3 reasons why reading, and especially reading fiction, can improve your spiritual life.
Before college, I wasn’t much of a reader. C.S. Lewis was the only author I would pick up voluntarily. Even then, it was seldom his works of fiction that intrigued me. I was more interested in his theology. This was true because I thought reading books like Mere Christianity or The Problem of Pain would make me a better Christian – they might give me better reasons or arguments for believing what I do, for example.
Throughout college and most of seminary, the same principle applied. I would occasionally try to pick up fiction if I had heard a certain novel was really good, or was what “everyone” was reading at the time. But largely I stuck to theology, philosophy, and biblical studies. I had questions. I wanted answers.
Following seminary, I still read quite of bit of philosophy and theology, but not as much as I used to. That’s because as I learned more, I made two life-changing discoveries. First, all the Christian intellectuals I read and respect necessarily disagree on a great number of things. So whom should I believe? Who has the answers? Even if I decided to only read the Bible, whose interpretation is correct? I began to realize this answer-hungry-enterprise was taking me to a dead end – ultimately, I could read every important Christian text on how to live well as a disciple of Jesus, including biblical texts and commentaries on them, and still not really understand.
This led me to my second discovery. I learned that if I want to learn how to think well, act well, and live well – Christian or not – I should be reading stories. Stories, including and maybe especially fiction, teach us how to live well by opening our eyes to experiences we couldn’t otherwise have. Stories are a kind of playground for the heart, the mind and the soul. By immersing ourselves in stories, we see how characters act, even coming to know them in a way. We see what they do, and how they reflect on what they do. In fact, we often see fictional characters better than they see themselves (except in the case of unreliable narrators). Characters in stories experience trying circumstances, conflicts, self-delusion, self-revelation and hopefully transformation. By reading fiction, we get a portal into reality and how to live well ourselves. Good fiction so often tells the truth in a way nonfiction cannot.
It seems counterintuitive – that to understand reality, you should spend more time in make-believe – but I think it’s true. And I’m far from the only one. Karen Swallow-Prior, professor of literature at Southeastern Baptist Seminary and author of On Reading Well, writes that fiction doesn’t make logical, A to B arguments, but rather presents truth through experience. Reading fiction opens a window to visions of the good life, and helps us discern “which visions of life are false and which are good and true.” Alasdair MacIntyre, philosopher and author of After Virtue, makes the same point: humans are story-telling creatures, and if you deprive us of stories we will struggle to understand how to live well in our own lives and in the world. He also said that reading novels should be a necessary part of any course on moral philosophy.
So here are three reasons why reading, and especially reading fiction, can improve your spiritual life:
Reading places you in the minds and hearts of other people.
Here’s a simple fact of life: For the most part, you only have your own lived experience to reflect on. We don’t have any way to get inside the minds of our family, friends or neighbors, aside from testimony. We can’t truly understand their struggles and their victories from within. But when we read, we do exactly this. And doing this often imbues us with empathy, because as we experience what others are experiencing (even fictional “others”), we become more aware of others’ experiences. This is why a study from the Journal of Applied Social Psychology concludes that Harry Potter tends to increase empathy in its readers – because readers of that series are consistently made aware of the experiences of people who experience social stigma. (I’d be curious to know if watching the films has the same effect, but I’m skeptical.)
There’s another dimension to this, as well: Placing ourselves within another’s experience can also illuminate our own experiences. By reading about characters who experience what we do or have experienced, authors give us the gift of fresh language to describe and reflect on our own lives. This happens when we’re reading about characters and their trials, and we get to a point when the words on our page correspond to our own thoughts and feelings, and we can say, I’ve felt this. So reading increases our self-awareness – awareness of our own exemplary qualities, as well as our pitfalls and shortcomings.
Reading – especially paper texts – helps us unplug.
You don’t need to read physical copies of books to unplug – but the possibilities of distractions are greater if you don’t. I’ve reached the point of needing to put my phone in another room when I sit down to read. In doing so, I’ve realized just how attached I have become to my devices. After a few minutes, I begin to feel the urge for one more glance at Instagram or Twitter. “What’s happening now, anything?” Probably nothing – except in your book. Reading gives us an opportunity to re-train our minds to resist our device addictions.
Not only this, but even in the most contemporary, newly-released works of fiction, authors tend not to focus on technology in their stories. What I mean is that fictional characters tend not to be so phone-dependent as we are, and so they experience the created world with a kind of clarity that is refreshing. (There are obviously exceptions, but I’m speaking in broad terms.) If you’re like me, we could use a little more focus on God’s creation, and not to spend so many hours of our day in the belly of the beast.
Reading requires discipline.
Some books take a lot to get through. Some books we pick up and never finish. Our lives are very busy and some people simply don’t have the luxury of reading time. But making the time to read requires dedication and discipline, just like any practice. And not just making the time, but finding the will to continue to read even when it’s difficult – whether the text is difficult, or life is difficult. It’s a spiritual practice which will spill over into other areas of your life. If you set aside time to read daily, you might find that you have more time to do other things, as well. Making reading a priority will help you evaluate your time, and use it more efficiently. It might also help you to rest. You probably don’t need much more reason to read than that.
I also think it’s the case that reading trains us to develop certain virtues. When we persevere in our reading, even when the text is difficult, we tend to develop greater patience. When we read harrowing stories of a character’s trials and struggles, we tend to develop fortitude for the struggles in our own lives. When we read stories with characters making difficult choices on behalf of those whom they love, we may find it a little easier to extend love in our own lives, because we’re given a tangible image of what that love looks like, and how we might do likewise.
I think everything I’ve said is especially important for disciples of Jesus. We spend our lives committed to our belief that being a Christian entails living a certain kind of life. There are ways to live this life well, and ways to live it poorly. Most Christians want to grow spiritually, and feel as if the lives they’re living are consistent with their beliefs about God, and how to live well as followers of Jesus. And while books of theology, philosophy, spiritual growth and practice, biblical studies, and other similar books are important, I would encourage you to wander into the fiction section next time you enter a bookstore. What you find there might just change your life.
Rick Cummings, M.Div., graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2018. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, and works at Eastern University. You can follow him on Twitter: @ricktheyounger