Article Oct 23, 2013

Roundtable: Does fiction shape minds?

When it comes to shaping the culture and shaping the way Christians think, we often point to apologetic resources. But while nonfiction works are important and formative, there is an equally good role for fiction. Today we talk with three authors on the importance of fiction in shaping minds. Two are well-known bloggers and pastors who recently published novels: Trevin Wax, editor of Lifeway’s Gospel Project and a well-known blogger and author. The other is Jared C. Wilson, pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Vermont and a prolific blogger and author. The third is Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. 

Why is it important for Christians to read and absorb good fiction? 

TREVIN WAX: We are embodied, storied creatures. We are created by the Author of Life who knows the number of our days. Our life is a story, so it’s no surprise that we find other stories fascinating. We live for them, and we live by them, meaning that we live according to our view of the story of our world. If stories are this important – both at the worldview level and the personal level – then stories have the potential of profoundly shaping our choices. 

JARED C. WILSON: It’s important for a few reasons, not least of which is that it offers a rest of sorts from the information gathering of non-fiction. Good fiction isn’t for lazy readers but can offer a literary sabbath of sorts. Good fiction also broadcasts on a different frequency than non-fiction so it stretches the intellect and shapes the imagination of Christians in important, healthy ways. 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR: We are meaning making creatures. While mathematics, philosophy, and psychology (to name just a few) are also endeavors in making sense out of the universe, several characteristics of fiction reflect the human condition in ways distinct to storytelling. 

First, stories take place in linear time and thus imitate our sense of our earthly existence which also has a beginning, middle, and end. (Even stories that play with linear time do so while rooted in it.) Second, the heart of every story is conflict—without a conflict (and the events that lead to and follow it), there is no story, but merely a series of events. This center of a story—conflict—is the very phenomenon that creates our need to make meaning out of lives. For conflict lies at the heart of the ultimate story of human existence: creation, fall, and redemption: the essential human conflict is the rupture of our union with God. Third, stories embody truth in a way that parallels the incarnation. Metaphorically, stories put flesh on ideas so they can dwell among us. Because fiction embodies the linearity of our conflict-ridden lives, reading is a kind of practice for making meaning out of the human condition.

These inherent characteristics of fiction are even more resonant for readers whose faith identity is founded on the greatest story, the gospel (originally, a good spell or story that starts with the words, “In the beginning,” and unfolds in a linear progression through the conflict and its ultimate resolution in Christ Incarnate. The meaning we seek as we engage with good fiction replicates the ultimate meaning we find in God’s story of his love for us.

What role can fiction play in shaping minds?

TREVIN WAX: When Jesus was asked who the neighbor is that we are called to love, he could have given a bullet-point response. Instead, we got the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable is much more evocative and intriguing as a rhetorical device, which may be the reason Jesus so often spoke in parables. A good story opens up a new world and invites us to inhabit it. Along the way, if the story comports with the moral arc of our universe, we will find we are better suited to live well in the world God has placed us.

JARED C. WILSON: Stories, like songs, can communicate truth in ways that complement the ways non-fiction books and sermons and such communicate, making us more well-rounded, more versatile in our thinking, better equipped to communicate truth to others, and more wholly persons made in God’s creative image.

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR: A number of recent studies have been quantifying what the ancients knew well: literary fiction—that is, fiction that both teaches and delights—has a socializing effect on us. Given how the nature of fiction imitates our sense of the human condition, as described above, this shouldn’t be surprising. 

One new study published in the journal Science, for example, confirmed that emotional intelligence, empathy, and social perception were measurably improved after test subjects read literary fiction. The researchers attributed this outcome to the role the imagination plays in reading such literature. Reading requires our minds to make inferences, interpret nuanced indicators, gauge emotions, and predict outcomes—just like we must do in real life. In emphasizing “showing” rather than “telling,” literary fiction allows readers to do more interpretive work in discerning the meaning of a story. Such activity recreates the interpretive work we do as we interact with people, “reading” them and the situations we find ourselves in every day, all day. 

In this way, it is the form of fiction, as much as if not more than, the content of a particular story that is significant in shaping our minds. Christians are correctly concerned with the moral content of fiction and other forms of art (the what), but we ought to attend more to form (the how), because the form is what makes the story stick. 

What are some of the formative fictional influences in your life?

TREVIN WAX: As far as classics go, Julie Rose’s translation of Les Miserablesis one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve also read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov multiple times. I enjoy fantasy (Narnia, Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and so on), and also more recent fiction—the literary type (Marilynne Robinson) as well as contemporary Christian fiction (Randy Alcorn does well with the genre). As far as influences go, I love the wit and wisdom of Chesterton, the imagination of Lewis, the artistic mind of Calvin Miller, and the sermons of Spurgeon. And I’ve been studying the parables of Jesus regularly for 11 years now.

JARED C. WILSON: I would be surprised if I was the only one to mention C.S. Lewis. As MacDonald was his literary master, I reckon Lewis’s mine. I devoured the Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy during my adolescence. Tolkien too. And in college I fell in love with Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories. I am a fan of more literary novelists too, and much of my fiction writing bears the marks of Paul Auster and John Updike. To bring a Christian worldview to Auster’s sense of crypto-reality would be my long-term goal in writing fiction.

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR: I have written an entire book on this very question, so I will share just three examples from that work here.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, was extremely formative in my life. In the character and life of Jane, I encountered an example of a person who had a strong sense of self, but had much work to do in allowing that self to become what her God had created her to be. Jane had to overcome strong temptations to be other than that self. In some cases, those temptations were not necessarily wrong choices, but they weren’t the ones truest to Jane’s nature. For me, Jane Eyre demanded precisely the interpretive practice described above that helped me navigate my real life as a young woman so as to become the person God created me to be.

Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman helped me well into adulthood to develop and refine my views about vocation, the dignity of work, and the essence of the American Dream (as opposed to the corrupted versions of it). The play also does something truly significant from a literary point of view: it takes the ancient concept of tragedy, one defined by Aristotle in terms derived from a world very different from ours, and translates it to the modern condition, thereby setting in stark relief the universal aspects of the human condition that cut across culture, religion, class, and time. It’s a brilliant work that I return to again and again. 

Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, is a challenging work to anyone unaccustomed to reading literary fiction. But it does, in my opinion, what fiction does best: it embodies the dire consequences of that universal human tendency to equate our own limited, finite perspective with Truth. And it’s wickedly funny, too.