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    open book with the shadows of flowers across it

    Is Reading Fiction a Waste of Time?

    Or is it a valuable spiritual discipline we need more than we realize?

    By Kathleen A. Mulhern

    May 19, 2022
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    • Christina Bieber Lake

      I cannot tell you how delighted I was to read this piece! I've spent my entire career trying to convince Christians that reading fiction is essential to spiritual formation. I'm working on a book right now to make that exact argument, and to offer up some texts that work in surprising ways. Thank you for assigning fiction, thinking through it, and championing it here!

    • David Naas

      Why should anyone be surprised at the power of narrative? Long before there were seminaries and theologians and volumes of polemics and systematic theologies, there were the Gospels, tales and reminiscences of Christ. Before that was the Torah, which is mostly story and not so much exposition. True, the Sermon on the Mount is laid out with detail, but other than that, most of the moral teaching was in parables -- short, simple, memorable stories.

    • sketchesbyboze

      I love this so much! I'm trying to get people in the Church to realize the value of fiction and it's exhausting.

    • Treg Monty

      Bravo. Never heard it said better. As a Christian, professional actor and Audiobook narrator there are times when I am given some roles of characters speaking words or doing actions that go against my behavior or morals. If the words or action were done for a human reason- not simply gratuitus- then I would accept the job. This article and the deep thoughts behind it finally made clear the justification of my choices. We are all broken and by ignoring the hard truths there is no healing. Thank you for this writing. It will be shared many times.

    • Stephanie Bennett

      Excellent essay. I really enjoyed this!

    • Patricia Milazzo

      Fiction takes us to places we can never visit and not just location. If you skip the few gratuitous sex parts, the Godfather was an amazing book to understand the historical narratives of the Mafia and an eye opening view of common police and court corruption. When i had full-blown influenza over Christmas break in college, i read The Hobbit and all the Lord of the Ring series. I have seem amazing pictures of Gods grace in books such as The Ragged Edge of Night and The Nightingale. There is a recent book-Cyberstorm-which uniquely shows you how we all have a “world view” that frames our understanding of events.

    • John Irwin

      Thank you, Dr Mulhern! You have beautifully put into words what I’m starting to think - that to get at the deepest truths we must have metaphors that open the door for us. Fiction and poetry can provide that. This is helping me rethink my pedagogy. Thank you so much.

    • D

      This is true in many ways. Of all books, I must say one which gave me a thought that I still mull over is Gone With the Wind. Scarlett O'Hara is such a picture of unconscious, elemental self-centeredness, I still ponder it even though it's been years since I have read the book.

    • Chris

      I'd be very interested to know what fiction Ms. Mulhern is assigning. Flannery O'Connor, of course. Who else? C.S. Lewis is mentioned. I'd love it if she included Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry. Dickens? So many possibilities ...

    • Susan Stakel

      A beautiful piece. Of course I would like this article given my background!! But I also see here amazing maturity of thought and expression. All of your selves come together.

    • Katherine Trotter

      Very good and thought provoking.

    • Dylan Devine

      This was a superb gem to find; when considering the intangible worth of well-written literature, I always come back to caricature. I was once watching this interview between filmmakers, when one of them brought up the true role of caricature artists; what they do isn't merely an exaggerated depiction of people. What they are doing, in fact, is rendering an image of you that looks more like you than *you* do. Then people might say, "Well that doesn't make any sense, how can a drawing look more like me than I do?", but the answer is poetic in its simplicity. The good caricature artist removes all of your generic, common features, and leaves only the characteristics of your appearance that make you stand out, and then they emphasize those. And what you're left with is a pure, distilled depiction of your visual qualities. Good fiction does that. What literature offers us is a glimpse of a reality more real and visceral in its truths than our own, with all the small talk and banalities boiled out of it like impurities from water. It calls to mind something Alfred Hitchcock once said about filmmaking: "A good movie is like life, but with all the boring bits cut out." I find this to be true time and time again. I got over 400 pages into Kristin Lavransdatter before I discovered that it wasn't based on real people; that was how authentic and convincing Undset's understanding of the human condition was when she wrote it. I had no shadow of a doubt in my mind that Kristin was real, and Undset was telling a factual, historical narrative about this person. And yet, at the end of the day, does it matter? If these characters had been real people 700 hundred years ago in medieval Norway, would that have added or subtracted from this tale in any way, if the book was ultimately the same? For all intents and purposes, the long dead might as well be fictional people to us; we'll never meet them, and all we can do is imagine what they were like. I suppose this essay highlights perfectly that our understanding of God is much the same. Some imagination is, ultimately, required of us. Maybe it was that youthful enthusiasm and imaginative creativity that made Jesus feel compelled to say, "Truly, I tell you: unless you change to become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven." There is, naturally, no shortage of modern scientific proof backing up the idea that the world stifles the imagination of children. Personally, I don't find any evidence necessary, because the evidence is obvious all around us. There is an ouroboros of hedonism tied with mental illness and existential dread that permeates every modern institution, and its weight is damning. It's everywhere. It's in the schools, in our homes, in our governments, in our day jobs, and splattered across every corner of the Internet. If I didn't know any better, I'd say society itself is alive, and its only goal is to stomp the joy and creative spirit out of every soul who commits the crime of dreaming. But the scientific proof is also out there, and it is this: In a recent study of 1,600 children, it was found that 98% of them were geniuses at divergent creative thinking at age five. By age ten, that number precipitously plummeted to merely 32%. By age fifteen, it was only 10%, and by age eighteen and onward it was less than 2%. And no wonder! The school's first reaction to a student getting lost in imagination is to chastise them and say, "Quit daydreaming!" As Jordan Peterson pointed out, it's not a good idea to tell creative geniuses to stop using their imagination for the sole express purpose of turning them into a boring, spiritless adult like everybody else. This was a great article, keep up the spectacular work!

    • Catherine Hershey

      O’Connor’s stories are too piercing for me to pursue but I know your analysis is right and true. I believe believers will be astounded, puzzled and amazed at just who we will meet in heaven, that, is, after we get over the shock that we ourselves have “made it. “

    When I first read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” I was naïve enough to get sucked into Mrs. Turpin’s world. That snotty-nosed kid, that acne-riddled teenage wretch, that chatty lady – yes, I saw them just as she did. How rude of that girl to call her a “warthog from hell.” She was just trying to be nice. Clearly. Nice. As the daughter of an evangelical pastor and his godly wife, I was trained in niceness, and I was good at it.

    Each time I read the story, however, I became increasingly aware of the ickiness of her niceness, the condescending smarminess of her prim righteousness. I became uncomfortable with myself because I could see myself in Mrs. Turpin. I became shocked by the overt racism and the general acceptability of it by the characters I first thought most decent. I began to “move into” Mary Grace’s prophetic posture and condemned the whole nastiness of the scene. I became alternately ashamed and horrified and disgusted. The most recent re-readings have brought me a sense of sweet relief. As Mrs. Turpin’s virtues are burned away and she joins the parade of peculiars who march into heaven, I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude that she and her ilk (like me) also get in, and I laugh at my ridiculousness.

    “Revelation” has seeped into my imagination in such a way that I can say my understanding of saving grace has been changed. What was a theological concept of divine forbearance that had regal and puritanical undertones, definite boundaries, and careful rules has become an outrageous and rather raucous image of sinners great and small, worthy and unworthy, petty and pedantic and nasty and wretched, streaming toward paradise in a hilarious celebration of unexpected and unmerited joy. I’ve not read a theology book yet that can create that image in my brain as well as O’Connor does.

    For the last decade, I’ve been teaching Christian formation at a seminary, and part of the instruction has included a justification of the whole concept of formation, which has not been a common term in many evangelical circles. If I were to switch to talking about “discipleship,” evangelical minds might move into the ordinary grooves: Bible study, evangelism, small groups, intercessory prayer. For decades, this simple and tidy list of spiritual practices, which revolve around church and home, made up the evangelical’s limited arsenal for Christian living. When Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline was first published in the late 1970s, however, a whole new menu of practices – foreign to the evangelical world for the most part but rooted in ancient rhythms – triggered an awareness of possibilities to make the spiritual life deeper and richer.

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    At seminary today we continue to engage in this ressourcement, the recovery of historical ways of thought and practice. Alongside this ecclesial archaeology, however, we need to tackle the marked differences between ancient disciplines and the modern world. Twenty-first-century technology, lifestyles, and societal norms have made spiritual disciplines of any kind more daunting, more squeezed, more focused on productivity and information management. There is no time to waste. Which is why the idea of making a new spiritual discipline for the twenty-first century, one that has no measurable effect while demanding a great deal of time, seems counterintuitive.

    In The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis describes the soft, disenchanting voice of an enchantress who attempts to persuade Aslan’s emissaries that sun, Lion, and sky are really just lamp, cat, and dream. “Of course, the more enchanted you get, the more certain you feel that you are not enchanted at all.” It’s a wonderful scene, where the real world – sun, stars, sky – grounds the reader at the same time that the characters are experiencing such a level of disenchantment that the very world the reader indwells is banished from their imaginations, scorned as too fantastical to be real.

    In Charles Taylor’s arguments about the rise of secularism, he posits that our modern selves have been “exorcised” of unseen realities and of sacramental meanings. We live in a “buffered” world where materialism and naturalism define reality. In Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved, we read of Nouwen’s secular friend, Fred, for whom he wrote the book in the hopes of extending a vision to him of the spiritual world. Nouwen, however, failed to speak into his friend’s life, and as he reflects on that failure, Nouwen writes: “Fred was quite willing to say that, with the disappearance of the sacred from our world, the human imagination had been impoverished and that many people live with a sense of loss, even emptiness.” This diagnosis, however, is not just in the secular world. We who belong to the church, who have cognitively accepted the Unseen Reality, as Evelyn Underhill described it, also suffer from constricted imaginations. The disenchantment we have all undergone as products of the modern world has critically stunted our spiritual development, our knowledge of ourselves, our hopes and dreams for God in the world.

    We live in a “buffered” world where materialism and naturalism define reality.

    I frequently find that those who shun fiction – many of whom believe it’s a waste of time – seem more confined by their theological commitments, more bound to right answers and absolute formulas, more troubled by the paradoxes of faith. Lines seem more carefully and thickly drawn; ins and outs more obvious. They seem less able to discern those “reasons which reason knoweth not,” to translate Pascal.

    How can we possibly accept the apparent unfairness of God in a story such as Job’s unless we can imagine, in some incredible way, that the vision of God, the encounter with the creator and sustainer of all that is, is worth all the suffering? Job loses all, quite unfairly, and yet at the end of the day, he comes out ahead. He has seen God, and that is enough. Can we imagine a vision of God that makes everything we suffer all right?

    Modern theology’s systematization and forced congruities, its embrace of certainties and transactional assurances, and its expectations of God’s predictability leave us completely destitute when none of it “works,” when the human soul is more complex, the chaos of life is too dense, the fickleness of relationships too painful. We need to exercise the imagination in new ways; we need multifaceted experiences of the one truth; we need to explore with our mind’s eye the vast possibilities of joy amid sorrow, of steadiness amidst betrayal, of deep goodness in the midst of tragedy.

    Literature invites us to that exercise. It lifts us out of our own contexts, barraged as they are by calamitous news and scientistic remedies. In literature, we move freely in other cultures; we explore the ways others cope with problematic relationships; we see modeled extraordinarily humble forms of goodness; we learn of the challenges of true forgiveness. We gain insight into the sufferings of love; we understand at a deeper level the bitter realities of slavery and its enormous personal and emotional cost.

    Perhaps most importantly, by reading literature we learn to know ourselves in new ways. Literature can help us to have mercy on ourselves and others, can divest us of the ignorance that places ourselves at the center of the universe, can make possible new ways of understanding our own befuddled choices. Augustine recognized that we cannot know God without first knowing ourselves. In complex characters and broken situations and deeply human conundrums we have space to explore facets of our souls that we hide from ourselves as much as we do from others.

    It’s time we craft some new spiritual practices for a disenchanted, buffered world that has lots of answers and no room for mystery. We need to add disciplines that can jolt us out of our twenty-first-century spiritual banalities, practices that can counteract our flattened world. I’ve started assigning fiction.

    Contributed By

    Kathleen A. Mulhern is a writer, speaker, and historian. She holds a doctorate in European intellectual history, and teaches Christian formation and church history at Denver Seminary.

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