Why Reading Fiction Isn’t a Waste of Time

There was a great post over at Desiring God recently reflecting on why J.R.R. Tolkien, the famous author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, didn’t “waste his life” by writing fanciful stories (some might say “escapist fiction,” a waste of time for heavenly-minded Christians). I highly commend the article to you.

But the writing of fiction is not what I’m concerned with here. I’m rather interested in the reading.

Is Reading Fiction a Waste of (Precious) Time?

After all, there is much gospel work to be done in the world and so little time to do it. Why waste your time reading fiction? We might say, “At least read some theology” or “At least read periodicals so you can better relate to the current world around you.”

I won’t labor on with hypothetical rambling. My simple answer is, “Yes, read fiction.”

Here’s why:

When reading fiction you enter into the world from somebody else’s perspective entirely. You are treated to the authors world: perhaps mid-20th century British academic culture in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy or the fields of the battle of Gettysburg in Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. You are also treated to the perspective of the characters these authors create: you walk in their shoes, experience all they experience, and you experience it inside and out (yes, I’m stoked for Pixar’s next film).

Brief side note: watching movies can have a similar effect with less strain on your time, but entering into the mind of a character in a movie is more difficult (and rarely pulled off well), hence the general disdain for book-movie adaptions.

“But You Haven’t Experienced Enough of Life!”

One of the unavoidable difficulties of beginning anything is that you don’t have much experience yet. Duh.

Often times as a pastor it is difficult to relate to people of different generations, the opposite sex, different ethnic groups, or simply people who “haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through.” My wife and I know the pain of this all too well when well-meaning people have said silly things to us when we lost our first child (in the womb). They had not experienced what we had.

Enter fiction.

Sure, you might not have been in a war and do not know the real pain a devastation it wreaks in the life of the veteran you’ve been given to shepherd. Read fictional, historical, or biographical accounts from veterans (or good authors/historians) and you can begin to come alongside and bear the weight of the veteran.

Have you ever lost a child, been depressed, been a house wife, been black in the segregated south, been black in 2014 America, or faced a life or death situation? If you answer no to any of those questions then there is a book with your name on it, waiting for you to enter into the mind of the other to better know their grief, joy, worldview, or trauma. (I’ve written elsewhere about the real benefits of narrative)

Fiction helps you step outside yourself so that you might better know yourself, the people you rub shoulders with every day, and the God who knows the depths of our hearts and still loves us.

Reading fiction isn’t a waste of time. Our Lord left his throne and entered into our world to bear all of our heavy burdens. With fiction, we can begin to do the same.


Faithfulness & Greener Grass

The tendency of every person on God’s green earth is over-realize their eschatology. That’s a fancy way of saying, “The grass is always greener on the other side.”

Whether your future green pasture is the perfect next job or the next phase of development for your child, we are in the business of putting our hope for a better tomorrow in any other hand than our Sovereign Joy.

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Matthew 6:31-34

We are double-souled people whom always need reminders to receive again the good news that the only single-souled Man to ever walk this cosmic orb holds all things in his hand.

This is the daily discipline of being faithful in the work the Lord has given you and to rejoice that our Benevolent King is not in the business of giving us stones when we ask for bread, no matter how much our daily bread might seem like one of Hagrid’s rock cakes. Indeed, all is not yet right in this land, but our Lord is making all things new every time we cast all our cares at his feet.

The Joy & Angst of Advent

As we eagerly await the coming of Christmas day we are reminded again of the longing of Israel for a king to come again to the throne of David. In the present, we long for our Lord and Christ to return again and set things to right. Sometimes that might mean working at your dream job or the day in and day out, faithful labor of child-rearing through every inconceivable challenge of child development.

The grass might not be greener on the other side of tonight’s restless night sleep, but take heart Christian, the grass in the eschaton will be indescribably soft as you forever walk up into the high mountains of the glory of God in Christ.

Be faithful today in despair and in joy, knowing that all minor keys will resolve to the major on that glorious day.


On Being Human

I’ve only just begun reading Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, The Killer Angels. In my short time reading this novel I’ve been confronted with a gut-wrenching reality.

Take The Time

At the end of chapter 1, Robert E. Lee, general of the Confederate (Southern) army is in conversation with James Longstreet, a lieutenant general and now close friend. Lee did not “own slaves nor believe in slavery” yet he still led the South in battle.  He was by all accounts a quiet and humble man whom desired to honor God with his life.

Michael Shaara clearly spent considerable time reading and researching for this novel, and in the process has written a story filled with human beings, not caricatures or hagiographical saints. I am again inspired to take the time getting to know people, even someone I might consider to be among the worst human beings alive.

Shaara’s Lee is not a man that I can easily despise as a privileged, 2014 white American, in my “righteous” disgust of my country’s deplorable past.

And that’s exactly the point, I think: if you take the time to know, truly get to know, another human being you cannot easily despise them.

  • Take the time to get to know the woman who loudly advocates for Planned Parenthood and I trust you’ll find a person filled with pain, contradiction, love, joy, and regrets.
  • Take the time to get to know the young black kid who hides behind a false masculinity and rage, and also desires to live, love, and be at peace with his family, friends, and neighbors.
  • Take the time to get to know the token conservative-old-white-guy who cannot seem to resist the urge to FWD every Obama-bashing email that assaults his inbox.
  • Take the time to get to know the gay man who lives across the street with his partner and I’m certain you’ll find a delightful creation.

Take the time, and I know you’ll find human beings that are more complex than their rhetoric, more intricate than their stereotype, and more beautiful than you can imagine.


“Conversion of the Imagination”

I was tipped off to this lovely phrase, “the conversion of the imagination,”  in Scot McKnight’s excellent book, The King Jesus Gospel, whilst on a run this morning. It is amazing how you process a book differently on multiple read-throughs, this being my 3rd time through Scot’s book. This time, the phrase assaulted me like a shot across the bow.

After returning home from my run, I stopped my audiobook, and promptly found the reference in the book. Lo and behold, it is a quote from the always-enlightening Richard Hays, and now his book is tops on my to-read list: The Conversion of the Imagination.

The phrase flows fluidly in Scot’s argument and I was again encouraged and reminded of the gospel’s creative, aesthetic, and imaginative power.

A Concluding Thought: Top 10 Book Lists

My lovely bride was intimidated by the recent trend of Top 10 Book Lists going around Facebook, because her favs didn’t include N.T. Wright, Francis Chan, or John Piper. She loves a good story and her favorites are filled with gems like The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and (gasp!) various works of Stephanie Meyer… the (amazing) list goes on. But she should not be ashamed. Here’s why…

Roughly 75% of the Bible is narrative. We humans speak through story: whether the story of a friend, a powerful movie, or good ‘ole fashioned books. Didactic arguments, letters, and treatises have their place; indeed, this post commends highly 2 of these kinds of work. However…

Our imaginations are in need of more and more “conversion” today, and I’m convinced that reading more stories, both intra- and extra- canonical stories, is the way to go.

There’ll be more (and better) thoughts from Hays on this topic in the near future.

What imagine you, dear reader?


Anatomy of Self-Defense

Righteous and Wicked Defense

When is it okay for a Christian to defend themselves?

Is their a difference between defending oneself against physical attack and slander?

After all, isn’t self-defense an inalienable right?

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

The 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

And what about Jesus, doesn’t he get a say?

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-42

I want to do more than simply tell you “it’s okay to defend your family” or the opposite, “to be a Christian we should obey Matthew 5:28-42 without another thought”… you know, because “I said so” or “it’s in the Bible, duh” are super-persuasive arguments. Rather…

I want to give reason to why any action is righteous or wicked and how that applies to self-defense.

First: A Christian’s Foundation

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.

Matthew 7:1-2

To be Christian is to say that I am not the final authority any longer. Not my will but Thy will.

When Satan casts judgments upon the Christian, heaping guilt upon their shoulders, they respond, “You are right. I am guilty as charged. But I do not despair, for Christ died my death and my life is no longer my own, it is His.”

In Christ, condemnation is swept away and we no longer vainly pursue self-justification. Further, we need not defend ourselves from any man for we are forever free from the second death.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:19-21

So what do we do with self-defense?

With everything I’ve already said above, should a Christian conceal-carry?

Before we answer any question like this we must first answer this:

Is this action for my good or for the good of another?

Why does Jesus tell us not to defend our own person? We do not need to, nor can we, save ourselves. God is judge. He is mighty to save. We are secure in Christ. To follow after Christ, to be a Christian, means to testify to his life, death, and resurrection. One way in which we’re called to proclaim the good news of the justifying Jesus is by turning the other cheek, just as our Lord did.

But again, what about police officers or soldiers? What about civilians and conceal-carry permits?

Here are a few steps (principles) for discerning between a righteous and wicked defense:

1. We are not God

As soon as we begin to consciously act as if we are instruments of God’s justice, than it is no longer a just war we are fighting, it is a Holy War. It is no longer defending others from danger, but it is to subvert the justice of God for my own “justice” (Matthew 7:1,2).

I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds—wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine—I become insufferable. The pretence that when England’s cause is just we are on England’s side—as some neutral Don Quixote might be—for that reason alone, is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it. If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 29.

The first step in discerning whether self-defense is righteous or wicked is to crucify the belief that, “I am good, I am moral, I am on the side of God.”

2. Defend the helpless

If you slap me in the face, by God’s grace I will turn to you the other cheek. If you slap my wife or infant son in the face, you will quickly feel the just wrath of a husband or father.

Is your impulse one of rage or vengeance? Does your life testify to your own glory, which you lord over others with smug self-righteous “authority?”

Authorities: When a police officer or soldier is serving and protecting others, defending innocent persons from wicked persons, he is a just instrument of God for the good of others (Romans 13:1-5). When he is out to defend “me and mine,” or to rule over others as a “Peacekeeper,” we can be nearly sure that he acts wickedly. Like any person in any circumstance, we swerve in and out of righteous and wicked motivations. Throw in the nerves of a life-and-death situation and this distinction can be very difficult to discern. Governments are always intermingling the just and unjust, and we must all of us be very careful when we wield any “power,” whether over a nation, a city, or a congregation.

Civilians: When a person with a conceal-carry permit acts as a vigilante and cries out for “my rights” at every turn, we can be nearly sure that a wicked motive is not far behind. But, if a man or woman, seeking to protect others, whether their family or “people” as a whole; if that man or woman carries a firearm, then we are on the path towards righteousness. Again, we swerve in and out of righteous and wicked motivations, so me must guard against a false transcendence: “I am the neighborhood watch and it is up to me, and me alone, to protect society from this hooded thug.” Further, Christ did not give the sword to persons but to governments. We must be on guard, but not against wicked people in society. We guard against our wicked heart and our tendency (yours and mine) to serve my own good.

A Brief Aside on Slander

When someone slanders (verbally attacks) you, when a malicious gossip wreaks havoc in your church, should we speak up or turn the other cheek for the glory of Christ?

If you’re out to defend “my honor,” or to “set the record straight,” or to “let truth be out,” or you are seeking to defend your “God-given authority;” you are surely on a slippery slope. But, if you are out to defend against wolves in your midst, to protect your congregation from wicked gossip, bickering, and spite, or to defend the honor of Christ and his Bride; if you are defending others, if you are defending the glory of The Other, then continue on, righteous defender.

Concluding thoughts

I purposely did not come out on record with a “Yes” or “No” on self-defense. To take another human life is never good. But every action, whether lifting our hands in “praise” to God or killing another person, can be righteous or wicked, and hopefully I’ve helped in some small way to discern the difference.



The Narratives We Consume

There are two ways that we can be affected by the narratives we consume; watching movies/shows, reading books, or talking to and sharing with others.

1. Benefit

To see someone struggle with depression, the loss of a loved one, or overcome (or be consumed by) a traumatic life event can be an exercise in processing.

In life, we seem to process events in our own lives with hindsight and can rarely process the present in helpful ways. Other narratives, whether the experience of a friend, a movie, or your favorite book, can help us process life on-the-fly. This is why good friends (flesh & blood alongside authors), see Hosea, John, J.K., and Crowe, can bring life to our souls in the midst of the troughs of life.

2. Destroy

To see someone struggle with depression, loss, or any other of the myriad tragic narratives in life can also tear us down. This destruction can be caused by (1) our own vantage point, or (2) the author’s false view of what brings life.

One need not look far to see voyeuristic, masochistic, and life-draining narratives. It is not necessarily the subject matter per se that can destroy us, but the interpretation or direction the narrative flows. Does this narrative bring life to my relationships? Does the escape of this story bring me back to my story (life) with renewed energy for the day or despair and longing to pack my bags? Does this author inspire the double-love of God and man, or is the “love” portrayed destructive?

A Brief Aside: Post-apocalyptic

One shining example, ever present before our eyes, is the always-expanding post-apocalyptic genre, which can either point us towards a healthy resolution of man’s darkest tendencies, or it can point us to despair and hopelessness (I’m fully aware that even this has redeeming qualities, but my experience says that only a very small few perceive the silver lining).

Be an active reader; don’t simply consume or be swept away in the telling.

Authors either point us in the direction of life, towards the good of others, towards the security of marital love (either by uplifting marriage or depicting the destruction of giving yourself to anyone/everyone), towards confession rather than bottling; really, anyone who turns us away from ourselves in all our brokenness (our present darkness), and turns us to the joys of family, healthy relationships, and to the Source of all pleasure and satisfaction.

Filter out the dross, what will fade away. But by all means, read and be filled!


Gay Pride, Michael Brown, & The Image of God

We’ve all been at the checkout and have seen been the somebody that “forgot their wallet.”

A few months ago I bought $30 or $40 dollars of gas for a young African American, college-age kid, because he lost his wallet.

We were both in between cities at a rural gas station. He was traveling with his mom and two other adults, all of whom I met and prayed with. They were very kind and beautiful human beings.

I was skeptical when two of the other adults paid cash for food inside. To my shame, even before this, I remember being skeptical, and the whole time feeling terrible that I felt this way.

“Am I being scammed?”

“Am I just another sucker?”


Assuming the best

A common refrain in our household and a way in which we process conversations, situations, and life in general is by asking this question: “Was I assuming the best of the other person?”

  • Was my wife taking out the trash to shame me because I should’ve done it hours ago, or was she gladly lending a helping hand when I didn’t do my job?
  • Was my 3 year old son scheming with all sorts of wicked intentions to get what he wanted, or was he living moment-by-moment making decisions and made a mistake (like all 3 year olds)?
  • Was this young black kid honestly in need of assistance, or was he lying for dishonest gain?

We have found that assuming the best of people is good for the soul. Yes, we are orthodox Christians who believe in original sin, and yes, we also believe in giving everyone the benefit or the doubt.

What’s Gay Pride have to do with Michael Brown?

One beautiful, life-giving development through the last few decades of the gay rights movement has been that our culture defaults to not looking at over-the-top homosexual people as freaks. Those with level heads within the Church today are crying out for Christians to see the image of God imprinted on the face of each and every person they see (Matthew 25:31ff), no matter how outlandish you perceive them to be. Everyone has a story, everyone has deep pain and insecurity, and every person on the planet is wicked without the cross of Jesus.

I do not care to open up the bag of worms of whether or not normalization of homosexuality is a good thing or a bad thing. But not looking at other human beings as freaks should always be celebrated by anyone who confesses Christ.

And this is where Ferguson and Michael Brown intersect with Gay Pride. I am not equating the civil rights movement with the gay rights movement. That’s another discussion entirely. (See hereheread nauseam)

The image of God in a full-body-painted, nearly nude parade marcher gives them dignity and worth beyond compare. The same holds true for Michael Brown and every black kid anywhere.

I’m not making judgments about the police officer’s motive, justifiable/unjustifiable action, or his character. But as a culture, put me right smack dab in the center of it, we assume the worst of black men. Throw in a 6’4″ 300 lb frame and being on “the wrong side of town” and you have a Molotov cocktail for disaster. (Ask me about the last time I was in Birmingham, Alabama, and I will confess my sin to you)

There is nothing freakish, thuggish, or threatening about being black and my hope is we will one day look upon the Michael Brown’s everywhere, from cradle to grave, as yet another beautiful reflection of God’s handiwork.

To walk down any street within every city in America and to the assume the best of every person, whether they’re black and wearing a hoody or marching down main street clothed in rainbows; this is my hope and prayer today. The streets of gold will reflect this glorious reality, and my prayer is let it be so here on earth as it is in heaven.

Call me naïve, I don’t really care.


No More Justice

Every person on the planet agrees that #Ferguson is a mess. Red and yellow, black and white; we all want resolution.

Every person on the planet wants justice.

But why is appealing for justice so unsatisfying and divisive?

Justice is far from us

Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.

We grope for the wall like the blind; we grope like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among those in full vigor we are like dead men.

Isaiah 59:9-10

Much of the judgment of Israel, indeed nearly all of the judgment (whether by God or man) on the Church, has been because of a lack of justice/mercy towards outsiders. Outsiders feel the sting of being outside whether we are just or not, and Christians have often (purposefully or not) exacerbated this problem.

One way to quickly exacerbate outsiders are with appeals to justice. On a relational, i.e. emotionally satisfying, level of communication, appeals to justice only scratch the surface of conversation. (Read this whole article re: levels of communication)

Why are appeals for justice so unsatisfying?

A proposal: stop appealing for justice

This brief argument depends upon a certain definition of justice. Justice, more than simply “just behavior or treatment,” taps into a deeper longing. Indeed,

Justice is the desire for “all things to be set right.”

This is why appeals to justice are unsatisfying.

Many of my white friends are consistently (if not exclusively) appealing to justice in #Ferguson. Justice is: the officers justifiable fear/response, the dozens of corroborating witnesses, the eyewitness videos, autopsies, etc.

Many of my black friends are consistently appealing for justice in #Ferguson. Justice is: not turning a blind eye to yet another death of a young black man by police, use of deadly force against an unarmed man, lack of true accountability for police officers, and the ongoing excessive and unwise use of military-style (not military) policing in law enforcement.

Neither of the end games here “set all things to right.” There is still another slain young black boy. This cannot be set right. There is still racial tension and unrest. I fear this Babelish wickedness too will always plague the human race. There is still an officer and his family in hiding: guilty until proven innocent, and even then still guilty in the eyes of everyone who remembers his face.

So stop all the partisan and ethnically-blind appeals for justice. Pray for authorities to find a silver-lining and judge wisely. Pray for and listen to “the other” community and feel their pain, know and hear their angst. Let’s stop peddling facts as the final and only relevant level of communication, whether the facts (to you) support a narrative of racial injustice or freedom to defend.

And let us pray, as Isaiah did, that God will set things right soon. Pray that Christ will return, the innocent slain will rise again, and the unjustly/justly accused will stand uncondemned in Christ. All things will be set right one day.

This is gospel justice. This is the justice we all want but is far from us. Maranatha. Come quickly Lord Jesus.

The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment. So they shall fear the name of the LORD from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the LORD drives.

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the LORD.

Isaiah 59:15-20


Postscript: This article is not meant to discredit or retreat from movements or arguments for justice in society. I am NOT saying, “Throw in the towel and pray.” What I am saying is that appeals to justice should always be tempered (by the Christian) with gospel sensitivity and humility. Indeed, we cannot set things right on our own.


C.S. Lewis & Friendship

Here are few quotes lifted from C.S. Lewis’ masterful chapter on Friendship in The Four Loves. Enjoy!

Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together, each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day’s walking have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life—natural life—has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it? (pg 72)

On how insiders & outsiders relate to a group of friends. Some implications for why outsiders, sometimes governments, fear close-knit groups:

Men who have real Friends are less easy to manage or “get at”; harder for good Authorities to correct or for bad Authorities to corrupt. Hence if our masters, by force or by propaganda about “Togetherness” or by unobtrusively making privacy and unplanned leisure impossible, ever succeed in producing a world where all are Companions and none are Friends, they will have removed certain dangers, and will also have taken from us what is almost our strongest safeguard against complete servitude. (pg 80)

And a bit of levity:

As I know that I should be an Outsider to a circle of golfers, mathematicians, or motorists, so I claim the equal right of regarding them as Outsiders to mine. People who bore one another should meet seldom; people who interest one another, often. (pg 81)