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.]