Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Infinite Impact Of Reading Fiction

Eudora Welty wrote about her love of books and reading in her beautiful autobiographical work One Writer's Beginnings. In it she said, ". . . I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them - with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and with their weight and their possession in my arms, captured and carried off by myself." When I read her words, I saw myself. That's one of the great pleasures of reading. As C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know that we are not alone."

What's so amazing about reading is how books can shape and transform who we are, how we think and how we view the world and the people around us. In fact, the books we read in childhood often help define who we are and we invest more of ourselves in them than in any other book we read throughout the rest of our lives. This was definitely the case with me.

The series The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis continues to make ripples in my life. As a child, he opened my eyes up to wonder and possibility. From The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe to the Last Battle, Lewis shaped my belief in a world beyond this one that we have to be childlike in to enter. There is a line in The Magician's Nephew that said, "For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are." Perspective. How I view the world is so often determined by where I am in my life and what sort of person I am. Some of that was influenced and continues to impact my life and my beliefs today.

One of my most beloved books was E. B. White's Charlotte's Web. I loved nature and playing in the woods. White's story of Wilbur and the spider Charlotte made me not only have an affinity for animals but it also taught me great lessons about friendship, death and loss.

Then came Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and I longed to befriend its protagonist Meg Murry. Like me, she did not fit in. But what L'Engle helped me begin to see was not only the grandness of the universe, but also that it's both our strengths and what we see as our weaknesses that make us who we are and can be a help to others.

Last was John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, which I won by memorizing Bible verses. This was a book that my mother read a chapter a night to me before I went to bed. The tale of Christian as he makes his way to the Celestial City, was an allegory of faith that I didn't fully grasp as a boy. Certainly Christian is diverted from the path repeatedly and, in my mind, I kept thinking of Dorothy on the yellow brick road to Oz. Yet this tale offered me something I would only begin to understand better as I got older and had, myself, wandered off the path and that is, it is only in our wandering that there is a story and real development at all. This would be furthered in my heart and mind when I read J.R.R. Tolkien's series about Middle Earth, beginning with The Hobbit. The line that has stayed with me the most was because of its theological truth is, "Not all who wander are lost."

All of these books left imprints not only in my imagination, but also in my faith. They, like many works of great fiction, have caused my theology to expand. This was furthered by the books I began to discover and read while in college and continued to read as an adult. Works by William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, Chaim Potok,Wendell Berry, Frederick Buechner and Marilynne Robinson to name a few. This got me to wondering about how fiction has impacted the theology of other believers.

It was with this in mind that I Tweeted the question: What works of fiction impacted your theology?

Some who follow me on Twitter replied. Their answers ranged from C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce to Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov to James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain .

I also messaged or tweeted the question to some well-known Christians (singers, authors, speakers, bloggers and podcasters), curious to see who would answer and what their replies would be. I am grateful for the generosity of those who did respond.

Singer and songwriter Audrey Assad said hers were Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and John Steinbeck's East of Eden.

For artist Makoto Fujimura it was Shusako Endo's Silence, as well as the poetry of  William Blake, T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson. Both Fujimura and myself had been hugely impacted by Blake's epic poem Jerusalem.

Krista Tippett is a journalist, radio host, author and creator of On Being. She's written books on faith, Einstein, and her last book was entitled Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Her choice was Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible

Singer and songwriter Sara Groves wrote that it was anything by Wendell Berry (Jayber Crow) and Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) because they "Made me ask, What is the good news? Gave me better questions." She also mentioned City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell. "Does Good News = minimum requirements for heaven? Not best answer, best question."

What I loved about Sara Groves' response was that they led her to "better questions." Isn't that part of what it means to have a deeper faith?

We cannot grow if we walk in simple acceptance, never seeking, never asking for ourselves what it is we truly believe and why do we believe that. I think, too often, as believers, we are afraid of questions for fear that it will lead only to doubt, but it's when we ask a question and do not have an answer that we truly have to have faith. Eudora Welty expressed it best when she said, "There is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer." Fiction is not there to give answers, but to provide "better questions." Fiction helps us to see the world in a new way.

It is only when we ask, when we seek that we discover. Reading helps us to not only see others and ourselves better but to begin to realize that we really have not seen. When we are so firm in our convictions that we believe only in our sureness, then we have made an idol of our ideologies. By reading fiction, we inhabit the skins and thoughts of others. We begin to see the world through the eyes of fictional men and women and ask, "What if?" As readers, we place ourselves in their stories and inhabit them until they become our own. Then we realize that the world is so much bigger than we had previously suspected and, so, too, is our God. To quote William Blake, "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern."

University of Toronto researchers Maja Djikic and Keith Oatley found that those who read fiction have a greater sense of empathy for others and make them better at reading other's emotions.

According to their research, fiction can affect long-term changes in the readers through three aspects of literature:

1. Literature puts us in the minds of others.
2. Literature puts us in the frame of mind to open ourselves up to new inner experiences by forgetting ourselves and becoming caught up in the narrative and the emotions of the characters.
3. Literature invites readers to make their own inferences, especially in regards to what a character is feeling.

Because fiction helps create understanding, it opens us up to the experiences, thoughts and beliefs of others. It allows us to become open to paradox and contradiction.  As George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, "It is a narrow mind that cannot look at a subject from various points of view." Reading allows us to, indeed, "look at a subject from various points of views" - those of the characters in the story.

Fiction allows us to open our eyes and see the world in new ways, to see the beauty in ways we had not before, or compassion for those we had not felt that for before.  Reading fiction has allowed me to see things like grace, mercy, love, compassion, and redemption in a new way. Too often my theology can become as frozen as an insect trapped in ember.  Fiction cracks that ember open and, in so doing, allows me to stop putting God and others in my self-constructed boxes. Is it any wonder then that Jesus told stories?

For anyone interested in finding out more about these artists, here are links to their official sites, as well as the books they referenced:

Audray Assad:


Makoto Fujimura:



Krista Tippet:

Sara Groves:


So what are some of yours?

Comment or e-mail to let me know.

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