Is Escapism Through Reading Bad?

I read a Forbes article recently heralding the benefits of romance novels during stressful times, saying they “provide the distraction and balm people crave when the world seems to be falling apart” and “offer diversion, excitement and escapism.”

To which someone on social media said (and I’m toning things down a bit here), “This is exactly the problem. Escapism isn’t a healthy way to deal with anything, much less a pandemic. Romance novels have always been guilty of this, and now isn’t the time to start saying it’s a good thing.”

While I can sort of see the commenter’s point, I think there are two important questions to ask before you can sort reading romance novels—or books of any kind—as helping or hurting during difficult times.

Important Question 1: What are you escaping?

This one’s pretty straightforward. Are your children running starving and ragged in the streets like Dickensonian urchins while you lounge about, entombed in your library for days on end?

That is not good. Reading (or doing any activity in a compulsive way) to avoid responsibility is bad. Check.

Okay, so that’s clearly not something most of us have to deal with. On a deeper level, though, if you’re so desperate to escape reality that you turn to books as the primary way of meeting emotional needs, this is also not good.

In other words, if you have a “book boyfriend” you love more than real people in your life, if you regularly put off processing problems by burying yourself in novels, if you long so much for fictional happy endings that you have no interest in dealing with your own life story and its ups and downs…that’s also not healthy.

But…that is also not where most readers are right now. Choose some random people waiting in a library curbside pickup line and ask about what escapism through books means, and they’ll say things like:

  • “I love journeying to a totally different time period, culture, or country through books, especially when I can’t travel in real life. Sure, I’m learning, but it also makes that history or those places come alive to me.”
  • “I like being able to sigh along as characters find romance, knowing it’s not my life and love at stake. I get all the fun conflict and drama without actually having to deal with any fallout. And it helps to know things will work out in the end.”
  • “It’s good to have something that makes me laugh. I know not everything resolves neatly in the nonfictional world, but wow, in hard times, it sure helps to plop down with a book for a while and smile again.”
  • “Daily life isn’t usually that exciting, so sometimes when I read a thriller or an epic fantasy novel, it makes me want to be braver. Or at least lets me cheer when good triumphs over evil. It’s a quick look at how justice should work, even if it doesn’t always.”

(Okay, so maybe not everyone at the library would be ready with a snappy answer like this on the spot, but they would think of these responses on the drive home and wish they’d said them. Trust me.)

You can disagree if you like, but to me, those seem like pretty good things. Especially when you consider…

Important Question 2: What changes when you “return” from your escape?

It’s a classic “quest” arc: the character is forced to leave the comfort of home and routine to accomplish something great. And after many obstacles, they (usually) triumph and return again. In the best stories, they come back changed in some way. They have new perspectives. They’ve gained allies or found true love. They’ve defeated a lie that’s dogged them their whole life. They now know something true that will impact all of their choices from here on out.

So think of yourself as a character going through a journey when you read a book. Sure, you’re not actually experiencing the action (usually a good thing, given that the number of gunfights, drama, dangerous secrets, ticking time bombs, etc. are usually way higher in fiction than real life), but you’re leaving your normal world on an adventure. And, if the author’s done the job well, you should leave it changed.

It’s not usually a dramatic change, although many of us can name a handful of books that triggered a transformation. Maybe you come away from a novel understanding others better, mulling over a theme or profound line, or filled with less stress and more laughter.

Some kinds of escapism—hello, binge-eating tubs of Chunky Monkey ice cream—leave you changed in a negative way. And hey, if novels (or certain kinds of novels) give you nightmares or unrealistic expectations or an excuse to consistently neglect real-life responsibilities…then avoid them. Read responsibly.

But most of the time, for most of us, reading leaves us changed in a positive way. When we close a book, we’re equipped with extra mental, emotional, or spiritual resources to live our own lives as more thoughtful, relaxed, or compassionate people.

So if you’re feeling stressed, there are lots of things you can do to help, and we could all make different lists of what we find most helpful or productive—but I hope reading books is on yours.

 

What do you think, readers? Do you think there’s such a thing as “good” and “bad” escapism? Why do you read, especially fiction, during stressful times?

What Does Christian Fiction Have to Do With Easter?

Tomorrow is Good Friday, and I was pretty sure only the other half of my building had something to say about that. You see, at Bethany House, we have separate marketing teams for fiction and nonfiction. My coworkers down the hall are the ones working with preachers and teachers who trace the gospel through the whole Bible or argue an apologetic of what the world would be like if the resurrection had never happened. They post an Instagram feed of deep quotes and Bible verses, they have the author bios with seminary credentials and terms I didn’t even know existed.

Meanwhile, I’m over in novel-land, my shelves filled with suspense and romance and drama, discussing which dress we should rent for the next cover shoot and posting Valentine hearts for book lovers on social media.

It’s not like Easter is completely absent even from those daily tasks, because faith deeply influences our authors and many of their characters. Just taking a look at reader emails might make you tear up a bit, hearing snippets of how a story connected with them on a deep level, comforted them when they needed it, or inspired change.

Still, in my mind I’d sectioned off holidays into different groups: Valentine’s Day is for fiction—the time when we have oodles of fun giveaways and quizzes and quotes to share—and Easter is for nonfiction.

Except after I’d put it into those specific terms, I thought about it more. Why does fiction get Valentine’s Day? Well, because so many fictional stories feature love: romantic love, often, but also the love between siblings, friends, parents and children. Fictional stories can highlight love in a more vivid and engaging way that most nonfiction books could even dream of.

And that’s where I made the connection to Easter.

We love stories where the main character is put in a place of near-hopelessness…and makes a hard choice to do the right thing anyway. We swoon for heroes willing to risk their lives and sacrifice everything for the ones who love them. We cheer when reconciliation comes to broken relationships and good triumphs over evil.

All of these are quiet echoes of the greatest Story, the one where the hero doesn’t just risk his life but gives it…and not for the ones who love him, but for his enemies, so that they can become his friends.

There is the apologetic of fiction. Often the moments in stories that we remember the most, the ones that punch us in the gut or linger with a staying power that goes past the last page are the ones that remind us of the truths of Good Friday and Easter.

Love is stronger than hate.

Faithfulness is a choice, not an emotion.

Forgiveness, even of someone who doesn’t deserve it, is beautiful and freeing.

The world we live in is hard and dark and broken, but there is still hope.

I love that I work with authors who put these truths at the heart of their stories. And I love that fiction, too, has something to say as we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, maybe more than any of us realize.

Have you read a novel that reminded you of a spiritual truth in a powerful way?

 

In Defense of Genre Fiction

Recently, I had an exchange with a reader via Facebook message who did not approve of romance novels and wanted to explain why Bethany House shouldn’t be publishing them. Her biggest issue seemed to be that she didn’t perceive genre or commercial fiction, like romances, as having the same inherent value as the classical authors she listed (including Jane Austen, who doesn’t count as a romance author, apparently).

I responded with something vague and polite, but if we had been friends sitting down over a cup of tea, this post is probably what I would have said instead. You’re welcome to eavesdrop on our hypothetical conversation (and enjoy a cup of imaginary tea…I recommend Licorice Spice).

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First, I’d say, give me book recommendations anytime! I love literary fiction, and I’ll often pick up a good classic novel. Those books affect me in a special way. They have the power to reshape the way I think and challenge me and let me appreciate the sheer beauty of words and descriptions. Many of them will endure for generations, and that’s amazing.

But do you know what else is amazing?

An author who can keep me up late, turning pages and laughing in just the right pages. A story that transports and entertains me, especially if I learn something interesting by the end. Plots that help me see the world as it ought to be while characters overcome odds and make sacrifices to reach a happy ending. Well-written genre fiction does these things and more.

Oops. Shouldn’t have brought that up, because now my imaginary tea party friend accuses happy endings of feeling fake and untrue to reality.

To which I say I’m sure every now and then there’s a poorly written one that does. But let me tell you, I’ve read three literary novels this year with tragic endings that felt painfully artificial—like the author just wanted to break convention and inject some gratuitous misery into their protagonists’ lives toward the end to make a philosophical point. Besides, with all the craziness in the world, some people prefer unambiguously happy endings, and most at least like hopeful ones. Nothing wrong with that. Continue reading

What Makes a Great Story?

Coming off of our BHP Book Banter, I’m wading into the gridded, graphed, somewhat-unfamiliar world of data analysis. I like to imagine myself hacking through a dense jungle of spreadsheet rows and columns with a machete of clarity, because that sounds significantly more interesting than organizing survey responses.

Armed with that particular brand of melodrama, I found that while some of the sorting and graphing is a bit tedious, there are so many interesting comments and conclusions that it’s hard to be bored. I’m going to share one in particular that I think readers and writers alike will appreciate.

When readers were asked “What elements make a great story?” I noticed the feedback often clumped up in contrasting pairs.

Characters should be “flawed” but still “likeable.” Plots that are both “believable” and “surprising” make the best stories. Novels that “make you laugh” and “make you cry” were listed as favorites, often by the same person. The two most common adjectives applied to everything from setting to structure to and dialogue were “realistic/familiar” and “unique.”

HOpeAnd it made me think: good stories hold opposites in tension because The Story does too.

It doesn’t have to be Christian fiction, or even fiction written from the point of view of a Christian, for this to come through, although one thing that I think sets Christian fiction apart is seen in another comment made by several readers: “It’s not necessarily that the ending needs to be happy…but it needs to be hopeful.”

A special note for you writers—seeing these comments, I realized again that what you do is hard work. No other way around it. To write the novel described in these surveys you have to…

  • Give us characters who are better than us in some way so we look up to them…but also just like us so we can relate to them.
  • Portray a beautiful romance (which in real life can be a little dramatic, because lovebirds aren’t necessarily the most rational beings) without being cheesy, cloying, or over-the-top.
  • Maintain tension and suspense without slipping into melodrama or crossing the line into the improbability.
  • Make the heroes or heroines people with admirable qualities so we cheer them on the whole way, while still giving them deep flaws and weaknesses.
  • Plan a storyline that is complex enough to engage readers and keep them turning pages, but not so intricate that it becomes confusing.
  • Create an ending that has some element of unexpectedness, while still being nicely foreshadowed so it doesn’t feel like it dropped out of the sky.

Here’s the thing, though: you have everything you need to do this.

As a person of faith, you hold these contrasts together all the time. You believe that people are both made in the image of God and deeply broken by sin. You pray in the name of Jesus who was fully God and fully man. You listen every Easter to the greatest example of a surprising yet inevitable ending.

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Another contrast from C.S. Lewis, who liked writing about paradoxes.

Keep telling your stories, Christian writers. The world needs them because the world needs more hope.

Readers, which of the bullet points above do you think would be hardest to balance? (Writers, if you want to chime in with which one is most difficult for you, you’re welcome to do so!)

Maundy Thursday

If you talk to our authors, they’ll tell you about a term in fiction known as the “black moment.” It’s the point where the main characters are at their lowest mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. When you as a reader just have to keep turning pages to find out what happens next. When you start to wonder: How will they ever get together? Will this last blow crush them for good?  Don’t they have anyone who will stick with them?

Think of the last novel you read, and you can probably point to this moment. It’s the time when the characters feel most betrayed or lonely or fearful, with all odds stacked against them, and everything seems very dark. The mark of a really good story is when you as a reader feel along with the character at this moment.

I love Christian fiction and always say that Christians should be the best storytellers, because the romance of God giving up everything for the ones he loves is the story that all good and true stories remind us of. Just like a novel, this story has a black moment, too.

Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day where we remember Jesus’ sacrificial death for us. On this day, we remember a God who was betrayed and lonely and even fearful—for us.

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Just as any good novel needs conflict and suffering to make the happy ending really feel worth it, we need to feel the impact of Good Friday—really feel it—in order to celebrate Easter.

We know the ending of the story, but let’s not jump there too quickly. Let’s take a little time to mourn. Easter is a beautiful, blessed thing…but it came at a great cost.

This is the story of our faith: a separation that brought reconciliation. God suffering to save his enemies. Hope out of darkness.

And it’s the best story of all.

Does your family or church do anything special to remember Good Friday? If so, what is it?

The Blessing of Story

Next Thursday is Thanksgiving, and in my family, that means counting off our blessings with kernels of corn. We toss them into a basket that we pass around the table, letting the pile collect as we listen to friends and family tell snippets of stories from the past year.

When my sister and I were young, my parents would have to remind us to reach beyond the immediate physical “stuff” around us—to give thanks for friendship instead of just our new dolls, to think about what it means to live in a free country instead of just what it means to go on a field trip to the zoo.

In later years, almost all of the blessings we named were the more abstract sort: family, health, a sense of belonging, the ability to dream about the future.

Give thanks

This year, I have my list ready, and near the top is this: I am thankful for story.

And not just because I enjoy being entertained by happy endings. In fact, I think stories can sometimes be the opposite of cheery escapism.

In the psalms where the people of God are crying out for help, one thing they often do is trace back through their history, reminding God and themselves of those times when He was faithful, against all odds, in spite of their fears and weaknesses and failures (see Psalm 106 and Psalm 136 for good examples of this).

When thanksgiving was hard and lament seemed more fitting, they told stories.

It’s true that the books we talk about here on the blog are fiction. In a strict sense, they never happened. But in another sense, they happen all the time. They are memoirs of our struggles and triumphs, our heartbreaks and joys, because they describe people like us dealing with very real emotions and problems. Fiction stories may have different plots and settings, but we love them, at least in part, because they are our stories. And often, these stories portray both good times and hard ones.

It reminds me of this quote from Sarah Loudin Thomas’s Miracle in a Dry Season:

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On the bountiful years, when you have to prioritize your blessings to know which ones to mention, when you can laugh from someplace deep inside of you, when all the people gathered around the Thanksgiving table are happy to see each other, God is good.

And during the hard years, when there have been more hospital visits than weddings, when you have been hurt and have hurt others badly enough that you don’t know how to fix things, when there is an empty chair at the table, God is still good.

Or, as Psalm 43 says, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

Welcome to the Bethany House family Thanksgiving table! Pull up a chair.

Table

If I were to pass you a few bits of corn, what blessings would you name with them?

Learning From Ezra: Devotional from Lynn Austin

And the winner is…

PilgrimageMarty, please email me, Amy, at agreen@bethanyhouse.com with your mailing address so I can send you a copy of Pilgrimage. Thanks to everyone for sharing your favorite Bible character!

Keepers of the Covenant

As I researched my novel Keepers of the Covenant, based on the biblical book of Ezra, I was struck by how similar his times were to ours. In Ezra’s day, God’s people seemed more interested in adapting to the society around them than in living His way. They had wandered so far from Him that they’d ended up in Babylon, slaves to an ungodly way of life. But God longed to restore His children, so He made a way for them to return to the Promised Land and to a relationship with Him. Sadly, most people chose to remain in captivity. Only a very small remnant accepted His offer of salvation. But for those who did, God had a leader in place—Ezra.

Many of us have loved ones who have wandered away from God, captured by the culture’s empty promises and enticements. Like Ezra, we long to lead our loved ones home and help restore them to God’s embrace, but how? What qualities did Ezra possess that made him able to be used for God’s purposes? A few things about his character and habits stand out.

Pictures are from Lynn's trip to Israel.

Pictures are from Lynn’s trip to Israel, which she writes about in Pilgrimage.

First, the Bible says, “Ezra was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). In other words, he knew the scriptures. They provided him with the perspective to look beyond his daily life and see the bigger picture of God’s redemption plan. Ezra would have seen that the Almighty One is a God of salvation and restoration. He would have been waiting for it, longing for it. And when God said, “Now is the time,” Ezra was able to answer God’s call because he wasn’t entangled with his own busy agenda. Continue reading

Chatting Biblical Fiction with Lynn Austin

On the blog this week, I’m joined by the wonderful Lynn Austin!

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For more from Lynn, visit lynnaustin.org.

If you struggle with living out your faith in this culture, if you wonder about what all the buzz is about with recent and upcoming adaptations of Bible stories, if you (let’s be honest) have a hard time getting through the prophets without falling asleep, there’s something here for you. Pull up a chair, sip of cup of coffee, and listen in as we chat about ancient times, Sunday School stories, and stained glass windows.

Amy: What made you decide to write your series THE RESTORATION CHRONICLES?

I believe there is so much we can learn from studying Scripture, and that its truths have a great deal of relevance to our modern lives. In talking about Israel’s history, the apostle Paul wrote, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:11). I’ve heard many people say that they find the Bible difficult to read, so it’s my prayer that Keepers of the Covenant and the other books in the series will bring the Bible to life for those readers. I hope they’ll begin to see that the men and women in scripture were very much like us, and that they will be inspired by the walk of faith of biblical people like Ezra.

Amy: Absolutely. I felt that way reading Keepers of the Covenant, especially since it deals with a lesser-known character from a less-preached-on portion of the Bible. But I’m not the only one paying attention to the Old Testament these days. There seems to be a lot of interest in Bible stories and times right now (The Bible miniseries, various recent movies, etc). Why do you think even people who aren’t Christians are still interested in stories from the Bible?

Lynn: I think there are a lot of people who have a basic knowledge of the “classic” Bible stories such as Noah or Jonah—maybe from bedtime stories or from attending Sunday school or vacation Bible School—so they are curious about seeing them dramatized. I also believe there is a deep longing for God in all our hearts, and for knowledge of the unseen spiritual realm. Maybe it’s this longing that is drawing them.

Pictures from Lynn's trip to Israel.

Pictures from Lynn’s trip to Israel.

Amy: Let me just play devil’s advocate here for a moment: regarding biblical fiction in general, what would you say to someone who worried that fictional accounts of Bible stories might be reading too much into scripture or even distorting it?

Lynn: I would tell them that I understand their concern and assure them that I do extensive research before I begin writing. My goal is to stay as close to the scriptural text as possible and not add to it, but merely to fill in some of the historical and cultural background. I hope that my novels will bring the Bible to life and not only help readers visualize the stories, but also to see biblical characters as real flesh-and-blood people. I don’t want to replace scripture with a novel, but to draw readers back to the Bible so they will read it for themselves and maybe understand it a bit better.

Keepers of the Covenant

Keepers of the Covenant releases in October. Read more about it here.

Amy: Keepers of the Covenant focuses on the scholar-turned-leader Ezra. Which of Ezra’s many challenges do you think readers will relate to the most?

Lynn: I think all of us struggle to find the balance between being a productive member of our society and culture, yet not compromising our faith or God’s principles. We’re taught to have “the mind of Christ,” yet we face so many competing voices, telling us what’s right and what’s wrong, what we should believe and how we should live. One of Ezra’s biggest challenges was confronting the mixed marriages, which were a threat to the Jewish community. We also face this “mixture” whenever we’re tempted to let the culture determine our choices instead of God’s Word.

Amy: If you could meet the real Ezra, what’s one question you’d like to ask him?

Lynn: I would ask him to describe his reaction when he first heard the King’s edict that all the Jews in the empire would be annihilated in a single day. What did that news do to his faith in God? Was he angry with God for allowing such a thing or did he continue to trust, no matter what? And if his faith did hold strong, how did he acquire such faith?

Amy: Wow. Those are great questions. (I wish we could get Ezra to guest post on the blog now, too.) Do you have any tips for readers who are inspired to study books like Ezra or Nehemiah after reading THE RESTORATION CHRONICLES?

Lynn: I really enjoy using a study Bible as I read scripture to help me understand the historical background and customs. For instance, I’ve used the NIV Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible, and the Archaeological Study Bible. When I read the Bible each day, I also keep a journal where I record what’s going on in my life and what I learned from scripture that particular day and how it applies to me.

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Amy: Finally, just for fun: if you had a stained glass window depicting one scene from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament that have been meaningful to you, which would they be?

Lynn: From the Old Testament, I would choose the story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. It’s such a clear picture to me of how we need to obey God’s word even when we don’t understand it or agree with it, trusting God for the outcome. From the New Testament, I would choose the boy who gave his loaves and fishes to Jesus. It would remind me to faithfully give what I have to Christ, even if it doesn’t seem like much, trusting that He is able to multiply my meager efforts to bless others.

Thanks so much, Lynn, for your thoughtful answers! And, readers, now I’ll put that last question to you: if you had a stained glass window depicting one scene from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament that have been meaningful to you, which would they be and why?

In Defense of Christian Romances

A few months ago, I got an email from a high school student writing a research paper on this question: Can even Christian romances be harmful to read?

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Now, before you react with an outraged, “Of course not!” think about why she might be asking this question. I know many wonderful Christians who find romances, even Christian romances, to be a complicated issue. For some, it’s because reading and dreaming about the oh-so-dashing protagonists makes them less content with their lives. For others, it’s more about setting their daughters up for disappointment with tales of conflicts that resolve happily by the last page.

That said, this was part of my response:

Here’s something to think about: God often uses the metaphor of romance to describe his relationship with us. Why? Because there is something uniquely powerful about romantic love and the sacrifice and unselfishness it should inspire. That’s why I think Christian romances can teach us deep and beautiful things about who God is and what our relationships with others should look like.

But also, there’s a fine line between recognizing and longing for something good, such as a romantic relationship centered on Christ, and being discontent with what God has for you right now. It’s the difference between attending a wedding and thinking, This is beautiful, and I hope my story turns out that way, and thinking, God can’t possibly be good if I’m not married/dating right now. The same problems that some people assign to romance novels: discontent, unrealistic expectations, the possibility of taking imagination too far . . . all of those can take place at a wedding as well, and no Christians are suggesting we get rid of those.

So there’s my opinion as a single twenty-something reader. But how about the perspective of a Christian romance author? I decided to pose this question to the one and only Becky Wade, who champions and celebrates Christian romance novels. Here’s her response:

Meant to be Mine

Becky’s newest release.

Passionate romance AND a Christian message can most definitely go together inside the pages of the same novel!

I should tell you that I’m a die-hard romantic. When I started My Stubborn Heart, my first contemporary romance for the Christian market, I knew I wanted to give my reader the same concentrated romantic storyline that I like best as a reader. I also knew that the Lord had called to write for the Christian market.

Thus, while writing and rewriting my novels, I spend a significant amount of time trying to figure out how to pen heart-pounding love stories that are ALSO clean and inspiring faith stories.

Wade_BeckyWhat I’ve discovered?  The things that make a God-honoring real-life relationship wonderful to experience are the very same things that make a Christian romance novel wonderful to read. The beauty of a dating relationship isn’t found in anything R-rated. The beauty and excitement is in the awe of discovering new love, the building emotions, the tension of facing obstacles that could tear the couple apart, the growing devotion of a hero to his heroine and vice versa.

After all, God is the foremost expert on great love!  His people can and do experience devoted love stories worth writing about.

Your turn: why do you read Christian romances? Can you name a Christian romance novel that has had an impact on your life?

For more from Becky, visit her website or watch the video below.