Christianity & Literature Series

Much of my previous literary theory discussion has operated in the realm of the ideal. For example, my discussions of the Experience (judging the “message(s)” or Logos of a literary work) have assumed two things: first, that authors are capable of encoding the (unconscious or intended) message; and second, that readers are capable of decoding it. Likewise, my post on Beauty implies that authors are able, in essence, to first, encapsulate in text the (unconscious or intended) encounter of the mysterious; and second, that the reader is equally capable of entering into that same encounter, feeling the same awe, or pleasure, or disgust that went into its construction. Both of these assertions have one fundamental underlying assumption: namely, that language is capable of accurately transmitting information between speaker and hearer without any loss of that information.

Having taken degrees in both English and Linguistics, I have been exposed to rather contrary views of the nature of language. As a linguist, I want to say that language functions as a science: it follows very specific (if unconscious) rules. From the most basic levels (eg, phonetics and phonemics) to the more complex (eg, morphology and syntax) to the most complex (eg, semantics, pragmatics and speech acts), language can be broken down into its constituent parts; it can be analysed, and the laws governing its construction can be identified. And these laws help us to explain how utterances carry meaning.

But on the other hand, I also hold a degree in English. In that capacity, I saw (and, indeed, contributed to ) the broader activity of interpretation – of drawing meaning from a text, often arguing that the meaning you are identifying has gone unobserved by prior readers. And as any student of literature (or Scripture for that matter) knows, different people often come to different interpretations of the same text. The question one must ask is obvious: if language operates on a system of basic laws (as linguists assert), why do such differences in interpretation occur?

Much of late twentieth century critical theory capitalized on this seeming inability to arrive at definitive interpretations. Indeed, Derrida argued that language is always self-deconstructing; one cannot say anything without using words which simultaneously say the opposite of what one means. In purely biblical terms, one might summarize Derrida by quoting Ecclesiastes 6:11: “The more words, the less the meaning.” For Derrida, the issue of language is a simple dichotomy: either language can convey meaning or it cannot. And if it can be shown to fail in one instance, despite the intention of the author, than the entire structure collapses; we can never again trust with any certainty that our language will accurately convey the meaning we intend. It’s Babel all over again.

David Lyle Jeffrey does a good job of breaking down this dichotomy in his 1996 work People of the Book: Christian Identify and Literary Culture.1 Jeffrey asserts that Christians need not make a choice between the two poles; sometimes language carries meaning effectively and sometimes it does not. “Christian literary theories are generally affirmative of an ultimate Truth or Logos,” he writes, “but also firm in their insistence on the limitations of human language more than dimly to refract that Logos.” In other words, language is related to meaning but it seldom has a one-to-one correlation. Because language is imperfect, it often fails to convey intended meaning in its totality. As such, Jeffrey says, it leads sometimes to “endless frustration” and sometimes to “momentary joy.”

It is this simultaneously-good-and-bad nature of language Christians ought to recall when they approach literature. Like all of creation, human language was “subjected to frustration” in the Fall. But it was originally created good. And just as humanity retains some semblance of “the image of God” after the fall, so too human language retains some of its original goodness. We may find that the meaning in literature is often obscured, but there is still some meaning to be found. It’s beauty may be marred, but there is still fragments of beauty. And this is all, as I reflected in my first post on Christianity and literature, because God is still at work in creation – the hidden God working through the vocations of man for the good of the world. When the meaning of a story is successfully experienced via language, it is because God is good. When beauty is successfully crafted by an author and appreciated by the reader, it is because God is good. In the end, that is the most important argument why Christians ought to read literary works: because God is amazingly and undeservedly good. Despite the brokenness of language and literature, he works though them to reveal beauty and truth and goodness. It’s the promise of Pentecost. In good literature, we are the recipients of God’s grace. And so we read, trusting that the “Giver of all good things” will, indeed, give us something good.

[This is the fifth and final article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the essays in the series here.]


1I will say, however, that his tendency to prolixity in the text manifests, if unintentionally so, an occasional impenetrability which has the effect of obfuscating his general purposes. In other words, he uses too many big words. I’m not against flexing your lexical abilities in general, but his sentences are often far heavier than they need to be – perhaps reflecting, in some small way, the very limitations of language he is discussing.

Image credits: (1) Open book image: vichie81 / (2) Tower of Babel illustration from Gustave Doré.

In my previous two articles in this series on Christianity and Literature, I discussed the benefits of literature with a focus on wisdom: namely, the idea that literature offers readers the opportunity to experience ideas, words, and actions which are different than their own. Wisdom comes in weighing this Experience and judging whether it be true or false, good or bad – separating the fruit from the chaff, in Chaucer’s words. We might call this the didactic aspect of literature – it teaches us, whether intentionally or not, about creation, our place in that creation, and our relationship to its Creator.

But of course, good literature is not just about imparting knowledge – if that’s all literature were, the dictionary would be the most thrilling book around. Instead, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, all works of true literature have two sides: logos (something said) and poiema (something made). Narratological musings, the dialogues and life experiences of fictional characters, and the consequences of these experiences might all be considered part of the logos. But the second aspect of literature, poiema, refers to artistic construction and the reader’s artistic reaction to the text. Put simply, the logos is what the author and his characters say; the poiema is how they say it. And just as the logocentric Experience is one of the good things literature gives us, so too is poematic Beauty.

All literature has poiema – that sense of purposeful construction created as the author decides what to cut from one draft to the next, what word is the “right” word for this particular context, what voice is proper for the character of the story. Even texts that we might generally consider “unliterary,” such as sermons or philosophical works, are shown to be literary in their poiematic construction: their use of rhetorical flourishes, analogies, and the like. Dictionaries, as I have suggested earlier, provide a good example of what a totally logocentric text looks like. While “constructed,” they are done so according to a pattern neither creative nor engaging. The same thing (or nearly the same thing) could be written by a thousand different people. Logos without poiema is not literature. Indeed, in Lewis’ words, “It is only by being also a Poiema that a Logos becomes a work of literary art at all.”

Of course, just as there is good logos and bad logos, there is also good poiema and bad poiema. If a text is full of clichés, for example, if it is constructed solely of ideas and experiences according to a pattern repeated a hundred times before, without any originalities or creative interjections by the author, we may rightly consider the work to have low aesthetic value. Not that newness for the sake of newness necessarily leads to aesthetic goodness either. A good piece of literature must blend originality with tradition.

There are of course additional standards by which we might choose to judge good literary construction from bad (Aristotle’s Poetics has been used in just such a way). But let us bypass for now discussions of aesthetic criticism and come to what is the more important matter in this series of articles: namely, if poematic Beauty is a principle good of literature, as I argue, what exactly is good about it? The Experience, as we have seen in previous articles, offers wisdom. What similar good does Beauty offer that Christians should care about it and earnestly seek to encounter good examples of it in literature?

The reader may have noticed my failure thus far to define what I think “Beauty” is. This is, I assure you, intentional. While I make some very meager attempts here to articulate what “Beauty” is like, I do so knowing full well that a comprehensive definition remains forever elusive. There is a depth of mystery to aesthetics which cannot be fully plumbed. Indeed, one must approach a discussion of Beauty in the same way that George Herbert approached the subject of prayer. In a poem on the subject, Herbert gushes forth a number of descriptions which attempt to define prayer. It is “the Church’s banquet,” he writes. It is “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.” In the anger of man, it can become an “engine against the Almighty.” Herbert hazards various other definitions, but finds them equally incapable of defining prayer. By the end of the poem, he realizes that although human words can provide an approximation of what prayer is, they can never truly give a full definition of the thing. In the end, prayer is not something that can be defined; it is instead simply “something understood.”

So too beauty. Aesthetics cannot be broken down into a series of underlying mathematical formulae; it is not a science, Aristotle’s opinions on the subject notwithstanding. But while critical reflection cannot explain fully what beauty is, it can nevertheless help us to begin approaching such a definition. Consider: if two men should be sitting near a fire place, neither experiences the full heat of the flames; they are only near the fire, not in it. But if one should step nearer to the flames than the other, he experiences more directly the heat and light than does his friend. Critical consideration and appreciation of Beauty helps move us closer to the fire.

And as we come nearer that fire, we begin to understand, if only intuitively, what good thing Beauty offers readers. Not that it can be explained in words, but that it can be suggested in image. The heat which rolls over us in waves, the flash as the flame fills our vision depicts, in a way, how Beauty acts on the reader. It is baptism by fire, a death and resurrection as the water of poeimic Beauty mixes with the Experiential word. It is the fire in which rides the still small voice. It is the burning coals which permit sinful lips to speak. It is, in the end, not something explained, but something encountered. Something felt. Something understood.

[This is the fourth article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]

I had originally intended to post today the next article in my recent series on Christianity and literature. Today’s was supposed to be about the good of beauty in literature (as opposed to the good of experiential wisdom which I discussed in the previous post). But a friend of mine leveled some criticism at my previous article, and so I think it a good idea to deal with it now. There, I suggested that one of the principle purposes of literature is that it provides us the opportunity to “enter into” the thoughts and experiences of authors and their characters (which I shall collectively call “the Experience” henceforth). My friend Karl countered: “Vicarious literary experience for its own sake seems to me rather dangerous; even experience is accountable to the lordship of Christ and the church, which is his body.” (To see the comment in length, visit the post here and scroll to the third comment ).

Let me be clear that I similarly believe “vicarious literary experience for its own sake” to be dangerous. I certainly never intended to suggest that this is what Christians should enter into literature hoping to gain – though I must admit that, rereading my own post on Bunyan, I can certainly see how one could draw that conclusion from my words. I fear that, focused as I was with demonstrating how literature acts on the reader (ie, by drawing them into the Experience), I failed to indicate what I believed to be the proper response of the reader to that Experience.

I hint at that proper response in the first article of this Christianity and Literature series. There, when I suggest that we ought to read literature because God can work good through the vocation of human writers, I include the caveat that we must not “do so indiscriminately,” quoting St. Paul’s advice that we “test everything; hold fast what is good.” It is clear to me now that I should have expanded upon this in the article on Experience. What literature does is draw the reader into the Experience; what the reader must do in the midst of that Experience is Judge it to see whether it be good.

The Experience, as I attempted to demonstrate in my previous post, refers to a text’s “capacity to reveal truth.” In other words, the purpose of the Experience in texts is the bestowal of wisdom – or rather, the reader has the opportunity to access wisdom and knowledge s/he might otherwise not encounter by means of the Experience. But if we say that Experience is an attempt to reveal truth, we must further acknowledge that those truth claims may fail to correspond to reality.

Sometimes literary Experience is crafted in such a way as to be deliberately false. An obvious example occurs in the character of the “unreliable narrator,” to borrow Wayne C. Booth’s words. Consider Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Throughout the tale, Gulliver informs of us his opinions on his adventures. But we as his audience need not (and indeed, should not) agree with all of his conclusions. While not always wholly in error, he certainly diverges from Swift’s own explicit opinions on a number of things. Swift no more wishes us to despise humanity, as Gulliver does at the end of the tale, than than he wants us to eat babies (as Swift’s narrator in “A Modest Proposal” suggests). These characters and narrators are unreliable, and we are not expected to trust them. Indeed, Swift presents us with false Experiences in these instances precisely so that we might disagree with them – and so gain wisdom through the Experience by rejecting the Experience.

While we are occasionally expected to reject an Experience at the author’s own (unstated) request, we must also sometimes reject Experiences against the author’s (unstated) wishes. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials take the reader on a quest to overthrow God. And while Pullman earnestly desires that the reader take the Experience to heart and use it to shape his or her own life, Christians must of course reject such “wisdom”. It is error, and must be recognized as such. And yet, we must admit that even in calling it error, we learn to articulate more clearly what we believe. While we as Christians are not limited to negative theology, we can nevertheless use it when the occasion serves: by saying what truth is not, we can come to understand more clearly what truth is. By rejecting one Experience, we may learn more truly what Life should be.

So then, when Christians enter literary Experience, they must not do so as blind men willing to be led by the blind. They must hold up every word, every thought, every action to critical scrutiny to see whether it be true or not. But regardless of whether they find the Experience in question to be true or or false, there remains the opportunity to gain wisdom through it – be it through accepting the Experience as edifying or rejecting it as destructive. Or, as is more likely the case, recognizing elements of both in the text. Indeed, we would all do well to remember my friend Karl’s word on the subject:

“I personally do not have the luxury of approaching literature from an objective, God-like stance; I read literature because I need it in the thick of things, just as I need other humans, and I will hopefully treat it no better or worse than I would treat others (for it is the voice of others) – with the knowledge that it contains the potential to reveal the image of God, but also the knowledge that sin has corrupted it and that it is not above deserving blunt words of reproach at times.”

[This is the third article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]

In my previous post, I attempted to articulate why Christians can and, indeed, should study literature. Fundamental to my argument was the idea that, whenever something good is accomplished on earth, God has been at work in and through the human agents involved in bringing about that good. Just as we thank God for providing food for us through the vocation of farmers or healing through doctors, so too, I said, we ought to thank God for the good to be found in secular literature.

But what I did not discuss in my previous article was what exactly I thought was good about secular literature. It is an easy thing to see how other vocations bring good into the world: as I said earlier, farmers provide food and doctors heal. But what exactly do authors (especially authors of fiction) do that is comparable? What is the good purpose that God works through them?

One might be tempted to say that literature is self-evidently good: that “to read the classics is better than not to read the classics,” as Italo Cavillo puts it in his essay “Why read the classics?”. But while the goodness of literature might seem obvious to some, like Cavillo and myself, the same cannot be said for many Christians throughout the history of the Church.

A case in point is Augustine, whose objections to literature and philosophy I explored briefly in my previous post. For him, secular culture represents one direction of the compass and Christianity its complete opposite. We see the same kind of binary thinking about Christ and culture two centuries earlier in Tertullian’s writings as well. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he scoffs. And again, “What has the Academy to do with the Church?” For Tertullian, the answer was as clear as it was final: nothing at all. That mindset has been inherited by many Christians today: you can have the truth of Christianity or you can have secular culture, but never the twain shall meet.

That assessment would have satisfied many early English Puritans as well. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that John Bunyan includes a defense of fiction at the beginning of his allegorical classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. After all, using fiction (a literary device drawn from secular culture, critics would allege) could obscure Christian doctrine. Fiction was for unimportant, worldly things, the sort of things, in short, which Christians should not waste their time on; what could it have to do with truth, especially the truths of the Christian faith?

Bunyan was facing this sort of criticism before his book ever went to press. Indeed, he tells us directly that some had advised him not to print the book at all. But Bunyan saw such criticisms of fiction as unfounded, and so he takes pains to explain the good that can be brought about through literature. Addressing the reader, he asks,

May I not write in such a stile as this?
In such a method too, and yet not miss
Mine end, thy good? why may it not be done?
Dark Cloud’s bring waters, when the bright bring none.

Just as dark clouds bring much needed rain to the earth, so too Bunyan argues that “some men, by feigning words as dark as mine, / Make truth to spangle, and its rays to shine.” Fiction, he asserts here, can be used to reveal fact. In fact, this is what Bunyan himself is trying to accomplish in his book: “My dark and cloudy words they do but hold,” he writes, “The Truth, as Cabinets inclose the gold.” For Bunyan, fiction has an innate capacity to serve as a vehicle to carry truth.

Of course, Bunyan is here speaking of a specific type of writing which lends itself particularly well to didacticism (namely, allegory), and he is speaking in particular of his own story, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Likewise, when he speaks of truth being made to “spangle” in other literary works, he is undoubtedly referring to Christian texts alone; Bunyan would be less than pleased, no doubt, should he be construed as suggesting that Christians make their search for truth in such books as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Ovid’s Metamophoses.

That all said,  we can nevertheless extrapolate Bunyan’s thoughts on Christian allegory to the world of fiction as a whole. One principle good that literature accomplishes is the revelation of truth – not always overtly, perhaps, and infrequently in as didactic a manner as Bunyan would like. But literature, even secular literature, has the capacity to reveal truth. Or rather, we might say that good literature invites the reader to ask of themselves Pilate’s famous question: what is truth?

Allow me to illustrate what I mean when I say literature asks us to consider truth. When we read distopian fiction, we are led to ask whether our society is evolving, as we would no doubt like to think, or whether instead our culture, left to itself, is moving in a far more worrisome direction. Likewise, the presence of extraterrestrial beings in science fiction forces us to consider the question of what it means to be human. And tragedies are forever asking us to consider the problem of evil and the vanity of this world.

Of course, these questions are not asked of the reader in such explicit terms. Instead, literature offers us another way to address these ideas: the opportunity to live, in some small way, the lives of other people. Indeed, at its core, all literature offers what Bunyan attempts to offer his readers in The Pilgrim’s Progress: the opportunity to temporarily be someone else in order to know the self better.

Would’st thou be in a Dream, and yet not sleep?
Wouldest thou in a moment laugh and weep?
Wouldest thou lose thyself, and catch no harm,
And find thyself again without a charm?

Put simply, literature offers readers the opportunity to enter a state of wakeful dreaming, to indeed live another life. And when we live those other lives, when we share the thoughts, emotions, and actions of authors, characters, and narrators, we return to our own lives wiser for the experience. We lose ourselves, in Bunyan’s words, only to find ourselves again.

That opportunity for experientially gained wisdom is, indeed, one of the fundamental goods that God works through literature. And were it the only good (which it is not), it would nevertheless be justification enough for Christians to take literature seriously. When we read, we become another person in order to grow through that other person’s experiences. So let us then, whenever we approach a poem or novel or any other literary work, heed Bunyan’s advice to the reader: “O then come hither / And lay my Book, thy Head, and Heart together.” For as we become part of the text, laying our head and heart together with the book, we briefly become something we are not; and we do so in order that, when we lay the book down, we would be be more than we were ere we began to read.

[This is the second article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]

In his Confessions, one of the first things Augustine gets around to confessing as sinful is his education. That education, with its focus on literature and writing, could well be likened to what we today would call a “liberal arts” or “humanities” degree. Put another way, we might say that one of the first things Augustine gets around to critiquing in his Confessions is the English department.

While accepting the formal aspects of his education (eg, learning to read and write) as in themselves good, Augustine takes great pains to distance himself from the actual texts he studied. Early in Book I, he speaks with disgust of his school-age love of Virgil’s Aeneid. Considering the great pity he felt over the death of Dido in the work, he writes: “For what more miserable than a miserable being who commiserates not himself; weeping the death of Dido for love of Aeneas, but weeping not for his own death for want of love to Thee, O God” (I.21). This topic – feeling pity for the tragedies of fictional characters – is one which Augustine critiques at length in Book II, but the quotation here serves a more general purpose: it demonstrates Augustine’s disgust with those who would take more seriously their literary studies than their relationship with God.

Augustine’s criticism of the humanities finds plenty of resonances among Christians today. With two arts degrees myself, I have spent a fair amount of time studying literature, languages, and philosophy. And I have certainly come up against people who consider those studies not only to be a waste of time, but more seriously a direct affront to Christian faith. They ask, as Augustine would ask, how I, a student of literature, could possibly justify my field of inquiry given the secular nature of the Academy?

Augustine is certainly correct in his criticisms to some extent. We must not, as Christians, love literature (or culture) more than we love God. Thomas Cranmer writes similarly in the Anglican Book of Homilies (1547) when he asks, “What excuse shall we therefore make (at the last day before Christ) that delight to read or hear men’s fantasies and inventions, more than His most holy Gospel?” Augustine, Cranmer and I all agree that our faith must come before all else. But where Cranmer and I differ from Augustine is in this: we do not deny that literature, even literature written by non-Christians on non-Christian subjects, can be both beautiful, true, and edifying.

Cranmer writes well when he says, “Other sciences [ie, fields of study] be good, and to be learned no man can deny; but this [ie, our faith] is the chief and passeth all others incomparably.”We need not reject secular studies so long as we keep those studies secondary to our faith. Indeed, our faith gives us a framework from which to work, from which to evaluate literature, history, and culture. It gives us the ability to distinguish what is good from what is bad.

And there is most certainly good in secular culture – though this good arises primarily from the actions of God rather than the actions of humans themselves. For so it is that God, as Martin Luther reminds us, works through the everyday vocations of everyday people. He works in the vocations of teachers and writers, as much as he works through the vocations of government, family, and the Church. Thus, when an author executes his vocation well, through the creation of some particularly excellent piece of poetry or in some particularly acute observation of human nature, we do not praise her or him alone; we praise also the God at work behind human vocation.

John Calvin articulates this theology of vocation particularly well in relation to the work of non-Christian writers. He says:

When we see in pagan authors the amazing light of truth which appears in their works, it must inform us that human nature, although it is fallen from its integrity and much corrupted, still is adorned with many gifts of God. If we recognize the Spirit of God as the unique fountain of truth, we will not despise the truth wherever it appears unless we want to insult God’s Spirit…. We cannot read the books which have been written about all these matters [ie, pagan books on philosophy, medicine, etc.] without being astonished, because we are obliged to recognize the wisdom which is in them.

Calvin continues, explaining that “anything excellent or praiseworthy… comes from God.” Here he echoes two passages of Scripture which help us understand the importance and goodness of studying human culture. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17); and “If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). When we confess with Calvin, as we must, that God’s goodness has manifested “excellent and praiseworthy things” throughout human literature over the centuries, we further recognize that we ought to “think about such things.”

Not that we do so indiscriminately. We must, as the Scriptures teach, “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). In order to know what is good, we must first test everything.

And so we can agree with Augustine that there is some measure of “vanity” in literature. But we need not conclude that all literature is therefore vanity. We need not rail with Augustine, “Woe is thee, thou torrent of human custom!” Instead, we may seek what good God has breathed into these texts, working through the vocation of their human authors, and praise Him as we are wont: as the Author of every good and perfect gift – even those found in the writings of secular humanity.

[This is the first article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]