Why I don’t just read “Christian” books
In my last post, I asked whether it is profitable for us as readers and authors to use the label “Christian” to describe certain literature. That is to say, even if I accept that Christian literature, whatever that means, is somehow set apart, I’d like to challenge whether or not it is helpful to Christians to read only that category of literature.
Examining and exploring the intersection of the arts and theology is about parallels and resonances; about patterns and echoes. Like in much of life, we relate what we see and hear with what we already know. I believe that this examination of literature with a theologically astute eye should be applied not merely to re-tellings of what C.S. Lewis called the ‘Christian myth’ but to all that we read and all culture that we consume or participate in.
Sometimes the hint of a longing for God as Saviour, and the exploration of fundamental experiences like joy, grief and love in all its forms, open a window into the theological insights. This is not so much expressions of experiencing God but of the ways in which we speak about how this experience (or awareness or longing) is embodied and enacted. It is often the glimpse of the sacred in the most “secular” of work that I find most interesting.
I often suggest that Christians should not insulate themselves from the literature and art that we might find objectionable or is not created by a “Christian” artist invoking the name of Jesus Christ, God, or the Church. There are numerous reasons for this, not least because literature speaks to my heart!
However, let me offer three:
1. Awareness of critiques of the Church
Through its narrative and characterisations, literature can function as an assessment of how the church is perceived. At times, we see reflections of our efficacy as ambassadors of the gospel. Though an awareness of the state of the game is helpful, ultimately it is not society by whom we will be judged (2 Cor 2:14-16).
2. As a primer for learning to better understand and appreciate Scripture
Secondly, exploring imaginative texts theologically may help us better understand Christian Scripture. They may awaken our minds to the beauty of Scripture and, importantly, assist us in learning to ask the right questions of Scripture.
Engaging with literature with a theologically aware mind opens the door for dialogue. Discussing books that are at the forefront of contemporary pop culture should be an opportunity to think about their place within culture, their aesthetic impetus, and if you are so inclined, their theological implications. Hearing and discussing exactly what it was that touched a fellow reader can give you a glimpse of where someone is in their understanding of God, what they long for and their spiritual openness. If you are interested in dialogue, Wes wrote some helpful thoughts about over-acceptance in the comments to my post about being a Christian literary and arts critic.
I am not advocating that literature be raised to the level of Scripture, nor am I advocating an abandonment of the careful study of Scripture; I could not write about literature and theology without recourse to Scripture, but more importantly, my life as a Christian is intertwined with Scripture.
Indeed, for Christians who enjoy literature, I offer this challenge: In order to read “secular” literature in the way I propose, it is essential to develop a sound Biblical theology; so that in reading one may be more perceptive to the theological implications of narrative.
I look forward to your comment.
Image: Anita Mathis