Novel Salvation: How God Used Fiction to Save My Life

Ten years ago I plunged myself into books of fiction as a form of escapism. My life was in shambles. I had destroyed a marriage, lost my job, ruined my career. To avoid thinking about the sad reality my life had become, I slipped into the lives of fictional characters.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, however, something else was happening. The God against whom I had rebelled, and from whom I was fleeing, began to use these very works of fiction to beckon me home. As it turned out, the novels in which I had sought escape, became part of the means whereby the Lord rescued me from my own death.

@@The novelist is a kind of priest. His pulpit is a narrative. He baptizes with words.@@ The stories he tells may not be factual but they are nonetheless true. Over the years, God uses these truths to teach me about myself—and more importantly, about him. Here are five truths I learned.

1. Novels relocated my grief into the larger human story of suffering. Sadness has an isolating effect. We hurt so much, we grieve so deeply, that we cut ourselves off from others. We grow fixated on our own wounds. Novels pry our eyes outward to the broader world of the broken. Khaled Hosseini, in The Kite Runner, took me to Afghanistan. Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, took me to Russia. I saw families ripped apart, countries in collapse. I was reminded that my story is part of a larger story of a world fissured through and through with evil. In need of redemption. In need of recreation. Novels lift our eyes from our own scars to a creation groaning for liberation.

2. Novels destroyed the myth that “no one else knows what I’m going through.” We assume our pain is unique. No one else can understand it. Nothing would make me angrier than when someone said, “I understand,” or “I know what you’re going through.” Actually, some people do. The stories of alcoholics and adulterers, mourners and exiles, are not personal; they’re universal. When I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I was reading my own story. Here were lies and lust. Here was the fallout. Here were characters wearing my own skin, battling the same demons. I knew what they were going through, as they knew what I was. These books free us from the lie that our emotions and struggles are idiosyncratic. They drive us to seek help outside ourselves.

3. Novels unveiled the universal penchant for self-destruction that is disguised as “following your heart.” Show me a couple who are divorcing, a man on his way to prison, or a country on its way to war, and I will show you the fruit of “following your heart.” Yet this most untrustworthy guide is our favorite. The heart whispers tantalizing lies we are eager to believe for they feed the ego’s insatiable appetite. This is the ink with which every novel is written. From McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, to Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and on down the line, every book is a sermon on original sin. All are an exposé on the folly of following the human heart.

4. Novels showed me that wounded people make for good healers. In Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory, a “whiskey priest” ministers to people. He is a man racked by demons, stumbling over his moral weaknesses. Yet this broken vessel is nevertheless used by the Lord of grace. Over the years, I began to realize the truths of the novel. People whose words rang most true for me were those who limped. Like Jacob, hobbling away from the angel with whom he had wrestled, these people bore wounds either self-afflicted or afflicted by the God of love. Or both. They had wrestled with the Lord; they had scars to prove it. And some of their scars still bled. @@Stories of wounded healers reveal to us that God who doesn’t throw broken people away.@@ He redeems and recycles their lives so that their scars bear witness to the healing wounds of our crucified Lord.

5. Novels made me realize that unexpected grace revolutionizes lost lives by giving love when one expects only rejection and punishment. When Jean Valjean, in Les Miserables, is caught by the police for stealing silver from a bishop who had taken him in for the night, the ex-con expects only punishment. It is what he deserves. But when the police bring him to the bishop, this man of God says, “Ah, here you are! I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks, too...Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?” I read the story through tears; I still do. That unexpected bestowal of grace revolutionized Jean Valjean’s life. Grace does that. What happened in that novel happened to me. It happens to all who encounter God not as a harsh judge, but as loving Father who gives us in Christ what we least expect: forgiveness, acceptance, a love that demands nothing of us yet gives us everything.

Ten years ago I plunged myself into books of fiction as a form of escapism. But God used these fictional stories to lead me back to the biblical story—the story of a Father seeking his lost children and bringing them home. The story of a manger, a cross, and an empty tomb. The story of a loving Lord who shows us our folly, takes us outside ourselves, and adopts us as his beloved children in Christ.