Over the years, I’ve hesitated to tell people that reading fiction is essential to a well-rounded worldview. I don’t like to push my opinions on anyone, because what works for me might not work for them, and vice versa. I also find it hard to articulate exactly why I find fiction so compelling. It’s not because I don’t read and enjoy other kinds of literature—I find history, philosophy, and memoir all particularly moving—or because I want to escape life. It’s more than that—something deeper. There are certain ways of seeing truth, glimpses of beauty and eternity and coming restoration, that I only find in stories.
If you struggle to find fiction beautiful because you’ve seen the harm it can do, I sympathize with you. Just like anything good can be twisted, storytelling can also be used to distort, deceive, or appeal to our baser desires. Anyone who’s ever browsed in a library or bookstore will see this.
However, anything that has such a large potential for harm also has amazing potential for healing and truth. Goodness and Beauty will win out over evil every time. And we can participate in that victory by actively searching out the beautiful things in our world and engaging with them.
Here are a few reasons why I find fiction beautiful and compelling:
Storytelling as Art
Because fiction is an art made of words, we tend to think it can be translated into other words without losing anything. So people think a story is just a way of delivering a message. Art frees us; and the art of words can take us beyond anything we can say in words. I wish, instead of looking for a message when we read a story, we could think, “Here’s a door opening on a new world: what will I find there?”Ursula K. Le Guin
I think many people view reading fiction as a waste of time because they misunderstand its purpose. They expect novels to resemble nonfiction—to be either ultra-realistic, like memoirs and biographies, or to have a clear agenda, like history, theology, and philosophy. And while most authors do have some sort of statement they want to make, many just want to tell a good story. Their characters are like us, flawed and impatient and prone to making bad decisions. Their plots reflect the chaos of our world, while managing a cohesion we can only wish for. Their settings may mirror earth or be its polar opposite, but still feel familiar.
You won’t be able to come away from a good novel with one simple application, moral, or life lesson. Reading fiction with this expectation is like attending an orchestra concert or walking through an art gallery expecting to learn a practical skill. Instead, try reading fiction in the same way you experience nature; look for wonder, grandeur, or glimpses of hope and beauty. Allow the story to open space in your mind for you to think, feel, or process. Use the aspects you agree or disagree with to initiate healthy discussions with your friends and family.
Art should be approached with a mind thirsting for beauty and truth, not one looking for specific life lessons. When I read fiction, I’m searching for understanding—of the world, of myself, of people in general. I look for stories that either bring me hope or remind me why I need it, stories that are vulnerable and human, that broaden my empathy and understanding instead of confirming my prior biases. I encourage you to do the same.
Storytelling as Worship
Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful. …The other reason I say that imagination is a Christian duty is that when a person speaks or writes or sings or paints about breathtaking truth in a boring way, it is probably a sin.John Piper1
A few years ago, my family and I spent a Sunday morning in a rainforest in Washington state. One particular place felt like a massive cathedral, a clearing surrounded by ancient trees hung with moss and shot through with golden shafts of sunlight. It was a shelter, not only from the rain, but from the racing of my thoughts, from the craziness of the wider world. In that wet, wonderful Eden, there was no escape from the peace. My heart was laid bare, nothing hidden from the Creator of both forest and me. In that peace, He could speak to me, and I to Him. For someone who had mostly associated worship with singing, it was an epiphany. Worship is not only what we do, but how we do it.
In this vein, participating in good fiction can and should lead us to worship. Even many secular novels are laced with themes of redemption, love, forgiveness, and hope, all ideas that are at the heart of Christianity. Although not all authors come to correct conclusions, they (the honest ones, at least) may ask good, thought-provoking questions that can incite worship, wonder, and hope.
Stories have also given me space to reflect on and understand myself. Much of what I know of myself as a person has been gleaned from various characters in novels I’ve read over the years. Seeing parts of my personality validated and articulated and fleshed out has been both shocking and delightful at the same time. For me, sometimes worship means learning to understand and embrace the complexities of my humanity that reflect my Creator in order to mold it into something beautiful.
In his Nobel lecture, Kazuo Ishiguro said, “In the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”Claire Rudy Foster2
Stories have been around for as long as humanity has. Passed on through song, carved onto cave walls, pressed into clay, handwritten on parchment, and now printed on paper and transmitted digitally, storytelling is an art form that will never go out of style. It’s part of our psyche as humans, a way of expressing what we care about and what we hope for. It helps us understand our world and the part we play in it.
Good stories do more than entertain. They attempt to make order out of chaos, to illuminate the threads of hope and love we tend to overlook. They speak to the heart instead of the head. They find redemption in tragedy, familiarity in the extraordinary, and beauty in the mundane. They amuse and entertain while never distracting from the real world. They are sometimes cautionary tales and sometimes bright visions of the future Restoration.
Good stories are beautiful because they explore the tension between Truth and Lies, between Good and Evil, between Beauty and Perversion.
Good stories are beautiful because they are True.