Today’s tip comes from a friend I actually know in real life! A. Carroll Crowe blogs over at firstfire, where she offers great perspective on Christianity and literature. And I do mean literature, as in, the classic stuff. I love how different — and yet how equally viable — this reading tip is from last week’s. While Sheila’s tip was very practical (read what you like) this tip considers the philosophy behind deciding what you like. So read on! And check out her blog for more great thought-provoking posts!
Amidst the welter of pagan religions that thrived in the decaying Roman Empire, Christianity—small and doctrinaire, without priests or temples—stood out, often painfully. Romans might not agree that Christianity was right, but they certainly thought that it was different. Oddly, one of the greatest differences between ancient paganism and infant Christianity is, today, among the least discussed. Unlike the other religions, Christians based their lives and faith on sacred scriptures. Written words, not temple rituals. The Christians went so far as to call the Founder of their religion “the Word.” And throughout history, where Christianity has gone, literacy—and, in many cases, literature—has followed.
But what sort of literature is appropriate for Christians to read? Christians have offered, and continue to offer, many different viewpoints. Sir Philip Sidney wrote In Defense of Poesy during the 1500s to advocate imaginative writing against people in Christian England who thought that anything but nonfiction was immoral. A century later John Bunyan’s friends tried to persuade him not to publish A Pilgrim’s Progress. Fictional writing was still considered suspect.
But those views are very uncommon today. Most of us are extremely glad that Bunyan did publish Pilgrim’s Progress. Our Sunday School papers included short stories intended to illustrate the lesson. Our pastors read fictional accounts as sermon illustrations. We’ve grown up reading novels bought in the Christian bookstore.
But our Christian bookstores include much more variety than they once did. I’ve picked up novels written by Christians that I’ve had to get rid of (I have a very vivid imagination, and because of that I have to be careful about reading certain types of books). Then there are novels written by non-Christians—or at least non-evangelicals—that I’ve appreciated. Some have helped me spiritually, but they probably would never be sold in a Christian bookstore. So where is the middle ground?
First, I would like to get one major illusion out of the way. I’m addressing it in part because I was vulnerable to it as a young teen. There was a series of Christian children’s books (of the variety that are, indeed, sold in the Christian bookstore) that I really enjoyed. Each one had a moral. I decided that when I grew older and began writing novels, I would make sure each of mine had a specific moral in it, just like that series.
It’s an attractive idea—that stories, if written with the right moral, can cause spiritual growth. All we have to do is work in Christian themes and wait for the results.
Unfortunately, spiritual growth isn’t quite that simple. How many times have I seen children reading books with strong Christian morals, only to get in a fight with siblings five minutes later? Or sooner than that, if their reading is interrupted. Conversion and spiritual growth are the works of the Holy Spirit, not human authors, and our responses to explicit moralizing often prove that fact.
Explicit messages—Christian or non-Christian—are unlikely to change any adult’s mind. But implicit messages may prove more dangerous. In her autobiography Children of the Storm, Natasha Vins described how her atheistic Soviet teacher used the implicit messages of atheistic novels as a springboard to weaken Natasha’s childhood faith. A previous teacher of Natasha’s had tried using explicit attacks on Christianity to destroy Natasha’s childhood faith. But where explicit attacks failed, the implicit messages, and later explicit conversations, nearly succeeded.
C. S. Lewis reported an opposite experience. As a sixteen-year-old atheist, he happened to pick up Phantastes, the “fairy romance” written by Scottish Protestant George MacDonald. He had enjoyed fantastic fiction before, and he found in MacDonald what he had enjoyed in previous authors. “But in another sense,” he wrote, “all was changed. I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness…. That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took a little longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.” Worldview matters, even in fantasy. It can draw you toward Christ or push you away from Him. Lewis later observed, tongue-in-cheek, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”
If Lewis’s statement applies to atheists, it ought certainly to apply to Christians. We are playing for eternal stakes and cannot afford to be careless in anything, least of all our reading. My suggestions are these.
First, read for excellence. Preachy books—books with overly explicit messages—are often poorly written as well. That characterization is not true of all books that moralize explicitly, but it is true of most of them. The explicit message is there to make up for the author’s inability to project a Christian worldview in his writing. But badly written books, Catholic author Flannery O’Connor contended, are less edifying by their very definition. Spend most of your time reading books that are well-written. You’ll glean more from them.
Second, avoid books that will lead you into sin. There is a time and place for reading non-Christian works. Paul read heathen authors and quoted them in the New Testament. I read non-Christian authors, or authors whose spiritual state I do not know, on a fairly regular basis. But my reading has to be careful. Even aside from works with anti-Christian arguments, some books are simply too blasphemous, occultic or pornographic for a Christian to read without being drawn into sin. Others may lead some people astray, but not others. You have to decide where to draw the line for yourself, based on a prayerful understanding of God’s Word, the advice of more mature Christians, and your understanding of your own weaknesses. But, no matter where you draw it, you need to have a line. For the sake of your spiritual life, set limits for yourself.
Finally, always be aware of the worldview a book is based on. Analyze as you read. Be aware of explicit messages, as well as implicit messages. And just because an author calls himself a Christian, don’t shut your brain off. The word “Christian” is so abused that it probably needs therapy. Be on a hunt for truth, not labels. Does Madeleine L’Engel call herself a Christian while displaying universalism in some of her books? Recognize that her viewpoint contradicts Biblical teaching, without worrying about her religious identification. Does the non-Christian Hemingway encourage respect for human life? Don’t say, “Hemingway isn’t a Christian.” Say instead, “I’ve found truth here. It may be incomplete, but I know the One who makes everything complete.”
Paul wrote, “And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power.” Christ is enough. He could have prevented people from creating literature, and we would not have suffered spiritually. Yet Christ (to my everlasting gratitude), when He made man, made him a story-creating creature. Stories have the power to change us, for good or ill. We should respect their power and value them as gifts of God, enjoying them with discernment. Paul was referring to another art—music—when he wrote, “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” But the verse applies equally to literature. By reading wisely, we can honor the greatest Author of all.
A. Carroll Crowe began loving books as a 5-month old infant, demanding that her mother read to her for hours. Her goal is to become a writer, but she is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in history education. Her blog, firstfire, focuses on Christianity and literature. She has written two novels and declares them both unpublishable.