Christians today are not simply needing guidance as to what to read, they need to be encouraged to read at all. What used to be regarded as a pleasure for times of leisure has now become regarded as a hard discipline to be undertaken when we are tired of scrolling on Instagram.
Why should Christians concern themselves with literature?
- Christians are a people of the Word. God has chosen to reveal Himself to us primarily through a book. God’s chosen form of revelation is literary. To the degree we diminish in our ability to be a literary people, we diminish in our ability to know and love God as He has revealed Himself.
- Literature shapes a worldview. Every book we read is a mini-cosmos, which we enter as we read. Within that universe, certain views of truth, error, goodness, evil, beauty, and ugliness are present. As we live in that world, we either reject that world as hostile to God or we embrace it in some way or another. Whatever we choose, it is certain that when we emerge from a book, we are changed.
- Literature is a means of knowing invisible realities. It can allegorize or symbolize real aspects of our world using characters, objects, and plot twists. The Scarlet Letter pictures both integrity and hypocrisy; Moby Dick illuminates the deceitfulness of vengeance; The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings contrast humble courageous loyalty with proud and selfish power; Les Miserables pictures redemption.
- Literature shapes our judgment, as we evaluate whether a work is true, false, or distorted. A. W. Tozer wrote “I therefore recommend reading, not for diversion, nor for information alone, but for communion with great minds. The book that leads the soul out into the sunlight, points upward and bows out is always the best book.”
- Literature shapes our thoughts, since our thoughts are formed with words. Literature can either expand our ability to think concisely, or it can debase and deform it.
How should we evaluate literature?
We should ask at least the following four questions.
- Does the work create a world similar to or emerging from a Christian worldview? Are there signs of truth, goodness, and beauty? Who is the protagonist (hero)? What attributes or pursuits are glorified by the work? Whom does the author seem to praise, admire, or excuse?
- Even if the worldview is not recognizably Christian, does the work speak clearly and truly about the human condition, without glorifying evil or delighting in obscenity? Does it display man as fallen, with glimpses of common grace, needing redemption? Or does it show reality in a way that suggests meaninglessness or suffering without purpose?
- Are the characters and plot sophisticated and real enough to transport us into their world? Is it a coherent and consistent mini-cosmos? Or does everything seem hollow, flat, clichéd and nothing like the reality in which we live?
- Is it written so as to demand we “receive it” (enter its world), or is it written with so many clichés that we simply use it to find what we were already looking for? In other words, does it have enough beauty to draw us in and change us, if we are willing, or is it just a collection of easily recognizable formulas that satisfy a shallow desire for amusement?