I can’t think of a time when I didn’t love to read. One of the earliest “grown-up” books I remember reading (and buying with my own money) was a Star Trek: The Next Generation tie-in novel when I was about eight or nine. Growing up, I read schlocky sci-fi, mysteries, and stayed up way too late reading The Lord of the Rings. As I grew, I started reading Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Nick Hornby, Greg Rucka, and a host of others. I wasn’t limited to one genre, either—if it was at the library, or at the bookstore, and looked interesting, it was fair game.
Then, at twenty-five, I became a Christian. A lot of things (thankfully) changed in my life, but one thing that stayed the same was my love of reading. In fact, it gave me an entire part of the bookstore I’d never bothered to look at before to begin to explore! But what’s interesting is that as I grew in my faith, I didn’t move away from my love of fantastical worlds or gritty crime drama or simple tales of mopey, socially awkward record store owners. If anything, my love of those increased because I found in them a connection point to the gospel.
Great stories echo the gospel story
There are a number of different ways we can approach this, of course. But one of the most important ways is recognizing that the gospel informs how we tell stories at all.
Almost every great story employs some variation of the hero’s journey: the (usually unlikely) hero leaves the familiar world behind on some sort of quest—whether to save her family (The Hunger Games), destroy a powerful magic ring (The Lord of the Rings), or simply to regain the life he thought he wanted (Neverwhere). Along the way, the hero takes his or her first steps into a larger world, faces many dangers, and completes the quest (even if in completing it, the hero discovers it’s not what he or she really wanted in the first place). Even the gospel itself follows this same structure as Jesus, the Son of God, leaves the world familiar to Him (heaven) to rescue His people by dying on the cross for their sins, and following His resurrection, returns to “the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33).
Now here’s what this should tell us: not that the gospel is another myth among familiar myths, but that God’s plan of salvation, which He planned before the foundations of the earth (Ephesians 1:4), is written into the very fabric of reality. We tell stories that echo the story our Creator is telling because we are made in His image. It is the story that we are continually drawn to, the only story that will ultimately satisfy us.
Great stories reveal our God-given sense of wonder
Many stories also ask “what-if” questions: What if there’s something more to the world, something unseen, and magical? Perhaps there’s a London Below where people who fall through the cracks live, or a set of cupboards in your attic that are portals to hundreds of other worlds. They allow us to imagine and play, capturing our God-given sense of wonder and creativity.
How does this help connect us to the gospel? It reminds us that God created a good world, a wondrous world, one that is infinitely interesting. The best books tap into that, distilling it down to its essence, as N.D. Wilson once shared with me. The world our God made is not boring, and the best stories remind us of that.
Great stories make it safe to explore what’s wrong with the world
Let’s be honest; as good and wondrous as this world is, it is also a mess, filled with all kinds of evil and sorrow. Some stories openly embrace this and present us with an oppressively dark view, painting people as what we are at our worst. Books like the Game of Thrones series and Gone Girl (note: not a recommendation) unflinchingly paint a picture of the darkness that dwells within humanity—only they leave no room for light. They’re basically what the Bible would be if its last book was Judges. Hopeless. Other stories make us wrestle with our sinful impulses alongside our more virtuous characteristics. Rob Gordon (High Fidelity) is a wonderful example of this. He’s not maliciously evil, nor is he a particularly awesome guy. He’s more or less your neighbor, even when he rightly describes himself as a word we can’t publish on this website.
How does this help point us to the gospel? First, a caveat: by “engage” and “explore” what is wrong with the world, I don’t mean that these stories allow us to feed sinful desires within us (i.e. lust, jealousy, or anger). This engagement instead should create a sense of sorrow and longing for a better world, the new creation that is to come. But it should also help us develop a sense of compassion for others. When we identify with characters in the stories we read, we recognize that their tendencies echo our own. I doubt any of you reading this are maliciously evil, but I am certain that none of you are consistently awesome and virtuous either. Every single one of us is a sinner, and good stories help us own that part of ourselves.
Great stories offer echoes of eternity
Finally, great stories offer us echoes of eternity. Every story points us to a “heaven” of some sort. Whether it’s utopian visions of a future where the universe gets along in a harmoniously secular-humanist federation of planets (Star Trek), a young man is free to begin to live in the real world for the first time in his life (The Graveyard Book), or the great evil is finally defeated and a troubled hero can finally live a normal life (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), there’s the hope of a world free from the chaos that has plagued the hero from the beginning.
And this points us to the gospel in the most obvious way: all of these “heavens” are too small and too hollow to really satisfy what we long for, which is the new creation. All of creation is groaning for it to come. As followers of Jesus, we know it is coming—and it is coming soon! So as we read, even as we are satisfied with the conclusion of a great story, we get to look forward to the real conclusion, the one that C.S. Lewis described as the first chapter of “the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before” (The Last Battle, as published in The Complete Chronicles of Narnia).