A Biblical Basis for the Study of Literature

Karen Swallow Prior

When I saw Karen Swallow Prior’s Facebook post, “First day of classes! Can't wait to deliver another lecture on the biblical basis for the study of literature,” I was intrigued. Would this be something she’d be willing to share with our readers at The Well? Karen agreed, and as she writes, “While my points are centered on my discipline of English literature, perhaps they can provide insights for teaching the biblical basis for the study of other disciplines, as we each undertake to help our students and ourselves to love God with our minds.” Thank you, Karen!

For a variety of reasons, it can be difficult for Christians who are the products of contemporary culture to see the connections between the life of the intellect and the life of faith. This is true even (or especially) of our Christian students, particularly at the undergraduate level. Most of us teaching in institutions of higher education find ourselves at some point, perhaps often, engaged in academic apologetics: explaining and defending not only the significance but even the very legitimacy of our field of study.

Teaching in an evangelical university, I have found it very helpful to begin most of my classes with a defense of literature. (I take comfort in the fact that even ancients and early moderns such as Aristotle and Sir Philip Sidney had to defend literature in their own cultures, as have many thinkers and writers throughout the ages.) Beginning my classes with this discussion (which usually takes two class sessions or more) provides, I have found, a strong foundation that carries students through challenging parts of the semester, and (they often later attest) is the part of the course students remember most.

Here is my biblical basis for the study of literature, which is very loosely defined as the art of language, and it is with the art of language that I begin:

  • Language is a gift of God. To study, steward, and enjoy language is to appreciate God’s good gift.
  • Language is a reflection of God’s very nature and his image in us. Jesus is called the “Word.” Thus we know that language is not only something God gives and uses, but is part of his very nature. God is, in some ineffable way, language. To use and study language is to celebrate God’s nature and his image in us.
  • Language is powerful. Consider that God spoke the world into existence. He also thwarted the attempt to overreach human bounds (in building the Tower of Babel) specifically by dividing human speech into various languages. Proverbs 18:21 cautions us that life and death are in the power of the tongue. We must learn to use the tool of language responsibly, effectively, and in a God-honoring way.
  • Using language was the first work God assigned to humankind. Adam’s first task was to name (not count or classify or tame or paint!) the animals. Through language we discover and create order in God’s creation; this kind of work was part of God’s original plan for man before the fall and continues to be part of our work today.
  • When we take delight in literary creations, we imitate God. God took delight in his creation in looking upon it and declaring that “it was good.” It is good to take pleasure and enjoyment in our good creations, including literary ones.
  • Aesthetic goodness (the beautiful) can teach us about moral goodness (the good) and intellectual goodness (the true). According to William Dyrness in his book Visual Faith, the word “good” in the Bible refers to both aesthetic and ethical goodness; in God’s perfect economy, the two realms are not divided. When God declared that his creation was “good,” this pronouncement was both a moral and an aesthetic judgment.
  • To read or write literature is one way we can take dominion over the earth. Art — including literature — is an attempt to take dominion over the aesthetic realm of creation; simply by observing God’s creation we know that God cares about beauty; we should, too.
  • Christianity is a religion of the written word. Christianity gives a primary place to the word over the image: God’s highest form of communication with us is through the written word (from the Ten Commandments to Holy Scripture to Jesus as the Word); God cautions us about the power of visual images or “graven images” (see Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death), and the Protestant Reformation reinforced the primacy of words over images); Christianity is responsible for preserving and disseminating the written word and literacy throughout the world as the invention of the printing press was motivated by the desire of Christians to get the Bible into the hands of the people. The word both spoken and written is central to our faith in countless ways.
  • Excellence in literary knowledge is exemplified by important figures in the Bible. Consider both Daniel and Paul, both of whom demonstrated mastery of pagan literature and used it to glorify God.
  • Faithful Christians and skilled readers share an important common trait. Both demonstrate faithfulness to the text — neither adding to nor subtracting from it.
  • When we enter new worlds by reading literature, we imitate Christ. Christ humbled himself by becoming human in order to experience our humanity with us (Phil. 2:5-8); when we read literature that conveys lives, places, and experiences different from our own, we are humbling ourselves by stepping outside our own world to share in aspects of human experience unfamiliar to us.
  • Reading the great literature of the world is like fulfilling the command God gave to the Israelites to take silver and gold from the Egyptians. As St. Augustine argued in De Doctrina Christiana about pagan philosophy, Christians can put “Egyptian gold” (pagan treasures or wisdom, wherever it is found) into the Lord’s service. Of course, the “gold” must be tested by Scripture to determine whether or not it truly is gold.
  • Reading literature in light of scripture helps us to fulfill the command of 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22. “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” Reading literature allows us to “test” ideas.
  • The study of literature helps us to be more like Christ, putting worldly things under our subjection. Matthew 15:11 reminds us that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth. Through reading literature, we strengthen our abilities to discern good from evil (Hebrews 2:8, 5:12-14; 2 Cor. 10-5, Rom 12:2), and can grow to desire “meat” more than “milk.” The fall corrupted not only our sense of what is morally good (what is right), but also what is aesthetically good (what is beautiful); both of these need to be brought back under subjection through Christ.
  • Encountering the truths contained in good literature makes us freer. And Jesus said, “The Truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). All human beings are made in God’s image and thus bear the image of Truth in them; similarly, as St. Augustine argued in De Doctrina Christiana, all truth is God’s truth. What makes great writers great — Christian or not — is their ability to express truth. Reading literature by the great minds of all times and all places helps us to discern more truth.
  • Reading literature from various views can cultivate virtue (see “Promiscuous Reading”). John Milton puts it this way in Areopagitica:

As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

  • Reading literature helps us to fulfill the command to love our neighbors. The more we know and understand our neighbors the better we can love them.
  • Reading good literature helps us to fulfill the exhortation of Phil 2:8. “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” The canon of literature is literature of good report. Good literature is praiseworthy for the truth it contains, even if those truths are hard, as is often the case.
  • Literary Christians are better equipped to engage a postmodern culture. Postmodernism is characterized by an emphasis on language and “story”; for many today the aesthetic experience has replaced the religious experience. Christians who understand this can more effectively engage the current culture.

While my points are centered on my discipline of English literature, perhaps they can provide insights for teaching the biblical basis for the study of other disciplines, as we each undertake to help our students and ourselves to love God with our minds.

For further reading:

Brown, Frank Burch. Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
Dyrness, William A. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin, 1986.
Ryken, Leland, ed. The Christian Imagination. Colorado Springs: Shaw Books, 2002.
Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. Reading Between the Lines. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1990.
Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. State of the Arts. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1991.

Also, for various disciplines, see the Through the Eyes of Faith series published by HarperOne.

Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University, Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.


I lead a "Spiritual Themes in Literature" discussion group at the church I serve. This article was most helpful to me, and I am using parts of it for a newsletter article for the congregation. I double-majored in English and Religion in college, and I have found literature important in my ministry.
Thank you, and God bless,

Jun 24, 2015 1:59PM by The Rev. Dr. Cathy Northrup

Augustine's advice to be looking for Egyptian gold is instructive, Karen. As someone who grew up just a couple hours from the California gold country and whose great-great-great grandfather mined a claim there, this analogy has special meaning for me. Gold has its uses and so does great lit, as long as it is all governed by our faith for God's glory.

Plus, I do like a good story.

Sep 4, 2014 4:08PM by Tim

I cannot convey enough appreciation for this piece.

Books/reading have always been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. I learned to read before I went to school. I don't remember the details, but I know it was one of those children's books shaped like one of the characters in the story. Even though I am in my 40s, I remember that it was a whale.

I also distinctly remember Before and After. Before, the lines and squiggles just looked like marks on the page. Then, from one moment to the next, like a light switch being flicked, I was able to understand them! It was a like a magical door being opened. I've never lost that feeling even these decades later.

I was 18 when I became a Christian. Other than verses here and there, I'd never read the Bible before. So the very first thing I did was to begin devouring it. And I mean all of it, both Old Testament and New. There was much I didn't understand at the time. But I kept at it. It was, and still is, the most amazing thing I've ever read.

When I learned how much emphasis God put on the Word and that Jesus was even called The Word, I was overjoyed. This Jesus was a Savior who was not only for me, but he was like me! He loves words. He gave us his thoughts in words. He even calls himself The Word - I still can't believe it some days!

All of this to say that it was not until years later that I slowly began learning that many Christians have never read the Bible all the way through. Some, not even the New Testament. How can that be? How can you have any book on a shelf or a desk and not be DYING to open it? How much more so if this book purports to be the very thoughts of God?

As to reading in general, even though my parents encouraged us to do well in school, they were never readers themselves. And by the time I was a teenager, I was that kid with her nose in a book most of the time and her parents saying in oh-so-many ways, "Get your head out of the clouds! Go do something useful!"

Literally to this day, September 3rd, 2014, I feel guilty when I read. (Yes, even the Word.) As much as I love it, there's a tug-of-war inside of me every moment I pick up any book.

I feel it when I look at the books piled on my tables. I feel it when I see the books on my shelves. I feel it when I go to a bookstore just to browse. (Which is at least once a week.) Even after all my work is done, the house is clean, I've spent time with family and taken care of all the Important Business of Life, I still feel guilty when I sit down to read anything.

This is despite the fact that I read many "serious" books. I read a lot of non-fiction, especially on apologetics, theology, philosophy, etc. I love literature as well. I'm so geeky that when I passed by a "Free books" box outside a bookstore, I snatched up an old, huge, hard cover high school literature textbook. It was even a Teacher's Edition, so I felt like I'd won the lottery. That bookstore was nearly two hours away by train. My back was hurting because my bag was full of the books I'd been reading that day. But I lugged that monstrosity home anyway.

I have always felt that my reading was helping me grow spiritually, even when it was not a "Christian" book. So many of the things you list here are things I've thought as well. (And some were new to me!) How wonderful to see this and think that maybe, just maybe, I'm not crazy after all. Maybe there really IS value to this hobby and passion of mine. Maybe the spiritual component that I've always sensed but couldn't always put words to is real. Maybe God thinks so too. It's a thought that feels too good to be true.

I am sure this bizarre guilt is partly to blame for the fact that I didn't pursue some sort of academic career. Oh, not consciously and deliberately. But that shadow was and is always there, whispering, "You're wasting your time." Unless I was going to pursue the practical, useful career of a teacher, why bother? I have no interest in or aptitude for teaching, and I was probably in my 30s before it even dawned on me that there are other careers besides teaching that could utilize that sort of degree. By that time, I'd already been working for years, just making enough to get by. These days I've been out of work for years. Such dreams are even more out of reach. I suppose it's just as well. I'm not sure I can break through the guilt, even now.

I realize this doesn't make sense on any logical, rational level. It's just one of those things that you've absorbed so deeply into your mind, heart, and very spirit that it feels like the truth - even when everything in you screams that it's a lie.

So thank you for this. I'm going to print it out and read it often.

Maybe I'll finally convince myself of what I've always known to be true.

Sep 3, 2014 5:28PM by Mo

MO, thank you for posting this comment. It means so much to me to know how much this post speaks to your mind and spirit. I do not wish to use this as an opportunity to sell my book. But I do want you to know that my book Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me relays very similar experiences. In thanks for sharing so much of yourself here, I will gladly send you a copy if you are interested. You can email me at kprior@liberty.edu. Of course, if you wish to remain anonymous, I understand. I truly think the book would encourage you. Thank you for reading this and sharing your comment.


Sep 4, 2014 11:48AM by KSP

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