Last fall I dropped by the church office to drop something off. After a few minutes of chatting with the staff, I picked up my keys to go home. One of our interns then asked me the question, “what would you say to someone who thinks it’s not valuable spiritually to read fiction?” I put down my keys. An hour later, I actually went home, and he went back to his seminary homework. This series is inspired by that conversation.
If you’re just jumping in here:
“…if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Here we have a serviceable definition of empathy: considering things from someone else’s point of view. In our current moment of divisive speech and conflict, could empathy get us somewhere better? Biblically speaking, empathy is what assists us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)
Modern psychologists have done quite a bit of work on the fact that fiction readers tend to be more empathetic people. Most theorize that the same skill is required: putting yourself in someone else’s spot for a time. When we suspend our daily life to enter into the experiences of a fictional character, we exercise a muscle of living someone else’s life for a bit. If this muscle is strong enough, the argument goes, we are better able to do this in real life, as well.
“We are living in extremely polarized times, even in church, so walking through someone else’s experiences and point of view, that is what we need as the body of Christ to listen to one another, to understand one another, to hold back before we offer our opinion or judgment and to walk through things with people.” – said Karen Swallow Prior, speaking in September 2021.
Though this series is based on reading fiction, I think this same argument for empathy can be made about reading memoir. For example, the last book I read at the end of last year was Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue. This novel is the true story of Daniel’s childhood. His family fled to the United States from Iran after his mother converted to Christianity. Beginning at age eight, he navigated the already-fraught world of elementary school as a refugee.
Though I have plenty of experience with elementary school, both as a student and a teacher, I’ve never done it as someone displaced from my home, learning a new language, and living in an entirely different culture. As I read Daniel’s story, I was moved by the struggles as he adjusted to life in Oklahoma. Remember what it was like to discover that you had a teacher who was on your side in a unique way? Now imagine how much it meant for Daniel to need someone like that. His book lets us feel that need.
Again, our friend CS Lewis has a word for us:
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality… in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”― C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. -1 Peter 3:8