Cultivate Your Moral Imagination by Reading Fiction
You know that guilty feeling you get when you start reading a novel…that feeling that says there are a million non-fiction books you should be reading now. Well, that feeling is wrong; you can enjoy that novel without guilt! We need — yes, need — to read fiction. We live in a culture that continually divorces the spiritual from the physical and in the case of fiction, we have stripped away the spiritual significance of fiction and reduced it to the bare bones of entertainment value. But a more historical understanding of fiction reveals that fiction, like all art, has a sacred role in our lives.
In Catholic tradition, the term “the moral imagination” is popular. The moral imagination is our spirit’s capacity to understand, respond to, and appreciate Beauty. Art affirms our humanity and separates us from the animal kingdom. Art renders our spirits sensitive to the heart of God. Great fiction, like great paintings and great music, ministers to the soul and increases our capacity to be human in the fullest sense of the word. We were born with imaginations. We were also born fallen and sinful. Thus, great fiction purifies the moral imagination and renders us more receptive to God.
I like how G.K. Chesterton said it:
Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey [evil, monsters, etc.]. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
One thing that must be understood if we are to delight in works of fiction properly is the difference between imagery and allegory. You see, there is no room for Aslan in Middle-earth. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia was meant to be understood as allegory; Aslan represents Christ, the stone table represents the Cross, Aslan’s resurrection represents Christ’s resurrection, and so on. Allegory is using imagery (symbols) to illustrate and communicate a worldview: a philosophy or theology that is most often either religious or political in nature. But Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is not meant to be an allegory. In fact, Tolkien was adamant that it shouldn’t be read as such. Nevertheless, there is plenty of imagery to be found all throughout Tolkien’s masterpiece. Imagery is most at home in the world of poetry; roses are red…and the rose is an image that calls to mind emotions and thoughts of love and romance.
With that in mind, I want to highlight just two of many benefits to reading fiction in light of our “moral imagination”. The first is vicarious learning. We can learn from the life choices of others and through observation as well as through our own experience. Because we relate and thus connect with the protagonists in great literature, we can learn vicariously through their experiences. The second benefit is cathartic healing. Again, given the connection we have to the protagonist, we are able to experience emotional release through the stories we read — and this often leads to the healing of the soul.
It is helpful to point out the distinction between escapist fiction and interpretive fiction. According to Laurence Perrine:
Escape literature is that written purely for entertainment–to help us pass the time agreeably. Interpretive literature is written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life. Escape literature takes us away from the real world: it enables us temporarily to forget our troubles. Interpretive literature takes us, through the imagination, deeper into the real world: it enables us to understand our troubles…
Escapist fiction is like cotton candy: it is sweet, enjoyable, and full of fluff but it is best not to make it a staple of your diet. Interpretive fiction is protein for the soul!
Not all of the classics are worth reading, but given their long life, and given the many generations that continue to delight in such books as Oliver Twist or Les Miserables, it’s safe to say that reading many of the better classics might be a great place to begin as you seek to cultivate your moral imagination and the moral imagination of your children.