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Monday, July 8, 2013

The Grace of Fiction: Why We Should Demand Windows

It could be that I am just more attuned to the problem because I was an English Education major.  But it seems to me that in spite of the plethora of excellent arguments, good education, and even good examples of the topic the misconceptions are just as deeply rooted as they have always been.  In the past month, I have found myself in more than one conversation with Christians who believe fiction to be a waste of time.

Granted, there is a lot that falls under the category and there is plenty of it that isn't worth consideration.  Just like any art, there are the fakes and sub-par crafters.  We don't need to broad brush whole library shelves on the demerits of the fringe.  But what Christians tend to do is not to look at each work of fiction individually and determine whether it is worth their time.  They tend to dichotomize all writing in to two categories: Fiction and Non-Fiction.  Almost everything of the former is deemed a waste and nearly everything of the latter is thought noble and good (as long as it avoids most objectionable elements and then allows them only in small quantities.  The excuse for these is that "it's a true story.")  Somehow the life of Winston Churchill is more righteous than To Kill a Mockingbird.   

I understand that the misconceptions arise from good intentions.  The argument is that we have only one life and only one chance to make it count for Christ. Yes!  I agree.  But does it necessarily follow that we should avoid fiction then?  The counterargument to my view almost always drags in Philippians "whatsoever things are true...think on these things."  But even this assumes that the meaning of "true" is something along the lines of "that which exists or existed."  A narrow definition at best.  Additionally, Christians often obsess over the obvious didactic qualities of a book, and we fail to consider worthy anything that doesn't draw a clear lesson. We expect, indeed we feel guilty if we cannot find, the moral of the story to be laid out in flannel-graph clarity.  In doing so we miss the value and maturity of latent theology present in every piece of literature which requires critical thinking and wrestling with hard questions to discover and evaluate.    

The Bible never says "Thou shalt not read fiction."  Neither does it say "Thou shalt."  It is inspired, infallable Truth about the gospel.  Redemption.  And it does give us guidelines for wise use of our time and prudent watch over our hearts and minds to protect our purity.  I must assert that we do ourselves a disservice on both counts when we fail to know something of good fiction.  One of the best ways to guard our hearts and protect our purity is by the constant practice of handling the ideas and concepts of good fiction.  I am convinced that he means for us to use fiction (both the reading and writing of it) as a means of grace.    

Many writers have done better justice to the argument in favor than I will attempt to do here.  I simply want to bring out an often-overlooked point.  C.S.Lewis said the following in his book An Experiment in Criticism: 

"...we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level—in other words, not to discount perspective—would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distance. But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out.” Or from another point of view, “I have got in”; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside...Literature enlarges our being by admitting us to experiences not our own. They may be beautiful, terrible, awe-inspiring, exhilarating, pathetic, comic, or merely piquant. Literature gives the entree to them all. Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom realize the enormous extension of our being that we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense, but he inhabits a tiny word. In it, we should be suffocated. My own eyes are not enough for me. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or bee.In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in a Greek poem, I see with a thousand eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."
We are to be people able to obey Romans 12:15.  "Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Mourn with those who mourn."  To a person who has known deep suffering, nothing is more gracious than when another is able to connect on that level.  "But," you might argue, "how can I who have never known the loss of a loved one...?" Has the agony of death not yet touched you?  You need to read more.  The ability of a person to relate to others in a meaningful way is magnified astronomically through good literature.  Ministry is relationships and relationships grow through shared experience.  Through the vicarious experience of pain through literature, you may begin (I do not say perfectly) to experience the thoughts and feelings of those around you and bless them with your kindness instead of your indifference.

Readers are empathizers.  And for all the talk of "respecting the narratives of all people" we are very bad at actually empathizing.  We draw wrong parallels and offensive conclusions when we take our tiny-world perspectives and say to someone who truly suffers, "Oh, I totally understand where you are coming from!" The empathizer may not say a word.  The empathizer knows that there are some sorrows too deep for words.  He will not try to project his imposed experience on it.
I will never forget when my dad first learned that he had colon cancer, and my family began working through the magnitude of our questions and what it would mean if we lost him.  In what was intended to be an encouraging phone call, a well-meaning friend starkly reminded me, "You know, if God wants your dad to have cancer, then it's a good thing."
True.
But tactless.  Even harsh.
Especially when spoken to a confused, hurting 14-year-old whose unregenerate definition of "good" most definitely did not include cancer.  
In simplified terms, the regular experience of good literature trains us to think outside of ourselves and reminds us that there is more than one, blunt way to express truth.  It destroys the selfish tendency to assume that our perspective is the only right one or the most complete one or that simple answers solve huge problems. By reading, I know that I don't know everything, that the world is infinitely more complex than I first imagined.  That I can't glibly tell a suffering friend that everything will be fine and take lightly the weight and importance of the pain being experienced.  (See this wonderful article on tragic worship for more on the importance of pain... http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/05/tragic-worship.)  

The invitation to read and know humans better thereby is also an invitation to higher joys.  We have all seen a friend rejoicing over something with such intensity that we wished we could share it to the same degree. Reading brings these heights into the mind and is essential to articulating something past, "I'm glad for you..."

By constantly handling the metaphysical until it is (in the words of Harper Lee) "the air you breathe," you learn, and you enlarge yourself, and you know grace more.  You're able to extend understanding where before you might have judged or dismissed.  And beyond this...you come into contact with something greater than yourself.  Something beyond flannel-graph literature.

Might it be the reality of God in unexpected places?  

It is not the only argument.  It is just the one that I think is most downplayed by those who (possibly?) do not want to take the time and discipline to enjoy a good book every once in a while.

Maybe we should pray for the humility to demand a few more windows.  

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