Why Christians Should Read Secular Novels   Leave a comment

Some of my Christian friends object to the little bits of secular reality I tuck into my books. They struggle with the concept that I am a writer who is a Christian who does not necessarily write Christian books. Maybe that’s because I started writing before I became a Christian or perhaps it has something to do with my reading habits.

We Are Water: A Novel (P.S.) by [Lamb, Wally]This summer I read Wally Lamb’s We Are Water which deals with a lesbian wedding, childhood sexual abuse, alcoholism, violence, pornography, and murder as well as love, loyalty, healing, and beauty. It also includes a confused evangelical Christian described as the black sheep of the family, which is why I picked up the book in the first place. I sort of fulfill that role in my own very secular family. It was a hard book to read because I disagreed with a lot of it, but I chose to read it because I don’t flinch from intellectual difficulty.

We Are Water was well-written, with interesting and multifaceted characters. I was especially intrigued by the portrayal of the evangelical trying to find his place in a modern, irreligious, liberal family and by the portrayal of his mother—a lapsed but still believing Catholic—who fell in love with another woman. I’ll admit that I was not convinced of this woman’s love for her lesbian partner or for her husband. That might have been the point Lamb was making. By the end of the book, I empathized with the characters, even the evil one among them. I didn’t condone their actions or accept their motivations, but I understood the influences behind them.

In spending time with these fictional people, Lamb succeeded in humanizing individuals who might otherwise have remained a “type” – the lesbian artist, the sexual predator, the liberal social activist, or the evangelical from Texas. By engendering empathy and understanding with each of them, this novel succeeded in reminding me of the humanity I share with everyone else. We are all broken in some way, but we also possess beauty as God’s creation.

There are all sorts of reasons to read good novels. Good novels teach us historical events through a narrative frame, they create art out of language, they identify social woes that need attention. More importantly, they teach us empathy by inviting us to see the world from the perspective of someone who may live a life quite different from our own, while revealing that we are nevertheless connected by our humanity.

Writers have long argued that teaching empathy is one crucial reason for keeping literary fiction among the books taught to school children. According to the Scientific American, when students read non-fiction or popular fiction, their ability to empathize did not change while literary fiction prompted considerable changes in the students’ ability to understand another person’s feelings and perspective. They hypothesize about the results:

Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences. Although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others… Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.

Christians might be tempted to shy away from the “secular” topics handled in novels like We Are Water. There are a lot of other books sitting on that same table at Barnes & Noble that we might avoid because they do not promote a typically Christian perspective. Which is exactly the reason Christians should consider reading more of these sorts of books. Engaging with the characters inside these pages—the characters who come alive to our hearts—is one way we might learn to agape-love people who do not share the same convictions about faith and life as we do, but more, it helps us to understand real life people who have non-Christian perspectives.

Additionally, the very best novels also ask “the big questions” about the nature of reality and what it means to be human. Some Christians fear that encountering entire narratives that challenge our view of the world as under God’s care might shake our faith, but we can only fully embrace the truth of God’s care for us if we understand and wrestle with the reasons others have rejected that truth.

The bleak atheist worldview provided by Camus in The Plague challenges any trite answers we might want to offer on suffering. The searing portrait of pain and loss that makes up much of the southern and African-American literary canon challenges the role the church has played in passively supporting the evils of slavery and segregation. The narrative of assisted suicide in Me Before You helps us to see why this seems like a reasonable way out of what is deemed intolerable circumstances when one does not experience a personal relationship with the Savior.

It’s hard to know which contemporary novels will rise to the top of the literary landscape. Who will become the Steinbecks, Fitzgeralds, Whartons and Cathers of our generation?Our grandchildren will have to answer that question. Whoever they choose, many of these writers are not Christians, and yet these are the perspectives that can teach us about the culture we live in and how we as Christians can engage our culture through a lens of God’s love.

Regardless of the worldview they profess, good novels disrupt our comfortable assumptions about reality. The presuppositions of the authors may not be truth based, but ultimately, all truth is God’s truth, so it behooves us to know the partial truths of non-believers, even if that “truth” seems focused on God’s apparent absence. In coming to understand our culture better, we allow God more opportunity to love our non-believing neighbors through us.


Posted November 2, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in writing wednesday

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