Growing our Imagination and Changing the World through Fiction

I recently suggested to a friend that he should read more fiction. He replied that fiction was boring and he is more interested in reading nonfiction books because they can help change the world. He also, though, graciously asked if I had any recommendations for fiction that he might read. The following is my response to him.

I’d suggest that one of the primary uses of fiction is to change the world. For instance:

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.

So why did Jesus tell this fictional story, better known as a parable? We’ll let Him explain.

Prior to his telling the story, “Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” Jesus then proceeded to tell the story. After the story, He said, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

In other words, Jesus use of fiction here was for the purpose of changing the world! In this case, He was trying to change the heart of Peter (and of those of us who read His work of fiction today) who displayed (and display) unforgiving hearts.

I suggest Jesus has succeeded, and there are many whose hearts have changed throughout history and are much more forgiving than they would have been had not Jesus shared this story (and others). Imagine if all hearts were in their essence unforgiving. In fact, there was a time when that was actually the case. If that were still the case today, the world would look much more like it is described in the opening of the Iliad:

And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto; for he was angry with the king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people, because the son of Atreus had dishonoured Chryses his priest. Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand the sceptre of Apollo wreathed with a suppliant’s wreath and he besought the Achaeans, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs.

“Sons of Atreus,” he cried, “and all other Achaeans, may the gods who dwell in Olympus grant you to sack the city of Priam, and to reach your homes in safety; but free my daughter, and accept a ransom for her, in reverence to Apollo, son of Jove.”

On this the rest of the Achaeans with one voice were for respecting the priest and taking the ransom that he offered; but not so Agamemnon, who spoke fiercely to him and sent him roughly away. “Old man,” said he, “let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your sceptre of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you.”

The old man feared him and obeyed. Not a word he spoke, but went by the shore of the sounding sea and prayed apart to King Apollo whom lovely Leto had borne. “Hear me,” he cried, “O god of the silver bow, that protectest Chryse and holy Cilla and rulest Tenedos with thy might, hear me oh thou of Sminthe. If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge these my tears upon the Danaans.”

Without the stories of Jesus—and His atoning work on the cross, the bitterness of Chryses and Agamemnon would still rule the world today, along with the anger of Apollo and Achilles, much like it did before Jesus came to the world, and much like it still does in many parts of the world today where people don’t listen to the stories of Jesus.

Of course, civility existed before Jesus spoke His stories—people didn’t kill everyone they came in contact with all the time, but it operated much like the Pax Romana; whoever was in charge enjoyed the “peace,” along with those who survived the spreading of the peace; as long as they submitted themselves to the subjugation of those in charge.

The world has been a violent place since Cain killed Abel; but it is becoming less so as the fiction of Jesus works in the hearts of men and women.

Before I suggest some works of fiction, let me first suggest a non-fiction book. I am about halfway through: Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke. Here is the teaser for the book:

I love to read.

I hate to read.

I don’t have time to read.

I only read Christian books.

I’m not good at reading.

There’s too much to read.

Chances are, you’ve thought or said one of these exact phrases before because reading is important and in many ways unavoidable.

Learn how to better read, what to read, when to read, and why you should read with this helpful guide from accomplished reader Tony Reinke. Offered here is a theology for reading and practical suggestions for reading widely, reading well, and for making it all worthwhile.

This is a very good book. I am in the midst of reading his discussion about imagination; about why God gave it to us and how we are to use it. He uses these two passages from Revelation in his discussion:

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, reach holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and

And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down la third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.

Then he says:

God extends His blessings to hear His words and heed them. … But God expects readers to heed the imagery. And here is where I get tripped up. Heed what? What exactly are the application points for a seven-eyed and seven-horned Jesus? What is the application point for a bloodthirsty red dragon? … What relation do these images have with my struggle against sin, my love for the lost, or my role as a father? The imagery in Revelation was written to make us holy.

Those are the last words I have read in the book to this point, so I can’t tell you what Reinke tells us about how these images can make us holy. But I’ll venture to say that by reading good fiction we develop our imagination and in turn better understand the truth of Scripture. One reason we need to develop our imaginations because Jesus in His parables and God throughout Holy Scripture uses imagery and fiction to communicate truth. And if we fail to properly develop our imaginations we will miss out on much of the truth that we can learn by reading Scripture.

Likewise, human writers use fiction to communicate what they deem to be truth in order to communicate those “truths” to others; and to change the world.

Now you may not write much fiction, but the reading of fiction will still help develop your imagination in such a way that you will 1) better understand the truths of the world and 2) be better able to communicate those truths in your non-fiction writing. And in your own turn help change the world.

Doug Wilson tells us to “Read. Read constantly. Read the kind of stuff you wish you could write. Read until your brain creaks. Tolkien said that his ideas sprang up from the leaf mold of his mind. These are the trees where the leaves come from.” I suggest whether you write fiction or non-fiction that the reading of fiction will better help ideas spring up from the leaf mold of your mind.

Finally, before I get to some fiction recommendations of my own, let me echo Reinke’s thoughts about the importance of using discernment in choosing which works of fiction we read. No work of fiction (or non-fiction) will perfectly represent the truth since people do not have perfect knowledge of the truth. Nonetheless, some will do better than others. And some will, of course, present great falsehoods as the truth. While there may be things worth gleaning out of such books—as we might read Krugman to understand the false arguments of left, we must be discerning in our choices of what we read—just like we do when we watch movies. Some things we just don’t need to know, or be exposed to.

Now, finally, let me get on to some actual works of fiction:

Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. This is the best book I have ever read—other than the Bible. I am in the midst of my fourth reading now, reading it to William. But it is quite long, so perhaps you might save it for a later time.

Stained Glass by William F. Buckley, Jr. A great short novel by Buckley featuring Blackford Oakes as a CIA agent in the cold war aftermath of WW II.

American Assassin by Vince Flynn. Mr Flynn recently died, but he left behind series of novels about Mitch Rapp, a CIA assassin with orders to take the battle to terrorists in the post-9-11 world—before they can bring the battle to us. Some language challenges here, but his message in compelling: Islamic jihadists are the enemy, but politicians and bureaucrats can also be villains in this world.

The Coming Wrath by John K. Reed. This is the first book in a trilogy about Noah, his family, and events in the world before, during, and after the Great Flood. I loved it. Mr. Reed does a great job of portraying what the world might have been like in those days in the context of what we know about the world form the Bible. It was fascinating to me.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. This comes close to Lord of the Rings. Not at all what I expected. So good it puts the pretty good Tom Hanks’ movie Cast Away to shame.

Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy. A fascinating account of WW III back when such a thing was plausible because of the threat from the Soviet Union. Of course, with Russia so tame these days, we’ll never see anything like this!

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Arguably the best English-language novelist shows that true love is a matter of the head as well as the heart.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I know this is aimed toward children, and I never read it until I read it to William. But it is great, fun reading that any adult ought to be able to enjoy.

Finally, let me put in a plug for reading history and biography. Though these are in the non-fiction category, both are excellent at developing the imagination because they can take you into new world much like fiction does. Looking back at the Norman Conquest or the life of Galileo forces you to use your imagination because our world is quite changed from the past. They thought differently and lived differently. But we can even get a similar effect when reading about different parts of the world in the more recent past because people often approach the world differently based on where they live. So here are just two non-fiction books that might help us develop our imagination and view the world a bit differently than we see it today:

Galileo by Mitch Stokes. Okay, this is not a novel, but a biographic look at the life of Galileo as part of the Christian Encounters Series. But I highly recommend it, because it awakens the imagination as it takes us back in time to look at the times of Galileo as gives a picture of those times quite different than the world sees it today.

The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution by James Hannam. Same thing as the Galileo book.

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