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 jumping in here:
In my particular branch of Christianity, we have overdeveloped brains. This statement is not meant as a compliment. We want to reason; we want to know; we memorize, study, preach, teach, diagram, and read. Obviously, I’m not opposed to such things — you’re reading an essay I wrote you. I like to banter about theological topics and reason through my faith. This is a good and praiseworthy endeavor, and it’s part of how we work out our faith with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).
I fear that the side effect of all that intense reasoning is big brains and little hearts. We Christians often admit that we have no problem with head knowledge, but it’s the heart belief and application that we struggle with. I willingly say it because I am a chief offender in this department. One of my old pastors used to say that “the longest distance in the universe is the twelve inches between the human head and the heart.”
God created us with yes, a brain, but also five senses — the avenues by which we enjoy, notice, and savor. He gave us the ability to love people and things; to form attachments and to have broken hearts. He planted desire at the core of our being so that we would long for Him and our true home. When we spend most of our time in reason, logic, and argument, we rob the Gospel of its power: the heart.
This inclination toward desire and story is why, even if your pastor preaches the most well-reasoned sermon in the world, you probably remember the illustration he used more than the bullet points. If he told you a story to paint a word picture of the idea he was communicating, or if he spent time pondering the narrative passage he was preaching, it probably took hold in your heart at a different level than the bits for your brain did. It’s not wrong — it’s how you’re made.
That’s not to say that exposition isn’t important; both stories and sermons have a role to play in our spiritual development. But in my little corner of Evangelicalism, quite frankly, we’re really good with one and terrible at the other.
When we slow down to enjoy the beauty of a story, we feed our hearts and souls in a different way. We also push back against the world’s pressure to prove ourselves — to be maximized, to be efficient, to be competitive. As Christians, secure in this life and the next, we can slow down and enjoy God’s goodness. As Alan Noble explains in his excellent book You Are Not Your Own:
…to act prodigally1 is to make decisions based on love, goodness, and beauty rather than efficiency or productivity or profit.…From our contemporary society’s perspective, there is something wasteful about these actions. We want to know that there is a clear, provable benefit — otherwise, like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), or like Judas when Mary broke her expensive jar of perfume and bathed Jesus’ feet in it (John 12:1-8), we grow bitter at the waste…. But if we are not our own but belong to Christ, things can just be good. And that’s enough.You Are Not Your Own, p. 153
So I encourage you, Christian, to read a good story. Read a story that reminds you of the beauty of human relationships. Read a funny story about quirky neighbors. Read a redemption story that reminds you of hope. Enjoy words and the pictures that come when you read. Lean into the fullness of your whole being — not just for efficiency. Not just for your brain. For your whole person.
1: prodigally: “The Christian alternative to technique is prodigality, which requires the faith to be still, to depend on God for your future. We live prodigally when we act according to love or goodness or beauty rather than primarily efficiency.” (You Are Not Your Own, p.151)