Why do you read? Do you read to learn, grow, and gain new knowledge? Do you read for pleasure, or does that feel like a luxury you can’t afford? Maybe with the call of ministries and theological studies, you feel like Christian nonfiction is the only option. Yet at the same time, you feel exhausted and weary of those very books.
I’ve felt that way. I had a long list of books I wanted to read, but time felt like it was always sliding through my fingers like dry sand. My bookshelf was stuffed and sagging with solely heavy theology textbooks and Christian living books. Growing up, I adored reading fantasy books, realistic fiction, adventure books, and cozy mysteries. I own every single yellow, hardcover Nancy Drew book. I wrote and read poetry, spewing every teenage emotion into poems on looseleaf.
Yet when I started Bible college, a shift happened. As I grew in my love for theology and biblical literacy, I believed fiction and poetry were a waste of my time. With so many thick books to get through, I couldn’t afford to lose any of my precious moments to something “frivolous.” Once I had my first child, time seemed to escape me even more.
With all these pressures, the pleasure of reading dissipated. Reading felt like a chore rather than enjoyment. And when the flames of suffering began to burn at my ankles, theology texts and Christian living books felt unfeeling and cold. I recoiled from my bookshelf. I needed a change. I needed to renew the joy of reading all types of books in my life without feeling ashamed. Even more, I needed someone to tell me the old, beautiful truths of God in a different way.
But before that, I had to realize how, by God’s grace, there’s truth, beauty, and goodness in many genres of writing.
Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in Many Genres
Novels and short stories offer us a moment to step out of our world and imagine the world of another—even if it takes place in our time on planet earth. In doing so, they help us view the various struggles we face from different lights and angles, like multiple photographs taken of the same place. When we’re close with an issue, we need a shift in perspective to help us process it. Like Jesus’ parables, storytelling helps us understand nuanced and difficult topics in a way that reaches our hearts.
Fantasy books with their magic, made up worlds, and imaginary creatures can get a bad reputation among Christians. Yet these books too can enlighten us to truth in a way perhaps a Christian nonfiction or even realistic fiction may not have. By taking the struggles and questions we know so intimately in our everyday lives and casting them into a world completely unlike ours, our eyes can be opened to ideas we may have never been able to see otherwise. They bend the ordinary workings of our world and put flesh on an abstract truth we may have never fully grasped before.
How many of us, in beholding Aslan walk before the White Witch, were brought to tears as we understood the gospel in an even deeper way? Or perhaps your heart was gripped by the beauty of real friendship as you read of Sam, Merry, and Pippin’s unshakable commitment to Frodo. As Lloyd Alexander said, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality; it’s a way of understanding it.”
All of this is the mercy of God’s common grace given to creation by allowing truth to be known and explained even by those who do not know him. Yet as believers, we have the joy of connecting the truths the secular authors show in their novels to the clarity of Scripture—and at times discerning where they stray from the truth.
Through stories, we can learn to play again—not in immaturity, but with the greater hope and understanding that we’ve gleaned from Scripture. Our joy for God can be renewed as we understand his world in a clearer way again.
I came with a lot of fear and trepidation to reading secular non-fiction. I worried that these books were a waste of my time because they didn’t have a Christian worldview. They might lead me astray. This can be a true concern—it’s important that we have a solid grounding in God’s truth when embarking on any book. But we must remember the doctrine of God’s common grace here as well; just as he causes both the sunshine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust (Matt. 5:45), so he likewise allows nonbelievers who hate him to know truth about his world.
I’ve learned helpful truths about marriage, relationships, mental health, and my physical health all from secular sources. There are times they depart from what God has revealed in nature about himself and the order of life, but in those times, I don’t need to flee from the book but exercise discernment in bringing the ideas into a biblical worldview. As we exercise discernment while reading these books, we can see what the secular authors often miss in the beauty of how God has ordered creation, history, science, and the like. As we do, our wonder will be renewed.
Poetry can feel intimidating because while the text is usually shorter, it often requires more reflection and scrutinizing to understand it. Again, it feels like work rather than relaxation. Yet poetry is one of the genres of writing God chose to include in Scripture—what does this tell us about the goodness found in poetry? Poetry draws us into a slow kind of learning, of sitting and pondering. Poetry can communicate intricate and complicated truths in not only a beautiful but simple way; they take what is complex and theoretical and make it tangible. They bear witness to the pain, grief, and fear that we can’t always put to words. Perhaps they may even take your exhausted prayers and give them new words.
Theology & Christian Living
Picking up Christian nonfiction can sometimes feel like more work. Perhaps, like me, it’s these very textbooks that snuffed out your joy of reading; you feel over-stimulated with all the information and discouraged trying to apply it all to your life. The facts of doctrine fall listlessly on unaffected ears.
Let me encourage you that Christian living books and theology texts don’t have to leave you feeling ragged. Not all books within this genre are written equally; some come with mighty yet condescending language and burden us with law without the gospel. We need to find theology books that are written with the joy and passion of the good news.
As you search for your next book from this category, don’t only ask yourself, “Is it biblical?” (though that should always be our first question). Also ask, “Does this book tell the truth beautifully? Does it ignite the desire to serve God and his church—or does it drive me further into the dark corners of my study where none can bother me? Does it cause me to glory in my great knowledge or in the Creator who founded it all?”
Discerning and Choosing What We Read
While there is truth, beauty, and goodness found in many genres, that doesn’t mean every book within every genre holds claim to those as well. We need to discern that the content we give our time to tells the truth and tells it beautifully if we want our joy of reading to truly be renewed. And where else should we compare the words we read than against Scripture, the most lovely and true book that’s brimming with goodness? Every piece of content we read must be held up against Scripture. Does it sing the same song? Does it contradict what is plain and clear? Does it honor God—and cause us to honor him as well?
This becomes complicated as we open books whose spines bear the names of nonbelievers. They don’t honor God with their words and thoughts. Their words will go against him. The question then becomes whether the truths they do share by God’s mercy can be drawn upon despite the falsehoods they cling to and whether our hearts and minds can discern when they stray. Will we be deceived? Will we be tempted with the sins they portray? This is a decision each of us must face.
Another important factor in our discernment must be the authors themselves. Beautiful, true, and good writing can only come from writers who embody each of those things in their ordinary, unseen lives. We want to look to authors who have depended on “affection, reading, knowledge, skill … inspiration, work, growing older, [and] patience,” to write their words, as Wendell Berry describes. People who “Communicate slowly” and “Live a three-dimensioned life.”
A good writer further recognizes that writing is “always a matter … Of life or death,” as poet Richard Wilbur wrote. Writers carry great and heavy cargo from their lives, and they must carry it rightly into the lives of others. Good writers recognize this burden and don’t deal lightly with the pain they write about. We must be careful that the writing we read is teaching us more empathy, nuance, and love, not simply bashing us with partial truths so that we may bash others with them.
While Karen Swallow Prior encourages us to read something enjoyable, she likewise says to not be afraid of the books that require more work from us. She writes,
A book that requires nothing from you might offer the same diversion as that of a television sitcom, but it is unlikely to provide intellectual, aesthetic, or spiritual rewards long after the cover is closed. Therefore, even as you seek books that you will enjoy reading, demand ones that make demands on you: books with sentences so exquisitely crafted that they must be reread, familiar words used in fresh ways, new words so evocative that you are compelled to look them up, and images and ideas so arresting that they return to you unbidden for days to come.
In short, “It is not enough to read widely. One must also read well.”
Practical Ways to Incorporate More Reading into Your Day
How do we incorporate all these different genres into our normal reading routine without feeling overwhelmed and bogged down? Here are a few of the ways I’ve made it more manageable:
Pair reading with another pre-established habit. I started reading one poem every morning after or during breakfast, and to remind me I keep a collection of poetry in the kitchen. By pairing reading with another established habit, it’s easier to remember it than trying to organize another habit altogether.
Alternate between genres. I find if I solely read from one genre over an extended period, I start to move more sluggishly through the books and stop enjoying them. By alternating between fiction and non-fiction each time I finish a book, I’m able to enjoy the book at hand while also looking forward to diving into something completely new when it’s finished. This helps prevent burn-out from reading too many theology and Christian living texts.
Read from multiple genres at a time. Sometimes I need a fiction and non-fiction book on my desk at the same time. When the novel is growing dull, I can pick up my theology book; or when my brain is too tired to take in all the information from my non-fiction book, I can sit back with a novel. By having a variety of books on the go, we can also choose a book that best suits the amount of time we have available to us; collections of essays or poetry for short spurts of time and theology texts or heavy novels for longer pockets of time.
Listen to one genre and read the other. I like to listen to Christian living books while doing a mindless task like walking or folding laundry. There are many free apps that work with your library to give you access to hundreds of audiobooks for free.
Making the Connections Between Theology and the Words on the Page
As you think about how to read novels and poetry more theologically, it may seem intimidating. However, let me encourage you: You probably already have many of the practices and tools already in place. If we’re anything the same, you likewise have many notes and underlined passages within your Christian nonfiction. Perhaps you have sticky-notes pasted on pages with some of your favourite and most referenced quotes. You can do the same with any book you’re reading.
Whatever you’re reading, have a highlighter or pen nearby to underline phrases that stir your affections or cause you to pause. As you do, stay with those lines; carry them in the back of your mind to think about as you go through your day. Journal these thoughts. Think about what Scripture has to say on this subject. To help you begin to think in this way, read books like Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well, where she dives into several novels (both Christian and secular) and shares the theological and virtuous implications that can be drawn from them.
In that book, she reminds us that this kind of work is slow. It requires the patience to sit with a text longer than a few minutes—to not just read it but dwell on it. You likely already have the inkling of this kind of patience already built in you from all the theological and biblical studies you’ve completed over the years. Think through some of the same questions you would as you handle a biblical text: What’s the historical context? What’s the literary context? What themes are being drawn upon? What was the author’s intent and context?
Consider Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. In this classic novel, Catherine envelops herself so deeply into her gothic novels that she begins viewing her life as if it were another story within those novels. She goes so far as to believe someone in her life murdered his wife and she sneaks around his home looking for clues. In falling for this fantasy, she completely misses the real issues at hand: 1) This man is only letting her spend time with his children because he believes Catherine is rich, and 2) Catherine’s new best friend / future sister-in-law is cheating on her brother.
Austen isn’t condemning the act of reading. Rather, she’s calling us to use novels not as an escape from reality but to understand reality. Tolkien wrote of a similar concept in On Fairy-Stories: Reading (in his case, fantasy novels) isn’t about deserting life but escaping the prison of despair life may have us in so we can return with renewed sight. It’s about using the stories we read to help us better understand the real story we’re currently standing in.
This isn’t meant to be more work to make you weary, but an opportunity to learn and feel joy as we revisit God’s ancient and living truths in another way.
Lara d’Entremont is a wife, mother, and freelance writer from Nova Scotia, Canada. She writes about the intersection of theology and fiction at laradentremont.com.
 A Visit With Lloyd Alexander, YouTube, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GilIovrb4uE.
 Wendell Berry, “How to be a Poet,” Poetry Foundation, accessed July 5, 2022. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/41087/how-to-be-a-poet
 Richard Wilbur, “The Writer,” Poets.org, accessed July 5, 2022. https://poets.org/poem/writer
 Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018), 17.
 Ibid, 15.
 Ibid, 15–16.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: Expanded Edition With Commentary and Notes, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, 2nd ed. (Hammersmith, London: HarperCollins, 2014), 69.