Some kids played sports growing up; others played video games. My sister and I read. While she leaned toward fantasy and science fiction, I read all the kids’ classics, and we both tore through piles of Regency romances when we were in our early teens. Since my parents weren’t readers themselves, and we weren’t the kind of kids who got into any trouble, no one paid any attention to our pastime. We could read whatever we liked, and we did.
My family wasn’t religious (still isn’t), but we had that old, brown-covered children’s Bible with its cavalcade of characters parading across, and I read it, along with Disney fairy tale books, and thought about them much the same. The only story I remember from the children’s Bible was that of the two moms fighting over the same baby (1 Kings 3:16-28). I guess the editors figured kids would be interested in a baby story, even if King Solomon did recommend they slice that baby in half. (The 70s and 80s weren’t as concerned as we are nowadays with sparing everyone’s feelings, I guess.)
It was only when I was in college and finally surrendered to the feeling niggling at me—deciding to follow Christ at an InterVarsity fall retreat and starting to attend my boyfriend’s church—that I realized all Christians did not regard reading as I did. “You’re reading fiction?” one woman demanded, horrified. I hardly knew how to respond, having never, to that point, read any nonfiction and certainly not any “Christian” books. In that church, apparently, the Bible, Christian nonfiction, and school textbooks were the only innocent genres. Curious, in retrospect, since that church heavily emphasized reading the Bible every day, and it doesn’t take long to discover that there are plenty of eye-opening passages in the Good Book that would be lucky to scrape an NC-17 rating. Take the Solomon story from the children’s Bible—that version neglected to mention that the women fighting over the baby were both prostitutes living in the same brothel. But that was okay, I imagined they would argue, because it was a true story. I remember one sermon I sat through back then, where the pastor told us that imagining hell was a legitimate use of the imagination because hell is real.
Gulp. There I sat, an English major, loving Austen and Dickens and Twain and Renaissance poetry. Was fiction wrong, unless God played a leading role?
I think of Paul’s words in Romans: “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (1:20). This would be my excuse for literature—God’s fingerprints and footprints are all over literature, if only your eyes are open to see. Sometimes God is an obvious character in the story; other times he has just left the room, trailing forgiveness or redemption or grace; and then there are the stories where his absence is so painful it speaks all the more clearly of our need for him.
God’s fingerprints and footprints are all over literature, if only your eyes are open to see.
We are characters in God’s story. Made in his image, we tell stories ourselves, trying to make sense of who and what we encounter in life. We watch the arc of our character development and of others’. We try to tie up loose ends in our plot. Sometimes we throw up our hands in bewilderment and figure God will explain what it was all about when it’s over. And out of this desire to be our own narrators comes our love of story. Jesus didn’t think telling stories was an illegitimate use of the imagination; rather, he engaged our imaginations to reveal truths about God and about ourselves. The best literature does this, even when God is not named.
Consider Dickens’ Great Expectations, where Pip, puffed up with grand notions about himself, discovers humility and grace. Not to give any spoilers, but the Big Reveal has a symbolic parallel in our own lives: we discover who we truly are when we come to terms with our own wretchedness.
Consider another Dickens favorite of mine, Bleak House. What is the price of unforgiveness, even when the person we cannot forgive is ourselves? How does the Law, represented by both Tulkinghorn and Jarndyce and Jarndyce suck everyone dry of life? To quote Paul again, we find that “the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me” (Romans 7:10).
It isn’t only 19th century British literature that points to Biblical truths—although I confess that’s my favorite genre. Christian themes show up in everything from Shakespeare to Harry Potter to contemporary memoirs (where it seems like every last memoirist was raised with some form of church that they later rejected). Fingerprints and footprints.
While I’ve left the literature-fearing church of my early faith behind, I’ve kept the habit of reading my Bible regularly. Start at the beginning, read a couple chapters a day, work through to the end. I know the system doesn’t work for a lot of people, but it does for me. Occasionally I try a new translation. If you struggle with reading your Bible, try just doing the narrative (story) parts first. Genesis through Exodus (until the long tangent into the Law). Pick up again at Joshua through 2 Chronicles. Throw in some Esther and Song of Solomon. Then on to the Gospels and Acts. There are stories in those sections to cross every genre, from adventure to thriller to romance to bromance. And, like I did with the Solomon-and-the-baby story, you may find reading the stories again as an adult and in the original to be edgier than you remembered.
There’s nothing I love talking more than books. I even try recommending books I’ve enjoyed to my kids, so that I can trick them into discussing them with me. If you read something that has enlarged your life, stop me at church and let’s swap stories!
In addition to reading voraciously (though no longer at stoplights, because of the new law), Christina has written six novels, including The Beresfords, a Jane Austen adaptation that the Seattle Times called ‘ingenious and entertaining.’