In a word, because I want them to be good. Righteous. Heroic. Selfless. Lovers of justice and mercy. Haters of every distinct form of oppressive corruption, dishonesty, the heinous abuse of power, or cowardly, self-serving betrayal. Humbled at the recognition of their microscopic smallness in an infinitely vast, capacious, mysterious universe. Yet understanding that their lives nonetheless hold irreplaceable significance in the plotline of the grandest narrative of them all, and that all along the way it matters what kind of choices they make in light of both the beginning and the ending. I want them to be gripped by the understanding that real tragedy or real comedy hinges upon whether they one day take up their appointed place in the story and faithfully hold their ground against the fierce dragons and gruesome orcs who are coming to destroy a kingdom of beauty and love–as heroes always do who care about the worlds they are thrust into, no matter what it might cost them personally.
I read my boys fiction because I want them to recognize–in stark, deliberate contrast to the spirit of their age–that their lives are not a joke and that reality is not an inconsequential game which can be be shaped according to private whims or urges felt at any given moment. Rather, I want them to sense that reality is “there” to be discovered, respected, and responded to on its own terms. Those who read only nonfiction, newspapers, or the kind of modern authors who nihlistically insist on employing only that most unrealistic and reductionistic genre–namely, realism–tend to be the most flaky, two-dimensional, humorless chaps. With the prospect of an approaching battle which will demand enormous sacrifices from those who willingly allow themselves to be plunged into it for the sake of truth, it would be the height of folly to band together or entrust oneself to such characters. Such individuals cannot be expected to care for anything outside of their own interests, most narrowly conceived. Others are useful to them only insofar as they fit into that scheme. A knife in the back at midnight or desertion at the hour of greatest need ought not to surprise any who have been paying attention to my stories throughout their childhood. We have met these rogues often along the way.
And I read my boys such stories, moreover, because I yearn for them to be the kind of men who, when they grow up, duly feel the awesome beauty of these virtues with a deep inward passion, and who are thrilled at the commitments and perspectives entailed by them. That they might become adults who do not merely give intellectual assent to the ideals these stories embody, all the whilst secretly inhabiting alternative narratives that render reality in hues of jaded pessimism, instant gratification or despairing hedonism–the kind that implicitly encourages them, in the few fleeting moments they have before the oncoming permanent darkness, to use others sexually, financially, and relationally as means to the higher ends of self. The empirical method, by itself, cannot develop anyone’s soul. It cannot endow a human being with an unprovoked, magical sense of wonder at finding oneself to simply exist, unbidden, in a wild, untamed world that calls out to be explored and known and embraced. It can only tell us what is, not what ought to be.
Most of all, I read them stories because I desperately desire–insofar as it depends on me–to shape their consciousness and baptize their imagination with categories, experiences, and longings that will one day respond to the Gospel with the cry: “Yes! Of course this is what it was always about. What else could possibly account for the way things are in this world?” I want to ruin them early for cheap, disconnected sex and trivial ambitions (when they are ultimate) like going to Harvard, making millions, or becoming the president. I want to expand their souls and make them impossible to satisfy or stuff with creation alone. And I aim to to do all this damage because I want Jesus Christ crucified and risen to have the compelling ring of truth when they begin to think and choose for themselves as they leave home to find their own place in the Story. Every moment I spend reading aloud to them is subordinated to the hope that Jesus would be recognized as the ultimate source and inspiration of every late night chill, tear, laugh or inconsolable yearning as my fiction stories ring true once more in their bedroom. Because I want them to understand that all of the gallant virtues they have come to admire and love through these stories are summed up in the daily act of taking up their cross to follow this Jesus into a kingdom that will triumph over all evil and sadness, and which will reign forever and ever and ever in the happy ending to end all happy endings.
Muriel Rukeyser once insisted, for good reasons and in protestation of modern society, that “the universe is made of stories, not atoms.” So listen now to two of my favorites make the case for why we need fictional stories to become fully human beings whose moral imaginations bloom and expand as we grow up and age, instead of withering away only to die prematurely:
“Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth…I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters–roles into which we have been drafted–and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources. Mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things…The telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, p. 216)
“[The spirit of modernity] is a sham realist. He accuses all myth and fantasy and romance of wishful thinking: the way to silence him is to be more realist than he–to lay our ears closer to the murmur of life as it actually flows through us at every moment and to discover there all that quivering and wonder and (in a sense) infinity which the literature that he calls realistic omits. For the story which gives us the experience most like the experiences of living is not necessarily the story whose events are most like those in a biography or a newspaper.” (C. S. Lewis, Present Concerns, p. 55)
I’d also recommend taking a gander at J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories,” which can be read here.