I was signing books at a Christian conference when a woman wandered by and picked up my novel.
“What’s it about?” she asked.
“It’s a fantasy adventure for ages ten and up,” I replied.
She hesitated. “So, it’s—it’s fiction?”
I smiled and nodded, ready to continue the conversation.
It didn’t happen.
“I do not read fluff!” She flung the book back onto the table and marched away.
I was stunned.
If she’d said, “I’m not a fiction person,” or “I’m not into fantasy,” I would have understood.
But she didn’t. She said that she doesn’t read “fluff.”
I suppose I could have asked her to define fluff, but my guess is that her answer would have confirmed what the editor of a Christian publishing house told me: Many Christians believe that reading fiction is a waste of time.
That thought saddens me. All fiction is a waste of time? Some is, for sure, and we each have our own list of what’s not good for us to read, but all fiction is a waste of time. Useless? Fluff? Wow.
Eugene Petersen didn’t think so. Petersen was a pastor for many years, then a seminary professor. He’s the author of multiple non-fiction books. In his introduction to Exodus, he said,
It is significant that God does not present us with salvation in the form of an abstract truth, or a precise definition or a catchy slogan, but as story. Exodus draws us into a story with plot and characters, which is to say, with design and personal relationships. Story is an invitation to participate, first through our imagination and then, if we will, by faith—with our total lives in response to God.
In an interview with Mars Hill, he said that if he were to start a seminary, the students would spend the first two years studying literature:
Even now, in all my courses, students read poetry and novels…The importance of poetry and novels is that the Christian life involves the use of the imagination, after all, we are dealing with the invisible. And, imagination is our training in dealing with the invisible, making connections, looking for plot and character. I don’t want to do away with or denigrate theology or exegesis, but our primary allies in this business are the artists. I want literature to be on par with those other things. They need to be brought in as full partners in this whole business. The arts reflect where we live, we live in narrative, we live in story. We don’t live as exegetes.1
If I had it to do over again, I’d lead off by telling my fluff-hater that my story is about friendship. About choices. That our choices have weight. That we need each other. How can that be fluff?
I’d tell her that I write for the 10 and up crowd because there are questions from that age that I still haven’t finished sorting out. Things like what I believe and why. Questions about belonging. At age fifteen, I was dropped into a foreign culture where I didn’t speak the language. What does it mean to belong in that context? How do you even begin? The question of what it means to belong has continued as I’ve lived almost all of my adult life in a language and culture that is not mine. Or is mine by adoption. Perhaps that’s why I wrote a portal fantasy. Like the characters in those stories, I was thrust into a new world and had to muddle through as best I could.
If the woman gave me the chance, I’d go on to tell her about some of the fiction that has influenced, challenged and shaped me.
Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis would be at the top of the list. I read it for the first time in my 20’s and have read it seven or eight times since then. It has shaped my understanding and experience of God more than any other book outside the Bible.
The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin was a friend when my husband and I were going through a difficult situation in our faith community. The images and metaphors in Le Guin’s stories didn’t solve any of our problems, but they helped me understand and move forward with hope.
The list could go on, but I’ll stop there and open it up to comments. I would love to hear how fiction has helped, encouraged, and shaped you.