Can A Good Novel Be Bad For You?
“I stopped reading fiction when I became Catholic.” The woman talking to me was obviously serious, but I couldn’t believe my ears. What a crime! What a shame! What a sad state of affairs! But I didn’t express my sorrow. After all, we were at a conference about honoring God with your sexuality, and there was no need to ask why she had stopped reading fiction. She had obviously figured out that chastity has to do with purity of mind, not just purity of body, and she was trying to cleanse her mind of “any worthless, evil, or distracting thoughts,” as an old prayer phrases it.
And maybe she had a point. Novels and stories fill our minds and affect the way we think and act. A good novel inspires things like bravery, courage, and self-sacrifice. A bad novel inspires… well, let’s face it, lust and violence, because that’s what sells. Books don’t have a rating system like movies, but words can paint pictures, and some books tell our hearts that loving someone means about the same thing as craving a chocolate brownie smothered in ice cream and drowning in hot fudge.
There are good reasons to be careful about what you read, but does that mean mysteries, adventures, and romances are out because they’re all bad for you? Fortunately, the answer is no. As with movies, you just have to be selective. Reading a book should be enjoyable, but it will shape how you think, so pick novels that will help you envision who you want to be. Living vicariously through a character can train your heart to react like the character in reality. Listening to a character’s struggles can allow your mind to sort through an issue. Learning from a character’s mistakes can help you avoid disaster in your personal life. Looking carefully at a character’s life can help you see more clearly what leads to chastity and what doesn’t. As much as some novels can create a lot of impure thoughts, others can fill your mind with thoughts of noble love.
Recently I heard from a man in his early 30s, who also hadn’t read much fiction since he became a Christian. He wrote, “I have so much to write about how your book relates to my life and my relationship… Your story has helped me see suffering in a different way and helped remind me that Christ made the ultimate sacrifice… I thought a lot about life. I also find myself saying more little random prayers throughout the day, which I never really did before.” Was he reading the Bible? No, a novel. And, as with all good novels, “I felt happy, then sad, then nervous and then happy again. … [At one point] I felt so much anger inside, and then I remembered, ‘it’s only a book.’”
So don’t give up on fiction. Ask friends for suggestions. Search the web for Christian publishing companies and suggested reading lists. Look for old classics on the library shelf. A good book can help you reset your vision and your life. An inspiring novel will guide your mind and your heart towards goodness, beauty, and, yes, chastity. Plus, getting lost in a story is a lot more fun than staring at the walls!
Suzanne Macdonald enjoys working with a group of recent college graduates on Adventures In the Great Mystery, a series of novels about college students and adults struggling to love purely and remain faithful to God as they start romantic relationships and do lots of other exciting things. The first novel, The Five Questions, is available at AdventuresInTheGreatMystery.com.