A lesbian wedding, childhood sexual abuse, alcoholism, violence, pornography, and murder all show up within the pages of Wally Lamb's most recent novel We Are Water. So does love, loyalty, healing, beauty, and a confused evangelical Christian. In many ways, it was a hard book to read, particularly the part about the childhood trauma and abuse. But I'm glad I stuck with it (and not simply because I will be able to participate in my book club's discussion next week).
We Are Water was well-written and the characters were interesting, sure. And I was intrigued by the portrayal of the evangelical trying to find his place in a modern, irreligious, liberal family and by the portrayal of his mother—a lapsed but still believing Catholic—who fell in love with another woman (though I have to say I wasn't convinced by her love for the other woman or her love for her husband, which perhaps was the point). But most of all, this book was worthwhile because it gave me the story behind every character. By the end, I empathized with them all, even the most awful perpetrator of evil among them. I didn't condone their actions, but I understood the motivations and influences behind them.
In spending time with these fictional people, Lamb succeeded in humanizing individuals who might otherwise have remained a "type" –whether the lesbian artist, the sexual predator, the liberal social activist, or the evangelical from Texas. And in feeling some degree of empathy and understanding with each of them, this novel succeeded in humanizing me a little bit, reminding me of the humanity I share with everyone else, in our common brokenness and our common beauty.
There are all sorts of reasons to read good novels—these stories teach us about historical events through a narrative frame, they create art out of language, they identify social woes that need attention. But the best novels do even more than that.
First, they teach us empathy. They invite us to see the world from the perspective of someone who seems quite different from us and to realize that we are nevertheless connected. Writers have long argued that teaching empathy is one crucial reason for keeping literary fiction iamong the books taught to school children, and a recent study has provided empirical data to back up this claim. According to the Scientific American, when students read non-fiction or popular fiction, their ability to empathize did not change. Literary fiction, however, prompted considerable changes in the students' ability to understand another person's feelings and perspective. They hypothesize about the results:
Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences. Although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader's expectations of others… Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.
Christians might be tempted to shy away from the "secular" topics handled in novels like We Are Water (or any number of other books sitting on the table in your local bookstore). Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes, offers another example of a book that does not promote a typically Christian perspective, and for exactly this reason is a book Christians should consider reading. It tells the story of a young man who has become paralyzed from the waist down and wants to end his life through physician assisted suicide. Engaging with the characters inside these pages—the characters who come alive to our hearts—is one way we might learn to love people who do not share the same convictions about faith and life as we do.
In addition to empathy on a personal level, the very best novels also ask "the big questions" about the nature of reality and what it means to be human. For Christians, it can be arresting to encounter entire narratives that challenge our view of the world as orderly and good and under God's care. But we can only fully embrace the truth of God's care for us if we understand and wrestle with the reasons others have rejected that truth.
The earnest and bleak atheist world-view provided by Camus in The Plague challenges any trite answers we might want to offer to the problem of suffering. The searing portrait of pain and loss that makes up much of the southern and African-American literary canon challenges the role the church has played in passively supporting the evils of slavery and segregation. (Toni Morrison's Beloved, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, William Faulkner's Absalom Absalom all come to mind as books I have read and reread in my struggle to understand the persistent divide between black and white within this nation.)
It's hard to know which contemporary novels will rise to the top of the literary landscape. Who are the Steinbecks and Fitzgeralds among us? The Chopins and Whartons and Cathers? Whoever they are, many of them are not Christians, and yet these are the perspectives that can teach us about who we are as a culture and how we as Christians can engage our culture through a lens of love.
Good novels—whatever world-view they profess—challenge us to love others better. They disrupt comfortable assumptions about reality. And, to the degree that these books state something true about the world around us, even if that truth is about God's apparent absence, they also invite us to know God better by loving our neighbor all the more.