This series is adapted from a chapter in Keith Loftin’s Rekindling an Old Light: The Virtue and Value of Christ-Shaped Liberal Arts Learning (High Bridge Books, 2022, published in conjunction with Moral Apologetics Press).
Literature can give us ears to hear and sensitize our eyes to see goodness, truth, and beauty—in fact to effect union with God himself, as David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory Maillet explain in Christianity and Literature: “The core of Christian theological aesthetics is the religious experience of reestablished communion with God, mediated in this case by aesthetic structures which create, facilitate or sometimes even require a triune meeting with the work of literary art, the spiritually awakened human person, and the divine life of God revealed by faith and reason.”1 In this way, literature—correctly understood—contributes to a life of human flourishing.
A rudimentary form of this argument comes through Samuel Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, wherein the Romantic poet explores the role of the imagination and traces it back to its source in God.2 For Coleridge, the imagination is the epitome of creativity, necessary for life and restoration of divisions or destruction in this fallen world. Only through the imagination can reconciliation take place, a process mirrored by poets as they harmonize the opposites one finds in this world, especially the universal and particular. In this way, Coleridge’s theory of the imagination stems from his Christian beliefs wherein Christ is the ultimate reconciler, connecting and redeeming all. The human imagination, by echoing Christ’s redemptive work, looks back to the unadulterated goodness of the created order and forward to God’s consummation of history.
Throughout the creation story in Genesis, God affirms that the created order is good, a category that points to more than just the moral, as Robert Adams articulates in Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics.3 Both the aesthetic and intellectual fit here too, and literature at its best is replete with these excellencies, available for students and other readers to discover and appreciate, relish and savor. On such grounds, Adams, as an ethicist, binds together desiring the excellent with the qualifications for living a moral life, arguing that the “good” for a person “is a life characterized by enjoyment of the excellent.”4 He argues further that a good person is one who is for the good.5
If we are to accept this understanding of goodness as deriving from God, discerning, desiring, and pursuing the excellent ultimately helps orient our minds toward God and enlarge our understanding of worship as daily practice, a mode of living and flourishing. Our everyday actions and our engagement with others should be bound up in this sacred undertaking: discerning, encouraging, and practicing the excellent, as a means to know, recognize, worship, and follow God. Indeed, arguably it’s our obligation as Christians to do so. Gene Edward Veith explains, in Reading between the Lines, that “[t]he process of learning how to enjoy (subjectively) what is admirable (objectively) is known as the cultivation of tastes… What we delight in has a spiritual dimension.”6 Adams goes as far as to say that “loving the excellent has the more foundational role” than even doing one’s moral duty.7
Our Contemporary Moment
Rightly construed, literature can draw us closer to union with God and with other people. There have been two extreme errors that literary study in the secular realm has been drawn to, both of which in different ways position man as the source of literary value. On one hand, there are those who are tempted to elevate the literary texts themselves. Recognizing the inherent value of literary art, they might mistake that value as an end in itself, thus ignoring (or downright denying) the foundation that undergirds and sustains it. Such is the case of Matthew Arnold and the program of literary studies he instituted at the end of the nineteenth century. As the Victorian era was coming to a close, Arnold recognized the need for a stabilizing force to counterbalance the social upheaval wrought by industrialization, Darwinism, and the rise of the middle class. Religion, Arnold believed, had failed, and with utopian naiveté, Arnold’s project suggested that literary instruction alone might prove a worthy substitute to sustain a thriving culture.
On the other extreme, the literary field of today is dominated by ideological criticism rather than Arnold’s pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty, misguided as he was about the source of those objective values. In a bestselling handbook to literary theory, for example, Terry Eagleton scoffs at the notion that literature has any inherent value:
There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself, regardless of what anyone might have said or come to say about it. “Value” is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes. It is thus quite possible that, given a deep enough transformation of our history, we may in the future produce a society which is unable to get anything at all out of Shakespeare. His works might simply seem desperately alien, full of styles of thought and feeling which such a society found limited or irrelevant.8
Here of course Eagleton is blurring the lines between the objective fact of value and the personal (or even collective) act of valuing something. By doing so, he discards the possibility that someone or some society might be wrong in their valuation. Even the mere idea of a wrong evaluation or a wrong assessment makes no sense on Eagleton’s account. This sets the field of literary study up to be little more than power struggles. If nothing beyond human preferences make for the standard, right is reduced to might.
More recently, literary scholars have recognized the instability and inherent chaos of such a system and have tried to recover a sense of more objective values. In a 2018 opinion piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, Eric Bennett bemoans the current state of American political discourse and lays the blame at the feet of humanities departments’ shift away from value questions in the 1980s.9 No longer was the field “rigorously defined.” Instead, it opened up to “the local, the little, the recent, and the demotic.”10 Bennett emphasizes that along with the democratization of the canon came a rejection of the English discipline’s authority. By “equat[ing] expertise with power and power with oppression and malicious advantage,” he argues, English departments left the liberal arts undefended in the face of economic and political pressures that reduce human life, meaning, and value to the pragmatic and material.11
Bennett concludes his reflections with a charge to reinvigorate the English discipline by exercising “modes of expression slow enough to inoculate against [the] flimsy thinking” so prevalent, and destructive, today. The stakes, he says, could not be higher—not only for the academy, which needs good literary critics, but also for the country, which is in “mortal need of good citizens.” While Bennett’s critique of contemporary literary studies is laudable, without the sturdy foundations available through Christian convictions, such a return to humanistic study seems destined merely to put us on the same course as Arnold set us on a hundred and fifty years ago. Christians need great literature. And if the field is to retain its enchantment, resounding redemptive notes, and taste for enchantment, literary study needs Christians. There is perhaps no better place for such work than in Christian liberal arts colleges, where both the students and the discipline can be brought under the lordship of Christ and governed by his purposes.
- David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory Maillet, Christianity and Literature (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2011), 87.
- Samuel Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2d ed., ed. Vincent Leitch, et al. (New York: Norton, 2010), 584-591.
- Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 4.
- Adams, 89.
- Adams, 189.
- Gene Edward Veith, Reading between the Lines (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 46.
- Adams, 4.
- Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 10.
- Eric Bennett, “Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 13, 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Dear-Humanities-Profs-We-Are/243100.