Christians and Fiction

There is a place for great fiction:

Last night on the social media I half-jokingly said in a post that I can’t believe some Christians have still not read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, nor seen the three films by Peter Jackson. I of course love these works and have written about them often, including the author. See here for example:

I had also mentioned that one of the things that attracted me to the woman who would become my wife was her love of Tolkien, along with other greats such as Lewis and Chesterton. She later told me she had read the LOTR trilogy at least 30 times! She was aways more of a reader than I ever was!

Anyway, after I posted that I got quite a range of reactions. Some fully agreed and said they loved the books and films, while others said they had zero interest in either. To the latter group I quipped: ‘Well, that’s OK – God loves you and I am working on it’!

Some folks however did start getting a bit defensive about all this, so I had to offer this comment: “Thankfully our salvation does not depend on reading or watching them – but it will just leave us rather impoverished in many respects!”

Some criticisms I ignored at the time. There was the usual objection made by some believers (also levelled at Lewis) about the demonic and related things in these works of fiction. I remind these folks that the satanic and demonic is found throughout Scripture.

The Bible deals with the world as it is, and we are certainly involved in very real spiritual warfare. So good works of fiction will simply reflect that reality as well. Indeed, most of the best works of fiction (and most-loved films) feature the struggle between good and evil.

And on a related front, some years ago I penned a piece dealing with critics of Lewis and making the case for “Fantasy and its place in the Christian imagination” as my friend Andrew Lansdown had written about. See here:

Another person said he was not at all interested in fiction since he preferred reading about real life heroes who show courage, tenacity and the like. I replied with the meme of the little girl in the taco ad who asks, ‘Why not both?” It is not a matter of one or the other. Why not both forms of great literature?

After all, writers like Tolkien and Lewis used real life experiences of their own (both served in the First World War) and extrapolated from this real world to make great works of fiction. Moreover, one can argue that this line of reasoning from my friend could lead him to question the use of stories and parables found in Scripture – not just from the prophets but Jesus himself. Just think of the powerful fictional account told by Nathan the Prophet to confront King David over his sin for example.

There of course is good and bad fiction, as with most other things in life. Some of it we should indeed reject. But often it depends on the worldview being presented. One can write about the sordid worlds of drug taking or prostitution for example. But it partly depends on to what end. If you simply want to glorify and promote such things, that is quite different from how a Christian would usually approach such things.

The Bible certainly speaks of prostitution. Jesus himself dealt with prostitutes. But the aim is usually one of redemption: seeking to help those people be set free from their addictions and false gods. But all the great Christian writers of fiction, be they Milton or Dante or John Bunyan or C. S. Lewis of course dealt with themes of good and evil, right and wrong.

As I was reflecting on these matters while walking the dog this morning, I thought that – as so often is the case – I would spin all this into a new article. Thus this piece. And I thought I would quote an expert or two. One man I had in mind was a literature professor I had while at Wheaton College in Chicago, Leland Ryken. He has written often on the importance of great literature and the like.

I could have pulled out some of his books on this, but I thought I would stick with a quick Google search. So I typed in “Christians and fiction” and sure enough, the very first hit was a piece by Ryken! The title is this: “In Defense of Fiction: Christian Love for Great Literature”.

In his Abstract he says this:

With so many valuable nonfiction books available to Christians, many wonder if reading fiction is worth the time. Others view fiction as a form of escapism, a flight from reality and the world of responsibility. But rightly understood, reading fiction clarifies rather than obscures reality. The subject of literature is life, and the best writers offer a portrait of human experience that awakens us to the real world. Fiction tells the truth in ways nonfiction never could, even as it delights our aesthetic sensibilities in the process. Reading fiction may be a form of recreation, but it is the kind that expands the soul and prepares us to reenter reality.

Let me quote a bit further from his piece. As to definition, he says this:

The label fiction denotes something that is imagined or made up rather than something that has literally and factually happened. That by itself does not yield a methodology for reading and absorbing a work of fiction, so we need to add that when we speak of fiction, we really mean a narrative or story, so the analytic tools we need to apply are the narrative ones of plot, setting, and character.


Fiction is a very large realm, existing on a continuum with realism on one end and fantasy on the other. Most stories fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum, being a mixture of what is lifelike and unlifelike. My discussion is designed to extend equally to realistic novels and fantasy works. Of course, not all fiction is equally worthy of our time. The defense of reading fiction that I am about to mount should be understood as covering fiction of acknowledged worth.

While he mainly features Leo Tolstoy’s novelette The Death of Ivan Ilych, he offers various general principles. One is that there is a place for recreational reading:

The overall umbrella under which I will defend the reading of fiction will surprise some of my readers. It is that of enlightened leisure. As I have written about work and leisure over the course of nearly half a century, a leading theme has been that leisure is just as much a Christian calling as work is. God expects and commands it. I do not have space to prove that, so I will just assume it as a premise (and I again refer readers to the notes at the end of this article).


Practically speaking, nearly everyone has some free time for recreation, and anyone who does not needs to make an immediate adjustment. If we dignify the concept of leisure as it deserves, we will want to raise the bar high in regard to the quality of our leisure activities. I am fond of the statement of a Christian leisure theorist that leisure is meant to be a growing time for the human spirit.

He also speaks of “Fiction as a Journey into Reality.” He writes:

Good fiction writers are careful observers of human experience, and additionally they are gifted at expressing what they observe. Fiction writer Flannery O’Connor famously said that writers should never be ashamed of staring, by which she meant staring at life. As readers of fiction, we are lured into a similar act of observing human experience. And as we stare at the human experiences that are held before us, we come to see them more clearly. Fiction provides knowledge in the form of right seeing. Truthfulness to life is the domain of literature. Unfortunately, this is a category of truth that is not on most people’s radar screen. Truth is more than ideational, but our whole cultural situation, and our Christian subculture preeminently, tends to limit truth to the realm of ideas….


The fictional imagination presents human experience to us in heightened and clarified form. It makes us take note, just as a still life painting of a bowl of fruit awakens us from our normal inattentiveness. Heightened awareness of human experience is one of the greatest gifts that reading fiction stands ready to give us. I have long thought that this may be part of what is encompassed in the biblical command to sing a new song (Psalm 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; 149:1) — to create a new metaphor, a new fiction, a new portrayal of human experience, a new poetic reflection on a Christian doctrine.


Literature as a whole is the human race’s testimony to its own experience. It is also a leading means by which the human race has grappled with reality and attempted to understand it. Devoting three hours a week to that testimony and that grappling is time well spent.

And he looks at some common objections:

It is a relatively recent development that people find reading to be a laborious chore, but a long-standing objection can be phrased this way: Shouldn’t Christians read only literature that espouses a Christian viewpoint? For anyone who believes this, I recommend dusting off Calvin’s Institutes, and specifically his remarks on common grace (see notes at the end of this article). Calvin is rapturous about how non-Christian writers can express the true, the good, and the beautiful, and when they do, says Calvin, they are following the prompts of the Holy Spirit. A specimen statement from Calvin is that when we find the good, the true, and the beautiful “in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts.”


Much of the greatest literature has been written by non-Christians, just as much of the greatest music and painting have been produced by them. Not to read what they have produced would be a missed opportunity of massive proportions.

He concludes this way:

This brings me to my challenge. I am asking you as a reader of this article to commit to a two-week experiment in reading fiction. Choose a novel or collection of short stories or Shakespearean play that you know you like or have reason to believe that you might like. Commit to a regimen of twenty to thirty minutes per day for five days each week. The chief impediment to reading is not lack of time but lack of commitment. At the end of the experiment, engage in some introspection and take stock of what has happened as a result of your reading….

Two concluding thoughts

If you want to write in and have long chats about fiction with me, I have to lay my cards on the table. My wife, who read more than I, was overwhelmingly a fiction reader. However I have always been overwhelmingly a non-fiction reader. If my wife were still alive today, she would be the one to discuss novels and fiction with!

And as a concluding plug, and if you are on Facebook, a friend there has “The Good Books Book Club” which you might be interested in:

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8 Replies to “Christians and Fiction”

  1. Hi Bill thank you fot this article ..two Christian writers of fiction have also read books they have written are Wendy Alec and Frank Peretti …first writer on end times and prophetic mainly and second mainly on prayer and spiritual warfare…both writers have been very helpful to my family in some many ways, as CS Lewis etc has been .

  2. Hi. The first 2 books I ever read in full were the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. They were recommended to me when I was in my early 20s, and were the beginning of a love for reading that hasn’t diminished.
    I would remind readers of your column that while in Athens the apostle Paul quoted secular poets in order to affirm gospel truth. One can read about this in Acts 17.

  3. I’d like to put in a good word for Joseph Bayly’s excellent pro-life dystopia “Winterflight.” I have dearly loved this book for its skillful depiction of what a world where that vital social movement didn’t exist would be like. It’s set in a world where abortion of ‘imperfect’ foetuses (read: unborn child with disabilities) is mandatory, as is euthanasia at seventy-five. It does have a downbeat ending, but that makes its gravity and importance for today’s world all the more vivid. Anyway, nothing’s wrong with a downbeat ending every now and then- I still cherish Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal after all these years, given how significant that the devoutly Christian young family is spared by the Angel of Death at the end.

  4. There’s nothing like the classics, though. Ma inherited some weathered but still serviceable copies of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy from Gran and Grandad, and she used to read them to us girls when we were growing up. Later, when it came to high school, the nuns were impressed that we knew the books so well and in some cases, could even quote sections from it. Later, my late husband Ernest and I visited Dante’s birthplace in Tuscany. Talk about a pilgrimage of love! I still remember it fondly all these years later.

  5. While I grew up loving the books and the movies I sometimes wonder about the portrayal of “white” magic. According to scripture any type of magic is evil. Your thoughts?

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