, the self-righteous scold. My world expands as I understand the riches and nuances of their ways of seeing. Reading even “pagan” books can be valuable. We can embrace people without adopting what they believe—a dispositional shift from judgment to empathy. Yes, we want to read critically, but with love and humility.
Second, reading fiction exposes our blind spots. The speck in another’s eye often protrudes more than the log in our own. As with David and Nathan in 2 Samuel 12, stories make us an observer, revealing flaws in ourselves we didn’t know were there—and not only our sins, but how they affect our relationships. In George Elliot’s Adam Bede, Arthur is the literary equivalent of a Pharisee: he cares more about being perceived as righteous than about being righteous. However, his continual effort to preserve his image, even if it means sinning, becomes his downfall. Although I initially despised Arthur, his story indicted me. I saw myself in him. I knew it was folly to live for others’ approval, but seeing it lived out, through a story, convicted me.
Third, reading fiction has the unique power to shape hearts. Theology informs the mind to know what is right, but good stories instruct the heart to love it. I emphasize good because quality matters. Though Twilight may be entertaining (for some), it’s likely not edifying. That’s not to say we shouldn’t read Twilight, but—like McDonald’s—it probably isn’t healthy if that’s all you consume. You may not love Austen right away, just as you hated your first sip of coffee, but your tastes mature as you continue to read. We want what we read to be instrumental, not detrimental, to our hearts’ transformation. Whether we realize it or not, every story, including ours, is a pilgrimage to God. It is people feeling their way toward Him that they may find Him (Acts 17:27). Reading, then, is ultimately not only an end in itself but a means to enjoying the Author of the Greatest Story. May reading serve us to that end of glorifying and enjoying Him forever.
Featured image by stockgiu.