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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Reading Fiction a Waste of Time?

Every once in a while I talk to someone who thinks that reading fiction is a waste of time. Such a person might enjoy reading but only things that - as he might say - are real and true as opposed to fictional. This person sees no practical use for fiction. And of all the different genres of fiction, fantasy and fairy tale may appear to be the least practical of them all. After addressing a conference of librarians, C.S. Lewis was asked what practical use fantasy books such as his Chronicles of Narnia could possibly have for a child. Lewis responded that non-fiction is certainly a superb way to transfer information, such as how to build a boat. Fantasy might not help a boy to build a boat, but it would be immensely helpful should he ever find himself on a sinking boat.

The point is that the human imagination is important. And like all human faculties, our imagination is given to us by the Creator and can be used for good or ill. And it needs to be properly nurtured and exercised just like the intellect or the muscles of the body in order for it to be healthy.

What good is the imagination? It is the means whereby we can envision truths and possibilities that go beyond what may be perceived by the five senses. Those who see no use for fiction are in danger of being materialists. They become slaves to nature and have difficulty interacting with anything that stands above or outside of nature.

It comes down to the question of Pontius Pilate: "What is truth?" Is reading a book of science an encounter with the truth? Is reading a great novel or short story or poem a means of evading the truth? No, of course not. Scientific exposition can be filled with lies and falsehood as we find out every time "discoveries" are made which contradict previous assumptions. And poetry can convey enough beauty and truth to destroy worlds and transform lives.

I am often amazed and delighted at the unlikely places I find ingredients of truth. Even in fallen man, there are residues of understanding, vestiges of truth. So we should not be surprised to behold startling insights even in the artistic efforts of the godless. Chalk it up to natural revelation or imago Dei. Or to the dissipating fumes of Christendom. Sometimes the writers stumble onto truth accidentally. Sometimes they speak the truth unintentionally. Many times they do not even realize the full import of what they write. And other times, sensitive Christians are able to create portraits of human life by means of fiction or poetry that communicate reality more powerfully than other so-called more realistic types of writing.

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Darrell said...

It comes down to the question of Pontius Pilate: "What is truth?"

Well, there ya go. Or, to paraphrase one of my favorite secular writers, Kurt Vonnegut, good fiction tells us the truth about ourselves by telling us lies about people who don't exist.

Bob Waters said...

My homiletics prof used to say that the time a pastor spends during the week reading novels ought to count as sermon preparation. I principle I personally always found it all too easy to abuse, I admit- but a valid one, I think.

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