How Should Christians Approach Literature?

Books have always been the staple of the educated mind. The potential of the written word is enormous: it can teach, entertain, mock, and disseminate information rapidly. Even with the rise of the Internet and mass communication, written language will still be around to be read and be deeply pondered over. In this entry, I want to deal with the issue of reading for pleasure: how should Christians approach literature? What type of books are worthy to be read?

I am not going to lay down hard and fast rules, but rather will suggest some general principles that we can use to select books that will edify and build us up, that can serve every aspect of our human nature rather than titillate us and feed our pet lusts. There are different levels of reading of course, from the solidly intellectual to the charming and soothing; I will not pit these against one another, for these levels all serve us in different ways. Reading is an activity that the Christian can highly cherish, for we are after all people of the Book and sit down to hear the written Word proclaimed every Lord’s Day.

First of all, I’d suggest that we open our minds especially to works of the past. We all remember struggling through these unusual old “classics” in our school days, grappling at understanding strange language and strange customs in strange times. But these works have endured for a very good reason: because they accurately depict who we are as human beings. We can read Greeks and Romans and British and Russians who lived thousands or hundreds of years ago and see them as people just like us - laughing, crying, suffering, enjoying, and trying to figure out life. God made us all like each other, and this common bond should awake our interest in the classics of the past.

I’d also suggest reading material that does not seek to gratuitously tickle our ears/minds. For example, a lot of books tend to rehash and promote shallow themes such as steamy romance, mindless violence, or crude jokes; these themes become the whole essence of the story. That is not to say that situations of such themes cannot appear in a good book, where they serve the larger plot and are inherently undermined by the grander themes which exalt our humanity. The Bible has such occurrences (think of Judges or certain parts of Ezekiel). The genre of literary satire, for example, is easily misunderstood because it has the illusion of promoting these themes when in fact it acts in the opposite manner, to expose them as absurd - such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” So, the key is to be discerning and read works of substance that seek to shine a light on our humanity in its present condition rather than distort it.

One more good piece of advice I can give is, we should seek to cultivate different parts of our minds by the different genres/themes we read. We do not need to read philosophy or nonfiction all the time, but neither should we exclusively read light, easygoing tales that warm our hearts. As Christians, we interact with a world that experiences the whole spectrum of our present human, sinful condition. This means that in order to learn more about ourselves and the world which God created us in, we need to read a wide variety of material. We can read books to sharpen our intellect, we can read books to ponder the depth of sin in this world, we can read books to marvel at the grandeur of beautiful language, we can read books to delight in tales of courage and sacrifice, and we can read books to help us recall the simple, universal pleasures of good food, a comfortable night’s sleep, and the carefree laughter of our children.

In the middle of all this, we constantly bring the truths we know from Scripture to bear upon all that we read, affirming what is true in literature and critiquing what is false. Yet even in the things that are false, we always see that falseness only comes from the perversion of what is good, and so we can sympathize with the writer and with his/her characters because we too are afflicted by many temptations. As Christians, however, we rejoice in knowing true hope and in having true faith in One who holds us firmly in His hand.

These are, I believe, good principles to start from when approaching the all-important question of what to read.