Why it’s dangerous NOT to read fiction…

I’ve got a question. It’s a trick one, so I’ll give you a couple of paragraphs or so to think about it.

Does God want you to be like Him?

While you’re mulling that one over, I’d like to tell you about the recent experience of a friend of mine who was trying to sell some of her books. She encountered a woman who told her bluntly (and not a little scornfully), ‘I don’t read fiction.’

This is an attitude that is unfortunately all too prevalent amongst Christians. Fiction is somehow beneath the notice of some readers who view it as untrue and therefore suspect. It may not always be the work of the devil but most of the time it comes pretty close. When confronted with this viewpoint and the veiled contempt of these sort of put-downs, those of us who write fiction tend to feel inadequate, intimidated and defensive. It’s hard to know what to say to these ‘cultural despisers’ of fiction.

There’s a widespread tendency to overlook the fact that Jesus’ one and only mode of public teaching was story-telling. Parables are fiction.

Like the best stories, they teach us about relationships, the world around us and the human condition. They let us slip into the skin of the characters and experience the world through their eyes. How does it feel to have worked through a hot, humid day and received the same wage as someone who laboured only half an hour?  What’s it like to know your manager has just been forgiven a million dollar loss when he’s threatening to fire you over five dollars missing from the till?

Non-fiction reports the story. A great fiction writer or a supremely gifted story-teller gives the reader the chance to live the story.

Back when I was teaching, I read many documents about Asperger’s Syndrome but nothing ever gave me anything like the understanding of it as a story written from the point of view of a kid who suffered from it.

So, now back to my question: Does God want you to be like Him?  It’s a question Eve should have asked, you know, when the serpent rocked up and dangled a similar bait in front of her. ‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like Him, knowing good and evil.’’

Wanting to be like God is the primal temptation. Wanting to be like Jesus is so subtle and insidious in its appeal we often fail to notice the dark voice hidden in the heart of it: the call to be separate from God. You see, God doesn’t want us to be like Him; He wants us to be one with Him.

Likeness implies separation, oneness implies union. The last thing Jesus did before He was arrested on the night before He died was pray that all of us might be one. His prayer was all about ending the separation between God and us, so that we might be One Body motivated by One Spirit, under One Lord.

I often wonder how people who don’t read fiction learn what oneness means. How do their hearts come to beat so closely with that of another person that there is a single drumbeat? How do their minds turn so that they seem knitted to that of another and think the same thoughts after them?

Sure, some marriages achieve this. But, realistically, most don’t. Some friendships come close. But again, most don’t.

Fiction is a training ground for oneness. Oneness with God, oneness with others. Even secular psychologists recognise that readers of fiction have more sympathy for, and empathy with, the plight of others than those who read exclusively non-fiction. Movies, by and large, don’t have the same ability: most of them make us observers, without drawing us into a single character’s perspective.

The best fiction puts us in touch with the heart of God and the heart of others. The best fiction pulls us out of ourselves and over the walls of our hard-hearted individuality into a place and perspective where we can experience the kind of oneness God wants for all of us. It paints for us a model of what the Kingdom of God should be like and plants us, not as observers of the model, but participants in it.

There are, of course, other training grounds for the oneness Jesus prayed for us to have. But none are so gentle. None so widely available to everyone from toddlers to adults.

No wonder Jesus used it.

To not read fiction, to not participate in stories, is quite simply a very very dangerous choice.


  1. Thank you, Annie,
    That’s the best and most convincing reason to read fiction I’ve come across, and a post well worth bookmarking for keeping up the morale of those of us who write it.

    • I should qualify this, of course, by saying that this is the kind of fiction that actually does follow the canons of ‘show, don’t tell’ and a very tight viewpoint. I find that it’s the careful adherence to the modern idea of ‘point of view’ that makes a huge impact on the reader’s ability to get under the skin of a character.

  2. Alison Collins

    Hi Annie,

    The “I don’t read fiction” statement sounds similar to a “serious” approach to education I read recently (name withheld) where self-expression and writing fiction were regarded as less useful than studying history and “real” concepts…I think that these attitudes come out of a focus on religion rather than relationship. Wasn’t it the pharisees who were the “serious objecters” to Jesus? Jesus used humour, questions, and allowed his disciples to experience events which they later processed (eg ‘who is greatest’ argument, storm on the lake, fishing from the other side of the boat…) to help his disciples grow…I think God wants us to not just know His ways, but to have a heart understanding of them. Besides, God is creative and relational, so if we are to be reflecting His image, our creativity needs to be part of our life. To be fully alive, we need to be more than scientific rationalist computers, the “objectivity” of which comes out of secular anti-God philosophies, not a Biblical viewpoint.


    • There are two extremes: I’ve been around in education when self-expression was the pinnacle and ‘serious’ subjects never got a look-in. The result of that equally misguided emphasis was that absolutely everything any student did was praised for its uniqueness and creative impulse. The idea of craftsmanship, the idea of a ‘draft’, the idea of excellence, the idea of chalking a less than perfect outcome up to experience – heaven forbid that such antiquated notions should still be around!

      Students educated under this philosophy experienced a profound shock when they got out into the real world and they were told to re-do something not up to scratch. They didn’t have a concept of ‘a standard’.

      And at the opposite extreme is the viewpoint you mention: that only the ‘serious’ and ‘useful’ subjects are worthwhile.

      Thanks for this comment, Alison. It’s given me pause to consider which subjects, if any, are actually relational.

  3. Paula Vince

    Interesting conversation.

    I think I was educated during the time period when self-expression was the pinnacle. I was at High School in the 1980s and don’t remember ever once being taught any rules about the structure of the English language. We were assessed solely on our creative ideas. Each year I was made “Dux” of English, receiving A+ as a grade more often than not. When I began University in 1988, assuming I’d sail through English, I was given 66 for my first assignment, just scraping into a Credit. I felt as if my world had collapsed.

    When I questioned my tutor about the grade, he gave me a list of what could have been improved. Now, not only was I devastated but I felt like a victim, because nobody had ever taught me any of that at school and now I was paying the price. Everything I’ve learned, I’ve pretty well had to pick up myself since I left school. In fact, the lady who edited my “Quenarden” series told me I do pretty well for somebody who was educated in what she called the “dark age” of proper English rules. Some things still don’t come as automatically to me as they do to the older generations.

    I’m not sure what “the system” is like now, having homeschooled my kids, but judging from Face Book comments and notes I’ve read from Gens Y and Z, the downward slide of proper expression continues. It makes me sad because young people with the best creative ideas are not being equipped with the skills to express them. I get worried because people from my Gen X who were not given a thorough grounding themselves are now the teachers, making it seem less likely that students will ever be given the balance they need.

    I see my comment is less about what subjects should be studied and more about basic tools we’re being taught, but I guess it’s still relevant as the good sort of fiction Annie has mentioned needs a proper structural vehicle to express it.

    • Hi Paula

      I think we all know that spelling and grammar are not as important as they once were. And that they may never be so again – although, having said that, I recall a Canadian teacher telling me a few years back that the hierarchy in the education system over there suddenly decided that the basics were so crucial that they gave all their teachers a test on them. Those who didn’t make the grade went to a lower pay scale.

      The teachers concerned were shocked and furious. Was it their fault that they didn’t know how to spell or put a sentence together properly? Like you, they’d never been taught. They were suddenly expected to know and implement the very things that hadn’t been considered significant for decades.

      I think different generations face different issues – the older generation has no idea what ‘show don’t tell’ or ‘point of view’ means (and don’t understand why they should have to, because they think spelling and grammar is the biggest issue). Younger generations have a better idea of voice and style but no idea on spelling. Surprisingly, they also produce massively long sentences. You’d think in the age of twitter, they’d be the ones who’d keep their sentences short but I’ve regularly encountered marathon sentences of 80 – 100 words. It’s a kind of stream of consciousness – which, well done, would probably work fine – but I’ve yet to see it done well.

      All of this ultimately means: editors who have an understanding of both sides of the coin aren’t going to be out of a job anytime soon.

    • Wow, Paula, I am afraid being part of the “older” generation I have not been aware of this change of English teaching in school as being so huge. It actually explains quite a lot to me about some manuscripts from writers I’ve read over the years. Even with our era’s training, I still know I need to learn more about grammar – and punctuation. Punctuation and spacing is something that does seem to have changed considerably these days – commas especially. I think they are not used now anywhere near as much but I have to confess in fiction I think it usually does help the “flow” of the story.

      • Yes Mary, commas are used a lot less. In the olden days we’d have put commas around your name (after ‘yes’ at the beginning of this comment) but these days one of them is consistently dropped. In fact, I realised as I was writing the last sentence that I could take out its commas and it still looked reasonably natural, so I did. It all comes down, I think, to whether or not when you take the commas out, the sentence still makes unambiguous sense.

  4. Alison Collins

    yes, why is balance so hard to achieve? I relate to your story, Paula. I learnt more about English grammar in French lessons. I remember being in teacher’s college in the 1980’s, and being actively taught that spelling and grammar didn’t need to be taught directly, that they could be just absorbed…lots of us disagreed, and my brother, who is a high school English and Geography teacher, used to comment that the kids had little writing skill…lots of the students coming through on this method seemed to lack tools. And I’m not sure about experimental spelling…my own kids sometimes seemed to think it was ok to make up their own spelling rather than finding out the correct one. I think it could swing back, but I think it needs to accompany a swing of society back to God because of the underlying philosophies.

    • Although I belonged to the era when grammar was an important aspect of language learning, by the time I became a teacher, the move towards immersion had begun. Because I was working at a very small country ‘high top’, I was assigned a German class. In fact, I introduced German to the school and was its only teacher. Terrifying when I couldn’t speak it fluently. The school was so small that, after two years there, crunch time came: I realised that I was going to have to teach German and maths simultaneously the following year! Before this timetable disaster actually occurred, I instigated a grand plan. With the principal’s permission, I deliberately tried to turn every student off German, so that no one would choose it as an elective the following year. For four months, I taught solid grammar, making the subject as dry and boring as I possibly could. As a scheme it failed miserably. Not only did so many students choose German despite these efforts that there was no possibility of cancelling the class, I later learned that the school had the state record (both percentage wise and absolute number wise) for students electing to do a language in their junior year.
      I don’t think this is a testament to my teaching. Rather I think, that past the age of four or five, when learning a language is not quite as natural as breathing but pretty close, kids want structured instruction. And without it, they are simply lost in a labyrinth of sounds and letters.

      • Alison Collins

        lol. Very funny. I have to admit I loved the grammar lessons in French, too. Good point, and hopefully with the government bringing in a “back to the three R’s” campaign, might help bring some structure back, but long journey back from where we have got to educationally. Maybe get the best of both worlds??


  5. Charles Fivaz

    “A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?” – Jane Yolen

  6. Alison Collins

    This is a Hebrew story quoted by David Hagstrom (2004, p.xix)in his book, “From Outrageous to Inspired”:

    Truth and Story were twins who lived together in the same house in the same village for fifty years. They were much loved in their community and went together every night to visit all their neighbours. Story dressed elaborately for the visits, almost in costumes. She wore elegant robes, strings of seashells, pearls, or glass beads; garlands of flowers, fanciful wigs; and crowns or hats. Every night Story looked a bit different but always intriguing. Truth never wore clothes at all. When they made their rounds each night, everyone they visited embraced Story warmly and greeted Truth more distantly but with great respect. One night, Story was too ill to make the traditional visit, so Truth went without her. The visits lacked the joy and warmth that they had had when Story went along. After several nights of visiting alone and feeling bereft without Story, Truth decided to comfort herself by making the visit dressed in some of Story’s finery. That night, wherever Truth went, she was greeted with great hospitality and warmly embraced, for as you can see, Truth dressed as Story is easier to embrace.

    • Charles Fivaz

      That’s a precious story, Alison. It will go in my collection. It reminds me of the stories of William J Bausch, a Catholic priest, prolific writer, collector and connoisseur of faith-inspired stories. His book “Touching the Heart – Tales for the Human Journey” is a gem. In the introduction he says, “Everywhere in the world, at all times and in all places, in every era, story is the vehicle of wonder, guidance, reflection, and wisdom. In a world in which, until very recently, the oral story prevailed for most of humanity’s journey, and given the fact that even with the invention of writing, less than one percent of the people could read and write, story’s dominance, power, and place must be respected.”

  7. Research has shown ‘people who read a lot of fiction will have better social skills. Maybe they’ll be more empathetic, maybe they’ll understand what’s going on among people better,’ says Kevin Oatley Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Toronto in a recent interview with Ramona Koval. Here’s the link to the full article
    which echoes a lot of what you have been saying here.

    Personally I can’t inagine not reading fiction. I learn more about how the world works and people through it as well as through the Bible.

    • Thanks so much for that link, Dale. It is really an excellent article. And the thought ‘we are what we read’ is an issue I’ve been giving a considerable amount of thought to recently, in the light of the controversy generated by the Wall Street Journal over YA fiction.

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