5 Reasons Pastors Should Read Fiction

by Mike Duran · 13 comments

A writer friend recently pondered (in an online writing community I’m part of) whether he should use a pen name when publishing his fiction. The reason? He’s a minister at a church and feels that other staff pastors won’t “get” his fiction gig. In fact, some might be downright hostile to it.

Sadly, this is not an uncommon position for Christian ministers who pursue writing and/reading fiction. I recall contacting a pastor friend shortly after I released my first novel. He ran a ministry for other pastors and I thought it would be a perfect place to give away some free print copies of my book. (After all, the story was about a pastor and his church.) However, the interest was minimal. My friend confessed afterwards that many pastors just aren’t very interested in reading fiction.

Having been on staff with two different churches over an 11 year stretch, I can attest to building a library top-heavy with the subject of 1.) Theology and 2.) Administration. I’m guessing when most pastors aren’t reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or Barth’s Church Dogmatics, they’re reading Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or Blanchard’s The One-Minute Manager.

But The Hobbit?

There are probably lots of reasons why pastors don’t read fiction. When one enters the ministry, a whole host of demands start pressing. Suddenly, time management becomes an issue, as does doctrinal integrity, church government, and the care and feeding of troubled souls. Reading fairy tales, frankly, seems irrelevant to someone dealing with such heady issues as the Atonement, Salvation by Grace, and such practical issues as resolving marital conflict. Compound this with the fact that we tend to see fiction as make-believe. And being that pastors traffic in Truth, it cuts against the grain of their fundamental mission. Another factor is skepticism toward pop culture in general. Over the last thirty years, the Church has often retreated from cultural interaction, opting instead to quarantine themselves against secularism and sit in judgment. As such, the arts — theater, film, music, literature — are branded as “worldly” and left to the devil.

Either way, pastors often develop a utilitarian view of life, one in which art and imagination become tertiary, non-essential, expendable, if not altogether perilous.

For the longest time, Narnia just seemed irrelevant to what I was doing as a minister. However, there came a time in my ministry — precipitated, I think, by the ever-present need for spiritual fresh air — when I decided to read something other. I’d been enjoying some of C.S. Lewis’ non-fiction works — Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, etc., which seemed status quo for a young pastor — and was intrigued by the amount of fiction in Clive’s canon. Why would someone with such philosophical prowess devote so many pages to spacemen and talking animals?

So I started with something up my alley, you know, just to see…

Having read Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Arthur Clarke and the other sci-fi-ers of my adolescence, Lewis’ Space Trilogy seemed apropos. The story of Ransom’s journey out of the “silent planet” to a world of fantastic beings ruled by a great spirit named Maleldil, captured my imagination! Far from pure escapism, the trilogy encapsulated Lewis’ theology wonderfully.

Could it be that fiction was a powerful vehicle for truth?

Anyway, it opened up the floodgates. From there I read The Chronicles of Narnia, The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Great Divorce. After that, it was The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion, George MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith,  Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and finally the fictional work that Lewis considered his best, Till We Have Faces.

I suppose someone could view it as escapist. However, for me, reading fiction transformed my worldview, informed my theology, and reinvigorated my ministry. How?

Allow me to offer Five Reasons Why Pastors Should Read Fiction:

  • Reading fiction — good fiction — awakens the beauty and power of language. No other book made me want to be a writer more than The Two Towers. The grandeur of the story and the eloquence of the craft kindled something that lay dormant in me. I wept, at times, as I read that book (silly, huh?). Good fiction reaffirms the power and beauty of words. And since words are the preacher’s stock in trade, he does well to see them strung together rightly.
  • Reading fiction stokes the imagination. “Christian imagination” is not an oxymoron. If anyone should explore and articulate the wonder and mystery and sublimity of creation, it should be believers. And because we are made in the image of our Creator, we are built to create. Good stories rouse our creative genes. And, frankly, there’s no one who needs to keep those creative synapses firing like a minister.
  • Good stories speak to us in ways that exposition and data cannot.  Of course, some could argue that Christ’s stories were instructional. Nevertheless, it doesn’t negate the fact that He used fictional persons and plots to engage people. This says a lot, I think, about how Jesus viewed His audience. Fact is,  It’s one thing to be told God is gracious and merciful. It’s another to watch the prodigal leave his home, blow his money, and come limping back, only to see his father running towards him, arms outstretched, with plans for a big party. Or as Tim Downs in his keynote address to the ACFW conference one year said, “Thou shalt not” touches the head. “Once upon a time” touches the heart.
  • Reading fiction also helps us stay tuned to pop culture at large. Granted, this might not be the best reason to read Harry Potter. But the Harry Potter phenomenon says something about people. Why are we drawn to certain films and stories? Could it be our fascination with certain themes and archetypes is indicative of intrinsic spiritual needs? Sure, fiction has its share of sleazy, shoddy, ill-intended stuff, just like any other medium. Nevertheless, popular fiction can be a great gauge of cultural interests and an effective springboard to address the needs of a congregation.
  • Reading fiction breaks the potential monotony of the ministry routine. During the peak of my ministry (if there was such a thing), I can recall retiring every afternoon to read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson. Oh what joy it was to leave the meetings, the counseling, the delegation, the study, to visit with Saltheart Foamfollower and his cynical sidekick. Yes, we need hard theology, and woe to us if we don’t apply ourselves and our congregation to it. But there is nothing like a story to flesh out the mystery and majesty of Grace and provide a fresh wind to our weary soul.

Perhaps some will interpret this as an argument against exposition, as if I’m suggesting doctrine takes a backseat to entertainment. No doubt some ministers sacrifice substance for style, and prefer fiction to the more rigid implications of Christian theology. After all, it’s a lot easier to thrill a congregation with a good story, than outline eschatology and atonement. Still, there’s a lot of good reasons for pastors to read fiction. In fact, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Institutes of the Christian Religion may be equally essential to the minister’s library.

* * *

This article was expanded from a previous post on the subject.

Joshua Gabbard September 14, 2017 at 10:03 AM

I could just see the apostle Paul now, brow furrowed, furiously writing his latest inspiration on parchment, a satisfied grin on his face as he penned his latest triumph: duel of the Messiah! It’s the story of an alien world ruled by a God of War. On this world there are two Messiahs not one and to decide who will be the one they must enter into Mortal Kombat.

I can see it can’t you? You’re right I can’t either. That’s because the Apostle Paul was sold out and didn’t care for the things of this world. His passion was winning souls for God’s glory.

If writing fiction is what the Lord told you to do then praise God. If it is a work of your flesh then it has no place being promoted in the body of Christ. Are you writing this because it really is a good thing for pastors to read fiction or is it because you’re upset that other ministers don’t feel the same way you do about your passion? This is an honest question and it isn’t meant to provoke you.

I don’t think your argument is persuasive because all you have provided is opinion and anecdotal evidence. That is not enough for a minister of God to change his behavior. Even worse, when you cite scripture you are using it entirely against its intended meaning. You brought up the fact that Jesus used parables and you said the reason for that is because human beings relate to stories better. Is that really why Jesus used parables? Let’s see what Jesus taught about why he spoke in parables:

Matthew 13 11,14-15

Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given . . . . And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive, for the heart of this people has grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their heart and turn, so that I should heal them

Jesus taught us that the reason he used parables is so people outside of the kingdom of God would not understand them. It was a judgment not a blessing. So that entirely contradicts your point and what you said would mislead anyone who is not familiar with that scripture. Our worldly wisdom would say yes this is why Jesus used parables, but according to the Scripture they were used to keep people outside of the kingdom of God from understanding them to punish them.

So this is bad Theology and this is the problem I have with the whole idea. Biblical illiteracy is the number one problem in the church and the last thing that God’s people need is to read stories which confuse them about the truth of God’s word. God’s people don’t need fiction they need the truth! So.ething else that contradicts your point is that when Jesus explained the parables to His disciples they were entirely theologically accurate. There was no fiction in them whatsoever.

So in summary if this is what God has called you to do to reach people than praise God. If ministers want to spend their free time reading fiction that’s up to them. I don’t have a problem with that as long as it doesn’t interfere with what God is telling them to do. However to promote it and say that all ministers should do this is ridiculous. Most pastors that I know are juggling so many things and under so much pressure and they need the peace of God more than anything.

It’s great to get into a good story I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books a lot of fantasy and science-fiction in my life before I was saved. Know that I know the Lord I’m not interested in that anymore. I’ve spent enough of my life buried in alternate realities. My passion is to win souls. If God wants me to write fiction to do that praise God. But so far he hasn’t told me to do that and He has done everything to separate me from the things of this world. I think what we should be encouraging Saints to do is to be separate from this world and not to do things the way that it does and that includes being preoccupied with reading and telling Fantastical stories when truth is laying in the street, trodden over not only by unbelievers but by the church itself.

Charles September 14, 2017 at 11:18 AM

Thank you, Joshua, for correcting Mike. Your anecdotal evidence will be persuasive in showing him that one should not rely on anecdotal evidence. And he certainly shouldn’t prescribe his solitary views on others – your stretching of your solitary views sure showed him.

I look forward to the day when Christians steer clear of the things of this world (like fiction) and live solely in accordance with scripture. I also look forward to the day in which we find the passage in scripture that says fiction is universally a part of this world and to be avoided.

Hopefully Mike will see the error of his ways in wasting time on the things of things world, like browsing online blogs and spending hours replying to them – wait, I meant hours spent reading fiction.

Joshua Gabbard September 20, 2017 at 9:57 PM

Hi Charles,

I never said fiction in and of itself was a bad thing. I don’t have a problem with it, and you could give me a little credit here because I said I praise God if this is what He has called Mike to do. I did have a problem with Mike using parables to back up his point, against the stated purpose of Jesus telling parables. What do you think about that?

My anecdotal evidence wasn’t given to counter Mike..I was just telling you about my own experience with God. If you do want evidence it isn’t very hard to find it in scripture. Here are few general scriptures to outline the theme of separation from this world:

1 John 2:15-17

15Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not from the Father but from the world

James 4:4

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God

Galatians 6:14

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

These are not trivial statement; the apostles are teaching us radical separation from this world. Do you think that Mikes point of view fits in with this? What is radical separation to you?

Jill September 14, 2017 at 11:22 AM

Social media is also an alternate reality many stay buried in.

Jim Laney September 14, 2017 at 12:02 PM

Don’t mess with Charles….

Joshua, maybe fiction and daydreaming is a snare for you to avoid, but as has been pointed out, cruising the internet isn’t exactly productive either, and your reply must have taken a lot of time to craft.

I’m glad I have the spare time to enjoy this page.

I’m also glad to have read works of fiction, where people can speak directly to moral/ethical/spiritual issues. I can only take so many John Maxwell books!

Joshua Gabbard September 20, 2017 at 10:04 PM

Hi Jim,

You have a point here. Case in point..I replied here because I had just gotten up and I was checking my email, and this popped up somewhere. I was half awake when I wrote it so I think I got a little snarky, and for that I apologize. I know I spend too much time on the internet. It’s definitely not all I do, though..I have a wife, a business, and ministries that I am part of. There are a lot of demands on my time every day so sometimes I use it to just relax, and that isn’t the best thing to do.

What I am trying to do, with some success, is get up even earlier and read Gods word and pray first thing every day. God has been faithfully getting me up, but I can’t say I don’t go back to sleep half of the time.

Mike Duran September 15, 2017 at 6:05 AM

Thanks for commenting, Joshua. I’m not sure what your main objection is. Is it that fiction is just a “thing of this world”? Is it that fiction cannot play a part in “winning souls for God’s glory”? Is it that you believe parables were not used to reach people, as I claim fiction can? Or is it that this is just my opinion with no compelling biblical support? If so, let me offer a couple quick rebuttals.

Your objection to my interpretation of Jesus’ use of parables is important. I cover it at more length in THIS POST (http://www.mikeduran.com/2014/11/christian-fiction-evangelism-and-parabolic-storytelling/). There, I use the British theologian and evangelist G. Campbell Morgan’s conclusions drawn in his book, “The Parables and Metaphors of Our Lord.” Morgan writes:

“According to Matthew, the disciples had inquired the reason for speaking in parables. The Lord’s answer was that it was given to them to know the mysteries. He told His disciples that the difference in method was due to a difference in relationship. To those of His disciples who were obedient, who submitted to Him, the mysteries could be made known. To those without, those not yielded, and not obedient, those refusing and hardening the heart, the parabolic was the necessary method.

“Go on to verses twenty-one to twenty-five in this fourth chapter of Mark. He used the lamp as His illustration. This lamp is not put under the bushel, which would extinguish it. It is put on a stand. The parables therefore constituted a lamp, a lamp shining. It was not in order to hide things, but that the hidden things may be brought to light. These people could not, because of the attitude they had assumed, receive the mysteries, the profound things of the kingdom of God. His disciples could receive those mysteries; but to those without, the parable was the lamp.” (pg. 15)

Morgan concludes, “He gave them parabolic pictures so that they might inquire. The purpose of the story, the picture, was to lure them to think, in order that they might find their way into the higher mystery.” (pg. 16)

When you combine this interpretation (one embraced by many) with the fact that others used story as a means of getting through to their listeners, like the prophet Nathan telling a story to cut through King David’s hard heart (II Sam. 12) and the OT prophets’ import of pagan imagery to subvert their narrative (see: http://www.equip.org/article/old-testament-storytelling-apologetics/), it natural conclude that stories can be tools to reach outsiders and nurture biblical narratives.

Also, while the parables illumined truth, they were in fact fiction. For example, was the Prodigal Son an ACTUAL person, or just an archetype? Was the Good Samaritan a REAL person, or just an example of what a “good neighbor” looks like? Were the Ten Virgins REAL people, or just symbols of a Church needing to remain vigilant? In fact, even if I concede your interpretation that Jesus used parables simply to harden His listeners’ hearts, you still must allow that Jesus used fictional stories to accomplish some God-given aim. (In this sense, if I write fiction just to harden someone’s heart against God, I’d be using fiction in a biblically appropriate manner.)

Regarding your suggestion that Paul wouldn’t waste time with telling stories and that he “didn’t care for the things of this world.” Not only was Paul well-versed in local laws and customs (he used his citizenship as a Roman citizen as legal leverage), but he appears well-versed in art and culture. In Acts 17:22-31, Paul quoted pagan poets when appealing to his audience. This clearly suggests that Paul was familiar with the pagan poetry of his time. Either he read it or took time to understand the cultural zeitgeist of his age. Either way, Paul was privy enough with the “things of this world” to reach the people in it. If Paul took time to familiarize with pagan art and literature (Acts 17, Mars Hill) in order to connect with his audience, contemporary Christian artists and storytellers should do the same.

Finally, is there no room for artists and creatives in the Church’s mission? Are they just hobbyists whose REAL ministry can’t be writing or painting? Is the preaching of the Gospel only verbal? If so, how can the heavens tell the glory of God? If your passion is to see people come to Christ, please remember that there are many tools at God’s disposal. Not all reap, some plant and water. In my post “Planting Seeds in the Imagination,” (http://www.mikeduran.com/2016/09/planting-seeds-in-the-imagination/), former atheist Holly Ordway chronicles how it was through reading the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia that God seeded the Gospel and began His work of grace. Is this just incidental? I think Tolkien and Lewis would probably object.

Anyway, this is an important topic. I appreciate the challenge and trust it will contribute to our understanding of this topic.

Joshua Gabbard September 20, 2017 at 10:47 PM

Fictional works absolutely can be used for Gods glory. Look at Pilgrims Progress for example. My objection was partly theological, which you covered in this reply and which I will reply to. The other part was that I don’t think it is a good focus for Pastors. I know a lot of Pastors and what they need is the anointing of the Holy Ghost. Take DL Moody for example. He was very poorly educated and yet God the Spirit turned this man into an evangelistic powerhouse.

The modern church has all sorts of ideas and theories about what a Pastor should do and be, and what church is, but only one thing is needed: a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. The Genesis of the church was at Pentecost. He the only thing that is going to make the difference in their life and ministry; without the Spirit there will be no victory and it definitely costs something to seek God. I think we should be exhorting each other about the things we need to sacrifice, not the things we need to add.

I don’t think that the idea that stories are a powerful way to communicate truth needs any explanation or justification. Clearly human beings are intrinsically wired to be attracted to storytelling. I never claimed to the contrary, but Campbells explanation to me doesn’t hold water, mainly because it contradicts scripture:

Campbell: “The parables therefore constituted a lamp, a lamp shining. It was not in order to hide things,”

Mark 4:12

And He told them, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside, everything is expressed in parables, 12so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.’”

The parables were expressly told to hide things as a judgment against the unbelieving. It’s also important to understand that the disciples couldn’t understand the parables without an explanation. In other words, the story wasn’t communicating anything to them either. That’s because it wasn’t inherently a device to communicate truth, it was a device to hide the truth which is just what Jesus said. It was only when Jesus explained the parable that they could understand.

In regards to the fictional aspect, the parable of the rich man and lazarus wasn’t fiction. In any case, there is nothing wrong with parables in and of themselves, and they could be a vehicle for truth, however that isn’t what the Lord used them for according to His own words. They were a judgment which was prophesied by Isaiah.

In regards to Paul, yes he was a learned man; a real intellectual. I think it is far more likely though that Paul learned of much of that before he was saved, considering the lifestyle that Paul lived after meeting the Lord:

2 Corinthians 11:22-28

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. 24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, inperils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?

Do you think it is likely that Paul is spending his spare time studying pagan customs and rituals considering this testimony? Again, I am not saying it is wrong to study or know these things but I think it is clear it wasn’t his focus from this testimony here.

God has clearly gifted people with some awesome creative abilities. He has gifted you with writing, and maybe this is why He gave you the gift, or maybe it isn’t? Are you seeking the Lord about it? In any case, of course it has a place in the church. It is good for those God gifts, to use those gifts under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

It’s not a focus for the church though. I believe we are living in the times spoken of in Daniel 12:4, which means we need to be a bride well prepared to meet her Bridegroom, redeeming the time because the days are evil. I think this is the age of Laodicea and the church in the west is lukewarm. Biblical illiteracy is at a height never see before, and there has never been such a confusion as to even what church and Christianity even is. This is because we doing church in the flesh instead of the Spirit, and we haven’t repented of our lukewarmness and humbled ourselves before Almighty God, asking Him to forgive us and heal our backslidings. We think everything is okay when we are actually blind, pitiable, wretched, poor and naked.

Btw, thank you for your reply..and I am sorry if I was snarky towards you.

SherryT September 14, 2017 at 10:19 AM

I’m not a pastor but I do ‘get’ at least part of what you’re saying.

My first fantasy novel was published while I was attending my previous church. That one & most of my other books have a subtle “pre-evangelical” thread to them–the better to sneak basic Christian teachings past what C S Lewis named the “watchful dragons” of non-believers. Bob Warner (son of pastor emeritis Robert Warner) and his wife read Seabird, “got it” & enjoyed it. Bob asked me to chat with his Bible Study group about the book’s Christian roots. Either Bob or else someone else at the church suggested I talk to the youth group. No one in either group reacted much less chose to read it. Neither did Bob’s father or the woman who was the pastor at that time.

With the one exception of one reader–the previous teacher of a Bible Study group–the same holds true at my present church.
I suspect the “Five Reasons”.. you give for… “Why Pastors Should Read Fiction” would be rejected by many Christians I know–to say nothing of their pastors. I’m assuming you mean ‘secular’ or very subtle Christian fiction, as opposed to the books typically found in Christian bookstores?
Like you do, I believe this to be a missed opportunity. At the very least, sermons using analogies taken from well-known books might feel more relevant to the flock.
I could be wrong. It isn’t like I’ve passed your argument on to anyone else only to have them reject it. With regard to fiction, the most I’ve ever done was mention my own Christian fantasy. (I’ve stopped doing that.) I’m not sure which pastors, teachers or other church staff would be open to reading fiction, that is, short of narratives based closely on actual Bible stories. But I do believe that lack of time may be the greatest barrier. Pastor burn-out stemming from more essential duties than there is time is a real issue.
Under the Mercy, SherryT

Amy September 14, 2017 at 1:05 PM

If I’m not making “sacred” art (aka, the Pieta), then is there really any value in it? As a Christian, do I have the right to enjoy art–to go to art galleries, browse pinterest, read mystery novels–and to create art that isn’t specifically pointing to Christ? Or, as Joshua alluded to above, is the only really valuable use of my time to be out actively preaching the gospel? I’ve struggled with this question a lot lately. It makes more sense to me in the context of writing and fiction because I’ve always been a writer and it feels easier to speak the truth even in fiction (and after all, all truth is God’s truth, isn’t it?). But I’ve been wrestling with the question more now that I’m working more in the visual arts, because it sometimes feels pointless, especially in the grand scheme of eternity.

And I love theology, the study of God’s word, communal Bible study, so this isn’t necessarily a question of either/or…just that when I create art, I struggle with the belief that it’s a waste of time. But today I was reminded of Lydia, the “seller of purple,” and the woman who poured extremely expensive oil on the feet of Jesus (and it could have been spent on food for the poor); and I have to keep reminding myself that beauty and goodness and truth are valuable for their own sake and worth pursuing… because God is beautiful and when we see beauty in art it moves us to yearn for the deeper Beauty.

Thanks for wrestling with these questions! I’ve always appreciated your voice on these topics.

Joshua Gabbard September 20, 2017 at 10:55 PM

Hi Amy,

I think it will all be very clear when we are with the Lord what the best use of our time here on Earth was. Not only in light of rewards, but also the suffering and wickedness of this world, and the persecution of Gods people all over the world. If we are born again, and new creatures in Christ, there ought be a radical change. Leonard Ravenhill said that when we get to Heaven the things of Earth won’t look strangely dim, but strangely grim.

I’m not there yet, and I am not trying to put anyone down. I just see this idea of radical separation from the world as what the scripture explicitly calls us to do. I don’t think anyone could read Romans 12:1-2 and not have the same idea. If we can just explain away all of these scriptures we have missed the point entirely.

Michael September 15, 2017 at 4:25 PM

I love this article. I think if Pastors in general either do not have time, or are to scared to read a little fiction they need to find another way to serve. I would find it hard to relate to every day people if I were a pastor who spent his/her life buried in only Christian (approved) readings. What a boring person I would be!

How could I possible relate to anyone under sixty? What would I say, and how would I say it? How would I speak to a preteen or a teenager when my only source of influence came from a stodgy book, no one in my congregation except me read or cared about?

I enjoyed this post as I enjoy most of your thoughts or posts. They bring me into another world of thought, and it’s always refreshing to be introduced to new ideas. Thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: