When I was in Louisville for Together for the Gospel I bumped into Russell Moore and had a few minutes to speak about reading fiction. I quickly saw that he has done a lot of thinking about fiction, about the morality and responsibility of reading it. I was eager to learn more and he was kind enough to answer my questions.
In recent months I have been reading and listening to more novels than is typical for me. I’ve enjoyed this a lot, but have found that many of the good, popular novels contain some measure of what I would deem immoral or sinful—profanity, sex outside of marriage or violence, for example. How much or what types of profanity or sexuality can be in a novel and it still be spiritually edifying? What guidelines do you use in your own reading?
Yes, this is especially true when it comes to the writings of contemporary artists such as John Updike or Phillip Roth and so on. When it comes to novels, I have a similar rubric that I have with music or film. Violence and profanity and shocking content in Schindler’s List is different than violence or profanity or shocking themes in American Pie or Faces of Death (I’ve seen neither of those, in case someone wonders, but I can get the gist from a distance). In some films, there is a context to dealing with dark themes that doesn’t seek to enflame dark tendencies within the viewer, but rather to show reality for what it is.
The Bible does the same thing. The Bible depicts such dark material as murder, incest, adultery, and so on, but never in such a way as to glorify or arouse such tendencies.
Someone who is a converted and reformed ex-Nazi Party member shouldn’t watch Schindler’s List, if such would prompt in him a vulnerability to his violent idolatrous old ideology. And, for that matter, a former pantheist might not be able to watch Disney’s Pocahantus for the same reasons. There are certain things no one should watch or read, but then there are other things that wisdom and prudence would decree different sets of standards based on different sets of vulnerabilities.
Two questions come to mind. First, what are those things that no one should watch or read?
When I say some things would be out of bounds for any Christian, I am thinking of, for example, the kind of literary pornography that now abounds, especially in e-book form (because it allows for the privacy to read it). The top selling e-book in the country right now, according to the New York Times, is Fifty Shades of Grey (which, I’m quick to note that I haven’t read!), which is a pornographic fantasy about sadism and masochism.
Here’s my second question: When a Christian recommends a novel that contains some of these elements, should he be clear who he is and is not recommending it to? What is our responsibility toward others?
One should always keep in mind the persons to whom one is recommending works of fiction, even if just implicitly. I have recommended, for instance, that a father whose son was drawn to a New Age form of Buddhism read Herman Hesse’s classic work Siddhartha, because I knew his son had read this book and I wanted him to find empathy for the kind of religion he son was seeking. I would never recommend that book to a young Christian or someone easily confused. For that matter, I have my students at Southern Seminary, in eschatology class, read Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, along with Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Edward Abbey’s environmentalist-anarchist novels. I would never recommend such things to my church members because they would see it as a recommendation of a vision of eschatology to which, in all those cases (though to varying degrees, of course), I don’t hold.
There are certain sexualized sections of Updike, for instance, that I “skip through” or avoid because I know they will be problematic for me. There are other authors whose work I find morally repellant at such a level that I can’t read them. One of these would be Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Less than Zero) and other would be Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Survivor, etc.). These authors don’t just present the dark side of human existence; they revel in it in a Nietzschean sense that I find disorienting and deadening.
But just as dangerous as darkness-reveling, I think, are novels that are darkness-avoiding. Flannery O’Connor’s writing is quite dark, but it is so because she believes in the Devil, and in the Fall, and in humanity as it is. Novels that avoid the horror of human existence in this time between Eden and New Jerusalem can reinforce a Christian’s tendency to Pelagianism. The Christian gospel isn’t “clean” and “safe” and “family-friendly.” It comes to its narrative climax at a bloody Place of the Skull and in a borrowed grave.
I’m interested in understanding the difference, if there is one, between literature and fiction. What makes Cormac McCarthy literature and Tom Clancy fiction (mere fiction)?
On the distinction between fiction and literature, the line is much clearer the older a work is. Certain works are included in the canon of “Great Books” because they’ve withstood the test of time and critical scrutiny. Most of the kitsch of previous generations don’t survive long enough for us to even know about. With contemporary works, though, the line is blurrier. There are those who would classify Tolkien as “literature” and dismiss Lewis as “fiction.” This will enrage a lot of my friends, but I find Tolkien tedious and even sometimes boring where Lewis is playful and profound and clear. Tolkien fans would probably dismiss that as saying something about my lack of depth, and I’m sure they’re right. But that’s just the point. These decisions are, at bottom, often subjective.
I would distinguish between “literature” and “just fiction” on the level of submersion into the human condition, the artistic empathy of the author. A paperback romance novel is typically trying to do something: to provoke a sentiment in the readers of romantic escape. On the other hand, a work such as Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter is dealing with themes of love and marriage, but it is doing so by taking the reader within the depths of what such things mean in light of place, community, death, and so on. The distinction isn’t as important as some people think. There’s a place for reading fun, engaging, light works. If you enjoy a mystery novel or a science fiction thriller, have at it.
I wonder if you can give a few pointers on the benefits of reading fiction. I know of quite a few people who consider it a distraction at best or a sinful waste of time at worst. What benefit is there in reading contemporary novels?
I’ve found that most people who tell me that fiction is a waste of time are folks who seem to hold to a kind of sola cerebra vision of the Christian life that just doesn’t square with the Bible. The Bible doesn’t simply address man as a cognitive process but as a complex image-bearer who recognizes truth not only through categorizing syllogisms but through imagination, beauty, wonder, awe. Fiction helps to shape and hone what Russell Kirk called the moral imagination. My friend David Mills, now executive editor at First Things, wrote a brilliant article in Touchstone several years ago about the role of stories in shaping the moral imagination of children. As he pointed out, moral instruction is not simply about knowing factually what’s right and wrong (though that’s part of it); it’s about learning to feel affection toward certain virtues and revulsion toward others. A child learns to sympathize with the heroism of Jack the Giant Killer, to be repelled by the cruelty of Cinderella’s sisters and so on.
When you think about it, that’s how the Scriptures often work. The Proverbs, for instance, paint a vivid picture of the revolting tragedy of adultery (Proverbs 7). Jesus doesn’t simply speak about God’s forgiveness in the abstract. He tells a story, the prodigal son, designed to shock (a son who would spurn his inheritance) and to elicit sympathy and identification. The apostles do the same thing. They employ literary, visual language meant to appeal not just to the intellect but to the conscience through the imagination. Think of the Apostle Paul’s language of “laboring until Christ is formed in you,” or his use of literary themes in the OT (“fruit of the Spirit,” and so on).
Fiction can sometimes, like Nathan the prophet’s story of the ewe lamb, awaken parts of us that we have calloused over, due to ignorance or laziness or inattention or sin. This very night, on my way home, I was talking by telephone to my eighty-six year-old grandmother. She was telling me a story about the last time she saw my grandfather alive. She told me about feeling the coldness of his feet as she changed his socks in his hospital bed, about how his eyes were focused on her, though he couldn’t speak. She talked about how, when the nurses told her she had to leave, she kissed him, told him she loved him, and that she could feel him watching her as she left the room, for the last time. I knew she had lost my grandfather. I know that people die. I know “Husbands love your wives” (Ephesians 5). But that story awakened something in me. It prompted me to hold my wife with a special tenderness when I walked in the door. I had imagined what it would be like to say goodbye to her in that way, and, suddenly, all the daily pressures of kids and bills and house repairs and travel just seemed to fit in a bigger context. Fiction often does the same thing. When I read Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illych, I gain an imaginative sympathy with something I might avoid in the busyness of life: what it’s actually like to die. When I read Wendell Berry’s stories of Henry County, Kentucky, I can gain insight on what it would be like to face losing a family farm in the Great Depression. This fiction gives a richer, bigger vision of human life.
What’s more is that fiction is, I think, very helpful for those who are called to preach and teach (which, at least in terms of bearing witness to Christ is true of all of us). Fiction helps the Christian to learn to speak in ways that can navigate between the boring abstract and the irrelevant mundane. It also enables you to learn insights about human nature. I’ve never had a problem with drug addiction. I can’t imagine why on earth anyone would take meth. Reading stories of life in Eastern Kentucky and about the motivations behind a meth addict can teach me to address those things biblically, and to see where I have similar idolatry that would be just as incomprehensible to someone else.
I would say that fiction, along with songwriting and personal counseling, are the most constant ways that God teaches me empathy. It’s easy in evangelical Christianity to assume that everyone who opposes us or disagrees with us is simply to be verbally evaporated as an enemy to be destroyed. But no false teaching and no wrong direction has any power unless it appears to someone to be good. Jesus teaches us that those who hand over the disciples to be killed will “think themselves to be doing the will of God.” Almost everyone is the hero in his or her own personal narrative. People don’t think of themselves the way super-villains do in some old cartoon, rubbing their hands together and plotting “the reign of eeeee-vil in the world. Ha ha ha ha!” Fiction helps people honestly present those internal stories that people tell themselves, things they won’t disclose in, say, a debate or a non-fiction monograph arguing for their way of life. In fiction, a Darwinist can show you what it’s like to be scared that you’re living a meaningless life in a meaningless universe, but he can also show you where he finds those things, like awe and love, that he can only ultimately find in God.
In doing premarital counseling with couples I’m marrying, I ask each of them to tell a story to the other. It’s called, “If I Had an Affair, This Is What I Would Do.” Most of these young couples cringe and pout when I first assign this. They’re in love. They only have affection for the other. They can’t imagine ever cheating. That’s just the point. No couple (or very few) start a marriage with designs on infidelity. This storytelling exercise is fictional, but it helps to focus the one’s imagination on what patterns are in his life that he should watch, and it helps the other to get to know her future spouse in a way that is impossible so far in their experience. Often, this exercise has caused a couple to put certain safeguards in place about computers or travel or what have you. It’s helped husbands learn what’s going on when their wives get suddenly quiet or whatever. That’s amateur fiction, but it’s fiction.
But, finally, good fiction isn’t a “waste of time” for the same reason good music and good art aren’t wastes of time. They are rooted in an endlessly creative God who has chosen to be imaged by human beings who create. Culture isn’t irrelevant. It’s part of what God commanded us to do in the beginning, and that he declares to be good. When you enjoy truth and beauty, when you are blessed by gifts God has given to a human being, you are enjoying a universe that, though fallen, God delights in as “very good.”
Can you recommend 3 or 4 contemporary novels and suggest what the benefit may be in reading them?
There are several I would recommend.
First, if you haven’t read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, I can’t recommend it to you with more fervor. Part of that, I’m sure, is because I grew up just outside New Orleans (in the coastal Mississippi town where the author of this work sadly committed suicide). But the novel is comic genius. Toole is able to plumb the accents and mindsets of the different communities and neighborhood of New Orleans better than any author I’ve ever seen. He also examines what it means to be a sojourner in a strange land. The protagonist is a native New Orleanian who never got past Baton Rouge in his travels beyond the city. Even so, he’s a stranger as one who is trying to grasp medieval philosophy as an “anchor” in a changing and shifting world.
Here are a few novels I’ve read in the last few years that I’ve especially liked. Bill Kauffman’s Every Man a King is a brilliant, not very well-known, novel about a man’s descent from up-and-coming political novelist to the relative anonymity of life in his hometown in upstate New York. The story is riveting, and will force the reader to think about what is lost when one earns success. In this telling, the tagline “Go Bills” turns out to have a poignant and life-changing meaning.
Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein is inspired, he says, by his professor, the legendary Allan Bloom. The book is valuable, I think, because of the poignant way it presents an American vision of death, and life in the shadow of death. Justin Evans’ A Good and Happy Child is a dark but profound meditation on demons and spiritual warfare. It is, again, from a decidedly different vantage point than that of our evangelical Christianity, but it prompted me to think deeply about how my neighbors perceive dread and evil and judgment.
Some of my favorite fiction in recent years are Jim Tomlinson’s Nothing Like an Ocean, Frederick Barthelme’s Waveland, and Wendell Berry’s entire corpus. I’ve written about why folks should read these at the following places:
- Top Ten Books of 2009, Number Five
- Top Ten Books of 2009, Number Four
- Why You Should Read Hannah Coulter
Some others that I would recommend include Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer, The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson. I just finished reading Thomas Mallon’s Watergate: A Novel.