This week’s episode of the Connected Kingdom Podcast has Tim responding to my challenge to talk about about reading fiction. You’ve got two options: You can read the transcript below or you can listen in by clicking on the audio player. If you listen in, you’ll be able to hear the two of us interact. Download here.
There is power in story. Christians have long realized this and today, perhaps more than any other time in the history of the church, believers speak of the whole sweep of Christian theology as a story—a story that has its beginning in the Creation of the world and a story that will close with the consummation, with God renewing this world and raising us to join him in it. This is the story that will go on and on forever, the story of all stories. Jesus himself used story in powerful ways, sharing amazing and important truths through parables, short stories designed to both hide and reveal truth—to hide it from those who would not hear and to reveal it to those who longed for it. It is worth noting, of course, that much of the Bible comes in the form of story and that the bestselling Christian book apart from the Bible—The Pilgrim’s Progress—is a story.
I confess that I usually enjoy fiction only in short batches. Every year or two I will pick up a few novels—a few that have been nominated for a Pulitzer prize, perhaps, and I will read them through. They transport me to strange places and, more often than not, make me uncomfortable. But I almost always benefit from them. They give me a glimpse into someone else’s mind, someone else’s world or worldview. And as often as not they also tell me what other people, the people around me, are thinking or feeling, or what they will be thinking or feeling soon enough.
In some ways fiction tends to be just very slightly upstream from culture, which is to say that the kind of fiction that deals with ideas and not just stories or passion or action, puts into words the times, the thoughts and feelings that pervade the culture or will soon pervade the culture. These works of fiction ask the questions so many are asking.
I have heard it said that the purpose of fiction is to ask questions while the purpose of nonfiction is to answer them. That may be an over-simplification, but maybe it is not too far off the mark. At least that has been my experience of fiction. Fiction introduces ideas and evokes feelings and arouses emotion. These feelings demand answers or make us long for them. There are many questions I have been asked in fiction that I’ve had to go to the world of nonfiction to answer.
Cormac McCarthy’s novels ask if there is hope even in a world like this one, a world of darkness and depravity. John Piper has rightly said that Cormac McCarthy is to the American literary canon what the book of Judges is to the biblical canon. McCarthy portrays the darkness of humanity and asks us if there is hope even here. It doesn’t offer answers—just questions, questions brought about by deep feelings of pain or revulsion or sadness. Answers must be found elsewhere.
The recent novel The Snow Child asks, Is it worth loving if we can love for only a short time? Where do we find our hope and our joy? It makes us hope and long and wish and maybe even believe. But it asks questions that it cannot answer.
Olive Kitteredge, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, asks what value there is in life and what joy can be found in growing old. What do we do about the sins we committed so many years ago? Do they still matter? And how can two souls remain knit together even after so many years and through so much hurt and sin?
Tom Clancy…okay, never mind. His books just tell some action-packed stories.
But how about The Lord of the Rings, a true and lasting classic? Here is a novel that transports us to a world of such clear good and evil. It asks us what we will give to defeat evil and what value there is in the deepest kind of friendship. Born out of Tolkien’s experiences on the front lines of the First World War, this is a novel that seeks to give a very different take on this kind of a world—a world in which good and evil do battle to the death.
We could speak of C.S. Lewis and his Narnia series, which begins with the story of the Bible and then wonders, how would a story like this be told if there was a very different land in which it was always winter but never Christmas and where the Lion of Judah was actually a lion? But like most other fiction, it asks questions more than it answers them. It hints at something more, points to something beyond itself.
I am convinced that to truly enjoy fiction we need to have a knowledge of what is true and fixed and unchanging, which is to say, we need to know the Bible. So many questions are asked in the pages of books that can only be answered in the pages of The Book. The Bible interprets and refines and answers. It gives hope where fiction is hopeless, it gives light where fiction is dark, it gives joy where fiction is depressing. Fiction gives us stories of the world as it is or the world as someone images it; an author takes his experiences and hopes and desires and dreams and wraps them in a story. The Bible takes that story and makes sense of it. It tells us why the world is this way, why this author’s experience of the world has been so painful, why there is still hope even in a world like this.
That is what I love in fiction; that is why I love fiction that probes the deep questions and asks the tough questions. If I did not have access to the answers through God’s Word I would despair. But the Bible skillfully parries each blow and patiently, carefully answers each question. The fixed and unchangeable Word of God is the interpreter.
So I encourage Christians to read fiction—to read it carefully and discerningly and while listening to conscience and to allow it to asks its questions—but to always read it with the Bible as the source of answers.
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