I’m not one to worry about those aspects of modern life that threaten good old-fashioned reading. After all, even though I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 7 and though I studied English and writing in college and though I’ve spent a career as an editor and a writer, I wasn’t a big reader as a kid.
Though I did read and liked it — the click of the syntax, the weaving of sentences, the worming of images and sensations into my mind (I can still taste that peach from James and the Giant Peach) — I was never one of those bookworms who’d slink off to a favorite crook in a tree or a nook in a room. I never stayed up too late, sneaking a flashlight under my covers, desperate to find out what happened next.
And yet, I grew to be a reader. Probably because my mom read so much — taking in what seemed like huge, long books for the few free chunks of her day. She modeled a love of reading, and as I grew, I came to love it too. But it took time. So I don’t sweat it when I have to push my own kids to read and I don’t fret over the stories or studies that decry a loss of reading.
Except, it turns out, when it comes to studies that show a loss of reading fiction.
According to a new study from Barna Group, although in general most adults grab a novel over a work of non-fiction (53 percent to 45 percent), among Christian adults, the preference is decidedly for non-fiction over fiction (35 percent to 18 percent).
As a writer of non-fiction (four books and a zillion articles), I should be giddy about this statistic. But alas, I’m not. I worry about it. Especially since, according to the Barna Group, 34 percent of Christian adults say they read to “grow and develop spiritually.”
If spiritual growth is really the goal, we need fiction.
This is not to say that the books we non-fiction sorts write don’t help a person grow or develop spiritually. Where would my theology — my soul! — be without Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World or Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark or Sara Miles’ Take This Bread? Yet if spiritual growth is really the goal, we need fiction.
This is a reality that Jesus — a spinner of made-up stories if there ever was one — must have known. He must’ve realized as He told His parables what recent studies have told us: that reading fiction increases empathy. It’s through entering the minds of characters that we learn to understand motive, to agonize over choices we might never face, to become interested in others, to weep over people we’ll not only never know, but who — in real life — we might fear or disdain. Whom we might never invite to church.
It’s through reading fiction that we not only taste peaches and feel peach juice roll down our arms, but that we feel for others. It’s through reading fiction that we practice loving our neighbors and our enemies. Which is Step One (all the way through Step Infinity) in growing and developing spiritually. If you ask Jesus.
The good news about Barna’s study is that it partly focused on the Christian book market. So, perhaps Christians are reading “secular” fiction in favor of overly saccharine Christian romance novels. And that does matter, as other studies have revealed that reading literary fiction increases empathy. As Karen Swallow Prior has written at The Atlantic, “deep reading” makes us more human. “To read in this sense,” she says, “might be considered the most spiritual of all human activities.”
Indeed it is. Anyone who reads knows this. So maybe if Christians really want to grow and develop spiritually, we need to grow and develop our fiction libraries.