27 July, 2006

Fiction or Damned Lies?

Dr. Robert Godfrey of Westminster Seminary, California, has recently published an article in Evanglium concerning Christians and fiction. Dr. Godfrey gives some historical reasons against reading fiction, and with the help of Lewis, a literature scholar, gives reasons for the reading of fiction. I have a difficult time reading fiction because it often is a waste of reading time- but I do read some, for the sake of a balanced reading diet. One who reads only systematics and dogmatics has difficulty relating the Christian life to all areas (in my humble opinion).

Here are the pros and cons that Dr. Godfrey mentions:

Reasons not to read fiction:
1. Reading fiction is a waste of time.
2. Fiction is fundamentally dishonest.
3. Fiction is too often morally corrupting.

Reasons for the reading of fiction:
1. Reading literature is enjoyable.
2. Fiction is a way to experience many things that we would not otherwise experience.
3. Fictions helps us to grow as human beings in the understandings of others.
4. Fiction will help us to read the Bible better by learning to read well.

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29 comments:

Lydia said...

I enjoyed this article. I am guilty, for I state that fiction is a waste of time (usually). This article was helpful with that aspect and wrong view. I give place to some fiction, but there is a lot of junk out there. You have to set your standards high.

Dr. Godfrey recommended: "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi. It sounded good, so I bought it and I am excited to get to read this book on vacation! Thanks,Dr. Godfrey!

The Director said...

Fiction is also great for developing a writing style and learning to communicate more effectively. You pick up structure, vocabulary etc... unconciously. The classics are great for that. Modern fiction is generally poorly written and crappy- so I tend to stick to the classics.

Gavin said...

The cons mentioned smack of legalism and a SBC-style attitude towards Christian freedom, but ultimately I'm in complete agreement with you, namely that I don't read fiction because I just don't see the point. Some stories are interesting, but frankly I'd rather read something informative in the field of theology or music. It's kind of an idea like "if you're not learning, you're just wasting your time". I do think fiction has its benefits, but I've always enjoyed reading to learn.

Lydia said...

I forgot to mention that the recommended book by Dr. Godfrey is NOT fiction, but it is about fiction/literature, etc., (you know, Lolita and such).

S.N. said...

“Fiction is also great for developing a writing style and learning to communicate more effectively.
You pick up structure, vocabulary etc... unconsciously.”
-Hence, those who write, read.

The classics are great for that.”
-Classics? Is this a body of literature that is a formal category? What authors?

“Modern fiction is generally poorly written”
-Under what time periods would this fall?

“Modern fiction is generally poorly written and crappy- so I tend to stick to the classics.”
-They mostly have got to be dead to be read. I know this tune…where have I heard this one?

Penumbra said...

The director's dutch side is coming out: the classics are also free.

It may be true that much modern fiction is crappy. I'm sure the industrial age and the information age have nothing whatsoever to do with the abundance of crappy writing (fiction or non-fiction). :-P

There are modern gems worth reading, though, and I do agree that much can be learned from reading fiction.

Mark said...

Fiction is great if done properly. I don't think it's inherently more corrupting than any other kind of book - I'd rather read Lord of the Rings than Freud any day.

The Director makes a great point about how good reading leads to good writing. And frankly, there are few modern writers who can compare with the likes of Wodehouse, Chesterton, Spurgeon, and the chap who wrote Beowulf.

The Director said...

S.N.----

Any particular reason you're not leaving a name? Do I know you, and you're sticking to anonymity because you're afraid I'll come burn your house down?

The classics is a term that actually does encompass a body of work. If you go to the "classics" section of any Barnes and Noble you'll find what I'm referring to. Austen, Hardy, Dickens etc... Mark brought up two other favorites of mine- Chesteron and Wodehouse, though usually you won't find them in that section. Even in the "classics" category there are authors I prefer to avoid. Fitzgerald and Hemingway especially.

Jeff- "dutch side"? If it were my dutch side talking, I wouldn't read any fiction because it's "worldly". Classics are free? Huh? Explain? If they are, I wanna know about it!

The Director said...

Oh, and really, I don't think Classics refers so much to a time period as to the enduring nature of the works themselves. There is something so alive about them that the stories are still enjoyed hundreds of years after being written.

Marc Driesenga said...

There's bad fiction and there's good fiction. There's good theology and there's bad theology. Here's a suggestion: check out Flannery O'Connor's short story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find." It's an excellent short story and her metaphysical insight is tremendous.

"No pleasure but meanness."

Notliberal said...

Hey Agnus, just like the term delicious in relation to anything at Russ’ the term enjoy must be put in quotations in relation to so called classics. Classics are little more than fanciful stories still popular only because of certain peoples obsession with the Victorian era or anything old and English. While off in fantasy land, folks forget that these stories are not only fake but usually ridiculous in nature.

Penumbra said...

Classics are usually old enough to be in the public domain. If they are in the public domain, then you'll likely find it at Project Gutenberg website for free. See:
www.gutenberg.org
I like to format it into MS Reader and read it on my Pocket PC. (btw, Dutch in the West Michigan sense of thrifty or cheap).

Mark said...

We're supposed to listen to literary criticism from a man who watches The O.C.? Alrighty then...

The Director said...

Thanks for the tip Jeff!!!

Tech Support- er MJ- may I say it... ZZZZINNNNG!!!

Hiraeth said...

The real question with fiction, I feel is not whether one should read it, but what one should read. I own few novels and read few novels. What I look for in a novel is heroism, presentation of noblity and sacrifice, men and women doing what is right, no matter what the circumstances.

I like detective fiction for that reason. My favourite authors, Dornford Yates and Leslie Charteris, both present noble characters being noble, even at the cost of their happiness.

The problem is that so much fiction enshrines wickedness and appeals to the baser emotions. That said, I will not read a novel if it takes too much work. I'll choose a good biography if I want that sort of story.

S.N. said...

Director,
I'm not afraid of you coming and burning down my house. I have an ample supply of water and hose to cool your torch off and you too. I'll preserve my anonymity for unnamed reasons. Also, the circle of friends that's represented here seems to know each other in person anyways, so in a lot of ways maintaining a blogger name (anonymity) is kind of silly. It really only protects us from the wierdos who don't know us in person who occasion this site.
On to more pressing matters...

"I don't think Classics refers so much to a time period as to the enduring nature of the works themselves."
-So are there any quasi-formal principles for discerning these works?

"Even in the "classics" category there are authors I prefer to avoid. Fitzgerald and Hemingway especially."
-Why would you want to avoid them? I know that this is kind of rabbit trailing but answering would help me to see your principles.

Certainly, we would like to associate with something that has a durable, lasting quality to it. Anytime the past is forfeited, the future and present are as well.

"Fiction is also great for developing a writing style and learning to communicate more effectively.
-Sure, I would readily assert this at the same time I maintain that we must be self conscious about these things.

I believe Wodehouse is in the Fiction section at B&N.

ann said...

I recently have gotten into christian fiction. There are a ton of authors who write great stories. My 2 favorites are Lauraine Snelling and Janette Oke. They both write historical fiction that takes place in the pioneer times. Ok so they are easy reads but at least the stories are clean. I am also a fan of a lot of secular writers out there too. I read theology but sometimes my brain needs to be entertained.

Jonathan Moorhead said...

I would rather watch a movie instead - it is a lot quicker and you can still learn those all important lessons about that world outside the bubble.

The Director said...

Well most mysterious of S.N.'s, if all this endless bush-beating is tending toward the illustration of my literary priniciples why didn't you just say so?

I somehow suspect that most of these questions are rhetorical in nature, as you seem to be quite intelligent and no doubt well read yourself.

The only quasi-formal priniciple for distinguishing a 'classic' as far as I am aware is the enduring nature of the work.

As to my principles: ha. Wouldn't you like to know? For reasons of my own, this strays into the realm of subjectivity, and we'll not bore anyone with the details, save the briefest summation:

I do try to avoid morally bankrupt, poorly written fiction, and Fitzgerald, though a great writer, was just so absolutely hopeless 99% of the time. The Great Gatsby... ugh. Depressing little tales about drunken rich folk seem to be his forte. I even watched the movie, thinking they'd brighten things up a bit for the silver screen... but no. It was even worse.

And that, most eminent S.N. is the extent of my lecture on fiction.

S.N. said...

"I do try to avoid morally bankrupt, poorly written fiction, and Fitzgerald, though a great writer, was just so absolutely hopeless 99% of the time. The Great Gatsby... ugh. Depressing little tales about drunken rich folk seem to be his forte."

-Wodehouse tends to be a bit morally bankrupt too ...aggravating the problem Wodehouse was quite familiar with Scripture (you see the fact through his work). I don't know what Fitzgerald has in regards to upbringing. Wodehouse also presented sin as just being a part of his sunny world, like it really didn't matter, other than embarassing the aristocracy, in whatever scandal, etc.

Wodehouse is funny in his descriptions, and I highly recommend him. But he is very prone to making light of sin. And he's extremely culpable for that making light of sin, on account he sinned against greater light.

I must admit through all this I'm not well read. I've read very little of what would be considered by you to be a part of the 'classics' corpus and didn't learn to like reading until way later in life.

eChuckler said...

(Notliberal: slam noted and filed under "reasons for revenge: differences in taste buds".)

Look, I'll just speak in short sentances: The bible is truth, fiction is not. Fiction, if used properly, can be very entertaining, and perhaps even educational. But poorly written fiction, just like shoddy work in every other genre life has to offer, can be total and utter crap.

It also depends on the person. Some people are just genetically predisposed to wanting more escapism than others. That's their makeup, that's WHO THEY ARE. You can't change that. And some people are just genetically predisposed to being realists, who want no fiction at all. That's WHO THEY ARE.

The debate over fiction/non-fiction is like trying to get somebody to insist that R&B soul music is better than country. I might think R&B soul is waaaay better, but to that person, they may want nothing to do whatsoever with that kind of music. And we could probably twist and bend scripture to support our claims and defame the other guy.

That's just the way I see it.

S.N. said...

"The bible is truth, fiction is not. Fiction, if used properly, can be very entertaining, and perhaps even educational."

-Fiction writers observe what happens in reality and then try to recombine those things in reality to construct a different reality. Fiction good or bad (in the moral sense) presupposes an already structured universe (by the LORD) from which to borrow, that one in which we all exist. Fiction presupposes truth.

"Some people are just genetically predisposed to wanting more escapism than others. That's their makeup, that's WHO THEY ARE. You can't change that. And some people are just genetically predisposed to being realists, who want no fiction at all. That's WHO THEY ARE."
-Are some people just genetically predisposed to being fatalists? Is that WHO THEY ARE ...you can't change that?
It is true, E- Chuckler (if I'm correctly understanding you), that one must pick the fights in which they want to involve themselves.
Is the question concerning fiction's reading and writing: Is it useful for godliness?

Vig. said...

"That's their makeup, that's WHO THEY ARE. You can't change that."
-What exactly is this statement trying to correct? If it's trying to correct what I think it is, why did you even bother saying that?

ladylipsy said...

The subject is intriguing - my opinions in this regard have been developing as I mature as a Christian and literature student.
I will agree that much of today's fiction can be categorized as damned lies, mimicking the original lie that God's commands are stuffy and that sin is desirable. When I worked at the library, the quantities of junky books were disgusting and yet dangerously appealing. There is much out there that corrupts the soul!
To the person who commended Janette Oke, I will say this. Her childrens' books about animals are wonderful, but I would not recommend the romances. Though comparatively clean, they are still focused on emotional thrills. I don't believe this to be healthy reading because by allowing girls to vicariously enjoy emotional intimacy with fictional men these sorts of books function as a sort of emotional pornography. We should not be seeking to experience the passionate sensations described in such novels outside of marriage.
Now don't freak out on me - I'm not condemning all books depicting relationships between men and women wholesale! There are some which depict beautiful relationships marked by chivalric devotion, sacrificial love, or other such noble sentiments without dragging us through each intimate moment of the couple. And sometimes the line between good and bad can be somewhat fuzzy. But it's important to use discernment! The way we read of people influences the way we think about people.
An article related to this topic which I really found thought-provoking was J.R.R. Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories." Do read it at http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/fairystories-tolkien.pdf

eChuckler said...

vig.,

I can't read your mind, sorry. I don't know what point/slam you are trying to make.

Marc Driesenga said...

You all are missing the point. As Christians (and more particularly, us "orthodox" Christians), we must strive for asceticism. Not in caves like the early church fathers, but within the secure walls of our churches and behind our armor of "sound doctrine". Forget trying to engage culture and seeking to apply the truth of God's inerrant Word to a culture that apparently needs to hear it. Instead, how about we preach in words an ways they don't understand. Instead of being conversant with our culture, understanding it's needs (which have a way of being displayed in pop art in particular) and preaching the "true truth" to it, let's just continue arguing amongst ourselves about minute and irrelevant issues.

Here's an idea: if you think fiction is so bad and incorrect (particularly Christian fiction, ahem, "Left Behind"), why don't you do something about it? Write a good piece of work that a non-Christian would read and engage with that speaks the truth of God's Word? Just talking about what actually classifies as a classic or whether Hemmingway was an infralactarian or not, doesn't mean a stupid thing.

And while you all roast weinies over your bonfire as you burn all those bad books, remember, there was once this creative person who spoke in parables.....ah, they were fictious tales and not worth reading anyway!

Mark said...

Marc, I appreciate your point, but there are maybe two people in this thread who have a problem with fiction. The rest have very little problem with fiction, provided it is good. Both the Director and Chuck have written quite good fiction, as well, so they're exempt from your charges.

I would admonish you to be more charitable in future rebukes. I understand your frustration, but I know the majority of the people commenting here and they do not fit the picture you painted them as.

That being said, I love your point about Christ's parables - I think that's one of the best arguments to be made for Christians both consuming and creating fiction. Consuming because, well, it's in the Bible, and creating because we're to imitate Christ.

Anonymous said...

"Consuming because, well, it's in the Bible, and creating because we're to imitate Christ."
-We're to die for people and save them, walk on water, change water into wine, etc.?
Now what are your qualifiers to keep you from going down that route of logic.

Mark said...

Easy. Most of us probably won't have to die for our friends, and it's entirely impossible for us to save their souls. But we can lead self-sacrificial lives, putting others' interests in front of our own.

Our faith may be too small to walk on water, but we can live lives of faithfulness that may be used to spur other believers struggling in faith.

We can't turn water into wine, but we can drink the wine given us. Water is the drink of a wilderness people, but wine is the drink of a conquering people. Which we are, through Christ. Not to suggest that those who abstain from wine are sinning, mind you, but the general principle holds.

Obviously we can't be Christ - even if we'd never sinned that would still be impossible - but we can be Christ-like. If we want to keep God's law, who better to look to than the only man who ever kept it perfectly?