By / Apr 29

Classic literature is not where we are likely to turn when looking to learn leadership principles. However, fiction is a constructive way for leaders to grow. Almost any great work of literature is worthwhile for leaders. In my experience, many leaders, particularly Christian leaders, neglect literary fiction to read books that are seemingly more practical (i.e., books on leadership). While literature seems less practical, it is often more useful in the long term. 

Literature helps shape virtue, which is essential for any meaningful or lasting leadership. Good stories stick with us and shape us consciously and subconsciously. Leaders need to be people of virtue and strong character. Literature also helps us cultivate empathy by seeing things from someone else’s perspective. 

As a general tip for reading fiction for those with little experience, I suggest finding some topic of interest and looking for a novel somehow related (for example, if you are interested in studying military history, you may enjoy All Quiet on the Western Front). As you read more, you will likely find your tastes expand, and you will become interested in reading widely.

The literary corpus is so large; where does someone begin? In particular, where does someone unaccustomed to reading fiction begin? I am going to share a few works that I believe would be helpful and accessible. I do not think these are the only works, or even necessarily the best works, but I do believe each of these works has incredible value and would be a decent place to begin.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day is a powerful novel about an English butler reflecting on life near his career’s end. While he has enjoyed and been honored by his career, he laments having missed out on relationships and opportunities by investing so deeply in his work. This novel is brilliantly captivating and a powerful reminder for leaders as they contemplate their work and their lives. It is easy for a leader to pour one’s life into one’s work at the expense of several vital things, including loving their families and growing in spiritual maturity. This novel offers wisdom into that topic.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar is loosely based on the historical assassination of Julius Caesar. This is one you likely read in high school (or were at least assigned). This play shows readers the stakes in leading well, making decisions for others, and the consequences of those choices. Shakespeare understood the human condition as well as any other English-speaking author, and he forces readers to wrestle with the essence of our identity, how we separate personal preferences from the greater good, and much more. Leaders must often make choices with no clear right or easy answer, and Shakespeare captures that reality in Julius Caesar

The Odyssey by Homer

The Odyssey is likely the most challenging book on this list, but the payoff is immeasurable for those willing to invest in it. Part of the challenge is that The Odyssey is epic poetry. Finding the right translation is helpful in making it through this one; I recommend Richmond Lattimore’s translation, but there are several other worthy translations. Odysseus is trying to make his way home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and his journey is filled with detour after detour. Odysseus is known for his cunning, but he also makes the occasional bad decision. On his journey, he tries to remain faithful to his wife and his quest while also protecting his men, but he also experiences failure and loss. There are lessons to learn from Odysseus by positive and negative examples, and Homer covers so many topics throughout this great epic, it is worth reading several times.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

I would likely favor having The Lord of the Rings on this list over The Hobbit, but that is a much greater undertaking. It may seem silly to include a children’s book, particularly a fantastical one. However, I hold the conviction that stories worth reading to children are at least as valuable for adults to read. The Hobbit follows an unlikely, unqualified hero, Bilbo Baggins, on a journey to reclaim treasure guarded by a dragon. Along the way, Bilbo must find courage and virtue in himself to achieve success. The most important thing for a leader is to have strong character, and this novel can help cultivate wisdom and virtue. If a tiny hobbit can face dire challenges to save his friends and experience success, so can we.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is sometimes viewed as being a love story, but it is so much more. This novel interacts with human identity and how we are uniquely created. The characters don’t always fit their family’s or society’s expectations. This tension forces introspection in readers — leaders must come to terms with their strengths and weaknesses to lead well. This book also reminds us that first impressions aren’t always accurate, and leaders need to be compassionate and slow to make judgments. Good leaders are attentive and listen well.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Total disclosure: this is my favorite work of fiction. I hesitated to mention it because the novel’s unabridged version is over 1,000 pages, which would make it a difficult place to start. But few other works deal with as many issues as beautifully as this one. Edmond Dantes is cruelly wronged but experiences growth in the process. This novel highlights what it means to hold on to hope, even amid hardship for many years. Dumas also deals with themes of forgiveness, justice, mercy, and redemption in this beautiful narrative.

Leaders often overlook classic literature for books about self-improvement and leadership growth. Yet, classic works of fiction offer inspiration and insight, shaping us through narrative. Next time you look for fresh books for your personal development, consider some of these great works of classic literature.

By / Feb 28

Dr. Karen Swallow Prior is a Professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. She earned her PhD and MA at the State University of New York at Buffalo and her BA at Daemon College. Her area of specialization is 18th century British literature where she focuses on philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics.

She is the author of three books: Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More – Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson 2014), Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press 2012), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books (Brazos Press 2018). Her writing has also appeared in various publications such as Christianity Today, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Gospel Coalition, and others.

Prior is a Research Fellow for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, a Senior Fellow of Liberty University’s Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

By / Jul 19

Born and raised in the “birthplace of Rock ‘N Roll,” Donna Gaines returned 25 years later armed with a background in education and a heart for the county that claims one of the highest rates of childhood poverty.

Gaines is a women’s ministry leader and wife to Southern Baptist Convention president and Bellevue Baptist Church pastor Steve Gaines, where they minister together in Cordova, Tenn. Although she spends much of her time traveling with her husband, discipling women, and spending time with her 10—soon to be 11—grandchildren, Gaines is also the founder and president of a literacy program that targets at-risk children.

Five years ago, Gaines launched ARISE2Read, a faith-based literacy program for second graders in the greater Memphis and Jackson areas. Since starting the program, ARISE2Read has mobilized 822 volunteers who tutor 853 students in 19 schools—including in Gaines’s very own Georgian Hills Elementary, where she attended growing up.

“Our goal is to tutor every second-grade child,” Gaines said in an interview. Their goal for the upcoming school year is an ambitious 30 area schools.

Several studies, including a popularly cited study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2011, correlate high school graduation rates with reading on grade level by the end of third grade. The Casey study showed that children living in poverty who are reading proficiently by the end of third grade have an 89 percent graduation rate, since in fourth grade students are no longer learning to read, they are reading to learn.

“If you’re not on grade level by then, that impacts everything,” Gaines said.

The program, which integrates with an already-established initiative called Team Read, has seen incredible success, with a 142 percent increase in the number of second graders who are scoring on grade level.

In their pilot school, Treadwell Elementary, the program also worked with the lowest functioning first graders in addition to all second graders. While only about a third of overall Shelby County third grade students read at grade level, Treadwell bragged a 78 percent of students reading at grade level, Gaines said.

Behind every great man

Many in Southern Baptist or evangelical circles are familiar with Pastor Steve Gaines, her husband. What many might not know is that Donna Gaines is the chairman of the board for the Pastors Wives’ Session of the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. She’s also the author of four books, and blogs regularly.

With a background in education—Gaines studied at Union University in Jackson for her undergraduate degree and completed her Master’s of Education at Texas Woman’s University—Gaines has long been aware of her love for education and underprivileged children. Early in her career, before going into full-time ministry, Gaines worked as an Educational Diagnostician in Texas.

“From when I was in college, I thought I would do something for needy children,” Gaines said. “God can plant a dream in you in college and bring it to fruition. It’s so fulfilling. Everything God has put into my life at this point has prepared me for this.”

With that special awareness, Gaines immediately recognized the need for an organization that actively linked local churches with their schools, using literacy as the most efficient tool for improving the wellbeing of their neighbors.

About a decade ago, Bellevue Baptist Church’s inner city mission projects sparked a regular tutoring program at one of the less privileged area schools. Around the same time, the Shelby and Memphis school systems merged, Gaines said.

“There was a lot of fear in the county of what that would mean,” she said. “And I had a moment in my quiet time where I felt God telling me, ‘this is your city, these are your children. What are you going to do about it?’”

So she called up the Memphis school system about using her resources – her connections with local churches – and aiding with a volunteer program, an idea which collided with the school’s goals to integrate the faith-based community.

Not just any literacy program

Program leaders at ARISE2Read are not only interested in the intellectual and mental well-being of the students they tutor. The name of the organization stands for “A Renewal In Student Education and Evangelism,” which separates it from other literacy programs by linking faith-based organizations (mostly evangelical area churches) with local schools.

Volunteers are not allowed to explicitly evangelize during their weekly one-on-one tutoring sessions, but more spiritually-oriented clubs afterward are optional. Each volunteer sees two students for 30 minutes each during the week, for a total of one hour of volunteering.

“You may not be able to say the name of Christ, but you are Christ [in your actions],” Gaines says to her volunteers, encouraging them to use private prayer over the student or the school in their ministry. The program is split unapologetically into two arms – a spiritual ministry arm and a community-driven one.

“It’s important that these children grow academically, but it’s equally important to show up every week and grow in that relationship. They’re excited, in their corner, literally speaking words of life. We’re seeing these children blossom,” Gaines said.

They haven’t promoted their program at all, but it’s spread rapidly via word-of-mouth, due to its simplicity (tutoring in elementary-level reading), low-level of commitment (one hour a week) and attractiveness to the school system (helping an already existing program that requires little maintenance). Recently, several local businesses adopted a school, in addition to the 20 local churches that are on board in Memphis alone.

One church body led a family to Christ through their involvement in the school. Another has helped a single mother of seven children over the past year in ways that range from getting clothes at Christmas to finding them solid housing.

“We helped her move in on December 22 with a wreath, fully furnished apartment and a Christmas Tree,” Gaines said. “Once people get involved, these children are no longer numbers.”

For Gaines, it’s more than just the academic statistics.

“I can’t not do this. I think it’s a justice issue. How can we not do anything?” she said. “Look at the resources we have! We can’t ignore that.”

Helping, not hurting

And volunteers are not ignoring those around them. The program doesn’t just serve the students, though they do that well and in a way that looks out for the whole student. It also is aware of  the teachers and staff at the schools where they volunteer.

“We’ve seen teachers’ morale increase,” Gaines said. Remembering the struggles of inner-city teachers is one of the many aspects of the program.

Shelby County School System Director of Family Partnerships and School Support Cynthia Alexander Mitchell started working with Gaines and ARISE2Read three years ago. Even with 100,000 students in the school system, and many different organizations offering to contribute help, Alexander Mitchell values the partnership of Gaines’s program, she said.

“When I was first getting into the role, I had several groups wanting to help, but ARISE2Read had the purest motive,” she said. “They stepped in and just helped support us. People often help if it benefits them. They just helped.”

While faith-based institutions and organizations being involved in schools is increasingly controversial, Mitchell sees the value local churches getting to know their communities – students who are inside or outside of the church.

“They help with our academics, but also with the self-esteem of the student,” she said.

The volunteers take a holistic approach in supporting their students, at a very pivotal age for many of them, Alexander Mitchell said.

Even with the church-and-state balance, Alexander Mitchell understands the value of the program’s after-hours Good News Clubs, more spiritually-focused times after school that parents and students can opt into, finding a “delicate way to support the faith foundation” of the students.

“Our most stable and faithful volunteers come from faith-based institutions,” Alexander Mitchell said, adding that she would recommend similar programs to other counties. “The tutoring relationship is not only beneficial for the children but also the volunteer. The [volunteers] are consistently returning to the schools where they’ve committed to. They’re a stabilizing force.”

Her advice to other churches: “the key is to have great, solid relationships with the school. The community has to see this as a support, and not another thing to monitor.”

By / Aug 25
By / Jul 20

As a teacher at a Christian school I believe there’s a far greater threat facing our students than secular culture. I don’t think their greatest threat is public education. I don’t think it’s a racy scene on The Walking Dead. And I certainly don’t think it’s the word “damn” in Hemingway. Instead, the greatest threat to our students is the homogenized, list-driven, rehashed Pharisaism that we’re unwittingly peddling to the young adults in our care. We’re not exposing them to the richness and depth of biblical Christianity; we’re hawking a cheap alternative.

Recently, I came across the application for a Christian writing competition, which contained an extensive list of “questionable material” that would be denied entry if it made an appearance in any of my students’ submissions. One list was summarized by the following content: “witchcraft, ghosts, etc.” Another contained things like “bathroom humor.” If this is what we want to market to our students, then so be it; but we best be prepared to say goodbye to any hope of inspiring the next Dostoevsky, the next Flannery O’Connor, the next C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, and—more startling still—I think we’ll find that even Jesus will ultimately be barred from our “safe for the whole family” contests. My chief problem with this kind of approach to Christian education is that we’re missing an opportunity to demonstrate the complexity and beauty of Christianity, and we’re settling for the propagation of a simplistic moralism.

Any approach to teaching young Christians the craft of writing that blushes and waves a dismissive hand at the works of Shakespeare should give us pause. I’m startled by the message it sends to my students to spend a month on The Tragedy of Macbeth and then offer them an opportunity to write with the addendum, “Just make sure your writing is nothing like Shakespeare’s!” If we applied the same moralistic standards that we often expect of our students to the stories that fill our curriculum, we would lose the opportunity to introduce our the young to the murderous Macbeth and his three bearded friends. They wouldn’t just be losing the enjoyment of a good story, but the chance to grapple with fate and free-will, to self-examine their own ambitious hearts, to have the eye-opening experience of identifying with a man who buckles under the pressure of an apple too enticing to say, “No.”

And it’s not only Shakespeare (who some would reject since he many not have been a believer). A closer look at the kinds of restrictive lists we often compile reveals that even some of the most influential Christian artists of all time should get the boot from our classrooms. If, for instance, we consider the common prohibition of stories with “magic” in many Christian circles, then C.S. Lewis should be next on the chopping block. Say goodbye to The Chronicles of Narnia, a story that not only contains a witch, but also contains forces for good that use “magic” as well. Barring Narnia forces us to say goodbye to one of the most vivid and beautiful depictions of the gospel that the fantasy genre has ever seen. Lewis’ drinking buddy, Tolkien, has to hit the road as well. Our beloved wizard Gandalf, the one who taught us what it means to cling to hope, risk our lives in the fight against evil, and see the strength in the “least of these” is just another outlaw on many of our moralistic lists.

It’s not just the focus on making lists that’s so problematic—although we’ll return to that in a moment—but even the things we’ve chosen to fill the lists with. This fear of fictitious “witchcraft,” for example, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible means when it condemns witchcraft and magic in the first place. The Christian Research Journal does a superb job correcting our ignorance of the Bible’s teaching and its connection to the fantastical stories we love:

“The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Harry Potter series are works of fantasy. In both, the authors create multidimensional worlds peopled with various creatures, many of whom use magical powers to affect physical changes in their world. Some of these creatures are bad and use their powers for evil, and some of these creatures are good and use their powers to battle evil. The “magical” powers are “natural” attributes of the respective fantasy worlds in which they operate. In this sense the magic is more akin to the ability of animals to speak and wear clothes in children’s literature such as The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. Within the context of the world of the story, clothed talking animals are not supernatural, occult aberrations but the normal state of affairs. In other words, the magic is mechanistic, not occult: the make-believe laws that govern their use in these make-believe worlds are physical laws, not spiritual or moral laws. These practices are not the same as the occult-based wizardry and sorcery practiced in the real world by real people and condemned in the Bible (which illumines the real world).”[1]

When we kick Tolkien, Lewis, and even Rowling out of our classrooms, when we send the message to our students that their works are incoherent with our faith, we’re losing the opportunity to use stories “such as those in the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series as vehicles to show these youths what they really want and need — a place of love, courage, friendship, belonging, and a chance to lay down their lives in a cause greater than themselves.”[2] In other words, we lose the opportunity to bring them the very fabric that weaves together the story of the gospel.

Herein lies the heart of the problem: we run away from encountering Jesus because people are complex. People are impossible to fit on a list. The person of Jesus can’t be contained, controlled, or homogenized, and Jesus was constantly frustrating the list-makers in his day. Have we forgotten about the incidents concerning Jesus and the Sabbath? He demonstrated for us that the things on God’s lists existed for a greater purpose, and that the moment the list is incongruent with the story of redemption, we’ve misunderstood the entire point of our faith altogether. (e.g. Mark 3:1-6). We must remember how the religious leaders scoffed at his drinking and the company he kept, two more things Jesus did that violated the lists of people trying to be more pious than God. (e.g. Matthew 9:10-11; Matthew 11:19). Jesus wasn’t rebelling against lists to be trendy or provocative. He was trying to teach us something invaluable about the nature of Christianity: the lists in Scripture don’t exist as ends in themselves; they exist to show us something of the nature of God, the helplessness of man, and the desperate need for rescue. The Bible’s lists are about the story. The story is about a Person. The Person is what should be driving us and forming every decision we make—especially in our art.

I’ll be the first to admit: there isn’t an easy alternative to limiting our students’ writing with moralistic lists; however, there is a better one. The writing that we should be inspiring, that our culture so desperately needs, is writing that works from an understanding of the gospel. We don’t need safe, unrealistic, black-and-white depictions of the moral life. We need young writers who honestly wrestle with the reality of biting the apple, the struggle of humanity, the sweetness of redemption, and the hope of returning to Eden. The need of the hour is for gospel-driven writers, not moralistic ones. We need more storytellers, not more list-makers.

[1] Mark Ryan and Carole Hausmann Ryan. “Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.” This article first appeared in the News Watch department of the Christian Research Journal, volume 24, number 4 (2002)

[2] Ibid

By / Sep 30

For a variety of reasons, it can be difficult for Christians who are the products of contemporary culture to see the connections between the life of the intellect and the life of faith. This is true even (or especially) of our Christian students, particularly at the undergraduate level. Most of us teaching in institutions of higher education find ourselves at some point, perhaps often, engaged in academic apologetics: explaining and defending not only the significance but even the very legitimacy of our field of study.

Teaching in an evangelical university, I have found it very helpful to begin most of my classes with a defense of literature. (I take comfort in the fact that even ancients and early moderns such as Aristotle and Sir Philip Sidney had to defend literature in their own cultures, as have many thinkers and writers throughout the ages.) Beginning my classes with this discussion (which usually takes two class sessions or more) provides, I have found, a strong foundation that carries students through challenging parts of the semester, and (they often later attest) is the part of the course students remember most.

Here is my biblical basis for the study of literature, which is very loosely defined as the art of language, and it is with the art of language that I begin:

  • Language is a gift of God. To study, steward and enjoy language is to appreciate God’s good gift.
  • Language is a reflection of God’s very nature and his image in us. Jesus is called the “Word.” Thus we know that language is not only something God gives and uses, but is part of his very nature. God is, in some ineffable way, language. To use and study language is to celebrate God’s nature and his image in us.
  • Language is powerful. Consider that God spoke the world into existence. He also thwarted the attempt to overreach human bounds (in building the Tower of Babel) specifically by dividing human speech into various languages. Proverbs 18:21 cautions us that life and death are in the power of the tongue. We must learn to use the tool of language responsibly, effectively, and in a God-honoring way.
  • Using language was the first work God assigned to humankind. Adam’s first task was to name (not count or classify or tame or paint) the animals. Through language we discover and create order in God’s creation; this kind of work was part of God’s original plan for man before the fall and continues to be part of our work today.
  • When we take delight in literary creations, we imitate God. God took delight in his creation in looking upon it and declaring that “it was good.” It is good to take pleasure and enjoyment in our good creations, including literary ones.
  • Aesthetic goodness (the beautiful) can teach us about moral goodness (the good) and intellectual goodness (the true). According to William Dyrness in his book Visual Faith, the word “good” in the Bible refers to both aesthetic and ethical goodness; in God’s perfect economy, the two realms are not divided. When God declared that his creation was “good,” this pronouncement was both a moral and an aesthetic judgment.
  • To read or write literature is one way we can take dominion over the earth. Art — including literature — is an attempt to take dominion over the aesthetic realm of creation; simply by observing God’s creation we know that God cares about beauty; we should, too.
  • Christianity is a religion of the written word. Christianity gives a primary place to the word over the image: God’s highest form of communication with us is through the written word (from the Ten Commandments to Holy Scripture to Jesus as the Word); God cautions us about the power of visual images or “graven images” (see Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death), and the Protestant Reformation reinforced the primacy of words over images); Christianity is responsible for preserving and disseminating the written word and literacy throughout the world as the invention of the printing press was motivated by the desire of Christians to get the Bible into the hands of the people. The word both spoken and written is central to our faith in countless ways.
  • Excellence in literary knowledge is exemplified by important figures in the Bible. Consider both Daniel and Paul, both of whom demonstrated mastery of pagan literature and used it to glorify God.
  • Faithful Christians and skilled readers share an important common trait. Both demonstrate faithfulness to the text—neither adding to nor subtracting from it.
  • When we enter new worlds by reading literature, we imitate Christ. Christ humbled himself by becoming human in order to experience our humanity with us (Phil. 2:5-8); when we read literature that conveys lives, places and experiences different from our own, we are humbling ourselves by stepping outside our own world to share in aspects of human experience unfamiliar to us.
  • Reading the great literature of the world is like fulfilling the command God gave to the Israelites to take silver and gold from the Egyptians. As St. Augustine argued in De Doctrina Christiana about pagan philosophy, Christians can put “Egyptian gold” (pagan treasures or wisdom, wherever it is found) into the Lord’s service. Of course, the “gold” must be tested by Scripture to determine whether or not it truly is gold.
  • Reading literature in light of scripture helps us to fulfill the command of 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22. “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” Reading literature allows us to “test” ideas.
  • The study of literature helps us to be more like Christ, putting worldly things under our subjection. Matthew 15:11 reminds us that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth. Through reading literature, we strengthen our abilities to discern good from evil (Heb. 2:8, 5:12-14; 2 Cor. 10-5, Rom. 12:2), and can grow to desire “meat” more than “milk.” The fall corrupted not only our sense of what ismorally good (what is right), but also what is aesthetically good (what is beautiful); both of these need to be brought back under subjection through Christ.
  • Encountering the truths contained in good literature makes us freer. And Jesus said, “The Truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). All human beings are made in God’s image and thus bear the image of Truth in them; similarly, as St. Augustine argued in De Doctrina Christiana, all truth is God’s truth. What makes great writers great—Christian or not—is their ability to express truth. Reading literature by the great minds of all times and all places helps us to discern more truth.
  • Reading literature from various views can cultivate virtue (see “Promiscuous Reading”). John Milton puts it this way in Areopagitica:

As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

  • Reading literature helps us to fulfill the command to love our neighbors. The more we know and understand our neighbors the better we can love them.
  • Reading good literature helps us to fulfill the exhortation of Philippians 2:8. “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” The canon of literature is literature of good report. Good literature is praiseworthy for the truth it contains, even if those truths are hard, as is often the case.
  • Literary Christians are better equipped to engage a postmodern culture. Postmodernism is characterized by an emphasis on language and “story”; for many today the aesthetic experience has replaced the religious experience. Christians who understand this can more effectively engage the current culture.

While my points are centered on my discipline of English literature, perhaps they can provide insights for teaching the biblical basis for the study of other disciplines, as we each undertake to help our students and ourselves to love God with our minds.

For further reading:

Brown, Frank Burch. Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
Dyrness, William A. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin, 1986.
Ryken, Leland, ed. The Christian Imagination. Colorado Springs: Shaw Books, 2002.
Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. Reading Between the Lines. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1990.
Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. State of the Arts. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1991.

Also, for various disciplines, see the Through the Eyes of Faith series published by HarperOne.

This article was originally pusblished at The Well.

By / Oct 23

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.