In previous posts I’ve mentioned that I’m reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings right now. I’m going through Volume 1, The Fellowship of the Ring, and absolutely loving it. I’ve noticed that after picking up a good piece of fiction like LOTR, I’ve gone on to read other books in a slightly different way. So, here are two benefits that I’ve experienced in my own reading, and I think most people would, if they read more fiction:
1. Reading fiction helps stretch our imagination muscle
When people hear the word “imagination” they usually think of something like “fable,” or “myth.” That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about your mind’s ability to construct a mental picture of something; the capability you have to image/envision what the writer wants you to. Take this passage from the beginning of Frodo’s adventure as an example:
“The woods on either side became denser; the trees were now younger and thicker; and as the lane went lower, running down into a fold of the hills, there were many deep brakes of hazel on the rising slopes at either hand. At last the Elves turned aside from the path. A green ride lay almost unseen through the thickets on the right; and this they followed as it wound away back up the wooded slopes on to the top of a shoulder of the hills that stood out into the lower land of the river-valley. Suddenly they came out of the shadow of the tree, and before them lay a wide space of grass, grey under the night.” Page 80, The Fellowship of the Ring.
What does you see with your mind’s eye? Hopefully something beautiful. One benefit of reading fiction is that it helps us to 1) realize that words on a page can vividly describe a place, and 2) actually imaginate (?) the place itself.
For those of us reading the Bible, this is an immensely helpful skill. It helps us to be aware of the fact that the Epistles were written to real people in real situations and need to be interpreted as such. Imagine the Galatians excitedly gathered to hear the letter Paul had written to them. Imagine the way they leaned forward with anticipation with what he had to say. And imagine how they reacted after the third, forth, fifth rebuke.
Galatians is not a tame letter. It is demanding. It is an affront to self-righteousness. We ought to read it with this imagination muscle in full stride, bringing up images of what it was like to hear this for the first time (even if it’s the twentieth time we’ve read it in devotions). Fiction helps us to practice this crucial skill.
2. Reading fiction helps us to read (OT) non-fiction narrative contextually
When you read a well-written book, the characters and setting and plot stick with you. If the author does his/her job, these things are deposited in your imagination (probably without you realizing it), and are available for withdrawal at just the right moment. We ought to read the Bible in this “imagination deposit and withdrawal” way too. For example, a fleeing and scared David sees a lone figure approaching his exile-camp (1 Sam. 22:20). It’s abiather. The lone survivor of Saul’s city-wide mass murder. This (probably) young man has been robbed of his entire family, and essentially all he’s ever known (1 Sam. 22:22). David takes him in, and later appoints him priest. Can you imagine how Abiather felt, coming from a city of priests, on that coronation day? It’s hard to imagine the tears and thankfulness that were shed by this sole survivor of a rampaging mad man. He owed David everything. But then during David last days Abiather is part of an insurrection against David’s appointed heir. What is that?! Why, at this moment of moments, does Abiathar, the man who found a home with the fleeing King of Israel, take part in a shoddy coup d’étatt?
We should carry this awareness of Abiather’s debt to David into this story of Solomon’s rise to power. The messed-up-ness of the nation is all the more clearer when we remember things that happened before. It helps us to see the sin into which the nation (made up of individuals like Abiathar) had plunged itself.