Speaking of the dangers of an immoderate reading of fiction, R. L. Dabney wrote,
“But there is also an injury to the moral character as well as to the habits of mental industry, which is a necessary result of the fundamental laws of feeling. Exercise is the great instrument ordained by God to strengthen the active principles of the heart. On the other hand, all the passive susceptibilities are worn out and deadened by frequent impressions. Illustrations of these two truths are familiar to every one; but there is one well-known instance which offers us at once an example of the truth of both of them. It is that of the experienced and benevolent physician. The active principle of benevolence is strengthened by his daily occupations until it becomes a spontaneous and habitual thing in him to respond to every call of distress, regardless of personal fatigue, and to find happiness in doing so. But at the same time, his susceptibilities to the painful impressions of distressing scenes are so deadened that he can act with nerve and coolness in the midst of suffering, the sight of which would at first have unmanned him.
Now, all works of fiction are full of scenes of imaginary distress, which are constructed to impress the sensibilities. The fatal objection to the habitual contemplation of these scenes is this, that while they deaden the sensibilities, they afford no occasion or call for the exercise of active sympathies. Thus the feelings of the heart are cultivated into a monstrous, an unnatural, and unamiable disproportion. He who goes forth in the works of active benevolence among the real sufferings of his fellow creatures will have his sensibilities impressed, and at the same time will have opportunity to cultivate the principle of benevolence by its exercise. Thus the qualities of his heart will be nurtured in beautiful harmony, until they become an ornament to his character and a blessing to his race. This is God’s “school of morals.” This is God’s plan for developing and training the emotions and moral impulses. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” And the adaptation of this plan of cultivation to the laws of man’s nature shows that the inventor is the same wise Being who created man. It is by practicing this precept of the gospel that man is truly humanized. But the beholder of these fictitious sorrows has his sympathies impressed, and therefore deadened, while those sympathies must necessarily remain inert and passive, because the whole scene is imaginary. And thus, by equal steps, he becomes at once sentimental and inhuman. While the Christian, whose heart has been trained in the school of duty, goes forth with cheerful and active sympathies in exercises of beneficence towards the real woes of his neighbor, the novel reader sits weeping over the sorrows of imaginary heroes and heroines, too selfish and lazy to lay down the fascinating volume and reach forth his hand to relieve an actual sufferer at his door.”
1.) This is not to throw out all reading of fiction. It is merely to note the effect of a constant diet of fiction upon the Christian mind. And since we are going to be saying something about the pulpit, this isn’t intended to communicate that the Sermon story has no place whatsoever.
2.) We need to keep in mind that whatever Dabney has to say here about the immoderate reading of fiction would apply to the immoderate viewing of films, plays, and television.
3.) I’ve spent a significant portion of time in my adult life reading sermons. I can tell you that over the last two to three hundred years sermons have changed a great deal. If you listen to sermons today as compared to a sermon from almost any of the Puritans you see the centrality of the sentimental in sermons and interestingly enough that happens quite often via the telling of the fiction story from the pulpit as part of (and often central to) the sermon. In the Preacher business this is called “narrative preaching.”
4.) Dabney’s point is that the saturation of the feelings, via the absorption of fiction, without some kind of corresponding action leaves one to rot, much like a sponge that soaks up water that is never squeezed out. If this is true and if it is true that the sermon has largely become a platform for story telling, then one is left to wonder if much of our modern sermonizing is resulting, not in building up the saints, but is working to leave them to rot.
5.) Story telling from the pulpit and fiction in general is like a drug for the person who is hooked. Once hooked the fiction and story telling must get better and better — more and more sentimental and sensational — in order to work within the listener or reader the desired effect. Pity the Preacher who doesn’t do the sappy and sentimental story because a generation raised on story telling and fiction is a generation that will not abide a Preacher who is didactic as opposed to sentimental and sensational.
6.) Dabney writes, “it is by practicing this precept of the gospel that man is truly humanized.” Based on this statement Dabney would be chastised by many Reformed people today since according to R2K it is not possible for the Gospel to be practiced by men since the Gospel, according to these definitions, is only what God does. Silly Dabney.
7.) I’m going to contend that this push towards the fiction in our culture but also in the Church is closely tied up with the feminization of the culture and the Church. Fiction fills the role of wooing the reader. Biblically speaking, it is women who have been wooed and men are active in the wooing. Fiction feminizes men because it casts men in the role of the one wooed.
For a two good books that go into this subject with greater depth see,