Growing up, I was a big fan of novels. I read them all the time. From the time I learned to read, I was fascinated with stories, and I consumed whatever I could get my hands on.
Somewhere along the line — either during or right after college — I lost my love for literature. I still read a lot, but tended more toward non-fiction. Last year this was seen in the extreme: I set (and met) a goal of reading 100 books in 2010. Of those, only eight were novels, with one more being a non-fiction book about novels. (Part of this was due to the fact that of the nearly 40 books I received free at last year’s Together for the Gospel conference, exactly zero were works of fiction!)
Don’t get me wrong. I really do enjoy reading non-fiction, and think it has great benefit, but since the start of 2011 I have rediscovered my love of literature. I feel like I’ve been reunited with an old friend!
In addition to reading much more fiction this year, I have come to more fully appreciate the importance of Story for helping make sense of life. Ironically, I was aided in this understanding by reading several non-fiction pieces, most notably essays by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (both available free online) called, respectively, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said and On Fairy Stories. I’ve also benefited from articles like this one from the fine folks at the Rabbit Room, as well as recent books such as Culture Making by Andy Crouch, and Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey.
Over the last few days, I’ve stumbled upon four articles which, in different ways, help point out our society’s need for more (and better) stories. These articles cover a large cross-section of our culture, from politics to art to pop culture, and I hope that you will check them out (and leave your feedback as well)!
First was the report of Barack Obama’s summer reading list. This list has been widely reported, and — as has become the tradition for Presidential reading lists — critiqued. What disappointed me was the fact that many articles (such as this one from the Daily Beast) seemed to criticize our nation’s leader simply for choosing novels over presumably more presidential works of non-fiction. The implication is that novels are for relaxation alone, while non-fiction is for learning and self-improvement. I couldn’t disagree more! If one wanted to criticize which novels Obama has chosen, that’s one thing, but to say that someone as important as POTUS shouldn’t “stoop” to reading fiction shows just how low our view of literature has become.
One potential reason for this societal antipathy toward fiction? September 11.
A recent article from the Philadelphia Inquirer examined the effects of 9/11 on the arts. While there was increased interest in books and movies in the fantasy and apocalyptic genres (Twilight, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Cloverfield, etc), the vast majority of books written in the last decade of our terror-struck nation were nonfiction.
“But the 2000s were a time of nonfiction that put fiction to shame… Perhaps the trauma of 9/11 drove writers and readers to reexamine great lives and events, to reevaluate the truth.”
Did the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, leave us with the choice of running from reality or analyzing it documentary-style? I don’t know, but those events do roughly coincide with when I began heavily reading non-fiction to the exclusion of literature…
Russell Moore has written a great cover story about how we face the reality of horror. (If you only read one article linked to from this blog, make it this one!) He points to the story of Christ’s crucifixion, and how the biblical narrative forces readers to come to terms with “the unvarnished horror of ourselves — damned and cursed and exiled.” Scripture doesn’t shy away from unpleasant realities, but neither does it present the reality of sin, death, and Hell simply as cold, hard facts. Instead, God’s Word immerses us in a drama in which death is an enemy to be destroyed, and Christ is a conquering hero who sympathizes with our weaknesses even as he trandscends them and gives us the power to overcome them.
Moore points out that from our childhood we know intuitively that there is something “wild” out there, and that a Day of Judgment is coming. Stories help people (and especially children) “make sense of a chaotic world and of [our] often chaotic selves.” This is reminiscent of one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quotes:
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.“
Unfortunately, I worry that as Christians, we have largely forgotten what makes a story great. We have lost the ability to discern the elements of truth, beauty, and goodness, which, thanks to God’s common grace, have been evident in great stories from every era, and have pointed to the Creator even in stories written by non-Christians (a topic Tony Reinke explores in his soon-to-be-released book Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books). Instead, we tend to simply see things in black-and-white, or, more precisely, “Christian” and “non-Christian”.
This often leads us to call second- or third-rate books and movies “good” simply because they are produced by Christians, even if they have little or no artistic merit and terrible theology. Meanwhile, we reject truly good stories with themes of hope, forgiveness, and redemption if they have non-Christian origins.
Case-in-point: Last week Justin Taylor recommended two war movies with these themes. In the comments section, many were concerned because one of these movies, Saints and Soldiers, was produced by Mormons. This is a shame, because it really is a great movie! I’ve seen it a couple times, and while there are some specifically Mormon ideas implicit in the story, the overall theme is one which Christians ought to embrace.
We shouldn’t be surprised when non-Christians write good stories. After all, God has written Truth on their hearts and consciences. Paul encouraged the Philippians to fill their minds with whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, regardless of its source. Anything that inspires us to worship God and serve others is worthy of our time and consideration. This is what great stories do!
May we all develop a better understanding of what is true, beautiful, and good through the stories we read and watch, even as we pray for a renaissance in Christian literature, music, art, and movies.