By Karen Swallow Prior

A Biblical Basis for the Study of Literature

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.

About the Author

Karen Swallow Prior (PhD, SUNY Buffalo) is the award-winning author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. She is a frequent speaker, a monthly columnist at Religion News Service, and has written for Christianity Today, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Vox. She is a contributing editor for Comment, a founding member of the Pelican Project, a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, and a senior fellow at the International Alliance for Christian Education. (Photo Credit: Joanna Sue Photography)

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