I have a confession: sometimes when I’ve finished a really good novel, I miss the characters badly. I worry about what’s going to happen to those whose fates are left mysterious; I grieve for those who have suffered or died, I rejoice over marriages and babies and feel and think all sorts of things about people who don’t actually exist.
But of course, there’s nothing unusual in that confession; it’s the thing that keeps us turning pages — immersing ourselves in an imaginary world and caring deeply about the people that live there, and what happens to them. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t continue reading. And the best books, I think, are those that make us care the most deeply.
People have debated the value and potential of stories — particularly the fictional kind — for millennia. Plato felt that his ideal republic should exclude poets because of their extraordinary power over the imagination, and a great many parents and teachers have spent a great deal of time fretting over the effect certain books might have on kids.
Yet even as people have struggled to make sense of what feels like a need for stories that simply aren’t true, we can’t seem to stop ourselves. And most of us have a sense that reading is somehow good for us, even if we don’t know exactly why. That, too, is an argument that goes back a long way, although it has become less popular of late.
I spent a fair bit of my teen years reading Focus on the Family’s Brio, a now-defunct magazine aimed at teen girls as an alternative to Seventeen, YM, and other glossy periodicals whose vision of female adolescence involved the consumption of a great deal of clothes and makeup and the pursuit of the perfect prom dress–and perfect date to go with it.
While Brio was far more wholesome than the options available at every grocery checkout–on balance, I’m glad my parents kept my subscription active until I left for college–now that I’m grown I can see the ways in which Brio, and sources like it, filled my head with notions of romance that weren’t exactly biblical.
One feature article in Brio presented the biblical book of Ruth as a model of godly romance. Ruth waited for Boaz to take notice of her, so that particular interpretation went, and kept herself busy in the meantime, and God rewarded her by giving her a wealthy new husband and, not long after, a baby.
But later–after I’d finished a degree in biblical studies and married a man with several degrees in biblical studies–I realized that this reading of Ruth was all wrong. Ruth wasn’t waiting around for Boaz to notice her. She was busy taking care of her mother-in-law, Naomi. And when the time seemed right, Ruth proposed to Boaz.
This certainly wasn’t like anything I’d read in my Christian teen magazines.