Some faithful Christians refuse to read fiction. The reason cited is the same: If there is time to read, they’d rather read something true. Better to plow up a real field than a pretend one. Such prejudice against fiction isn’t new. General Robert E. Lee forbade his son Rob from reading novels because they would discourage industriousness and cause him to desire unreal things. Similarly, many faithful Christians look upon fiction reading as a diversion, nothing more than a trifling digression, like when their grandmother passed the golden years reading tawdry romance novels. To them, fiction is just stories, usually bad stories, that have the redeeming qualities of a Spanish soap opera. In contrast, non-fiction is viewed as the clean and complete road to truth that doesn’t tempt the dangers of imagination.
Granted, it is crucial to acknowledge there are many bad novels. It is also crucial to acknowledge that many bad novels are manifestly bad. They waste your time and soul just as much as the latest Netflix series. There is a need to separate the wheat and the chaff. For every Wendell Berry masterpiece, there is a twistical E.L. James washout. But it is also manifestly not the case that fiction is false while non-fiction is true. And the probity of this assertion stands tall even before we account for the disaster that is Howard Zinn, whose revisionist history is passed around by college students who think they are getting the “real history” of the United States.
Fiction is often more real than fact. The reason is given by Barney, a student in Nora Baines’s history class in Nat Hentoff’s novel, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, “Fiction is sometimes more real than fact. I mean, it can tell you more than facts. It can tell you more about what ordinary people were like in certain times and places than laws and battles and things like that . . . Fiction is imagination. The novelist can suppose, and so he can get inside people’s heads.” Michel Foucault, the historian of ideas, responded to the charge that his fiction wasn’t history by saying, “It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth.”
Books exist because people with ideas wish to explain them. Some explain using didactic prose. Others do so in a provocative narrative containing thick layers of meaning. But the test that separates good from evil and beauty from ugliness is not whether or not the book is fiction or non. If one provides mental clarity of righteousness and the other mental confusion, then there exists a valid test separating truth from falsehood, a test that spans far beyond whether the book is non-fiction.
There is an unbroken thread that connects fiction with non-fiction. Each contributes something. The best non-fiction books plunge the reader deep into the mystery of the subject. The best fiction books get the reader out of the deep. If there is a curious and fantastic truth in the non-fiction book, it is concretely embodied in the imagination of a story. If the goal of virtue is incarnation, then illustrations aren’t optional extras. It is the business of fiction to disclose the carefully argued points of non-fiction. To the degree that fiction provides a sense of truth, it retains powerful intellectual and spiritual relevance to the church.
The best of fiction takes place at the point where several branches intersect, including theology, spirituality, philosophy, and phenomenology. The nature of life tells us that stories are not indulgent accessories.
Three reasons Christians should not snub quality fiction
First, reading fiction demystifies the human condition
What does life consist of? Temptation. Depression. Pretension. Self-love. Forgiveness. Lust. Laughter. Fake laughter. Hope. Duty. Delight. The best novels advise on the most complex subjects of life—the beliefs that lodge in the heart.
Consider, for example, how Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila provides insights into the mentality of people who grow up as orphans in a traumatized childhood. The main character, Lila, walks through life under a cloud of shame that continually rains reminders that she is not good enough. Her every move makes her more ashamed of herself, even when the deed is innocent. She assumes everyone looks at her as a fool. She talks roughly to people “so that she could say when it ended she always knew it would.” She dreams of dignity but then resists kindness. It’s the long agony of self-sabotage. When she enters into a respectable life, she wonders, “What happens when somebody isn’t herself anymore?”
There is nothing on earth more terrific than the labyrinth that is the interior of the soul. There is hatred hidden in the darkest corner; vanity veiled in the unplumbed undercroft. Yet modern man balters through life addicted to hedonic emptiness that wrecks the marrow of the human ego. Novels expound on the mysterious content of human existence, taking readers beyond the primitive stage of reflection. It not only provides the sobering effect of understanding others’ experiences but it enlightens the darkness of bitterness, cowardliness, and sorcery to make the intractable man covet conversion.
Second, reading fiction inspires obedience
Marilynne Robinson says that fiction “exercises the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” How does this happen? Maryanne Wolf cites research showing that when a reader develops a fondness for a fictional character and that character starts running, the reader’s motor cortex activates as if he is running. Such a stimulated imagination creates real effects, as King David learned.
Nathan was God’s spokesman (2 Sam. 7:2) during the time of David. It was his job to confront David about his sin against Uriah and Bathsheba. Before making the direct accusation (2 Sam. 12:9), the prophet tells David a story about two men; one rich and the other poor. The rich man has many flocks (2 Sam. 12:2). The poor man has one little lamb (2 Sam. 12:3). A traveler arrives at the rich man’s house. Rather than slaughter one of his own sheep, the rich host takes the poor man’s little lamb to feed the guest (2 Sam. 12:4). David’s anger is kindled and he unwittingly condemns himself by pronouncing a death sentence on the rich man (2 Sam. 12:5). Then Nathan says, “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7). David, in return, makes a full confession (2 Sam. 12:13; Ps. 51).
The power of Nathan’s story animated David’s repentance. It was only when the reality of the situation was vividly portrayed via fable that David’s hard heart softened. Nathan could have handed David an ethics textbook. But that wouldn’t have described David’s moral situation with the richness and complexity that reached David’s heart.
Another example of inspired obedience comes from Willa Catha’s book, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Bishop Jean Marie Latour is appointed to establish the new diocese of New Mexico. Latour carries out a selfless program of ministry by traveling widely throughout the territory ministering to the poorest of the poor and the rich alike. In old age, the bishop catches a cold. His young assistant, Bernard, tries to comfort him with the words, “One does not die of a cold.” The old bishop smiles and says, “I shall not die of a cold, my son, I shall die of having lived.” This is the distinctly Christian way of living and dying. As Jesus said, it’s the only way to receive life, “for whoever will save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life more my sake will find it” (Mt. 16:25).
It is true we can learn about what this means from a brilliant non-fiction book, like’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, where he says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” But in the life of Bishop Latour, we see it in action.
While it’s important to grasp Christian concepts, it’s imperative that they grasp us. Stories confront the sort of disengaged reason that knows God from afar as if he is a matter to be studied without personal involvement.
Third, reading fiction divulges the world
If reading a book is a conversation, then the more genres you read the more assorted conversations you have. In literature, the reader experiences what he sees. That experience contributes greatly to his comprehension of the world. The mistake of rationalism is to confine comprehension to the mind. This ignores the inklings of the soul, the suggestions of holy transcendence that people feel but can’t prove. The sense that there is something more needs to be drawn out. Non-fiction is rarely up to the task, not like poetry and fiction.
Typical unbelief in the twenty-first century is not intellectual—it’s not for lack of evidence. Rather unbelief is visceral. Peter Kreeft says, “The root of most atheism is not argument but attitude, not intellection but feeling, not the love of truth but the fear of truth.” People love themselves and don’t wish to bend the knee to another. People feel the irresistible pull of two-second worldly pleasures and don’t wish to repent. They want to do what they want to do. They want to determine truth. They want to determine meaning. They want to determine worth. They want to define the world. Rejection of God is sin-soaked emotion, not ivory tower reflection. It is a toddler tantrum trying to conquer the parents’ will.
Fiction appeals to the visceral aspects of human existence—desires, hopes, longings, ideals, imagination, and fears. It allows the disruptive voice of Christianity to offer an alternative human existence, one where human satisfaction doesn’t come merely from earth-fed sources.
For example, consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonist in the novel, The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby desires Daisy Buchannan as his personalized ideal of meaning. She is the splintered light of hope that breaks through the imminent frame of Gatsby’s flattened world. His pursuit of Daisy represents the haunting experience of transcendence for those who live their life exclusively below the sun. Reading the novel helps the reader feel that the locus of meaning is found only in that which is beyond mere physical grasping.
Christians read because they are people of the book. Peter Leithart explains, “We read because in reading we encounter the God who is Word. Christians extend this argument easily to ‘edifying’ reading.’” Every human life is a reflection of the influences, documents, and stories that are deposited in the soul. What one reads (or doesn’t read) drives what they believe, what they do, and how they make decisions about the future.
Read to enlarge your being, as C.S. Lewis said. Talk about the books you are reading and ask others what they are reading. Read theology and history. And also read fiction. Read Flannery O’Connor and G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien and Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot and John Buchan. Read George MacDonald and P.G. Wodehouse. Why? Because it’s good for your soul.
 Allen Guelzo, Robert E. Lee: A Life (New York: Knopf, 2021), 147.
 Christopher Watkin, Michel Foucault (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2018), xxiii.
 Marilynne Robinson, Lila (New York: Picador, 2014), 172f, 185.
 Marilynne Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books (New York: Picador, 2013), 21.
 Willa Catha, Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 [orig. 1927]), 267.
 Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993), 28.
 Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018).
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.