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.

Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Managing Editor of For The Church(and host of the FTC Podcast), and Director of The Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO. Read More by this Author

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University, research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul … Read More

Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher for LifeWay Christian Resources and publisher for the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) translation. A former missionary to Romania, Trevin hosts a blog at The Gospel Coalition and regularly contributes to The Washington Post, Religion News Service, World, and Christianity Today, which named him one of 33 millennials shaping the next generation of evangelicals. His latest book is This is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel that releases this month. Trevin earned his Ph.D. in Theology at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and his … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24