WORLD | How to read thoughtfully | Emily Whitten | March 22, 2014

Let me preface by saying that this brilliant article was originally published at World Magazine.  I am a subscriber to that magazine, and it is full of great articles, book reviews, movie reviews, and more.  If you like the following excerpt, and I hope you do, head on over to World Magazine to see what else they have to offer.  The subscription really is worth it.

****************************************************************

How to read thoughtfully

Books | The Bible and literary criticism

Posted March 22, 2014, 09:58 a.m.

Many intelligent, capable Christian authors and literature professors have sought to connect the Bible with the stories we read. But Christian literary criticism doesn’t seem to trickle down to the general Christian populace—except for criticism of one book, the Bible. That’s where crucial questions are asked: What authority does the author have? What about the reader? And how is God able to communicate to us?

As a book reviewer, among the many influential ideas I have borrowed from Biblical Criticism 101 is the idea of the Trinity. Communication within the Godhead Himself is described in this way: An author (God the Father) speaks, a Word (Jesus Christ) is spoken, and an interpreter (the Holy Spirit) then interprets that Word. As I have sought to apply this framework to the stories I review, I have come to see three links in the chain that must be counted: the author, the work itself, and the audience. From formalism to feminism, so many of the errors I have encountered in my reading tend to exalt one or two of those links to the exclusion of the rest.

The author

Christian circles hold widely the idea that a book exists first and foremost in the mind of its author. In that view, the author defines the meaning of a work. The author alone can unpack characters, setting, or what is meant by the entire story. Later cultures are often tempted to reinterpret the work in ways obviously contrary to the author’s intent (such as the search for phallic symbols in Jane Austen’s work). I can understand why it’s tempting to do so.

As Christians see liberal Bible scholars dethroning God from His place as final arbiter of what the Bible means, it’s easy to make a one-to-one transfer to human works of art. But if we believe that God, as author, has the final say over what the Bible means, then shouldn’t human authors—made in His image—have final ownership of their own writing?

Here are a few problems with that supposition. First, God is authoritative in defining His work and communication in a way human beings are not. Man does not create ex nihilo, but rather, we draw from the stories and music of language around us. We inherit many ideas, symbols, and meanings of which we often are not even aware. Conversely, God does not borrow from anyone in His creation of meaning. He sees His Word truly and exhaustively in a way that human authors simply cannot see their own work. So, while God does have ownership of His work, ultimately He—and not human authors—owns our work, too.

Because man is made in His image, I, as a reviewer, ought to consider how a human author interprets his work. Good authors are often very insightful about their writing. It takes a lot of time and effort to get as close to the subject matter as the original author. But because human authors are finite and often misinterpret their own work, Christian reviewers must still weigh the work itself. We must also consider how that work interacts with its audience, including reader groups, genres, and the history of literature. Ultimately, an author’s view of his or her own work is important, but not authoritative.

In practical terms, the temptation to focus too much on the author’s faith and interpretation of a work is a real and constant danger. If an author or publisher is Christian, many Christians believe the work is Christian and must therefore be given precedence over the work of non-Christian writers. This kind of thinking dominates much of the Christian publishing industry and leads to sites like FamilyFiction.com that promote only one kind of overtly Christian author.

Yet, consider the portrayal of grace in True Grit by two very worldly filmmakers, the Coen brothers. In my review from 2011, I tried to show why that movie is one of my favorites. It was not intended to be a Christian film, but it nevertheless clearly portrays Christ and His justice in profound ways.

Overexalting the author’s role in storytelling denies the imago Dei present in non-Christians. It denies the fact that God has gifted many non-Christians far more than the average Christian in writing skills. And if we only take an author’s word for it, we will miss some of the greatest feasts of truth and beauty that God has prepared in our generation.

The work

According to the Bible, a book exists not just in the mind of its author and readers, but—as the Word is united but also separate from the author and interpreter—on its own.

Page 1 of 4

This article is continued…  How to Read Thoughtfully at World Magazine.  This is a subscription magazine, and the rest of the article is available to subscribing members.  It really is worth it.

Fiction is Important! (A reblog from Moore to the Point)

Why Christians Should Read Fiction

— Monday, March 25th, 2013 —

Is reading fiction a waste of time?

I’ve found that most people who tell me that fiction is a waste of time are folks who seem to hold to a kind of sola cerebra vision of the Christian life that just doesn’t square with the Bible. The Bible doesn’t simply address man as a cognitive process but as a complex image-bearer who recognizes truth not only through categorizing syllogisms but through imagination, beauty, wonder, awe. Fiction helps to shape and hone what Russell Kirk called the moral imagination.

My friend David Mills, now executive editor at First Things, wrote a brilliant article in Touchstone several years ago about the role of stories in shaping the moral imagination of children. As he pointed out, moral instruction is not simply about knowing factually what’s right and wrong (though that’s part of it); it’s about learning to feel affection toward certain virtues and revulsion toward others. A child learns to sympathize with the heroism of Jack the Giant Killer, to be repelled by the cruelty of Cinderella’s sisters and so on.

When you think about it, that’s how the Scriptures often work. The Proverbs, for instance, paint a vivid picture of the revolting tragedy of adultery (Proverbs 7). Jesus doesn’t simply speak about God’s forgiveness in the abstract. He tells a story, the prodigal son, designed to shock (a son who would spurn his inheritance) and to elicit sympathy and identification. The apostles do the same thing. They employ literary, visual language meant to appeal not just to the intellect but to the conscience through the imagination. Think of the Apostle Paul’s language of “laboring until Christ is formed in you,” or his use of literary themes in the OT (“fruit of the Spirit,” and so on).

Fiction can sometimes, like Nathan the prophet’s story of the ewe lamb, awaken parts of us that we have calloused over, due to ignorance or laziness or inattention or sin. One night, in the car on my way home, I was talking by telephone to my eighty-six year-old grandmother. She was telling me a story about the last time she saw my grandfather alive. She told me about feeling the coldness of his feet as she changed his socks in his hospital bed, about how his eyes were focused on her, though he couldn’t speak. She talked about how, when the nurses told her she had to leave, she kissed him, told him she loved him, and that she could feel him watching her as she left the room, for the last time. I knew she had lost my grandfather. I know that people die. I know “Husbands love your wives” (Ephesians 5).

But that story awakened something in me. It prompted me to hold my wife with a special tenderness when I walked in the door. I had imagined what it would be like to say goodbye to her in that way, and, suddenly, all the daily pressures of kids and bills and house repairs and travel just seemed to fit in a bigger context. Fiction often does the same thing. When I read Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illych, I gain an imaginative sympathy with something I might avoid in the busyness of life: what it’s actually like to die. When I read Wendell Berry’s stories of Henry County, Kentucky, I can gain insight on what it would be like to face losing a family farm in the Great Depression. This fiction gives a richer, bigger vision of human life.

What’s more is that fiction is, I think, very helpful for those who are called to preach and teach (which, at least in terms of bearing witness to Christ is true of all of us). Fiction helps the Christian to learn to speak in ways that can navigate between the boring abstract and the irrelevant mundane. It also enables you to learn insights about human nature. I’ve never had a problem with drug addiction. I can’t imagine why on earth anyone would take meth. Reading stories of life in Eastern Kentucky and about the motivations behind a meth addict can teach me to address those things biblically, and to see where I have similar idolatry that would be just as incomprehensible to someone else.

I would say that fiction, along with songwriting and personal counseling, are the most constant ways that God teaches me empathy. It’s easy in evangelical Christianity to assume that everyone who opposes us or disagrees with us is simply to be verbally evaporated as an enemy to be destroyed. But no false teaching and no wrong direction has any power unless it appears to someone to be good. Jesus teaches us that those who hand over the disciples to be killed will “think themselves to be doing the will of God.” Almost everyone is the hero in his or her own personal narrative.

People don’t think of themselves the way super-villains do in some old cartoon, rubbing their hands together and plotting “the reign of eeeee-vil in the world. Ha ha ha ha!” Fiction helps people honestly present those internal stories that people tell themselves, things they won’t disclose in, say, a debate or a non-fiction monograph arguing for their way of life. In fiction, a Darwinist can show you what it’s like to be scared that you’re living a meaningless life in a meaningless universe, but he can also show you where he finds those things, like awe and love, that he can only ultimately find in God.

But, finally, good fiction isn’t a “waste of time” for the same reason good music and good art aren’t wastes of time. They are rooted in an endlessly creative God who has chosen to be imaged by human beings who create. Culture isn’t irrelevant. It’s part of what God commanded us to do in the beginning, and that he declares to be good. When you enjoy truth and beauty, when you are blessed by gifts God has given to a human being, you are enjoying a universe that, though fallen, God delights in as “very good.”

Written by Russell D. Moore at Moore to the Point.
To read comments for this article, click here.

Between The Times | Why Should Christians Read Literature? by Michael Travers

For the Record (Michael Travers): Why Should Christians Read Literature?

August 1, 2012 by administrator

[Editor’s Note: Michael Travers is Professor of English and Associate Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness at Southeastern. He is author of Encountering God in the Psalms (Kregel, 2003) and co-author (with Richard D. Patterson) of Face to Face With God: Human Images of God in the Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2008). As a disciple of Christ and good literature, and teacher on both at Southeastern, we asked him to write on the topic of reading literature for Christian formation.]

Why should Christians bother reading literature at all? Because reading literature humanizes us—in the best sense of the word. Literature helps us realize the image of God in us in ways that we cannot afford to miss. Consider….

Literature exercises and develops our emotions and imaginations. People write about what they experience and how they respond emotionally and imaginatively to their experiences. As we read good imaginative literature, we begin to see our own experiences and emotions in the larger human context. Which emotions are healthy, which not? Which emotions ought we to cultivate, which should we put to death? In literature, we can see the expressions and consequences of human emotions in real-life situations and can be encouraged or take warning accordingly. It is the same with our imaginations. Reading literature gives us what Kevin Vanhoozer calls “the power of synoptic vision”: through our imaginations responding to the imaginative writings of others, we see the important issues in life, not just the urgent and immediate circumstances around us. Imagination allows us to see the universal and timeless human issues and truths in the particular experiences of the characters in the book we are reading.

Literature speaks to the human condition in which we all find ourselves all the time. As humans, we all share the same human condition. No matter our gender, race, or nationality, we all struggle with sin, experience the emotions of love and hate, give expression to our strongest desires, and we all long for something that this world cannot satisfy—in the end, God. Literature connects us with others who have given effective expression to our common humanity and longings and, while we may not agree with a writer’s worldview, he or she illuminates our common condition in ways that can help us understand our situation better and relate to others outside of our immediate community. In Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective, Leland Ryken helpfully suggests that literature “clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks.”[1] Likewise, with C. S. Lewis, a Christian can think of literature as one form of “pre-evangelism”: a means to help people ask the important questions—the eternal questions—and which gives us an opportunity to speak the gospel into their lives.

Literature expands us. Reading imaginative literature takes us outside of our own immediate situation. We get to meet other people from other places—even from other times—that we would otherwise never meet. When we read a novel, we don’t just follow a plot line; we become acquainted with more people—some friends, some not so much friends—who hone our humanity. We get to look in on other cultures—oriental as well as occidental, contemporary as well as ancient—and in its turn that experience helps us not to be blinded to the realities of our own culture and time. Again, C. S. Lewis is helpful here. What he says in An Experiment in Criticism is worth quoting at some length: “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own….”[2] He continues, “in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here [i.e. in reading great literature], as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”[3] Think a bit about that!

Literature can help us glorify God in our lives. Humans are “wordish creatures.”[4] Only we, of all God’s creatures, use sounds and graphics symbolically to communicate what is not immediately present to our five senses. Only we imagine and create what is not essential to our immediate needs. Only we can appreciate beauty, truth and goodness in their own rights. God made us wordish creatures, and he communicated the gospel to us in words. Even Jesus Christ is given the epithet, “Word made flesh,” and only He communicates the Father to us sinful people. Because literature is a wordish medium, it is in some senses the form of artistic expression that allows us to get closest to our Creator. After all, we are all part of that great Story, and our stories fit into the larger Story. And you can’t tell a story without words.

Why read literature? How can you not? It’s part of our heritage as humans. But we must cultivate it if we are not to lose it again and revert to an earlier age or place where the Word and the word were both darkened. Make your words flesh that the Word made flesh might be glorified.


[1] Leland Ryken, Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 34.

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

[3] Ibid., 141.

[4] Bradley Green, The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life (Crossway, 2010), 104.

Tags: , , , ,