Research released last week suggests that if you want to better equip people to understand others, and help their mental well-being, you should encourage them to put down their popular, commercial fiction and read more classic literary fiction.
In a series of experiments, participants read a short passage, and then completed several tasks, including one in which they were encouraged to identify people’s facial expressions in photos. (I confess this type of social psychology and study deeply fascinates me.) Analysts said that when people read the less commercial fiction the response in their performance temporarily improved. (This research, according to an October 4 USA Today story, was done by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New York School for Social Research in New York.) Kidd says, “The effect was the same (even for not particularly well-read subjects) . . . if they pick up a work of literary fiction and read it, they will be more sensitive to other people’s subjective states.” But why is this true?
Castano says that he believes this is true because literary novelists make readers work harder at understanding characters. “The writer doesn’t give you a coherent, complete, easily understandable ‘stereotype’ account of that person – quite the opposite.” He cites Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Russian classic Crime and Punishment saying “it gives you contradictory information. It shows the person behaving in ways that are not easily interpretable, or at least interpretable in many different ways. By doing so, and not giving you the whole picture, it forces you the reader to contribute your own interpretations, to reconstruct the mind of the character.” And reading such fiction requires the reader to think about their view of the world and to assume that it could be wrong. Kidd and Castano write that it requires readers to find “meanings among a spectrum of possible meanings.”
This I am sure of – truth is often more intuitive than didactic. There are a number of ways that we process what is true, good and right. Fiction, especially really well-developed fiction, helps us do this in ways that are not surprising to me. But there is a pressing and interesting question that occurred to me as I read this study. The Bible is not fiction, at least as we think of a story being told as fiction, or “made up in the author’s mind.” But the Bible is a story, even a story book, far more than it is a series of propositions like you find in philosophy or science. It is a meta-narrative that draws you into a complex, yet profoundly simple, story line. If more Christians read the Bible as a story, and less for emotional arguments, I wonder if they would be much more sensitive to others. I would bet the farm that the research would support this conclusion but for now it is just my own unproven hunch. What do you think?
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Well at least we don’t read everything in the bible as prescriptive (we don’t do what Jephthah did for example). Anyway, it is a library, that does have a theme running through it all. It is a conversation multiple authors are having with each other and with God, and that God is having with us. It can be a bit challenging to explain this to the unchurched, but I supose there are elements in the church catholic (small c) that might find that hard to take.
I am convinced sometimes in the Scriptures there is a story just beneath the surface interpretation. For example, the story of Jephthah and his daughter. Jephthah was rejected out of his family and then became a leader of worthless men. He was in essence a thug and gang leader who provided protection for a cost. He came against an enemy he knew was bigger than he and carried his same life view into his dealing with God. His view of God that led to his sacrifice of his daughter all flowed from is concept of protection for a price, he had very little room for simple grace, mercy, or loving-kindness in his view of protector.
This is an interesting article and I will give the research more study. I am particularly interested as it relates to chaplaincy. I already give myself to trying to understand a patient or family I minister to as a complicated and complex story. One has to listen carefully to identify contradictions, family systems, etc. to offer effective pastoral care. I think reading classic literary fiction may be added to chaplaincy training as a tool for developing beter listening skills. Thanks for this.
Here’s what she wrote in response: it’s funny, because I think of myself and other people in terms of characters in stories as well.
It provides an interesting perspective on reality and personal development.
Yes!! Very simply, Yes! Yes with respect to the reading of classic literature and its capacity to help others develop sensitivity to the perspective and emotional states of others. And, yes to the need for Christians to foreground the narrative aspect in their reading of Scripture, and to thereby ameliorate the tendency to treat it merely as a repository for doctrine. Good doctrine is helpful and in some measure necessary, but good doctrine is also one that is aware of its constructed nature, an awareness that should lead to some humility regarding dogmatic assertions about the ways of God with humanity. Certainly there has to be a central confessional core in order for there to be unity of faith, but there needs to be an awareness and affirmation of mystery, which is often only apprehended via intuition. There also has to be an affirmation of the ways that meaning is dynamically present in the process of reading texts, and this kind of affirmation is more likely when people become more literarily sensitive, to which I imagine the reading of classical texts would contribute.
Dan – Where did you find the background information regarding Jephthah? It certainly sheds an important light on a difficult story in Scripture.
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