Culture At Large

How classic literature fosters spiritual formation

Tamara Hill Murphy

For the past couple of decades, Christians have been telling each other that engaging with popular culture makes us more relevant to our neighbors. At the very least, we’ve improved our water-cooler conversational skills. But what if a better way to be relevant to culture is to engage with the old, timeless things? The classic stories penned over millennia?

If we’re honest, we’ve known intrinsically that reading good literature is a good idea. Now, thanks to research conducted by Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, we can add quantifiable data to gut instinct. It turns out reading literature, specifically classic literary fiction, increases our capacity to empathize with others.

Earlier this month, the two researchers published findings in the journal Science connecting literary fiction and human empathy. They found that reading literary fiction - as opposed to popular fiction or nonfiction - increases our social intelligence and makes us more sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of those around us.

In his analysis of the data gathered from conducting tests on 1,000 participants, Kidd describes the theory behind higher scores for the literary fiction readers: "What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others," he wrote.

Story deeply written tells the truth and deeply read teaches us to understand others from every time and place.

I made it through high school without reading a single assigned book - literary fiction or otherwise. This is not because I was a slacker, but because no teacher ever assigned a book. I never thought this was strange until watching my children read through several assigned books a year, starting in middle school. Guess which one of us attended Christian school?

If you guessed me, you’d be correct. My parents sacrificed to give us what they hoped would be a better education. I loved my school. I met my husband at that school. But I did not meet Scout or Atticus, Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Darcy, not even Romeo or Juliet. 

We did read the Bible. I’m grateful for that sort of training, as each class curriculum was interwoven with portions of Scripture. We never, though, studied the Bible as literature, as a grand story. We never giggled at the comedy of Jesus’ hyperbolic stories or wondered at the love poems in the Old Testament. (I’m pretty sure we didn’t even read those.)

In Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner writes,

Here and there and not just in books we catch glimpses of a world of once upon a time and they lived happily ever after, of a world where there is a wizard to give courage and a heart, an angel with a white stone that has written on it our true and secret name ...But if the world of the fairy tale and our glimpses of it here and there are only a dream, they are one of the most haunting and powerful dreams that the world has ever dreamed.

Marilynne Robinson wrote an essay, “When I Was a Child I Read Books,” describing how the overloaded bookshelves of her Idaho upbringing formed her imagination as a Christian and as a writer of stories. I’d have to title my own essay “When I Was an Adult I Read Books.” It took that long for me to wake up and see this whole universe of story I’d missed.

Story deeply written tells the truth and deeply read teaches us to understand others from every time and place. We learn to know not only in our heads, as a way to gain knowledge, but somewhere deeper - our hearts. If this is true, story is just one more tool our Creator uses to bless us to bless others.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Books, Theology & The Church, Faith