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"Seeing with Other Eyes": The Place of Imaginative Literature in the Christian Life

Michael Travers, PhD
Professor of English
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Book and glassesMost Americans who have attended college likely took a literature survey class, perhaps two—American or British Literature Survey; the literature survey class is a standard course in the general education component of an undergraduate degree. The question is why should students be required to read secular literature at all? The question is exacerbated when the student is a Christian, for Christians are responsible for the wise stewardship of their time. Is time spent reading imaginative literature or watching a movie wasted? If fiction is false in every way, it would seem to be a waste of time. Is there any sense in which there is truth in literature? The truth or error to be found in literature should interest every Christian, for we are a people of the truth as revealed in the Bible and in Jesus Christ. In this brief essay, we can only begin to think about the question of the place of literature (and, of course movies) in the Christian life. If we do not answer these questions, we will live an attenuated Christian experience and be less effective in our witness for Christ.

We begin with the Bible. Does Scripture give us any perspective on reading imaginative literature? Of course. Some of the inspired writers of Scripture raid the writings of non-Christian writers for truth. In the New Testament, when Paul was on the Areopagus giving witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, he referenced the Greek stoic writers Cleanthes, Aratus, and Epimenides. He even drew attention to his allusion, saying to the Athenians, "as even some of your own poets have said."[1] Paul quotes another Greek writer, Epimenides, in Titus 1:12, even affirming what he quotes with his own assessment, "This testimony is true."[2] Further, it is safe to assume in the Old Testament that Moses knew the literature of the Egyptians and Daniel the literature of the Chaldeans. There is, then, a place in a robust Christian witness for knowing secular literature and being conversant with many of the films of our day. What truths, if any, then, can a Christian gain from reading imaginative literature and watching movies?

Literature does indeed give us truth, though not in propositional, philosophical, or theological form. One kind of truth that literature provides is found in the way it can illuminate experience. Facts, for instance those about science and history, are not the only kinds of truth; as Leland Ryken states in Realms of Gold: the Classics in Christian Perspective, literature "can illuminate human experience better than facts ordinarily do."[3] By taking us out of our habitual lives to an imaginative world, as it were, literature can help us to see universal and metaphysical truths that we can miss all too easily in the activities of everyday life. In reading a Shakespearean play, such as King Lear for instance, we can see the great damage done by stubborn pride (in Lear himself) and the healing balm that comes from a self-sacrificial and redemptive love offered even when it is not deserved (in Cordelia, Lear's youngest daughter). In an ancient play like Oedipus Rex, we see the complex interactions of free will and (what the ancients called) fate—or what many may see simply as circumstances beyond one's control.[4] Even in a children's story like C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader,' we learn from Lucy's vanity when she wishes to be more beautiful than her sister, Susan, and also from Eustace's odious greed and self-centeredness. We see the more seriously destructive outcomes of pride in Chinua Achebe's acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart, in which Okonkwo, an Igbo tribal leader who is "well known throughout the nine villages,"[5] is unwilling to bend to new realities in colonial Africa and ends up hurting, even killing, others close to him. The great literature of the ages is full of universal human truths that can help us see ourselves "with other eyes,"[6] as it were, and thereby benefit from the reading.[7] We gain perspective on ourselves and our own times, seeing the good and evil inhuman behavior writ large in the narrative events.

Apart from being able to gain perspective on our own lives and even learn some universal truths about human experience, literature provides another benefit for the Christian reader: it can incarnate the universal longing for God that is inherent in all human beings. Because we are made in the image of God, and because we live in a fallen world and are ourselves sinful, we all know instinctively that there is something wrong with us. We long for something—or Someone—that this world cannot satisfy. The writer of Ecclesiastes states it well: "He [God] has put eternity into man's heart."[8] The writer of Hebrews calls Christians "pilgrims" looking for a city not made with hands—yearning to be re-united with God.[9] We long to be at one again with God. It should come as no surprise, then, that imaginative literature gives voice to this longing, albeit at times, unwittingly, for all humans share the same sense of exile and longing in their lives. The ancient Greek and Roman epics are all structured as quests, or journeys to a yearned-for destination, and this structure emphasizes longing. Dante's medieval poem, The Divine Comedy, is a quest with a specifically spiritual destination in mind. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is an obvious example of longing in literature with an overtly Christian emphasis to it. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy gives voice to the same quest-like longing in the efforts of the "little people," Frodo and Sam, to defeat an almost-overwhelming evil; they long for a good world from which evil is banished. Who of us does not?

Two novels, as different from each other as they can be, will illustrate the spiritual tenor to longing in imaginative literature. The first is Alan Paton's novel about a racially-torn South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country. The novel centers on a black Anglican priest, Stephen Kumalo, and a white landowner, Arthur Jarvis. As the events unfold, the son of the priest murders the son of the landowner. The narrative could go in two directions at this point—on the one hand, a deepening racial divide or, on the other, a move toward personal and even racial reconciliation. Paton turns the events toward reconciliation. While Paton does not write specifically of longing for God, the theme of sacrificial kindness and redemptive love provides a deep-seated hope at the novel's conclusion that, for Stephen Kumalo is spiritual as well as temporal. At one point in the narrative, Kumalo says explicitly, "I have never thought that a Christian would be free of suffering....For our Lord suffered. And I come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering."[10] The other novel, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, is set against the backdrop of early twentieth-century English upper middle class life. Here, in her characteristic stream-of-consciousness style, Woolf weaves a tale in which the characters, all of whom are isolated in their own consciousnesses, long for connections with family members and friends and also with the natural surroundings. The family is broken, and the family friends are all lonely and cut off from any significance in their lives. While the narrative's resolution, such as it is, does not turn in the direction of God at all, the fact remains that the characters long to be re-united with something (Someone?) from which they are cut off. The non-Christian may not recognize that he or she longs for God, and none of Woolf's characters turns to God in the novel, but the narrative expresses the type of longing which this world cannot satisfy that points beyond this life to heaven and, ultimately, to God himself. It is not that imaginative literature always turns the reader toward God; it is, rather, that it always expresses the human condition, in this case the universal spiritual restlessness to which only the Christian gospel speaks adequately.

There is much more to be said about the place of imaginative literature in a Christian's life. As a beginning, these two ideas—that literature can embody universal human truths and that it can represent our innate longing for something beyond this life—provide a good starting point. Perhaps those literature professors were on to something more radically Christian than they realized.

[1] Acts 17:28.

[2] Titus 1:13.

[3] Leland Ryken, Realms of Gold: the Classics in Christian Perspective (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1991), 4. I commend Professor Ryken's book as a most helpful starting point in reading the great literature of the western tradition.

[4] Christians struggle with the relationships of free will and choice on the human side and providence and sovereignty on God's side.

[5] Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart  (London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1966), 3.

[6] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1995), 137.

[7] The claims in this paragraph are not intended to imply that all literature teaches truth at all times. There is much error and even danger in some literature. However, the great literature of the ages does indeed contain many truths, and we can mine it for our benefit.

[8] Ecc 3:11.

[9] Heb 11:13; 13:14. Cf. 1 Peter 2:11.

[10] Achebe, 227.

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