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Why I don’t just read “Christian” books

October 20, 2010

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.

3. Dialogue

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

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink*
    October 20, 2010 10:41 am

    Hi Anna,

    Thanks for this. What interests me about your post is that you have avoided saying that Christians should read “secular” literature for the purpose of clothing the gospel in a “secular” language. This would seem to me a very instrumental way of looking at “secular” literature. Your emphasis upon dialogue seems to be a good corrective for this way of looking at things that still brings in a missional aspect.

    I wonder if we might not say that “secular” literature can be revelatory for the Christian. I mean this in a very specific way. By revelatory, I mean that “secular” literature can serve to positively shape the identity of the Christian community. It seems to me that this is where you might be headed in number 2. It might be said that one of the purposes of scripture, as a revelation of God’s action and character, is to constitute a the identity of the Christian community as the people of God. If “secular” literature can help us to better appreciate — even better understand! — scripture then might it not have a role in constituting the identity of the Christian community? It seems to me that one can see this most clearly in the way that many theologians have drawn insights from “secular” philsophy (Augustine and Plato, Aquinas and Aristotle), and have found these philosophies to be constructive for understanding the nature of God and His people. In other words, “secular” philosophy for Augustine and Aquinas is not simply something to be argued against, but something to be integrated into Christian theology. What do you think?

  2. October 20, 2010 11:04 am

    I really appreciated the reasons you provide for reading all kinds of literature, and I think this is a crucial part of what is means for Christians to be missional.

    You mentioned that there are many reasons for this, so allow me to offer a few more.

    4) As a result of God’s grace, all humans beings can articulate truth and express beauty that corresponds with the truth and beauty of God. I am often struck by the deep insights that resonate with what I believe in the literature of non-Christians. This should not surprise us!

    5) Creativity is a gift from God, and we should rejoice in it wherever we see it. Of course, it is most joyful when we see creativity being used for kingdom purposes, but that does not mean that other uses do not glorify God at all.

    I would hesitate to use the word ‘revelatory’ because of its theological meaning in relation to God’s active revelation of himself. But what about the term witness? Can we say that secular literature provides a witness (albeit not at the same level as Scripture, tradition, etc.) that helps us understand our world better and even our God.

  3. October 26, 2010 12:28 am

    Why I read litertaure other than “Christian”, both fiction and non-fiction of all kinds:
    1.Because ‘Moses’ did…he read the Code of Hammurabi and adapted it to the 10 Commandments.
    2.Because Jesus did…he read the Torah and the Psalms and quoted from them.
    3.Because St.Paul did…he read Aristotle and Plato, and ‘baptised’ their ideas.
    4.Because the Doctrine of the Incarnation tells me to…God has blessed and inhabited human experience…written and spoken and lived.
    5.Because to only read the Bible is a form of idolatry I call “bibliolatry”…the mistaken idea that revelation can ONLY come through Scripture alone. Before the Canon of Scripture was a living Word called Jesus who told stories from everyday life with a deep spiritual meaning.
    6.Because my instincts and emotions and reason tell me to.

    Great site Anna!

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  1. Reading Literature Theologically « Transpositions

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