Christian Worldview and Literature: Distinctions

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Isaiah 5:20-23: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter."

There are distinctions to be made. While all truth is God's truth, not every claim to truth is true or beneficial. And likewise, not everything is equally beneficial in the same way. Christians tend to overreact to the literature of paganism in one of two ways:

1. They reject it completely, believing that works of literature written from a non-Christian perspective have nothing to offer them.

2. They accept it all, approaching literature with an uncritical eye and enjoying it without a discriminating taste.

Both of these have their dangers. In the first instance, we tend to overlook the human value. In the second, we tend to overlook the human fallenness. We forget that learning to understand another culture does not entail accepting it. Reading any human work, including a literary one, calls for discernment and skill. We have to learn what this work will offer us. Alan Jacobs observes that too often readers act as if practicing discernment equals going to a text with preconceived notions of what they will find:

A healthy suspicion, bounded by a commitment to the love of neighbor, is more properly discernment: not the discernment of Nietzsche's serpent, which can only suspect and therefore is not discernment at all--since its conclusions are preestablished--but the discernment that is prepared to find blessings and cultivate friendships; in short, to receive gifts. (88)

Discerning Texts

In other words, true discernment is looking to learn. True learning requires hope for something good, as well as a sifting of what is deceptive. Isaiah tells us that we should be wary of calling the sweet bitter and the evil good. Most (if not all) literature is going to be a mixture of the two. We may even find wine and dross in the same character or story. We may reject, for instance, in Homer's The Odyssey, that character of Odysseus is an adulterer and often cruel, yet we may still admire his courage in the face of great dangers and his loyalty to his son.

We should we beware of approaching this task too simply. Making distinctions within a work of literature calls for a sense of balance, even good taste. How do we make the most out of drawing out the pure and the good?

  1. We should approach a text contextually. For example, in Homer's other great poem, The Iliad, the lengths that Priam goes to recover Hector's body might seem excessive unless we remember that in Homer's ancient Greek worldview, Hector's soul will not find rest unless his body is properly buried. Thinking contextually doesn't mean that we hold all values relative to one another; however, it does suggest that we should consider the social situation and mores that frame an action or thought. By doing so we better recognize what Priam's motivations are.

  2. We should encounter a text dramatically. To recognize the value of a life, we need to be sympathetic to its drama. This is a skill we need in life, too. In his years as a pastor, Eugene Peterson often turned to the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky in order to recover the importance of his parishioners: "In the flatness and boredom [of suburbia] I lost respect for these anemic lives. [. . .] Dostoevsky made them appear large again, vast in their aspirations, their sins, their glories. [. . .] I discovered tragic plots and comic episodes, works-in-progress all around me. [. . .] There were no ordinary people" (24). Perhaps, like Peterson, we are prone to not see the drama in ordinary lives. To think dramatically is to recognize the shape of a life, to look at its struggle over the course of a story's plot. We celebrate a character's redemption or mourn her fall because we have listened to the arch of her story. Again, in the Iliad, the Trojan hero Hector's death is not the same without the quagmire that the adulterous Paris and Helen have brought on Troy.

  3. We need to reflect on a text realistically. Theologian William Lynch maintains that a true literary and theistic interpretation practices the "analogical imagination." An analogy seeks to draw out a connection between two things. Thus, one can draw an analogy between two historical eras, two cultures, or between two figurative examples. Lynch maintains that a clear analogy should be drawn between the actual world and the fictional one. Reality is messy. It is complicated, even contradictory. A work of fiction or poetry that tries to suppress part of this reality ends up being flat and one-sided. Quite often, it is worse: it distorts the truth of our world. The best images are ones that practice a "thickness" of description. If they offer one portrait of reality, they also tend to connect us to other portraits that round out a true sense of how things are. No person is perfect, nor is any human situation free from weakness and failure. Yet neither is anyone all bad. To believe so is to ignore the image of God that all humans share. By extension, a fictional warior like Homer's Achilles is best understood as conflicted between virtue and baseness.

Being "open" to a text, then, means learning how to distinguish its truths from its falsehoods, its sweet from its bitter, its wine from its dross. 

Central Insight: Reading literature calls for skillful distinctions between good and evil, even within the same work.

Suggestions for Application: Locate a valuable example in the text; likewise, locate an example of evil. Better yet, find an example, character, or plot device that contains both good and evil closely intertwined, then tease out the distinction that should be made.

Jacobs, Alan. A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. Boulder: Westview, 2001.

Peterson, Eugene H. "Fyodor Dostoevsky: God and Passion" Reality and the Vision: 18 Contemporary Writers Tell Who They Read and Why. ed. Philip Yancy. Dallas: Word, 1990. 16-27.