The novel — the book-length work of fiction — is a relatively recent “invention,” an outgrowth of earlier genres, to be sure, but only about three hundred years old. Yet for many of those years there has been much hand-wringing and angst (at least within certain segments of American culture) about the ills of novel reading.
Christians are often vociferous contributors to the fray, particularly when a novel — whether it stars Harry Potter or Huck Finn — seems, in their estimation, hell-bent on bending readers towards hell. The concern, it appears, is that novels will lead readers astray, exposing them to precipitous paths of thought (through characterization, dialogue, plot, etc.) that may push readers off a moral and spiritual cliff.
In fact, these Christians are on to something: novels are dangerous. As Christians we are certainly required to consider seriously the matters to which we devote our thoughts. As Paul enjoins us in Philippians 4:8, “[W]hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” (NIV) These qualities merit our attention, particularly as they point us toward meditation on the true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy Savior. But how do we apply this list in a sinful, broken world? Can we read about David’s affair with Bathsheba? Should we skip over Jacob cheating Esau out of his blessing? Do we excise the stoning of Stephen from our Bibles? What is lovely or pure about adultery, deception, and murder? If we follow Paul’s teaching, how do we read the Bible, much less novels?
This dilemma makes me wonder if we aren’t perhaps asking the wrong question about the texts we choose to read. Rather than “Is it dangerous?” perhaps we instead need to ask, “Is it True?”
But first — is it dangerous?
Dangerous, yes. We know this within our own faith tradition. We acknowledge that the Bible is a dangerous book. It changes lives. It threatens cherished beliefs. It bids us have faith in a man who called himself the Son of God. It upends the world as we know it. So, yes, if we’ve read the Bible we know something about dangerous books. But I have yet to hear Christians call for a ban of this particular brand of dangerous reading. Nor, though the Bible also recounts innumerable stories of violence, rape, murder, thievery, and the like, do I hear Christians expressing concern over the perils of exposure to this host of sins. So, these worries over reading novels must not (only) be about danger, or else we would root it out wherever we found it.
The disquiet over novel-reading — or, at least, over reading certain kinds of novels — must instead have something to do with truth/Truth. Because as unpleasant as many of the Old and New Testament stories are, most Christians concur that they bear witness to Truth — that is, absolute, capital-T Truths rather than provisional, we-see-through-a-glass-dimly truths. These biblical stories offer dangerous Truths, but Truths nonetheless.
The concern over novel reading might be characterized in similar terms, namely, that some Christians fear that in the confines of certain novels, there is danger but without truth of any kind — big-T or little-t. That in essence, certain novels only are able to move readers away from, rather than towards, truth/Truth. Such novels reveal nothing illuminating and instead only imperil the reader.
Let me say first that, while I believe many if not most novelists intend to reveal truth — at least as they understand it — in their novels, I am not so naïve as to believe that, one, novelists are incapable of consciously (or unconsciously) deceiving themselves and their readers about the nature of those “truths,” or that, two, these “truths” that they strive to reveal are of a piece with the absolute Truths of Christ. Lies may masquerade as truth — or, worse yet, as Truth.
That being the case, one might conclude that the best, the safest, the most holy option for Christians is to give up novel reading in its entirety. Let us read only facts, only the Bible, only certainties.
This would be a mistake.
For one of the only certainties we have is that we are sinners saved by grace, who see through a glass darkly. We need not read very far in history to find evidence of the manifold ways humans convince themselves that truths are Truths. Christians are not immune to this tendency to render provisional truths as absolute Truths. Moreover, not being God, we are bound to do it again and again. And one can hardly have been a member of the Christian Church — particularly within Protestantism — without observing Christians’ predilection for disagreeing about how to read the Bible. So there is small refuge and little comfort in “just the Bible” or “just the facts.”
Because we also can’t ignore that Jesus is a storyteller. This point helps us get to the heart of the matter. When we read the parables, we understand that Jesus does not in a literal sense intend us to believe that the Prodigal Son is really referring to Jesus’ next-door neighbor, say, or that the parable of the sower is about the farmer who lived down the lane from Joseph and Mary. We recognize that the parables are True stories even though they are not true stories. We learn that we can find Truth in fiction.
Perhaps, in light of this finding, we might justifiably confine our reading of fiction to the parables of the New Testament, but — again — I think it unwise to do so.
We read the Bible for many purposes, but certainly a foremost reason is to learn how we are to be in relation with God and with others. We learn this through positive models of what to do (think David dancing before the Lord) — and via negative models of what not to do (think David lusting after Bathsheba). We learn, additionally, that how we treat others reflects how we treat God. Jesus notes in Matthew 25:40, admonishing the righteous to care for the widow, the orphan, the prisoner, and the hungry, that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (NIV) In other words, being in right relation with others — whether neighbor or enemy — is, in some sense, being in right relation with God.
Yet if we are to be kingdom workers helping to restore right relations among God, others, and ourselves, we need to know about brokenness — broken humans, a broken environment, a broken Church. Novels are one avenue for learning about brokenness so that we can transform it, because, witting or no, novelists — like physicians — diagnose sickness in the world.
When we read novels, we must be on the lookout for an author-physician who recognizes brokenness. The novelist who either closes her eyes to brokenness or wallows in despair is a poor guide for our quest to love our neighbors, to love our enemies, to be kingdom workers. While the author who is not a Christian may perhaps incline towards despair, the author who espouses a Christian faith may instead flee the maelstrom at the expense of truth/Truth. As Flannery O’Connor writes in “Novelist and Believer,”
The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible.
Such novelists shirk their duty. Our calling is to transform brokenness, working as agents of reconciliation. We turn to the author-physician to help us understand the sin in the world around us so that we can help bring about redemption. That said, as with any doctor, we may need a second opinion from alternate author-physicians. Not all novelists will get it right. Thus, as we read, it is as important to recognize wrong diagnoses as it is to recognize accurate ones. Novels help us do both.
When we read novels, we are to be Truth-seekers, able to explore different diagnoses about the world, both benign and malignant, in hopes of finding where Truth is and where Truth is not. We seek affirmations of Truth; when we don’t find them, we can thus learn what is not True, what not to believe. And this latter approach is necessary, too, because it helps us uncover blind spots in our vision. Thus, in seeking Truth, we ask the novel to do things that other sorts of texts, even the Bible, are less able — or unable — to do. We want novels to create imaginary worlds that inform our own world. The Bible offers a lens, a framework, for understanding these worlds, but it does not speak to every possible iteration of the imagination. In these realms of make-believe, we ask whether the truths revealed therein might lead us to Truths that can transform the world. We seek the Word in the novelist’s words. We want help shedding the scales of sin that blind us, that make us think that the brokenness we see is actually wholeness.
That being said, this essay is not a permission slip for all Christians to read any and all novels. We know that God called his creation good but also that, post-Adam and Eve, the creation is utterly fallen. We live in that tension of the good-but-broken creation. For some Christians, some novels will be stumbling blocks. Not everyone will find Truth in the same places. Some novelists will actively subvert Truth. But, as we seek after the Truth of the Creator God and as we strive to be kingdom workers helping to bring about his plan for redemption for a broken world, we should recall the words of Justin Martyr that “wherever there is truth, it is the Lord’s.”
When we read, it must be a search for Truth, for the God who is able to conquer brokenness. We falter when we determine, absolutely, where Absolute Truth can — and can’t — be found. Putting God in a box of our own fashioning, creating him in our own image, and forbidding him to reveal himself and his Truths wheresoever he will — even in a novel? That is the true danger.
A Brief List of Reading Suggestions
Note: This list contains books and essays that have challenged my thinking on how the word can reveal the Word. As such, it is a very personal list — and, given that I specialize in American literature, it reflects a bias towards texts written in English by American authors. I offer them with the caveat that they have helped refine my thinking about Truth, but not necessarily because the author espouses beliefs that I agree with; in several cases, my disagreement with the text sharpened my understanding of Truth. Regardless of whether I could fully embrace an author’s views, these texts ask probing questions about big issues, requiring me to consider how my faith helps me address such issues.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
- What aspects of your belief in Christianity are particular to your culture rather than essential to your faith? How does, or should, this Western religion fit into non-Western cultures?
James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel”
- Should the novelist seek to change the ills of the world or to reveal truth about the world? Does a call to action necessarily sacrifice art for protest?
James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
- How do you determine if your beliefs are truly Christian rather than self-deceptive lies?
Benjamin Franklin, “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America”
- To what extent does “doing justice” mean undoing injustices of the past?
Yann Martel, The Life of Pi
- Would you maintain your faith even if it might be faith in a fairytale?
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
- Would you change your beliefs and behaviors in the face of the unthinkable?
Toni Morrison, Paradise
- When stories (religious, historical, etc.) conflict, how do you figure out the truth?
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners
- What role do novelists play in helping us recognize brokenness as brokenness rather than as wholeness? How—and why—does God use violence to effect grace?
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
- What beliefs are non-negotiables for Christians?
Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam, Gilead, and Home
- Lots of questions, but the big one for me is, what does unconditional love look like when practiced by fallen human beings?
John Updike, Rabbit, Run
- Why does God allow evil to happen, especially to children?
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
- Why do some people believe when it would be easier not to do so, while others don’t believe even though it would be easier to do so?
Flannery O’Connor, “Novelist and Believer.” In Mystery and Manners. Eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Noonday Press, 1962. 163.