Christians should read novels. And not any old novels. They’ve got to be the kind on the shelves marked ‘literature’.

That’s a bold statement, I hear you say. (Well, I don’t really hear you say it, because I would need to have hacked into the microphone on your laptop and to be honest, I’m just not that smart.)

So to convince you I’m right, or at least reasonable, I’m going to take you back, way back, to the age of about three or so.

That’s when (give or take) most children start to develop something the psych people call ‘theory of mind’. This is the ability to understand that you are not the only person in the universe (yes, I know, there are adults who haven’t learnt this yet). Before that, we are all just little Trumans, starring in the show of our lives in which everyone else is merely a paid actor.

Theory of mind (or ToM to those of us in the know) refers to our understanding of people as mental beings, each with his or her own mental states, such as thoughts, wants, knowledge, motives and feelings. We use ToM to explain our own behaviour to others, by telling them what we think and want, and we interpret other people’s talk and behaviour by considering their thoughts and wants.

It’s kind of a big deal. It’s at the heart of our ability to get along with other people and see their point of view. And that is something that every Christian, with a regenerate heart and a desire to grow more like Christ, longs to do. After all, if you cannot put yourself mentally in another’s shoes, how can you put their needs above your own? You can’t even imagine what they could be, and you wouldn’t have the skills to find out.

So, developing a ToM is very important from a Christian perspective, but it’s not a one-step process. Although there is a marked leap in the pre-school years, it continues to develop into adulthood, and then (possibly) declines somewhat in the elderly.

Therefore, there are factors that contribute to a more fully formed ToM as we mature, and I would think Christians – who ought to care deeply about really loving others – would want to know what they are and how to deploy them.

Which brings me back to books (finally!).

A couple of years ago a study in the US found reading literary fiction made people more sensitive to the emotional states of others, as compared to reading popular fiction, non-fiction or nothing at all. Reading top-shelf literature actually improves people’s development of ToM. You can read an article about it here

It’s actually not the only study to have found that reading makes you more empathetic, but it’s the first to throw up empirical evidence regarding the superiority of literary fiction.

The authors of the study explained it like this:

Our contention is that literary fiction…uniquely
engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’
subjective experiences. Just as in real life, the worlds of literary
fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are
rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration. The worlds of
fiction, though, pose fewer risks than the real world, and they present
opportunities to consider the experiences of others without facing the
potentially threatening consequences of that engagement. More critically, whereas
many of our mundane social experiences may be scripted by convention and
informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary
fiction often
disrupt our expectations. Readers of literary
fiction must
draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts
of characters. That is, they must engage ToM processes. Contrary to literary
fiction, popular fiction…tends to portray
the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable. Therefore,
it may reaffirm readers’ expectations and so not promote ToM.

Now, I’m more of an armchair psychologist than an actual psychologist (you know, the kind with, like, a degree and stuff), but what I am an expert on is the art of reading. I have spent decades practicing, day after day, coming away with aching muscles (from holding up books in bed) and strained eyes (from reading with a torch under the covers). My commitment to this pursuit is, frankly, inspirational.

So, yes, I have a little bit of bias on this topic. But I also think it contains some truth because, well … science.

But you, gentle reader, may have further objections. So before I get shot down in flames (I can already smell the smoke), let me try to pre-empt some responses. These are real objections, in the sense that they are both valid positions to take, and also that I found them on real websites and cut and pasted them below.

Secular fiction is unwholesome/I only read Christian fiction

Secular fiction is unwholesome/I only read Christian fiction

If you can find Christian fiction (by which I mean novels from by Christian publishers that adhere to a Christian worldview) that has nuanced, surprising, complex characters, then more power to you. I’m still looking.

Even if you did, you would be missing out on having your assumptions challenged, learning to see broken people in a new and compassionate light, and being forced to dig into God’s word as you reflect on your faith in light of the worldviews of others.

Yes, there may be aspects that disgust or upset you. Does that make them unwholesome? Well, that depends. A book about war may be distressing in it’s content, but also important to read as we contemplate refugees fleeing those regimes. I’m not sure that most literature is any more unwholesome than watching the news or getting to know your neighbours. We may not agree with what we see or hear, and we are called to be holy ourselves in contrast, but we are also called to engage. I certainly don’t think we should sweep the lot of it aside under the label of “worldly filth”.

I’m not suggesting Christians pick up the latest in the 50 Shades of Grey series (which doesn’t fall into the literary category anyway). Choose wisely. I once had a friend so traumatised by the bleak vision in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road that she couldn’t sleep for days. Read reviews, take recommendations, be informed.

And read critically: not in the “this book is a load of rubbish” sense, but in the “how do I understand these people or this perspective in light of what I know to be true?”

All we need is the Bible/All we need is the Holy Spirit

All we need is the Bible/All we need is the Holy Spirit

It is not uncommon to hear that the Bible is all we need for understanding people, and that the Holy Spirit working in us will teach us to be empathetic.

But I’m not sure that’s what scripture teaches us. John Piper says it better than I can:

In other words, the Scriptures are sufficient in the sense that they are the only (“once for all”) inspired and (therefore) inerrant words of God that we need, in order to know the way of salvation (“make you wise unto salvation”) and the way of obedience (“equipped for every good work”).

… The sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that the Scripture is all we need to live obediently. To be obedient in the sciences we need to read science and study nature. To be obedient in economics we need to read economics and observe the world of business. To be obedient in sports we need to know the rules of the game. To be obedient in marriage we need to know the personality of our spouse. To be obedient as a pilot we need to know how to fly a plane. In other words, the Bible does not tell us all we need to know in order to be obedient stewards of this world.”[i]

I don’t have time to read/I don’t enjoy reading

I don’t have time to read/I don’t enjoy reading

Well, I think you’re crazy(!), but far be it from me to tell you how to use your time. Sit-ups are good for me, but I don’t enjoy them and I definitely don’t have/make time for them. Still, it’s good to know they’re there if I suddenly need tight abs. So with books.

Or you might find other ways to meet the same goals.

After all, literature is but one arrow in the quiver God has given us to learn to love each other.

Further reading:




[i] David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano in Science Magazine, 18 October, 2013, ‘Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind’, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377.full?sid=91ec824d-eceb-4a83-b40c-6657956d903e

[i] John Piper, Thoughts on the Sufficiency of Scripture, February 9, 2005, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/thoughts-on-the-sufficiency-of-scripture

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