Tell me a story. Consider for a moment the universality of those four words across space and time. We all listen a little more carefully when we sense the beginning of a narrative; our conversations revolve around story; we have all heard (or used) anecdotes in sermons. Homer’s peers recited epics to entertain important dignitaries; and Christ silenced the multitudes and rendered religious leaders speechless with carefully crafted parables. However, in today’s information age, when stories and facts fly at us literally at the speed of light and click of a button, why should we take the time for literature? And what could fiction (which I will use interchangeably with literature) possibly have to do with ministry?
Reading Literature Is Pleasurable
First we must address the fundamental “fear” of fiction that has circulated throughout religious history. Allow me to offer the most basic, though perhaps hedonistic, reason for reading quality literature: it is pleasurable. This isn’t to say that every book is worth our time; but, reading can offer the satisfaction we ought to experience when we reflect upon something that has taken skill and intelligence to accomplish. Art should cause us to delight in the very essence of its beauty and excellence of craft while we are also pleased by the truth in the world it introduces or reflects. And if the concept of beauty for the sake of pleasure is difficult to grasp, consider for a moment the pre-Fall Garden of Eden. God saw what he made and declared “it is good,” not “it is useful” or “that will do.” God’s world holds all sorts of pleasures, from the colors and shapes of creation to the human feelings of love and community. It takes time in meditation and reflection and an appreciation of beauty to see the details in God’s creation, including our fellow humans, so that we might be sensitive towards them in ministry. Our first duty in reading is to take note of the artistic, dare I say hedonistic, gratification we receive even before the wisdom we might gain. C.S. Lewis said in “An Experiment in Criticism,” “If fiction can’t provide even [entertainment], we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.”
Literature Instructs us in Worldviews
However, I doubt Lewis would say that simple delight excuses us from searching out that higher quality of which he speaks. We may first be attracted to literature for pleasure, but it also has the potential to enhance our ministry through its ability to teach. Ministry involves many things, but two important aspects that immediately come to my own mind are awareness and investment. Ministry is about being aware our own need for spiritual growth and also noticing the needs of those around us, which must be addressed. We then approach those needs by investing spiritually and physically in others while at the same time advancing in our own relationship with Christ. Literature, through its expression of human identity and worldviews, can help us more fully understand those needs. When we understand the need, we can more fully address the ways it can be met, both in ourselves and in others, because literature has more fully revealed sides of the world we may not have previously noticed or understood.
One of the ways literature teaches is by reflecting and magnifying universal truth; for all fiction, even fantasy, is drawn from reality. In one of his most famous essays, “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien says, “And actually fairy-stories deal largely… with simple things…made all the more luminous by their setting.” Stories allow our minds to temporarily escape from the confusion and multiplicity of our own world to focus more fully on details of emotion and character that are laid before us in a fresh way. This may show us particulars of the human experience that will aid us in understanding our ministry to others or our own spirituality. For example, the hyperbole surrounding a hero in a fantasy story can renew our own wonder at what Christ has done for us in rescuing us from a very real source of evil; or, reading the literature of another culture can help us optimize our ministerial interactions with that culture.
Literature Protects us from Mistakes Already Made
But why read fiction at all? Why read about worlds that don’t exist or countries so far away and long ago that they are only remembered in history books and the literary canon? In his essay “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis expounds upon the idea that we must intimately know the past in order to be discerning individuals in the present. If we understand the basic assumptions made in different periods (or worlds) and their implications, perhaps we might avoid mistakes and misunderstandings within our own reality. Lewis says, “A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore to some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
Why do we read Scripture, even though it is “old?” The answer is not complex: because Scripture contains Truth. Might I argue that literature, inspired through prevenient grace, contains similar Truth because it is a direct reflection upon reality? The learned child of God must be discerning in what he or she gleans from art, but the pleasure of reading should be a vehicle and not a barrier to learning. When we explore beauty to uncover the Truth, literature becomes another tool to enhance our sensitivity towards those we minister to. The writer of Ecclesiastes understands the power of story when he says, “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (Eccl. 12:9-10).