Some Christians have argued that reading literature is essentially a waste of time that might be much better spent in reading the Bible or devotional books. We should note, however, that, given the need for critical engagement with the surrounding culture, literature can have great value for the Christian in several ways.
The greatest value of literature is to give insight into the human experience. In this regard, much can be learned from non-Christian writers. By common grace, unbelievers often understand the world in which they live in profound ways, though for the most part they perceive the human dilemma of endemic evil and hopelessness without being able to provide any solutions. Thus the literature of the modern age, especially since the beginning of the twentieth century, tends to be depressing. From the novels of Thomas Hardy to the works of Faulkner and Hemingway to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Christians gain a better understanding of how modern man views the apparent absurdity of his own predicament – with a hopelessness that is hard for us to imagine.
Christians can also gain insight into how the world views us. It doesn’t take much exposure to literature and the popular media to figure out that they do a bad job of portraying the reality of Christianity, despite occasional astonishing exceptions like the portrayal of Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire. This should not be surprising, since “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (I Corinthians 1:18). Two major tendencies appear in literature that attempts to portray Christianity.
Such works as Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and John Osborne’s Luther give very unflattering pictures of Christianity. Such critical pictures are painful, but make it easier for Christians to understand the low regard in which we are held by the world around us. Even this can have value, since it equips the believer to respond to the caricatures and misperceptions that dominate the surrounding world.
On the other hand, when Christianity is pictured in a positive way in secular works, it is often the Social Gospel kind of religion. After all, unbelievers think that religion ought to be more concerned with this world than the next, and think the best Christians are those who care little about what people believe, are non-judgmental about their actions, and are willing to accept everyone. This is the kind of pastor that tends to appear favorably in movies as well as in well-known works of literature. For example, Jane Austen, who was a Christian, and George Eliot, who was not, both show this tendency among the clergymen who are pictured positively in their novels. The ones who are really religious are hypocrites and fools, while the “good” clergymen are much more liberal and tolerant.
Reading good literature can also help a Christian’s witness, since it enables him to understand how unbelievers think and to gain a window into their world that can be useful in preaching the Gospel. The common ground that good literature creates can often open the door for discussing the serious ideas found in that literature, and thus to a conversation about the answer the Gospel provides for the big questions being addressed.
Reading good literature can also cause us to praise God for the reality of the common grace that He gives, enabling even those who hate Him to create works of great power and beauty. We can thank God for these things even if the authors themselves refuse to acknowledge the source of their talents. Take note, however, of the frequent references in this article to good literature. Bad art, whether created by Christians or non-Christians, can elicit little praise to God, and is not generally helpful common ground for serious discussions with unbelievers.
[Excerpted from my Thinking Inside the Box, this essay is also found on my Facebook page]
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