Friday, March 17, 2023

The Purpose of Story

Why do we read story?

The reasons are probably as numerous as the people who enjoy story. For some of us read to be entertained, to be occupied by something fascinating or interesting or novel. Some of us read to escape, to leave behind for a short time the difficult world we occupy. Others of us want certain emotions to be evoked—fear or thrill, delight or wonder, satisfaction or simply the feeling of being loved. Still others read for nostalgia, for education, for comfort, for hope, for answers, for encouragement, for a new perspective. The list could go on and on.

None of these reasons for reading are wrong. None of them are bad or evil. There is a place for every single one of them. But recently I was pondering the ultimate purpose of story. Not merely why I read and write them, but why I should read and write them as a Christian.

The conclusion I reached shocked me with its simplicity and obviousness:

“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31 NASB, emphasis mine)

Last time I checked, reading story would be included in “whatever.” When we read, we are to read to the glory of God.

Of course, that immediately raises the question, “How?” How do I read to the glory of God? And the answer to that, I found, was equally familiar and foundational as the first:

37 And [Jesus] said to him, "'YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.' 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39The second is like it, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' 40On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40, NASB)

Love God. Love neighbor. This is how we glorify God. All other commands, rules, instructions, and principles recorded in Scripture expound upon how we do these two things.

Now on the surface, that may sound very constricting. Does that mean we can only read Christian fiction or stories with a clear moral of the story? On the contrary. These two commands have so much latitude that they provide immense freedom:

Story can bring us to a place of worship or confession. It can increase our understanding of God’s character, whether implicitly or explicitly. It can inspire greater obedience. It can lead us to salvation or renew the wonder of the salvation that is already ours. It can refresh our spirit so we are more ready to handle whatever God sends our way in the real world. It can spark thanksgiving for God’s good gifts. It can remind us of His promises or encourage us to persevere in our faith. All of these help us to love God more fully with our whole being.

Story can also help us love our neighbor better: It can broaden our perspective of the world around us. It can warn us of the devastating consequences of sin. It can allow us to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. It can challenge us in the way we treat people—Christian and non-Christian, those like us and those unlike us. It can deepen our compassion. It can spur generosity. It can generate conversation about hard topics. It can show us what we share in common with people throughout the ages and around the world—and how we can celebrate our differences. It can provide examples of how each of us has a gift to contribute and how every part of the Body of Christ is important.

And those two lists are nowhere exhaustive. Rather, they are just a small sampling of the many possibilities. The ways story can help fulfill the two greatest commands are as numerous as the people who write and read them.

Moreover, there’s no stipulation on the type of story that can fulfill these commands. Not all stories will do so, and many stories may contain more content that leads away from proper love for God and neighbor than toward it. So yes, we must be careful and exercise discernment. But nearly every type of story has the potential to stir up our love: Books by Christians and books by non-Christians; genres of every stripe—historicals, thrillers, fantasies, mysteries, science-fiction, romance, etc.: clean books and edgy books; serious reads and reads brimming with humor; fast-paced action and contemplative, meandering prose; classics and modern; books for children and books for adults; the light and the thick; the escapist and the thought-provoking. In fact, I would contest that we need so many types of books because each type reveals different aspects of how we can love God and love our neighbor.

So read for entertainment and escapism. Read for instruction and nostalgia. Read for thrill and delight. But also read to fulfill your ultimate purpose—to glorify God by learning to love Him with your whole being and to love others as yourself.  

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