Last week I sent a Google form out to the faculty and staff to collect book recommendations that I could put up around the school. The goal was to model a love of reading for our students, and also give them some ideas of things they might like.
Of the responses I got, nearly all of them were Christian books – Christian biographies, Christian self-help books, Christian fiction.
I’m not entirely sure why I was surprised; I work at a Christian school, after all. But it made me a little sad. Do my coworkers feel like they have to present a certain persona when recommending books to students? Do they genuinely believe these are books middle and high school students would be interested in? Are they really not reading anything else?
We need stories. At the very center of human existence is storytelling — it is present in every culture in some form or fashion. And yet, Christians, or at least modern American evangelical Christians, seem to have lost the desire for stories. Which is strange, considering that Jesus’s primary method of teaching was through telling stories.
I’m currently reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with my 10th grade students. It’s the story of an Ibo man, Okonkwo, who is constantly at war with himself and the world around him. This conflict only worsens when the British empire arrives. This week we’ve reached the point in the novel when Achebe presents two different Christian missionaries who come to Umuofia, Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith.
Mr. Brown approaches his mission with humility and kindness, providing services that are useful to the village, learning about the clan’s beliefs, and attempting to speak to the people in a way they would understand. He eventually falls ill and is replaced by Mr. Smith, a “different kind of man” who “saw things as black and white…as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.” He is described as being “filled with wrath” and causes serious conflict in the village.
What’s difficult for many of my students, though, is that both of these men are painted as outside invaders. They are white men, in league with the colonizing force that is enslaving and oppressing the Ibo people. Mr. Smith’s adherence to traditional color symbolism, in which black is evil and white is good, is purposeful, of course; Achebe uses it to underscore the racist worldview of the British missionaries who sought to “civilize” the African “savage.” Even Mr. Brown, with all his kindness and understanding, is a disruptive force that leads to destruction for the characters.
This portrayal of missionary work is very different from the portrayal most Christians see on Sunday morning or read about in “Christian living” books. And without books like Things Fall Apart, we risk never breaking out of our myopic view of the world, a myopic view which leads people to write things like the following:
“Missionaries go to places that the rest of us don’t. They work their way into cultures that some of us like to pretend don’t exist. And, to the best of their abilities, they try to leave that culture better than when they found it. All for the glory of God.”
I ran across this in a blog post* intended to encourage Christian teachers in their work, but was stunned by the obvious cultural superiority inherent in it. “They try to leave that culture better than when they found it”? Better according to who? Is the gospel not relevant in every culture? Or does it demand conformity to our Western sensibilities?
It’s the kind of statement I would never have questioned if I hadn’t read books like Things Fall Apart or The Poisonwood Bible, books where the Christian pastor isn’t always the perfect hero of the story, where saying a prayer doesn’t help the protagonist kick the winning field goal, where life is messy and difficult and doctrine doesn’t make it neater or easier.
I needed those stories. They forced me to confront my own assumptions and biases in a way that statistics and facts never could. They made people in far off places real and alive, not just projects to be fixed or souls to be won.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about echo chambers, about how we all live in these bubbles that just repeat back to us the things we already believe. It’s true for everyone — we tend to gravitate towards people and things that confirm what we believe to be true and reject what we consider false. We don’t like to be made uncomfortable.
But there’s another result to this — when we live in these echo chambers, we begin to speak a different language. It happens gradually and subtly, until you think this is just the language that everyone speaks and you can’t understand why someone else would misinterpret you.
I grew up in the church, and I always liked being the one who knew the answers. I could quote verses and pray the right way and say all the right things. And it never occurred to me to question this language because I knew what I meant and the people around me knew what I meant and when they spoke, I knew what they meant, too. Clearly any miscommunication that happened wasn’t our fault.
And then over the course of a few years I went from having mostly Christian friends to having mostly non-Christian friends. And y’all, we sound weird from outside the bubble.
I remember a time I was sitting in Panera, eating a delicious lunch and reading my comic books, and there were two women who appeared to be in their early 20s at the table next to me. They weren’t keeping their voices down and our tables were close together, so I could hear most of their conversation. It was full of talk about callings and leadings and waiting to hear God’s voice and the Lord’s hand being on things and it struck me how much that must sound like nonsense to anyone who isn’t part of the church.
Now, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with “Christianese”, especially when you’re having conversations with people who do understand what you’re saying. But so many Christians take that language outside of the church building, and then get frustrated when people they are trying to minister to don’t feel loved or cared for by them. They don’t realize they’re speaking a different language.
Books, and stories in particular, can help with that. Stories expose you to the way other people think and speak and see the world. They can give you the language to express that feeling you’ve always had but could never explain. They can give you common ground with people, a place to start a conversation from.
Stories teach us about things that we would never be able to experience otherwise, or that we would hope to never experience. We don’t have to agree with everything in a story in order to learn from it. We just have to willing to think critically and allow ourselves to be challenged by the story.
(side note: this is why I’ve never understood parents forbidding their children to read things that aren’t Christian or “wholesome” — books are probably the safest way for kids to learn about difficult and dangerous things. Wouldn’t you rather they read stories about teenagers doing dumb stuff, and then be able to talk to them about it and examine it from the safety of your living room then have them go try to find out about those things on their own?)
When we allow ourselves to be challenged by stories, we grow in our ability to love others. When we read The Bell Jar, we become less likely to tell someone with mental illness that they just need to pray harder. When we read If I Was Your Girl, we become better able to understand what it means to be transgender. When we read Homegoing or The Underground Railroad, we become less likely to tell black people to get over the past and move on. When we read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe or I’ll Give You the Sun, we become less likely to minimize or mischaracterize the love between LGBTQ+ people.
Stories have the power to humanize and to dehumanize. When we choose to read stories by and about people who have traditionally been dehumanized, we push back just a little against the forces of oppression and destruction in our world. It allows us to hear their voices in their language, to learn what they value and care about, and to see the world, and also ourselves, through their eyes.
I realize that most of what I’ve talked about so far revolves around being challenged and made uncomfortable by fiction. If I left it there, I would be doing you a huge disservice.
We should also read fiction because it is fun.
So many Christians think that if something is fun, it is a waste of time. Fun can be a byproduct, or you can have fun while also doing something purposeful, but fun just for the sake of fun? Not allowed.
My friends, if that is what you believe, you are missing out on the abundant life (oh look, I can still speak Christianese sometimes :) ).
We are made in the image of God, and the very first thing we learn about God is that God created.** God made things that are beautiful and terrifying and hilarious and weird. If we are made in God’s image, then we are also creators. It seems to me that logically, we would also be made to enjoy things that we and others have created.
Think about a little kid drawing a picture or building something — doing something creative. What do they do when they finish? Do they just sit there feeling accomplished? No — they beg everyone they can find to come look at this thing they made! And their joy in creating is deepened and widened by the other person enjoying the creation.
We are made for joy. Galatians does not list duty or efficiency as the fruit of the spirit, but it does list joy. Stories, in all their forms, are fun and can bring us great joy. They can be beautiful or terrifying or hilarious or weird or a combination of all of those things. They can make us laugh or make us cry. They remind us of fond memories and old friends. They give us hope — that love can conquer all, that evil will be defeated, that one person really can make a difference.
Stories reflect back to us all the messy, glorious, difficult, quiet, frustrating, and magical parts of life and remind us how lucky we are to be alive right now.
So go read a book, or a comic book, or a poem. Or if reading really just isn’t your thing, go watch a movie, or a play, or a ballet. Or listen to that one album that makes you feel alive. And if you can’t think of anything that makes you feel that way, ask a friend to share their favorites with you. I’d be happy to give you some recommendations, if you’d like.
* Read that blog post here, if you want.
**My pastor, Jonathan McIntosh, was the first person I ever heard say this, and I will be forever grateful for it.