This article is about the importance of good Literature, and why all Christians writers should take a lesson from the Bible and Classic Christian literature and why we should all immerse themselves in great literature.
There are several historical works are responsible for shaping our Christian culture and our Biblical worldview into what it is today. Of course, the most important of these is the Bible itself. But the Bible began as separate books, and some of the writings of the prophets were not particularly welcomed or valued in their own day.
Nevertheless, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is apparent in these works that have been validated and elevated to the status of scripture—that which is recognized by God’s people at the authoritative word of God. It is an amazing and enviable gift—God’s word in written form! There is no greater tangible asset to Christian culture than God’s written word. Alexander the Great made a national project out of translating the Old Testament into the Greek translation called the Septuagint.
Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle, wrote in a very abstract and logical way, as did his mentor, Plato. Works of such abstract clarity is the ambrosia of the redeemed, but what ultimately changes hearts and minds comes by a different pathway. Most of scripture is written, by design, in a kind “shadow-language” that is nothing like those works of Classic literature that frame philosophical issues in terms of pure logic. This is what makes biblical truth so different.
Jesus himself spoke in parables, and he explained his reason for doing so saying, “It is not given to them to understand.” This is not just a put-down aimed at the “spiritually unenlightened” of his day. It is something that applies to all of us. We all need parables because the abstract clarity of God’s truth is something that takes time to permeate and grow in the mind of the hearer of God’s word.
What Christian Writers Can Learn From the Bible
So what can the modern Christian writer learn from that style that God has used in his own written word—the Holy Scriptures? We should take note of those methods of spiritual instruction used in Holy Scripture.
God’s word clearly teaches us that The full light of divine truth can have a blinding and incendiary effect on us humans who are not properly prepared to receive it in the form of a lecture. By contrast, consider the nature of a parable. A parable introduces a small seed of biblical truth that is not fully understood all at once but is allowed to germinate and grow over time. This is how biblical truth takes root in the heart and not just in the mind.
That explains the power of parables and it also explains why God usually chooses to have his written word in the shadow-languages of psalms, symbols, enigmatic visions, and lots of stories. This also explains the power of Christian classic literature in general. In fact, it explains the need for all of the arts.
Real Change Comes through Art—Not Intelectual Debate
The vicarious life experience of a good art permeates our consciousness in ways that become more than just an intellectual awareness of one thing or another. This is the substance of our Christian worldview. Truth becomes experiential over time. If you are suffering from an infected cut on your hand it helps to wash it, but it is far better to soak it for a long time in hot water and Epson salt. That is the difference between good literature and a mere lecture on some moral truth. We need a good soaking in the culture of Christianity.
Abolitionist pastors and moralists lectured against the evils of slavery for 2 generations before the Civil War. But it was a novel titled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe that finally raised anti-slavery sentiments to a fever-pitch. Great literature is that long soaking of low-dose medicinal value that can give you moral clarity without ever having to be lectured to. In fact, the best Christian literature avoids “lectures” altogether by simply putting you in a story experientially.
But this does not just apply to works of fiction, but also works of theology. The best of theological works employ this same “soaking” effect. Saint Augustine tediously recounted a long history of disasters—all to refute the claim of pagans that Christianity was responsible for angering the gods and provoking them to inflict terrible disasters that the empire.
The real reason for Rome’s distrust of Christians was the fact that that the culture of Christianity was simply an enigma to the pagan mind, and one that challenged values that were central to Classical paganism.
Augustine lampooned the absurdity of pagan beliefs and practices with irony and humor. There is a portion of City of God in which every page is like the sound of another nail being driven into the coffin of the Old Pagan polytheistic religion! It represented a paradigm shift that moved all of western Europe toward the Culture of Christianity.
The same might be said of Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” and of Samuel Rutherford’s “Lex Rex.” Both of these were definitive works that changed history and shaped Christian culture profoundly. Also, both works wear out the reader with a tedious cross-referencing and with an exhaustive “soaking” in a particular body of biblical truth that causes the resistant mind to succumb to its message out of sheer exhaustion! I am exaggerating here, but not that much. Both of these were definitive works. The only way for any thinking Christian to reject the message of these works is to simply not read them.
Why We Still Need the Ancient Authors
Great literature is tedious work. To produce a book that will grow in the mind of the reader requires drawing upon a depth of life experience and inward contemplation. It is this that enables a good Christian writer to have a profound and enduring influence upon the values and beliefs of thousands of people.
With rare exceptions, the modern mind does not have the temperament for this. So it is incumbent on the best modern Christian writers to absorb the thinking of those historical authors who did have the temperament for producing world-changing books. C. S. Lewis puts it another way, saying that Christians need to, “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” Of course, Lewis is talking about classical literature.
What Does this all Mean to the Christian Writer?
The main point is simply this—that world-changing truth does not make its way into the human consciousness via cliff-notes and snap-chats. Like those that came before us, Christian book writers must soak our minds in the Bible and in other great literature as it is the most valuable of any Christian writer’s resources. All of us must immerse ourselves in it, or we will not grow much spiritually.