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!

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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.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for this! As Catholics, I think we cannot afford to be afraid of fiction! I have read several good novels that have inspired me and made me a better person, and they were not necessarily “Christian novels.” Catholic should be reading good books and writing them as you seem to be doing… I think I’ll check out one of your books.

    God bless you.

    By Harold Gomes | 6 months ago Reply
  2. There are many good novels in the world. But the problem with many of the literary books considered great is that most of them seem to be all about adultery, prostitution, or mistresses. Even if the book is good in literary merit, those things still disturb me. Why can’t people write about love that is selfless and pure rather than lust that is selfish and degrading? I live in the Philippines and when I tried exploring my country’s literature that is exactly what I found: amorality and lust that is portrayed but not directly( or even indirectly) condemned or criticized. Sometimes I think people prefer writers that don’t put courage,hope, or inspiration in their stories. And, personally, I am very sad about that.

    I know that not all fiction books are bleak and full of amorality and despair. But I must say that I am quite sad that most of the most praised literature are full of those things. I hope that there will be more writers who portray hope, courage, and love so that more people will be hopeful, courageous, and loving.

    By Joaquin Mejia | 6 months ago Reply
  3. Thank you for this article. You just described the kind of fiction I strive to write for. I want to be able to show the truth about this world but show the beauty (true beauty) in it. I write romance fanfiction and read it as well. As much as possible, I try to be discerning and it can be a slippery slope at times. Hopefully, I can move forward and write books just like the good fiction you recommend. Thank you!!!

    By Belle | 6 months ago Reply
  4. I’ve found children’s books are often the answer. Not books for little kids, but many of those written for 9+ are often very interesting and enjoyable stories with just as much (sometimes more) substance to them than many adult novels. These stories often have close sibling relationships and any romance is minimal and never sexual. This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of wonderful and wholesome novels for adults; it’s just a lot harder to know what you’re getting, particularly in regards to series. The first book might be fine, but subsequent ones promote sexual immorality, yet it’s hard to stop reading once you’re invested in a story. Looking at children’s literature is a pretty good way to get a great story without having to worry about it promoting immorality. I also tend to avoid romance novels altogether, even “Christian” ones because they seem to inevitably promote either sexual immorality or other unhealthy relationship habits. “Christian” ones usually steer clear of premarital sexual activity, but might promote other harmful things. To be fair though, I haven’t read a ton of Christian romance, so my experience might not be representative of the overall genre, and it’s also not as if I’ve NEVER read a good Christian romance. I guess my point is this – don’t just assume something marketed as “Christian” really promotes Christian values. Be skeptical, especially when it comes to romance.

    By Mikayla | 6 months ago Reply
    • I agree with you that just because something is labeled “Christian,” doesn’t mean the author has created a totally helpful romance. My daughter once insisted a book be thrown in the trash because it was too misleading to be given away, though it was attempting to be biblical. Personally, I enjoyed “Arms of Love.” Also, the original “Heidi” and other stories by that author are full of Christian themes.

      By Suzanne | 6 months ago Reply

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