If you’ve ever ventured into (or cut through) the book aisle at a local supermarket you’ve likely noticed the glut of shirtless, ‘roided out men holding scantily clad women on the top of a mountain. There is a reason these stories, commonly called romance novels, sell very well: escape.
They promise to transport their readers from the monotony of an unaffected husband or the repetitive schedule of motherhood. The stories help people to escape from their real story, but just like conquering an enemy in a video game, you don’t really escape, you don’t really conquer anything. But I’m not ready to throw video games out with the bath water (romance novels can go).
A Distorted Good
Escapist fiction picks up on something that is good and virtuous about reading stories, but distorts it. The reality of pain and hardship in every day of our lives has us longing for resolution, but like most days, you rest your head on your pillow and that resolution has not come. And this is why (good) stories are necessary.
Movies, Books, and Resolution
I know of many people who don’t read. They don’t want to put the time into reading a story. They would rather get the modern day cliff’s notes, the movie. Why spend 15 hours reading the story when you can watch it in 2? After all, with a movie, you setup the story, experience the climax of the story, and get the resolution before you even finish the first few chapters of a book. Many of the psychological benefits of books can be experienced when watching a movie (or less commonly, a TV show). Movies are great, but the discipline of waiting (while reading) is good for the soul.
In life, we often have to wait a very long time for resolution of the many intertwining narratives of our life. Indeed, the overall story of our life likely won’t end for decades, thus we live in the unresolved day to day. Most days are lived in chapter 3, 4, and 5 and not in the final chapter where everything has been revealed and resolved.
The discipline of reading a book teaches us what it is like to wait for resolution. When we have to labor through a depressing part of a story we can better grasp what it feels like to labor through bouts of depression in real life. But unlike real life (hopefully), a story will soon end and provide resolution. We grow with the characters as they face difficulty. We receive the psychological fulfillment and thrill of a resolved story. What a wonderful gift to receive when you feel stuck in the midst of your real story (especially if you’re in a dark place, like Mordor).
The Story of Redemption
The true story of God’s redemption recorded in Holy Scripture shows God’s patient purposes in the lives of barren, faithless, depressed, cowardly, fearful, and stuck-in-the-narratives-of-their-own-lives people like you and me.
Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah… And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived… Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. (Genesis 25:20-26, ESV)
To read about 20 years of barrenness in a single verse hardly compares to the monthly experience of negative pregnancy tests. The resolutions we experience in real life, the answers to prayer, often take a lifetime, and in the meantime God has given us stories to help us cope and give us hope that the dark days (or years) of life will end one day.
The hope of Scripture is not that God will complete and redeem all of the subplots of our lives, indeed, many faithful and God-honoring people never conceive biological children like Sarah, Rebekah, and so many other hopeless mothers in Scripture. But the joy found in Christ is that our villainous stories are exchanged for his righteous story and we know how his story ended: resurrection (and will finally end with the consummation of all things).
A True Good
Good stories, whether or not the author know it, do not give us an escape from the difficulty of every day. Rather, they give us hope. They give us hope that the dark nights of our lives give way to the warm sunshine of tomorrow. They turn a life of endless winter into an afternoon of springtime reading, where the imaginative flower of a good story takes root in the soil of our lives.
Good stories show us fearful characters finding courage, orphans finding a loving home, and they invite us in to experience the height and the depth of that journey, even if only for an afternoon by the fire.