For my husband’s seminary ethics class, one of the assignments was to read Francine Rivers’s The Atonement Child. The book tells the story of Dynah Carey who has everything she thinks she needs in life: a handsome fiancé, loving parents, and the respect of her Christian community. When a violent rape leaves her pregnant, everything falls apart.
Why assign a novel – especially one found in the chick-lit section – to a serious class of (mostly) men pursuing a master’s degree in seminary? My husband’s professor said he knew of no other way to help his class understand the emotions of a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy and the pressure to abort.
Stories can help us grow in compassion and understanding of other people. By allowing us to view the world through someone’s else eyes, we can forget our opinions and prejudices and grow in love. C.S. Lewis wrote in An Experiment in Criticism:
The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented […]
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad 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.
Stories expand our imaginations and connect our emotions to our minds. They grow our imagination’s understanding of virtue, sacrifice, and faith. They allow us to experience pain and victory through the eyes of another. Good stories, even fictional ones, point us to truth, goodness, and beauty. They echo God’s justice, glory, and redemption.
Every culture uses narratives to pass down history, tradition, values, and truth. Stories remind us of common threads throughout all of humanity. They show us who we are and connect us to the past.
Narratives have a way of penetrating into our hearts without us realizing it. They awaken our hearts to truth before our minds can articulate what we know. We experience the events of a story vicariously, moving us closer to an understanding of truth in a subconscious way. Nathan knew this when he confronted David. Instead of explicitly telling David how wicked he had been (1 Samuel 12), we read how Nathan moved David to understand the depth of his sins through a story. David’s anger towards the behavior of the rich ruler in Nathan’s story allowed David to understand God’s outrage towards his sins, leading him to repentance.
Jesus, the master storyteller, understood the power of stories. Much of his teaching was done in parables because parables illuminated the ideas he wanted to communicate (Matthew 13). Russell Moore wrote that the story of the good Samaritan is “not just an illustration but a vehicle for a resistant conscience to experience what it doesn’t want to acknowledge: compassion for the ‘outsider’ whom culture compelled to be ignored.” Jesus knew that people may not be able to remember the thesis of a sermon and its alliterative five points and application, but that they would be able to think back on a story and what it teaches. Jesus used stories to teach because they are effective.
A few weeks ago a friend and I were discussing what we’ve read lately. I named a few theological and Christian living books in addition to two novels. My friend, herself a serious reader, said, “I used to have time to read for fun. I sure do miss novels, but now all of my reading is to learn.”
The thinking that novels are strictly for entertainment or that stories are just for children may be a fairly common one, especially among serious students and lifelong learners. I’d be willing to bet that the majority of people attracted to this blog are readers. You probably have bookshelves full of commentaries, systematic theology texts, and church history books. While novels are certainly a source of entertainment, the primary value of novels and stories is not amusement, but rather their ability to open our eyes to the truth and help us order our affections rightly.
My childhood summers were spent swimming, playing hide and seek after dark, and reading countless books inside. On a summer day when I was 13 years old, I escaped the heat in the coolness of my room with a new book. I didn’t know anything about it, but it sounded good. An hour or two later, I was forever changed.
My family had been attending a church that taught salvation by grace for a few years, but I didn’t understand my need for that grace. I thought I was a good girl – I got good grades, I was well-behaved, I was considered to be a model student and athlete. This book told the story of a protagonist who – like me – was trusting in her own righteousness, only to discover that she was, in fact, a sinful person in need of a perfect savior. My eyes were open to my own depravity as I read. My imagination first understood sin allowing my mind to grasp it too. When this character knew that she would never be righteous on her own, I saw how lost I was without Jesus’s righteousness. Through a story, I came to love The Story.
As the temperature begins to cool and daylight shortens, we often find ourselves with more time indoors. Take advantage of the season and open up a story. Allow yourself to walk in the shoes of another and see with their eyes. Fill up your imagination with stories that reflect God’s plan for redemption and restoration, and be pointed to the greatest story that so perfectly starts, “In the beginning, God”.
Jessica Burke is a free-lance writer who previously served as a missionary and inner-city high school teacher. She currently spends her days as a homemaker and educator to her 4 children. She is married to her high school sweetheart, BT Burke, who is involved in jail ministry and church planting in a multicultural context. In her spare time, Jessica loves to read books, write, or to go for a jog around the neighborhood.