Fiction Matters

Fiction matters? I mean, really? A glance at the news headlines say that raising the US debt limit matters, that Norway’s reaction to the mass killings in their country matters, that Syrian tank attacks on one of their own cities matter, that Turkey’s impending appointment of military chiefs matters, and on the list goes.

But fiction? It matters, the headlines say, in the sense that a certain movie based on a popular literary series about a boy wizard has already earned over a billion dollars worldwide.

Does it matter, though, in any kind of substantive sense — beyond the few hours of pleasure it yields to those who consume it and the dollars it brings those who produce it?

I think fiction has always mattered — from the earliest oral renderings to the elaborate visual productions we enjoy today.

Stories preserve culture. The people of Israel were given the Passover as a rite to repeat year after year so their children would ask about the exodus and the adults would once again tell the story of God’s deliverance. Of course that’s not an example of fiction, but made up stories reflect the culture and its values. Hence one generation uses stories to pass to the next what is important for them to know and believe.

Stories also introduce ideas. For good or for ill, one way people learn new things is through stories. Sometimes we learn about new places and people; sometimes we learn about new ways to sin, things we wouldn’t have thought of before.

Through stories our perspectives change. One thing that defeats prejudice, for example, is reading a story about a Civil War era slave who loves his family and God and who sacrifices his own well-being for others.

In this vein, stories impart values — ones that are consistent with the norm or that challenge common thinking.

Because of the uniqueness of stories, they are perhaps more powerful than any other form of communication — they show rather than merely telling.

Any number of preachers could say, love your neighbor. But Jesus told a story showing a man risking his own well-being for and giving his own provisions to someone who most likely hated him. Those who first heard the story, and all of us since, have a clear picture to use as a touchstone for what it means to love our neighbor.

Where the Red Fern Grows, The Yearling, Old Yeller — stories like these give middle grade readers examples of young people making hard choices and growing up through their tough circumstances.

The Lord of the Rings shows readers the importance of standing for good against evil. Pride and Prejudice shows the need to defeat both of the title vices. The Count of Monte Cristo shows characters grappling with justice, hope, vengeance, mercy, and forgiveness.

Stories have the power to ennoble us. They can put a mirror in front of our faces and show us as others see us. They can encourage us in the way we’re going or show us an alternate path.

Stories matter — to the culture and also to each reader. Now it’s up to us to read well.

Published in: on August 1, 2011 at 6:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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