Every day, when I get into my truck to go to work, I carry the same load: my briefcase, a thermos of coffee and whatever book I happen to be reading. I don’t usually put the book in my briefcase. With my laptop and two journals (one for work and one for writing), it makes the case too unwieldy. I only resort to making room in my briefcase when I’m travelling by air. I like carrying the book separately, keeping it in the passenger seat or just behind me in my truck’s extended cab. If I’m nearing the end of one, I’ll even take another along to start when I finish. I always have a book. Always.

Before anyone wonders, yes, I have an e-reader, but I stopped using it a long time ago. I’m not nostalgic. I enthusiastically tried on two different Kindles and an iPad. I just didn’t like it. I like paper, the feel of the cover in my hands, preferring hardbacks with the dust jacket safely stored at home. I don’t even mind when really long books cut into my hand while juggling them with everything else.

I admit. I’m quirky, especially when it comes to my routines and preferences. But, I don’t think reading makes me much different than most of my colleagues. Pastors and attorneys, the two professional groups with which I identify, are known as voracious readers. I do think my choice in books may set me apart, though not from everyone. Many colleagues just seem to prefer books pragmatically related to their field of work. They talk about them all the time. And, that brings me to a confession: I don’t read many pragmatic books on ministry or law. I don’t enjoy them, and I don’t really like talking about them. And yes, you can go ahead and point it out, I’ve written one of those books, hoping lots of people buy, read and discuss it (you can buy one here).

I mostly read fiction, usually novels, but plenty of short stories, too. I’m not suggesting that anyone stop reading pragmatic books. Authors who write them have much to say and teach. Maybe I should add some to my reading list, but here, I want to take an opportunity to testify to the power of fiction, giving words to what it does for me, hoping, that maybe, I might convince someone to add some novels to their own list.

Fiction changed my life for the better, and that’s the same language I use to talk about my faith. I don’t mean to say that fiction is a substitute for a growing faith life, but it does add spiritually and emotionally to one’s pursuit of faith. These spiritual additions, more than anything, give me reason to read fiction, reason to think everyone else should, too….though maybe after they read just this one book on church finance.

Recently, to improve my writing, professional and creative, I’ve been working with a writing program called The Fifth Semester. I’ve even decided to try some fiction myself, a novel actually. The first thing I learned from the program? You better know what you’re trying to accomplish before you start trying to accomplish it. That’s a life lesson in itself, but it especially applies to writing fiction.

Ann Garvin and Erin Celello, the founders and instructors, spent the better part of four days trying to force those of us in the program’s last residency to boil down our book ideas to a single point. They insisted that a compelling story has to contain….well….a unified story. A compelling story goes somewhere, develops and communicates something. Some stories are cautionary tales. Some are redemptive. Some stories explore what it means to love a person. Others explore what it means to test the self against some force of the world. Some stories drive at a transcendence that we might call God and others land transcendence in lives of human beings themselves. All of them, at least the best ones, drive at something singular and unified, and almost always, whatever that singularity is, it will somehow relate to the readers’ own lives. I heard things to which I could resonate from every other writer in my group. The single points of stories have a way of unifying everyone who reads the book with the person who wrote the book. That alone has life-changing power.

But, my experience with fiction doesn’t stop there. Great writers also create compelling characters, characters to whom I can relate, even when they are vastly different.  Sometimes, characters aren’t even people, but still find a way of impacting us (think C.S. Lewis’s Aslan in any of The Chronicles of Narnia). Sometimes, characters are terrifying (say Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men). Other times, they are wonderfully sweet, if not terribly frustrating (Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma). Always, however, characters are complicated and conflicted, just like every human being who reads about them. They end up doing things we love or hate. Sometimes, I even mourn their loss when I finish the book (that happened with Marie Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig in Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See).

Great characters are like us and they make us think about our own motivations and behaviors. They make us wonder about our lives and relationships. And, this gets me to why I think fiction is so important for people, pastors especially, why I’m trying to write some of it myself. With a great plot and powerful characters, writers lead us to explore our souls. They make us ask why we do what we do, why we feel what we feel, why we think what we think. That really does sound like what the Church is supposed to do. Fiction pushes us towards self-examination. It reminds us that our decisions carry life-changing consequences and that some things we think of as positive, can be dangerous, even deadly (think about Augustus McCrae’s desire for wilderness and adventure in Lonesome Dove or Michael Corleone’s commitment to family in The Godfather). Great fiction does this in ways that are subtle, but strong.

This is my story when it comes to fiction.  When I’ve felt lost, fiction helped me find my way. When I feel alone, fiction assures me that I’m in good company and that I’d better be careful not to search for an answer to those emotions in the wrong places. The Church has been there for me too, but without fiction, I’m not sure I’d even be religious, let alone committed to Christian ministry. Great fiction, more than any sermon, has convinced me of God’s transcendence and Christians who share my love for fiction convinced me of the power of a God committed enough to creation to enter it through the story of a single human. In some way, I think fiction is just another expression of incarnation. Through fiction, we get to absorb the divine by sharing in the lives of other people.

My mentor in The Fifth Semester, Ann Garvin, put it in really concrete terms. To illustrate basic plot development, she used Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee told her story through the voice of Scout, but really, when you boil down the plot, Lee wrote about Atticus Finch, a man who wants to teach his children right from wrong. Throughout the book, Atticus tries to teach his daughter Scout and her brother, Jem. In the end, however, we learn his attempts were in vain. For the children are the ones with the lesson to teach. In the end, they knew right and wrong all along, and Atticus learns from them.

When Ann laid this out, I struggled not to get emotional.  I’ve long known that I am Atticus Finch, and not in the charming, courageous ways. I want my daughter to know right from wrong. I struggle to teach her. But, for all my efforts, my ten-year old, so often, already knows what I want her to know. I can ease my mind. I can be a father without trying too hard, without smothering. I can give her space and trust. Maybe most critically, I can look to her for my own lessons. I’m not sure I would ever have gotten that without the beauty of To Kill a Mockingbird, without constantly reading fiction.

I am eternally grateful to the recently deceased Ms. Lee, a good Methodist. For that sort of writing, I’m eternally grateful to every author of fiction, no matter their genre, no matter their sales, no matter their accolades. For that, I say, please, for your next book, or at least the one after The Vile Practices, try some fiction. I’ve even listed some of my favorites here.

6 responses to “The Religion of Reading Fiction

  1. I’m so glad, thrilled, encouraged that you feel this way and that we (The Fifth Semester) has complemented your love of fiction. So many people say, “I don’t read fiction,” as if it is a point of pride. What they are missing is the power of revelation through story, which is an odd point to miss because it is, in fact, everything. So glad you trust us.

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