I was recently invited to participate in a dialogue about books and reading by John Wilson, the editor of Books & Culture (a sister publication of Christianity Today). John asked if I would consider writing out a blog conversation with Dr. Karen Swallow Prior, the Chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University. The invitation struck me as initially intimidating because I’m fairly certain Karen can intellectually roundhouse kick me back and forth across the literary mat without breaking a sweat, if she wanted to. But I was assured it was no debate, and that I would not be injured. So I agreed. It turned out to be a brief but enjoyable dialogue about books and reading (thank you John!). Our four-part conversation is now online:
How do Christians read classical literature for spiritual edification?
Jim Hamilton provides us with one nice model, not only in how he thoughtfully cites excerpts from literature in his recent book on biblical theology, but more recently in how he connects Mark 12 and the plot of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. See Hamilton’s blog post: “Tenants, Traps, Teaching, and the Meaning of Melville’s ‘Moby Dick.’”
Preachers should take note of how Hamilton enlists classic literature for his sermon illustrations. Too frequently preachers draw their illustrations from entertainment world when classic literature abounds with even better and more useful sermon illustrations, illustrations that simultaneously reinforce the value and importance of reading to his congregation.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (Harvest, 1982) p. 64:
Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. … Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle. If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week.
One of the best little summaries of the value of literature in the Christian life comes from Leland Ryken’s book Windows To the World: Literature in Christian Perspective (Wipf and Stock, 2000). Here’s what Ryken writes on page 34:
“Literature is life. If you want to know what, deep down, people feel and experience, you can do no better than read the stories and poems of the human race. Writers of literature have the gift of observing and then expressing in words the essential experiences of people.
The rewards of reading literature are significant. Literature helps to humanize us. It expands our range of experiences. It fosters awareness of ourselves and the world. It enlarges our compassion for people. It awakens our imaginations. It expresses our feelings and insights about God, nature, and life. It enlivens our sense of beauty. And it is a constructive form of entertainment.
Christians should neither undervalue nor overvalue literature. It is not the ultimate source of truth. But it clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks. It does not replace the need for the facts that science and economics and history give us. But it gives us an experiential knowledge of life that we need just as much as those facts.
Literature does not always lead us to the City of God. But it makes our sojourn on earth much more a thing of beauty and joy and insight and humanity.”
Here is a very helpful and balanced perspective on literature and aesthetics from a paper by C. S. Lewis published the book Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 1967) page 10:
“The Christian will take literature a little less seriously than the cultured Pagan: he will feel less uneasy with a purely hedonistic standard for at least many kinds of work. The unbeliever is always apt to make a kind of religion of his aesthetic experiences; he feels ethically irresponsible, perhaps, but he braces his strength to receive responsibilities of another kind which seem to the Christian quite illusory. He has to be ‘creative’; he has to obey a mystical amoral law called his artistic conscience; and he commonly wishes to maintain his superiority to the great mass of mankind who turn to books for mere recreation. But the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world …
It thus may come about that Christian views on literature will strike the world as shallow and flippant; but the world must not misunderstand. When Christian work is done on a serious subject there is no gravity and no sublimity it cannot attain. But they will belong to the theme. That is why they will be real and lasting—mighty nouns with which literature, an adjectival thing, is here united, far over-topping the fussy and ridiculous claims of literature that tries to be important simply as literature.
And a posteriori it is not hard to argue that all the greatest poems have been made by men who valued something else much more than poetry… The real frivolity, the solemn vacuity, is all with those who make literature a self-existent thing to be valued for its own sake.”
Not long ago a blog commentor scolded me for featuring Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings on my blog. I guess its not spiritual enough or something. She didn’t say. (Why she didn’t haul me over the coals for Wodehouse is beyond me!).
But I was not offended by the comment. Actually I was a bit saddened. It breaks my heart that some Christians would not consider accepting LOTR for what it is, a magnificent moral epic that can only be explained—as is true of the greatest literature—as a gift from the benevolent hand of God.
Sometimes it seems that contemporary Christians can use some help in properly appreciating the gifts of literature that God has blessed us with. And I’m not just talking about Christian literature either. Martin Luther understood this fact well. Today I came across these two quotes about how Martin Luther treasured the ancient pagan book Aesop’s Fables (think: the tortoise and the hare).
The first quote is by George Fyler Townsend in the introduction to his translation of Aesop’s Fables (2005), page 10:
“These fables … were among the books brought into an extended circulation by the agency of the printing press. … The knowledge of these fables spread from Italy into Germany, and their popularity was increased by the favor and sanction given to them by the great fathers of the Reformation … . Martin Luther translated twenty of these fables, and was urged by Melanchthon to complete the whole; while Gottfried Arnold, the celebrated Lutheran theologian, and librarian to Frederick I, king of Prussia, mentions that the great Reformer valued the Fables of Aesop next after the Holy Scriptures.”
And here is the man himself, Martin Luther, as quoted in his Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 54:210–211:
“It is a result of God’s providence that the writings of Cato and Aesop have remained in the schools, for both are significant books. Cato contains the most useful sayings and precepts. Aesop contains the most delightful stories and descriptions. Moral teachings, if offered to young people, will contribute much to their edification. In short, next to the Bible, the writings of Cato and Aesop are in my opinion the best…”