At church this evening, I spent some time talking with Scott, an M.Div. student at my school, about literature and theology. (I’m aware now there many are deeply interested in this topic. This isn’t just my pet.) One thing that came up in our conversation, which is what I can’t stop mulling over, is how literature does one of two things: it can either help us escape from reality or it can help shape our reality.
Stories are safe places. They have boundaries. If you don’t like a story, you can put it down. If you love a story, you can make it your life.
When I was in middle school, I used books as an escape from the loneliness, fear, and awkwardness of my tween years. This girl, Inesa, used to pick on me constantly, so at lunch I hid behind my copy of The Outsiders. She kept talking to me, trying to rile me up, but I ignored her with my paperback. Ponyboy’s life crisis seemed bigger than mine.
Similarly throughout high school, I hid an open book behind a stack of textbooks on my desk so I could read through Algebra, Biology, and Spanish class. Instead of finding what could be interesting about those subjects, I coasted by just looking engaged. But I was really more interested in my fiction stories.
Even now there are times I get so absorbed in fiction that I forget reality exists. Or if I experience reality again, it’s through the tinted lenses of fiction. I get frustrated with my real-life friends and family because a book character did something awful. I’ve abused my boyfriend for the sins of Rabbit Angstrom.
Fiction–whether that’s television, movies, or books–can damage. They can keep you fearful, disengaged, antisocial.
But books can also call forth life.
I’m convinced that literature has the potential to shape reality into something beautiful. Fiction lets you see into the life of another person and empathize with them. You can know drug dealers, slave owners, Bible-thumpers, 1920s flappers; you learn to empathize even with the cruelest of characters. And fiction helps you see yourself (and others) in those cruel characters–but also in the heroes.
Fiction shows us how to take action. When we aren’t ready to forgive, Scott reminded me, a character shows us how. We gain the strength to create beauty, to reconcile, to overcome, through the actions of characters.
Maybe fiction does both of these simultaneously. Maybe we need an escape from reality to enter into an even greater reality. Maybe we need to escape in stories to join in an even Greater Story, one that’s often forgotten in our ho-hum days of eat, drink, sleep.