“In the beginning was the Word.” Thus opens one of the most beloved books in the Christian Scriptures, the Gospel of John. It is a most fitting introduction to a literary masterpiece that points to the One that the Christian faith centers upon: Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Proponents of the Christian faith have rightly been labelled as “people of the Book.” Christians accept and embrace the truth that the Holy Scriptures are the “infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith). Leland Ryken summarized the import of the fact that our rule of faith comes to us in the form of a book: “Because the Bible communicates truth by literary means, no Christian can say that literature is unimportant.” The Christian reader must therefore embrace literature as a meaningful expression from a human author created in the image of God. Literature must be interpreted and applied from a distinctly Christian perspective so that all things, whether eating or drinking, reading or writing, would be done for the glory of God.
In this post I hope to accomplish two things. In the first section I want to give a defense for the value of literature. In the second section I will provide principles and guidelines for approaching literature from a Christian perspective.
The Value of Literature
Alright, I am biased. I love reading. One of my favorite study Bibles is The Literary Study Bible. I actually enjoyed writing a graduate paper on the Christian themes in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I like listening to literary lectures by Leland Ryken. My master’s degree is in literature. All the same, I contend that literature is of great value to all people. However, many view literature with condescension: Boring. Pointless. Useless. Instead of embracing literature as a gift from God, many neglect it and even belittle it. This is to their detriment. Literature is a goldmine of treasure. Far from being disparaged, literature ought to be valued as a great tool by which the reader can better understand the world, himself, and his Maker.
Literature is valuable for at least three reasons:
- It gives the reader eyes to see the world and the human experience.
- It enables him to deepen his thinking and ability to understand important issues.
- It is the medium through which God has revealed himself.
Let’s examine these three points in detail.
1. Literature Provides Windows to the World
One of the reasons literature is so valuable is because it provides windows to the world. By reading literature, the reader is able to observe what happens in life, see himself in the story, and survey the nature of the human condition. By reading literature one can experience a plethora of human experiences. An observant reader can see the seemingly endless scenarios that can occur in the course of a human life. This is valuable because in seeing what happens in life the reader also sees two other distinct things: himself and the human condition. In reading literature the reader “sees” himself better because he is forced to respond to the various stimuli presented. How does he react to the plot? Which characters does he root for? Does he respond with anger to tragedy? His responses to literature will help him see how he views the events that take place in life. Additionally, he gains a fuller picture of the human condition. If nothing else, literature opens up the human condition for the reader. The whole range of human emotion is presented: love, hate, gratitude, anger, courage, fear, hope, dismay. Literature thus provides a window for one to gain a better picture of the real world of events, his reaction to them, and the nature of humanity. Even stories which take place in a fantasy world contain those basic conflicts and struggles which are common to human experience. I cannot read The Lord of the Rings and get immersed in the internal battle Frodo has with the evil of the ring and not be drawn to contemplate the evil of sin that seeks to draw me from Christ. I cannot read of Ransom’s visceral and violent struggle against evil incarnate in Perelandra and not be drawn to think of the violence that I am to have in defeating the enemy of my soul (cf. Matthew 11:12, Ephesians 6:10-18).
2. Reading Literature Helps Cultivate Deep Thinkers
There is another reason literature should be highly valued by the Christian: it helps him think. As mentioned, the nature of literature allows him to see and “experience” things that he would not get a chance to otherwise. In doing so, literature provides him with the opportunity to deepen his thinking. By embodying other sets of values and worldviews—by presenting these things in action—literature can help him see what the consequences of ideas are (Hake, Why Study Literature).
Literature can thus be thought of as a laboratory in which you can put human experience in a test tube and examine it from different angles…Literature gives us an excellent opportunity to examine our own ultimate assumptions about life and compare them with those of others. (Hake)
By being exposed to various viewpoints, he is able to analyze these worldviews and values in comparison with his own values. Doing so requires some work, but it is highly worthwhile. Literature is a gift because it provides the reader with “easy access” to various worldviews which he can dissect and ponder.
There is also another way in which literature helps readers to be better thinkers. It broadens one’s knowledge. James Porter Moreland explains that being an active reader can actually be helpful in understanding the Bible better:
We often read the Bible, hear the news, listen to a sermon, or talk to friends, yet we don’t get much out of it. One central reason for this may be our lack of knowledge and intellectual growth. The more you know, the more you see and hear because your mind brings more to the task of “seeing as” or “seeing that.” In fact, the more you know about extrabiblical matter, the more you will see in the Bible.
By having “concepts and categories placed in the mind’s structure” the reader is able to make connections with the Scripture. For example, gaining insight into the devastation of adultery through a (tasteful) literary work (e.g. The Scarlet Letter) can broaden his understanding of the biblical injunction against it. Far from brainwashing and dulling his senses, literature can, when approached correctly, deepen his ability to think critically.
3. Literature is the Main Medium God Chose to Reveal Himself By
A third and final reason to value literature is because the one true God has revealed himself to mankind through literature. The Bible, God’s Word to humans, is the most important Book one could wish to possess. Unmistakably, the Bible contains very much literature in the traditional sense of the word.
The Bible demands a literary approach because its writing is literary in nature. The Bible is an experiential book that conveys the concrete reality of human life. It is filled with evidences of literary artistry and beauty, much of it in the form of literary genres. It also makes continuous use of resources of language that we can regard as literary. (Leland Ryken)
Even the parts of the Bible that are not predominantly literary (the epistles for example), still demand a level of literary criticism. Such devices of language as metaphor, simile, allusion, pun, paradox, and irony are part and parcel in the literary world. Leland Ryken explains that, even though mainly used in poetry, the Bible is full of such literary devices and thus must be regarded as literary: “This is why, incidentally, a literary approach is necessary throughout the Bible and not just in the predominately literary parts.” For example, consider this passage from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, an epistle that may not seem very literary: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). Such use of simile (i.e. suffering as a soldier), among other devices, redounds in the Bible. The Bible “incarnates ideas in the form of poetic images, stories of characters in action, and living situations in which readers can imaginatively participate” (Ryken). The Christian reader ought to value literature because it is the means by which God has revealed himself in his Word. If for no other reason than to read the Book of books, the Christian must value literature. Ryken accurately summarized the import of this subject: “Because the Bible communicates truth by literary means, no Christian can say that literature is unimportant.”
Literature is highly underrated by many. Instead of being a frivolous endeavor, reading and studying literature is of immense value to the human mind. By seeing the world through the “literary lens,” the Christian is able to broaden his thinking and even understand the Bible better. There is an old Jewish saying that goes something like this: God made people because he loves stories. While the precise theological truth of such a statement may be fuzzy, the general truth in it is inescapable: we are drawn to stories and storytellers are drawn to us. The greatest Storyteller of all values literature. Should we, merely characters on his stage, not do likewise?
We will now look at the purpose of literature and consider how to read it.
The Purpose of Literature
Literature is meant to, first and foremost, delight the reader. Leland Ryken, in defense of reading literature for delight, writes that God did not create “a purely functional world,” but also created things to give humans the “opportunity to contemplate the beauty and handiwork of God.” Literature is meant to be enjoyed; there can, in fact, be “words of delight” (Ecclesiastes 12:10). Humans innately understand the difference between reading an instruction manual and reading a story. While some may enjoy learning about the mechanical operations of an air conditioner, surely it is not for the sake of the words alone. However, when one reads a story, he is simply reading for the sake of reading. The words act on him as a delight. As C.S. Lewis put it, the purpose of literature is not for people to “rush hastily forward to do something with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them.” Literature differs from other writings in that it stands alone, needing no other overt purpose to exist. A road sign does not exist to simply delight people, it has a utilitarian purpose. The Mona Lisa, however, serves no such utilitarian purpose—and one does not see any ordinary stop signs in the Louvre.
While the sine qua non of literature is that it delights—it also has another essential function. Literature not only delights, but it also teaches. This is more of an inescapable reality than a planned component. All art work inevitably operates out of a certain worldview. Some literature may have more evident lessons or insights; other literature may simply draw one’s attention to a certain aspect of creation. Whatever the case, no piece of literature was created or exists in a vacuum. It will undoubtedly provide the reader with a glimpse at reality. Literature therefore exists to delight and teach the reader. Robert Frost noted that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” The same could be said for literature in general: it begins and operates on the level of delighting, but in the end it certainly should lead to wisdom, not vice.
As mentioned above, another way literature serves to instruct is by providing “windows to the world.” As God’s image-bearers, humans are complex creations, capable of a plethora of emotions, experiences, and interactions. By reading literature, the observant reader is able to perceive the world through the eyes of another. Stories and poems, if nothing else, are glimpses of humanity. They reveal to the reader what is important to the author, and perhaps an entire era.
Christians are called to reach out to others in love—surely love includes understanding the other person—and learning about other viewpoints from literature can help the believer in this evangelistic task. (Note that I do not endorse reading graphically vile books in order to “learn” about other viewpoints.) In order to truly profit from literature the Christian reader must not approach literature haphazardly. He must bring to his reading certain principles that will enable him to truly benefit from the delightful, instructional, and enlightening nature of literature, always remembering the One who gives all words their meaning.
Principles for Reading
Literature, even if written by an atheist, must be read from a distinctly Christian perspective. This means at least three things: reading to understand authorial intent, reading to understand the worldview presented, and reading which discriminates between good and evil.
1. Authorial Intent. First, consider reading to understand authorial intent. The Christian reader must begin with the presupposition that words have meaning and that authors use words to convey meaning. The foundation for this presupposition is the Word of God itself: “For the whole Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable to teach, to convince, to correct, and to instruct in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
The words of Scripture would not be profitable if the reader could not accept them as having meaning given by the ultimate Author. In similar manner, any piece of literature must be received as coming from a human author—a person who used words specifically to convey meaning. If this is not the case, absurdity ensues, and there is no longer any difference between reading literature and the ancient practice of “reading” animal entrails. The Christian reader must, therefore, approach literature with this bedrock presupposition: words have meaning and any intelligible author uses them to convey something specific. Consider, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Man of Adamant, a tale of a man hardened by self-righteousness and religious elitism. Like the fool in Proverbs 18:1 “who isolates himself [and] seeks his own desire,” Richard Digby goes off alone into the forest and “rages against all wise judgment” (NKJV). Near the close of the tale, Richard has a heavenly visitation from Mary Goffe, one of his former converts. She pleads with him to repent of his self-focused sinfulness. His response is piercing:
“Tempt me no more, accursed woman,” exclaimed he, still with his marble frown, “lest I smite thee down also! What hast thou to do with my Bible?—what with my prayers?—what with my Heaven?” (Hawthorne)
If a reader ignores authorial intent and approaches this text like “silly putty,” all meaning is lost. The reader must seek to find the authorial intent by applying the historical-grammatical hermeneutic. Hawthorne was writing from a specific time and place (post-Puritan New England). The story itself must define his meaning as well (similar to the analogy of faith when reading the Bible). When the Christian reader approaches The Man of Adamant with this in view, he is able to understand Hawthorne’s meaning. Richard Digby’s response to Mary Goffe is not about feminism, white supremacy, or any other artificial theory imposed upon the text—it is about a man who has been so hardened in his self-love that he spurns all entreaties to repent and experience true religion. If authorial intent is abandoned, literature itself is lost.
2. The Inevitability of Worldview. The second basic thing to remember when reading literature is the inevitability of worldview. Edward Gene Veith describes worldview in the following way: “On the most basic level, worldviews involve the different assumptions about what is true and what is false, right and wrong, important and unimportant.” A story provides many insights into the worldview being presented. How is evil portrayed? Are the results of sinful actions usually blessings or curses? In the end, does wickedness bring true happiness? Or do the “pleasures of sin” only last “for a season” (Hebrews 11:25)? The way an author portrays sin will certainly betray much. For example, consider a story which deals with adultery. Is the unfaithfulness of the spouse presented as a victory of freedom, or as the wicked act of defying God’s Law that it is? Even without being overt, a story which shows the devastation of adultery highlights the truth of the Bible—“Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burnt? Or can a man go upon coals, and his feet not be burnt?” (Proverbs 6:24-25). If adultery is distinctly presented as a positive thing, such as in Lady Chatterly’s Lover (a book I intend to never read), you can be sure the worldview is expressly anti-Christ. If, however, the author relates multiple reactions to sin—such as in The Scarlet Letter when Dimmesdale experiences the “burning torture…upon [his] breast” because of his sin nearly until the end, while Hester experiences liberation in her sin—a more critical approach is needed to determine the worldview being presented.
3. Discriminatory Reading. Just as in life, Christians must always discriminate between good and evil in their reading. When the Christian reader has used the historical-grammatical hermeneutic to understand authorial intent, and when he has recognized key features of the worldview presented, he is then in a position to evaluate and discriminate between good and evil. Even if a piece of literature is not explicitly Christian, the believer must approach it in a Christian way. Believers are commanded to “bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, GNV). While the Christian reader cannot change the worldview of the author, he can interpret it from the standpoint of the truth, guarding himself from being conformed to the thinking patterns of the world (cf. Romans 12:2). The reality of good and evil being mixed together in this world is clearly presented in the Bible. Consider the parable of the weeds.
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:24-30, ESV)
Like the servants in the parable of the weeds, the Christian reader need not destroy all literature that is mixed with some error, but he must recognize this and not be fooled into thinking there is no distinction between good and evil. Literature can certainly influence us for evil—but if we are aware of the dangers, and consistently discriminate based on the standard of God’s Word, we “will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11, NLT).
Literature and the Preacher
Just like the Christian reader, the Christian preacher need not shy away from literature. Rather than reacting against the abuses of God’s gift, he can avail himself of the numerous “windows to the world” which literature provides. The Apostle Paul set the example when he cited the literature of his day, Aratus’s poem “Phainomena.” Aratus wrote of Zeus, the “king of the gods” to the Greeks:
From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood. (emphasis added)
Paul understood the (faulty) worldview present in the literature, but he did not reject the poem outright; rather he gleaned from it the reality being presented. He discriminated between the “weeds” and the “wheat,” and he availed himself of the “window to the world” that this poem provided. He then cited it back to the Greeks, reminding them of the truth, found in part in this poem.
“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” (Acts 17:26-28, ESV, emphasis added)
Paul of course then explained the full truth to them, going beyond the shadowy allusions in the pagan poem. Thus the Christian preacher should never feel guilty for using literature as a “window to the world”—and he would do well to remember that before he can truly “use” literature, he must first “receive” it for what it is. C.S. Lewis wrote, “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.” The Christian preacher must first enjoy literature (not ignoring our need to be on guard against error) and then apply it to his preaching.
Everyone approaches literature with certain presuppositions. This is unavoidable. Those who would have readers rid themselves of all assumptions when approaching the text ignore the foundational nature of presuppositions. All people must operate with certain presuppositions. Even the deconstructionists cannot truly deny this; they only want the reader to operate based on their presuppositions. What then should be the presuppositions the Christian reader brings to a piece of literature? It must be that the Word of God is the ultimate definer of reality and truth: “To the Law, and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word: it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20, GNV). A worldview which explicitly denies the truth is to be rejected, even if the literature which contains that worldview is appreciated. Even though men may reject Christ, they still live in his world. They enjoy the gifts of God—one such gift being literature. Instead of rejecting this gift, Christians ought to demonstrate thankfulness in the most natural way: delight. The great invitation of the Christian ought to be: Delight yourself in literature, even as you “delight yourself in the LORD” (Psalm 37:4).