Last article, we began answering this question of whether it’s worth your time, as a Christian, to read fiction books. Because of God’s own creativity and the way that Christ Himself taught, through parables, we said that there is Biblical value in reading fiction stories! Now, we turn to consider a very practical, and sadly, often neglected, reason for reading fiction.
This reason for reading fiction is very practical. Reading about a made-up world actually helps you live in the real world in a more godly manner. That’s right! Good fiction gets important truths across even better than dry prose does. You can read a theological book that tells you, “You must have courage in the face of evil.” Or, you can read a fantastic fairy tale about a knight risking his life against a fierce dragon in order to save a maiden and know that you ought to have courage in the face of evil just like this heroic knight. Which of these is more impactful? Human beings, more often than not, find story more impactful than prose. This is why Scripture itself is the story of redemptive history. It is not a theology textbook. When we harness our imaginations to see godliness and virtue in stories, we can live with more godliness and virtue in our own world.
One of the ways we must use our imagination well involves the “moral imagination.” This term describes the part of our imagination which asks, “If I were that character, would I make that decision?” Vigen Guroian, inTending the Heart of Virtue, sheds light on the moral imagination as follows:
“Fairy tales and fantasy stories transport the reader into other worlds that are fresh with wonder, surprise, and danger. They challenge the reader to make sense out of those other worlds, to navigate his way through them, and to imagine himself in the place of the heroes and heroines who populate those worlds. The safety and assurance of these imaginative adventures is that risks can be taken without having to endure all of the consequence of failure; the joy is in discovering how these risky adventures might eventuate in satisfactory and happy outcomes.” (26)
According to Guroian, the reader is to “imagine himself in the place of the heroes and heroines who populate those worlds.” No, this use of imagination is not restricted to children. This use of imagination is, in fact, a mature use of the imagination. Guroian points out that by placing ourselves into books, we do not experience nasty consequences in real life, but we do learn what the outcome of certain choices may be, whether it will be happy or tragic. As we read books, we can train our imaginations to make upright decisions in difficult situations.
Let’s try a very simple exercise with the moral imagination using a familiar fairy tale: “Little Red Riding Hood.” Before Little Red Riding Hood sets out to her grandmother’s house, her mother tells her never to leave the path through the forest. So the girl sets out and meets a wolf, who entices her to venture off the path in order to pick a flower for Grandmother. This delays her from reaching Grandmother such that both her and Grandmother are eaten by the wolf! The first part of the story ends, however, with a huntsman rescuing the two victims from the belly of the wolf.
As we think about this story using the moral imagination, we ask ourselves, “Would we venture off the path to seek a flower for our grandmother?” At first glance, this may seem very childish. The realist in us speaks up. “It is impossible for a wolf to talk and entice you off a forest pathway! And in our world, we don’t wander through forests on pathways to visit our grandmother. We drive through cities! And that huntsman cutting open the wolf so that a girl and her grandmother can crawl out. Oh my! Such a story clearly has no relationship to the real world, and thus no relationship to me, at all!”
Well, let us think again. Let us use our imaginations! Suppose we lived in a world with talking wolves, forest pathways, and near-magical huntsman. Suppose a wolf met you on the pathway and suggested you go off into a meadow to pick a flower. What would you do?
Your instinct is probably to say, “Of course I would stay on the pathway! Who would ever listen to a wolf telling you to disobey your mother?” But the decision is not so clear cut!
Why should we not listen to wolves? Wolves are clever, quick, strong animals. They live well out in the wild; they must have some good advice stored up in their brains if they could talk! What’s more, this wolf is suggesting a good thing. The wolf isn’t suggesting Little Red Riding Hood disobey her mother – the wolf has no idea what mother said! The wolf wants the girl to pick a flower for her grandmother, and this is a way Little Red Riding Hood can honour her grandmother. Well, perhaps there are more reasons than we expected as to why Little Red Riding Hood should venture off the path!
But hold on a minute. We can’t honestly conclude that going off the path is the right thing to do! We know it’s wrong, because that decision brings disaster to the girl and her grandmother. So, why shouldn’t she listen to the wolf? Well, for one, if she knew a lot of stories, she’d know wolves are often the bad guys. Whether Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia or Aesop’s fables, wolves are often presented as cunning, wicked characters. Scripture also portrays wolves negatively. In Acts 20:29-31, Paul warns the Ephesian elders of wolves who would come into their midst. Now, perhaps, we put the pieces together. We may not deal with wolf animals in our world, but we do deal with many wolves that try to pull us away from sound doctrine into error! But as crafty as wolves may be, they must not be followed. Our Lord has given us a straight path to walk, and we must not deviate! All sorts of people will try to pull you away from the path of wisdom with wrong doctrine, unholy practices, ungodly friendships, or even good things, like picking a flower for Grandmother, that can be distracting or disobedient in particular circumstances. As we look to be virtuous, upright believers, we can read “Little Red Riding Hood” and take note – let us not so easily be diverted off the path by wolves! May we make the right decision where Little Red Riding Hood made the wrong one.
Did you ever think there was so much biblical wisdom in fairy tales?
You’d never know of the biblical wisdom available to us through fiction unless you read fiction. Fiction is not childish; it is not a waste of time. It can glorify God and be of great edification to ourselves! But not all fiction is edifying. In an upcoming article, we will turn to consider what sorts of fiction make for good fiction. The fiction lover and fiction avoider alike must beware and be discerning as to what stories go into his head!
 The second part of the story recounts Little Red-Riding Hood’s second encounter with a wolf and how she put into practice the lesson she had learned.