Why reading fiction​ is good​ for my faith (and could be for yours too)

When the kids were really little, I stopped reading fiction.

My time was limited, and so in any spare nano-seconds, I prioritised reading Christian books over the seeming “luxury” of reading fiction.

Now the kids are a bit older, I still don’t have any more time on my hands. I’ve replaced changing nappies with writing emails and moved from managing toddler tantrums to dealing with pre-teen hormones.

Cicumstances change but pressures remain.

Time is always a precious commodity, and we always make time for the things we value.  Reading is something I value, so I’ve been trying to read more fiction over the last few months and have rediscovered the joy of being immersed in another culture, another person’s life, another story.

It’s dawned on me that reading stories helps me to reflect on God and on my life as much as many Christians books do. Sometimes more. Reading fiction is, in fact, good for my faith.

Take the book I’m reading at the moment, for example, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

a fine balance

It’s an intriguing story of how four people’s lives weave together in 1970s India. I’ve become absorbed in the life of the characters: I’ve wept at their plight, I’ve laughed at their unexpected moments of joy, and I’ve been surprised by their generosity. But most of all I’ve reflected on how little choice many of them have.  Om, one of the central characters, a lower-caste Indian, endures a compulsory vasectomy as part of the government’s birth control programme.  He then undergoes forced castration as a revenge from a more powerful, influential enemy. All this happens just days before he is to meet a prospective wife.

Wealth buys choice. And when I reflect on Om’s life in comparison to mine, I’m reminded just how much choice and privilege I have.

Now, I’m not oblivious to the fact that a choiceless life is the reality for many. I lived in India for a year. I’ve read countless articles or blog posts from organisations working amongst the poorest of the poor. And many such charities are engaging in the power of real-life story to communicate their message.

But this book has stirred my heart and mind in unexpected and unanticipated ways. It has grown in me a thankfulness for what I have, caused a deeper compassion for those who don’t have as much choice, and a renewed sense of responsibility to use my time, money and effort in the best possible way. I might have expected some of those outcomes from reading a moving article from Tearfund, but maybe not from a novel.

Fiction can either be an escape from reality or a doorway into it. It all depends on how we engage with it.

I want God to be able to break into any and every sphere of life, whether reading the Bible or watching a film, whether strolling on the beach or striding through the city. All of me, all of life. It’s all his.

But I guess in order for that to happen, it takes a little intentionality on our part. It means we can’t just passively consume whatever comes our way. It takes a little thought.

Perhaps, for those of us who are Christians and want to think about how stories and fiction can positively help shape our minds, attitudes and responses, we can ask ourselves the following questions.

  • God, what do you want to say to me through these characters, through these stories, through this culture?
  • How do you want to change my heart and my actions through what I’ve read?
  • What does it tell me about my own culture?
  • What does it tell me about the world?
  • What does it tell me about other people’s worldview?

I prefer to think about these things when I’m not actually reading the book. I think it’s more powerful to fully engage with the story and then to reflect on it at another point, when I’m not quite so immersed in the story itself.

And maybe, when we’ve experienced for ourselves the power story has to change our hearts and minds, we can think about how we share our own story more effectively. What’s the story of our lives? What has God woven into our lives that is unique to us? And what’s the most powerful way to share that?

Fiction can either be an escape from reality or a doorway into it.

It all depends on how we engage with it.