WAKE FOREST – 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. (By “literature,” I am simply thinking of published works of imaginative writing in various genres, such as poetry, fiction and drama.)
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, and which are not? Which emotions ought we to cultivate, and 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.” 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 ….” 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.” Think a bit about that!
Literature can help us glorify God in our lives. Humans are “wordish creatures.” 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.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This column first appeared at http://betweenthetimes.com/, a website of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. 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).)
 Bradley Green, The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life (Crossway, 2010), 104.