Discipled through Books
Should reading fiction play a significant role in a Christian's life? If you asked me this question as a child, my answer wholeheartedly would have been, yes. I loved stories. My family bonded over books, and we have many sweet memories of reading aloud together. From an early age, I had watched my mom sitting on our couch with a warm mug of tea and a book in her hand. I’m from a large family, and our house was always noisy and full- a little chaotic at times. Mom would read as we played, patiently stopping to let us peer over her shoulder at the book she was reading. I believe watching mom read, with all the noise and chaos of so many children around her, made a significant impression on me as a child. It showed me the value and gift of stories. From the way that mom made time for reading, and the way that she shared it with us, I knew that it was important. And I believe that God used books to form and shape my character, to speak to me about truth and beauty, and to draw me closer to Him at this time.
Somewhere I had picked up a skewed view of what it meant to be holy. I thought that if I made myself good enough and sinless, I would be worthy of God.
But, if you had asked me this question in my early adult years, my answer would have been, no. In my early 20s, I had a crisis of faith. I had made a profession of faith at an early age, and I had a tender heart for the work of Christ. But, like many children who make an early confession of faith, my walk with God consisted of imitating my parents. When I was in my late teens, I decided that I wanted to stop imitating and make my faith my own. But what started as an innocent and heartfelt desire soon spiraled out of control into a life of self-righteousness and perfectionism. Somewhere I had picked up a skewed view of what it meant to be holy. I thought that if I made myself good enough and sinless, I would be worthy of God. I began to divide the world into the sacred and the secular. I gave up many books, movies, and music that I loved because I thought they were too worldly. I started my early 20s miserable. Outwardly I seemed happy and like I had always been, but inside I was broken and hurting.
During this time, a friend went to study at L'Abri Fellowships. L’Abri is a Christian study center founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer. It’s a place where students can ask honest questions about their faith. His stories inspired me to go. I don't know if I expressed it in words, but I thought I might find answers to my dilemma at L'Abri. So, I saved up enough money for airfare and to stay six weeks and left for Switzerland. When I landed at Zurich airport, I took a series of trains and buses, until I arrived at the tiny mountain village of Huemoz. Through my jet lag and the cool mountain air of the early spring day, I disembarked from the bus, wheeling my heavy bag across the street, and was plunged into the world of L’Abri ready or not. I was completely out of my depth, a fish out of water, yet enamored with the world around me. Here was a place to think and contemplate, where you could be surrounded by conversation, or slip away quietly if you needed time alone to pray and be still. When the time came for the spring term to end, I wasn’t ready to leave. And so, I stayed for another term, thanks to the generosity of family and L'Abri.
When the summer term started, I was asked to tea by a woman who had been at L’Abri since the founding. She lived nearby in a chalet that gave her privacy and a little seclusion from the daily goings-on of L’Abri. Tea with her was an invitation extended to only a few L’Abri students, and I was sure as we sat there, making awkward conversation that she would never ask me again. She must think I’m so dull, I thought. We sat in the kitchen of her small chalet, comfortably disorganized and homey, bookshelves filled with books, and drank our tea as I tried to explain why I had come to L’Abri. I gave some feeble answer, hoping I sounded erudite and sophisticated, barely meeting her eyes and staring hard at the rapidly cooling milky tea I held in my hands, unable to put into words why I had come, unaware of the reason myself. Soon my tea grew as cold as the conversation grew stilted. By some miraculous intervention, the conversation turned to books, and the stilted conversation began to flow. I stopped worrying if I sounded intellectual or erudite, and I gushed, as I usually do when the topic turns to books. As we continued to talk, she told me about her favorite book, To the Lighthouse, went to her bookshelf, and handed it to me. “Read it,” she told me, “and we’ll discuss it when you come to tea next week.” And this simple act of placing a book in my hand, of carving out space for me to talk about books, of permitting stories, fictional stories, no less, as valid and important in the Christian's walk, changed my life. We continued to meet for tea throughout the summer, the conversation returning to books, and usually ending with another book being placed into my hands.
One day I happened to mention how much I loved a miniseries adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd. She had a worn paperback copy that she let me borrow. I toted it around with me everywhere until I had finished reading it. I would retreat to my favorite spot overlooking the valley -- my spot for journaling, thinking, and praying -- to read and fall more in love with silent, loyal Gabriel Oake. My study time slowly evolved into listening to lectures on writers and artists, Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter, and someone I would soon discover for the first time, Dorothy Sayers. It was as if I could finally hear from God that this act of reading fiction was good and that it had a place in a Christian's life. Everywhere I went, I tucked away the books people talked about; my brain became a spider’s web of book recommendations. It had been so long since I had read fiction, and I didn’t remember everything that was out there. A casual question about a scarf a student was knitting finally convinced me to read Harry Potter. “This is my Gryffindor scarf,” she explained, flabbergasted that I didn’t recognize the maroon and gold colors immediately. “I’m going to wear it for the new book release.” So, adults were reading Harry Potter; I marveled; it was like permission for me.
I needed stories to restore joy, to understand humanity, and to see how God is present in a broken world.
That summer will forever be one of the richest times of my life. It was as if I was discovering books and stories for the first time. For the longest time I thought my friend at L’Abri had humored me talking about books, because surely I wasn’t smart enough to carry on conversations about the more intellectual topics of the other students, but I have begun to believe now, with maturity on my side, that instead, she was aware of my unspoken need for books and stories in my life. Perceptive of my interests, she fostered and helped shape them during our teas. I was an unhappy girl, bound by legalism and the compulsion to perfect herself, unaware of how to receive grace. I believe that she saw this and helped me understand what I couldn't see, that I needed stories to restore joy, to understand humanity, and to see how God is present in a broken world.
When I came back from L’Abri, I read. I read about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harry Potter and the works of Gerald Durrell and Willa Cather. They became my new companions and dearest friends bringing with them bravery, truth, and humor into my life. This time of voracious reading and these books helped shape who I am as a woman to this day. God was quietly and gently at work, weaving these stories into my life, carefully unpicking the knot of legalism. Stories have allowed me to see the mysteries of God--something legalism can never do. And at a time when I was steeped in self-righteousness, and a vicious cycle of perfectionism, God, used books to remind me of His truth, His grace, and His redemption.
I believe that stories are grace and mercy given to us by God to speak truth into our lives.
So, should books play a role in a Christian's life? I believe that stories play a vital role in the Christian life. I believe that stories are grace and mercy given to us by God to speak truth into our lives. Stories are not perfect. We should read with discernment. They are written by fallible men and women, but God uses even these to speak truth and to instruct us. We have only to look through the pages of our Bibles, or our own lives, to see this. In my life, I’ve found that books have helped guide me to a closer walk with God. While lost in the pages of a book, I have had moments of deep conviction, spoken prayers of repentance, and stood in awe at the greatness of our Creator.
Beth Jamieson is the host of A Well Read Life Podcast. She lives with her little family-husband, infant daughter, and handsome border collie, in small-town Georgia. She enjoys a good cup of Earl Grey, baking bread, and talking about books to anyone who will listen. You can find her on Instagram at WellReadBeth.