I was a voracious reader as a child. Picture an elementary student walking home from school with a copy of Gone with the Wind held open in front of her face, high enough that she could both read and watch for upcoming curbs. Pulling books from decorative tableaus at Marie Calendar’s to keep herself occupied until the food arrived. Sitting in a corner at the family Christmas party with a pile of Time magazines at the age of seven. I was that kid. Reading was my very favorite escape, where I could imagine myself as Pipi Longstocking or Nancy Drew or Anne Shirley – strong and independent, quick to get into trouble and, after some quick thinking, certain to get myself out. I pictured my life as a series of found treasures, solved cases and long walks with Gilbert Blythe – an interesting but predictable life where problems are mere plot twists on the sure path to the storybook ending.
As I approached adulthood it became increasingly apparent that life is more beautiful and terrible than the books from my childhood would have me believe. My relationships, faith, and career were all messier than the romantic future I had once imagined. Resolution took its sweet time, and I was left with far more questions than answers. Sweet and simple books were fine for an airplane ride, but I was no longer naïve enough to believe that they could be used as roadmaps in my life plan. As a result, I stopped reading “stories” and turned instead to history, Christian apologetics, and stacks and stacks of self-help books.
Sweet and simple books were fine for an airplane ride, but I was no longer naïve enough to believe that they could be used as roadmaps in my life plan.
But Jesus liked to tell stories. They didn’t neatly fit into any literary archetype, and they can seem maddeningly incomplete. They are not meant to entertain us. But they do guide us, not by providing a simple map to a storybook ending, but by inviting us to consider the manner in which we are to journey.
Take the story of the Good Samaritan, for example. Jesus tells his followers to love their neighbors. Simple, right? But one testy listener asks Jesus to set some boundaries. Who exactly is my neighbor? Jesus could have said, “Well, Joe, you live on the east end of Templeview Drive, so I’d say your neighbors would be the Johnsons, the Millers, and that nice widow down on the corner.” But Jesus doesn’t make a simple checklist of who we are obligated to love. He tells a story about a guy who gets beat up, is ignored by his religious and political leaders, but is eventually helped by a guy who is (to put it mildly) an outsider. We don’t know if the man ever heals. We don’t know if he goes on to change his mind about Samaritans. We don’t know if the robbers who roughed him up ever faced charges. But that’s not the point of the story. Jesus turns the question back to us. “Who was this man’s neighbor?” He knows that we won’t effectively apply his truths to our lives until we have wrestled with difficult questions ourselves.
In my mid-thirties I started reading fiction again. I joined a book club with smart, thoughtful, faithful women. I took my daughters to the library each week and brought home my own book bag. The books I read weren’t necessarily tidy. The characters were flawed, like me. They didn’t all have happy endings, but they forced me to consider the questions that the Holy Spirit had placed in my head and on my heart.
Some of the books that have been the most helpful are the following:
Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger – Do I believe in miracles? How does my answer change the way I pray?
The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay – How might God be redeeming past suffering in my life?
The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis – Where is God when I feel scared or alone?
The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling – Who are my heroes? What it is about their characters that make them admirable?
My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok – What is the relationship between truth and beauty? Can one exist without the other?
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier – How might my insecurities be holding me back from the rich, full life that God has for me?
I love that our God does more than speak to us through lists of right and wrong. The author and perfecter of our faith invites us to enter his story through stories. For that I am deeply grateful.