Literature reflects human ideas, beliefs, and societies.
is so fundamentally obvious that we tend to overlook it. Why do we take the time to
read literature? Because humanity is valuable. The Christian understanding of human life
is one that stresses its inherent value and worth. Roger Lundin writes:
the doctrines of Creation and
Incarnation affirm that human life is inherently meaningful. God has placed us in a
world filled with order and hints of wonder, and through his acts of revelation and
redemption he has entered into our history. As a result, although some things are
obviously of greater importance than others, everything in our own experience has
significance, and our attempt to discern that significance--as well as we can--is part of
our calling as God's servants. (5)
Christ's incarnation teaches us that God hallows the material and cultural world.
Because God created the world and loved it enough to enter it, Christians too should love
it and seek to understand it.
|2. When we read
literature, we discover common human ways of understanding life.
Human beings have free will, an openness to the future, with significant
real moral choices to make. According to Christianity, they have a specific telos,
purpose and end--"to glorify God and enjoy him forever," as the Westminister
Confession says. The human self cannot be conceived without an awareness of a dependence
upon and ultimate union with God. We are beings in the process of change and formation.
Humans are relational beings created for mutuality and joint service (Gen 1:28, Gen 2).
One can see this pattern of relationality beginning in the very nature of God, ala' the
Trinity. It can also be seen in the biblical practice of covenant, as well as in the
community of Israel and the Church. We are individuals, but never conceived of as existing
alone or for ourselves alone. To read is to enter into the process of formation through
community. We find similar messages, insights, and lessons. We read about closely
related experiences. We also find similar mistakes.
When we read literature, we also discover significant differences. This allows us to
explore anothers message or life, even those separated from us by time and social
To read literature is also a lesson in
worldview. Thus, we often learn how different others are in circumstances and
approaches to life, as well as encounter the diverse differences in what humans believe.
|4. Literature is full
of human responses and reactions in poems, essays, diaries, narratives, and in the
characters of narratives. As we respond to and analyze these, we can gain a greater
knowledge of the human psyche.
5. At the same time, we gain a greater knowledge of
ourselves and our own responses because we can compare our lives to those in literature.
As we compare and contrast, not only various authors'
views but also our own views and those of others, we deepen our sense of human reactions
and our own self-responses. We have the possibility of becoming deeper, more self-aware
people. We are also fallen beings with a capacity for self-interest and self-deception. We
cannot ignore the impact of sin on our total person, both within ourselves and within the
larger social system where we reside. Therefore, we need a balance between self-awareness
and honest, self-discovery.
When we do this, we have the opportunity for discovering pride in our community and
culture, for gaining respect for anothers, and for learning humility as we interact
Yet being deeper and more self-aware
requires certain virtues, in particular, a sense of respect and humility. Good dialogue
requires faith, hope, and love: faith that communication can actually take place between
people; hope that something may come of our efforts; and love for our fellow human beings
in all their diversity, complexity, and variety.
|7. We dont
always agree with what we read, or we agree in part. We read literature to test the truth
of a message against our worldview.
For instance, what
exactly would a Christian perspective on the growth, building, and decay of cities look
like? What unique insights might Christianity have to offer in this area? There
seems to be in scripture a progression from the Garden of Eden to the great New Jerusalem
of Revelation, but does this suggest that Christians should automatically approve of how
human cities have evolved in the twentieth century?
We can cultivate wisdom, learn of good and evil, and experience the call to justice.
Literature cannot in itself make us a better person, but it can assist us in that quest.
Wisdom can be defined as skill in
living. By examining literary texts, their stories and their messages, we can
increase in our understanding of how to live life. We learn how to discern what is
healthy and destructive in the world, and we are challenged with injustice and its
consequences. Literature may even challenge us to ask what we will do to help end
the problems it pictures.
|9. Literature offers
us the beauty of words and stories, and as such, reflects the glory of God present in
language, narratives, and the stuff of creation.
Christian, I believe that not only is God the final source of all truth and all goodness,
but that God is also the final source of all beauty. Part of being
fully human under God is rejoicing in the wonder and joy that songs and stories and
language can bring to our lives.
Literature can entertain us.
Leland Ryken writes:
What constitutes a worthwhile use of leisure time? There is no one right answer.
. [But] literature has much to commend it as a leisure activity. In a day of mindless
leisure pursuits, literature stands out by engaging our mind . . . . It enriches our life
by making us aware of the world of human experience and human fears and longings . . . We
can upgrade the quality of our leisure time by learning to value what is excellent rather
than mediocre. (69-70)
Our use of our leisure is an extension of God's sabbath principle. God rested on
the seventh day, not because he needed to, but in order to teach us the value of
existence. God has created us to enjoy things. Times of rest and pleasure are
not laziness but times of celebration.
Literature can offer us cultural literacy. Literary figures, plots, motifs, movements, and
genres are a vital part of our cultural heritages.
frequent question that students often ask: "Well, why are these works
considered so important?" Louise Cowan has suggested the following seven reasons for
why a text is considered a classic:
- The classics not only exhibit distinguished style, fine artistry, and keen intellect but
create whole universes of imagination and thought.
- They portray life as complex and many-sided, depicting both negative and positive
aspects of human character in the process of discovering and testing enduring virtues.
- They have a transforming effect on the reader's self-understanding.
- They invite and survive frequent rereadings.
- They adapt themselves to various times and places and provide a sense of the shared life
- They are considered classics by a sufficiently large number of people, establishing
themselves with common readers as well as qualified authorities.
- And, finally, their appeal endures over wide reaches of time. (21-22)
Literature can open us to our own latent interests and talents; we may even discover part
of our vocation from God.
Frederick Buechner has noted that "the place God calls you to is where your deep
gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Our vocations in life--parent/child,
student/teacher, lawyer, doctor, cook, preacher, etc.-- are terrible important to our
self-identity and more so, to our vision of life's purpose. Lee Hardy recognizes that the
work that each of us is called to is based in the doctrine of creation:
Through work we respond to God's mandate to humanity to continue the
work of creation by subduing the earth; through work we realize ourselves as image-bearers
of God; through work we follow Christ in his example of redemptive suffering as we serve
those with whom he identifies. [. . .] Although in working we become like God, giving
further shape and form to the earth for the good of humanity, we remain subordinate and
responsible to God as stewards of creation. (76)
For some of us, the study of literature plays a part in this
calling. Literature can challenge us to grow as individuals and as communities, and for
that, it is worth spending time with.
Cowan, Louise and Os Guinness. Invitation to the Classics. Grand Rapids:
Gallagher, Susan V. and Roger Lundin. Literature Through the Eyes of Faith.
NY: HarperCollins, 1989.
Hardy, Lee. The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice,
and the Design of Human Work. Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans, 1990.
Ryken, Leland. Windows to the World. Dallas: Probe, 1990.