Last Saturday I was invited to speak at my church’s women’s tea on the theme of “books.” I asked my dad for suggestions, and he pointed me to Ecclesiastes 12:12. “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” As a grad student, I can confirm that the verse is very true. In fact, I’d consider putting it on t-shirts for my classmates. But I didn’t think that’s what the event’s organizers had in mind, so instead I focused on the ways books in general and fiction in particular have influenced my life. I chose this because the value of reading non-fiction for spiritual growth can be relatively obvious. The influence of stories is more subtle but no less real.
We get a hint of the importance of stories in the structure of the Bible. Though we think of it as one book, the Bible is actually many books in many different genres. It contains theological treatises (such as Romans), law codes, also poetry, prophecy (in both prose and poetry) and lots of narratives. Stories take up a large percentage the Bible, and while many of them are history, Jesus’ parables are a kind of fiction. God uses this huge variety of forms to communicate to us because different types of writing speak to our experiences in different ways and affect us differently. And if God considers stories a helpful way of communicating truth, so should we.
One of the first things the Bible tells us about human beings is that we’re made in the image of God. We find this out in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. At that point, all we’ve been told about God is that He created everything and did it by speaking. Authors, like their Creator create using words. So every time we pick up a book we should recognize that God’s image is being expressed. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything in every book is good. Authors are also fallen, so we need to read any book with discernment. But we should give thanks to God for the amazing privilege of being made in His image and for the joy we gain from seeing the ways authors intentionally or unintentionally reveal His image in them.
Stories can aid our spiritual growth by helping us develop empathy. They let us get inside the head of someone different from us and understand the world as they experience it. This in turn can help us understand the real people who have had similar experiences. When you meet someone on the street, you don’t know what they’re thinking or their backstory. But when you read a book, the author often tells you that, which makes it easier to understand and relate to the characters.
Fiction is also a huge source of encouragement for me, something my parents taught me at a young age. When I was 10, my parents took my family to Europe for several months, and we traveled to Hungary. We took a night train into Budapest and transferred to another train that would eventually take us to the town where we would be staying. The schedule said the train would have a snack car, so my parents planned on eating breakfast on the train. As the train left the station, a blizzard hit our area. It was then that we discovered the train had little to no heat. My brother and my father walked along the train looking for the snack car. Snow blew upward between holes in the floor of the passages connecting different cars. One bicycle car was covered with ice because the door was opened. My dad tried to close it, but it was jammed. To quote my father, “the bathrooms looked like they hadn’t been cleaned since the fall of Communism” (this was 1999). My father and brother reached the end of the train, but there was no snack car. So my brother and I sat in the compartment bundled up in our coats while my mom fed us gummy bears that she had found in her purse. We had been reading The Hobbit as a family, so my dad said, “Bilbo Baggins describes adventures as ‘nasty, unpleasant things that make you late for breakfast.’ That means we’re having an adventure.” Suddenly, I was excited because I was on an adventure. I was still cold and hungry, but I wasn’t miserable because I saw my predicament differently.
I still draw on Tolkien for encouragement and inspiration, especially when life seems overwhelming. Tolkien does a great job depicting both genuine good and genuine evil and helping us recognize the difference. He also shows us ordinary people, like the Hobbits, standing up against this evil and making a difference. Good stories aren’t just a way to escape from the evil in the world. They’re a picture of what we can do, and they can provide motivation to take risks and do things that may be frightening. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” The problems that face the heroes in fairy tales are symbols of the evil in the world. And when we see characters in stories slaying their dragons, it can encourage us to stand up and face our dragons.
We’re all busy, so I’m sure many of you don’t have much time for reading. But when you do encounter stories, either in books or in movies, I think it’s helpful to think about them and draw lessons or encouragement from them. I’d also like to encourage you to give thanks to God for the gift of books and the way He can use books of all kinds to make us more like Christ.