On Fiction: What Should We Read? (Part I)

March 17, 2023 at 9:30 AM

A couple weeks ago, we considered the question of whether reading fiction is worth the believer’s time. In short, we answered, “yes.” Fiction exercises God-given creativity, takes after the way Jesus taught through fictitious stories (parables), and develops the moral imagination. The moral imagination is what we use to think, “If I were that character, would I make that decision?” Indeed, fiction helps us live in the real world in a more godly manner.

Now, as mentioned in the last fiction article, we turn to consider what sorts of fiction we should read. Is anything on the table? Or are there certain genres, themes, or stories from which Christians should stay away? If we are to read fiction, we ought to know what sort of fiction is actually worth reading.


Secular and Christian Fiction

Before we really get into things, I want to clarify something that some folks have a misconception about: secular fiction and Christian fiction. There is a notion out there that all secular fiction (i.e., fiction stories written by unbelievers) is bad and all Christian fiction (i.e., fiction stories written by professing believers) is good. This idea is false and is really not helpful at all. Unbelievers are made in God’s image and can often have perceptive insights into man’s nature and the problems of sin in the world! In fact, secular writers can glorify virtue and godliness and depict evil as it really is! Scripture itself quotes secular poets because even they hit upon realities and truths in God’s world (see Acts 17:28 and 1 Cor. 15:33). On the contrary, some Christian fiction is anything but Christian. Often, it is fluffy, mushy, romantic, and not true to reality at all. Sometimes, more insidiously, the label “Christian” is a smokescreen to cover up for explicit and immoral content hidden in the pages of “Christian” fiction books. So beware. Not all secular fiction is good, but not all of it is bad. Neither is all Christian fiction bad, but it is not all good either. No matter what you’re reading, discernment is essential.


Discerning Themes

The most important thing when you’re reading fiction is to discern the themes and content in a story. Rather than applying broad brushstrokes to rule out entire authors or genres, we can approach every story and every author from the perspectives of theme and content.

Remember, fiction ought to cultivate a good moral imagination within us. In order to do that, fiction must be promoting what is good and cautioning against what is evil. Some stories, it seems ever increasingly today, promote evil – and even if it’s not promoted, the reader is at least meant to sympathize with evil. Whether this evil takes the form of sympathy towards sexually immoral characters, praise for occultist characters, or glory and dignity for characters of brutal violence and gratuitousness, the evil is out there. These types of stories are not good for our hearts. Even if we think we know better, they can, under the surface, cause us to soften up on immorality. They can cause us to start excusing behaviours in the real world because we love a particular hero in the fantastical world. These stories can start warping our worldview to conform to secularism more than Christianity.

These ungodly themes can often lurk beneath stories, and they make stories quite unhelpful. It is not sinning to read stories with bad themes, but they ought to be limited. The waters muddy when you have stories with some good themes and some bad themes. In this case also, use discernment. Pick out the good, throw out the bad; read these stories, but not too much of them. Always remember that your heart and worldview will quicker be influenced and carried away by the stories you read than it will be influenced by the long, scholarly works you toil through day and night. So make sure you read with a balanced diet.


Discerning Content

Perhaps a story is rightfully putting evil into its place. It condemns immorality; wicked characters come to judgement; virtuous folks are rewarded in the end. Yet, even stories like these can be dangerous. Sometimes, it is not the message, but the way the message is communicated that is not quite right. Stories can include all manner of unnecessary details that, again, are simply not wise for Christians to intake. If you pick up a book and find it gratuitously describes sexual things or graphic/violent things, or you find it uses a constant stream of curse words and our Lord’s holy name vainly, or you find it is like a horror book full of paranormal, dark, ungodly creatures and settings, then take care. Take care and take leave! Such a book will not edify the soul. Be on your guard, Christian. Fiction books are very sneaky. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking you are pure enough to handle some explicit details, or manly enough to muscle through excessive profane speech, or strong enough to have a stream of dark, demonic imagery pouring into your brain. Fiction is powerful. It will affect you, whether you think so or not, whether you want it to or not.

This is why it is tantamount that the fiction we put into our heads and hearts is good fiction. Good fiction does not mean it doesn’t contain evil elements. Such elements may be present, for they are realities of the world in which we live, but they will not be promoted. Good fiction will often have scenes involving romance, violence, or various sorts of evil; it will have intense scenes of battle and bravery, sometimes with description; it may use language unbecoming to Christians (especially if it is written by a secular author). The question comes down to whether the story’s perspective on such things agrees with Scripture, or disagrees with Scripture. Is immorality presented as wicked, or acceptable? Is profane speech condemned as unholy, or glorified as manly talk? Is wickedness, whatever form it may take, glorified, paraded on display, or central to the story? A story can have wicked things within it so long as its perspective on such wickedness agrees with Scripture and does not place a stumbling block in front of the reader.


To Each His Own under God’s Holy Standard

Here’s where the rub comes. Not all Christians are the same. Is there one standard for judging fiction? Well, yes – there is the standard of God’s Word. Some fiction is inherently sinful to intake because it transgresses God’s holy standard. A lot of fiction, however – especially the fiction you and I are exposed to – is in the middle. For some Christians, it is good and edifying. For other Christians, however, it is simply not edifying. Joe might read a story with a number of ungodly words, but because there are profound themes, Joe finds it easy to look past the language and be edified by the story. Jill, on the other hand, cannot handle the language. The words get stuck in her head and cause impure thoughts. So, let Joe read the book and be edified, and let Jill stay far away! Conversely, perhaps Jill picks up a book with some romance scenes that are, well, romantic. Not explicit, but romantic. Jill is able to stomach such romantic romance for the sake of the greater themes embedded within the story – but Joe finds his brain stimulated by those romantic scenes. He cannot get impure thoughts out of his head after reading them. In this case, let Jill read the story and let Joe find some other book.

Christian, you are different to your brothers and sisters in Christ. So here’s some very practical advice to end.

  1. If you are reading a story and find something in the story fuels ungodly thoughts or behaviours, drop reading the story and find something more edifying to read.
  2. If you are reading a story and find it contains material that may be a stumbling block to others, but won’t be necessarily, then be careful of endorsing the book in front of others. Make sure they know the potential pitfalls of it.
  3. If you’re unsure about a book, put it on pause. Pray about it, and go find godly and wise friends to ask them what they think about the book.
  4. Pray for wisdom and discernment to pick out good themes from bad themes in books. Pray for holiness and purity to abstain from books with stimulating, ungodly content.
  5. Remember that “whatever is not from faith is sin,” (Rom. 14:23). Your conscience will often perk up when reading fiction. Rightly inform it, but don’t neglect it.

Know yourself and know your book. Know what will be a stumbling block for you and avoid it. Know what is edifying for you and take up and read it! Next article, we will consider some very practical tips to helping discern whether or not a book is worth reading before you even start it. There also may be opportunity to briefly review and recommend some specific, worth-while, classic fiction stories.