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).
Why should Christians read literature from a broad array of writers and thinkers? As our last installment put it, “If literature delivers knowledge, wouldn’t Christians find value only in the writings of those who embrace the truth of the gospel?” Poet Luci Shaw grounds her answer to this question in the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God and have access to general revelation: “We who believe we bear God’s image must realize that that image includes the capacity to imagine and create, because God is himself an imaginative Creator. Though we cannot produce something out of nothing, as God did, we can combine the elements and forms available to us in striking and original ways that arise out of the unique human ability (designed and built into us by God) to imagine, to see pictures in our heads.”1
A precious product of the human imagination, literature—with all its distinctive tools at its disposal—can powerfully reveal both the potential and pitfall of the human condition, its beauty and ugliness, its virtue and vice, its hunger for wholeness and besetting brokenness. It instills within us both despair, on the one hand, and the yearning hope for redemption, on the other. It reminds us that we have been made in the very image of God, filled with transcendent longings and tastes for enchantment, and that we are fallen creatures, too often content to settle for less than we’re meant for, exchanging our sacred birthright and noble calling for a bowl of porridge. It shows us at our best and our worst, revealing our convictions and compromises, our courage and cowardice, both the angels of our better nature and our inner haunting demons. It reveals both the extravagant goodness to which we’re called and how far short of it we can fall, both the goodness to which we feel pulled, and the grace we desperately need.
Christians can and should study a range of literary texts, both sacred and secular, to glean wisdom from those who have gone before us. Basil of Caesarea wrote an address to Christians along these lines, encouraging the proper use of pagan literatures. He found freedom in Christianity for such study and even precedence among Old Testament figures like Moses and Daniel who had steeped themselves in their respective pagan cultures. For those secure in their convictions, especially, study of other literatures can further solidify those beliefs. Basil explained, “If, then, there is any affinity between the two literatures, a knowledge of them should be useful to us in our search for truth; if not, the comparison, by emphasizing the contrast, will be of no small service in strengthening our regard for the better one.”2
The Pleasure of the Text
In addition to wisdom, excellent literary works also offer delight. Lewis often points to the pleasure of reading when speaking of its value. In his ingenious Screwtape Letters, a satirical novel depicting a demon advising his nephew on temptation, the older demon, Screwtape, lays into his benighted protégé, Wormwood, who had made a grave mistake by allowing his “patient” to read a book and take a walk for no reason other than enjoyment. This sounds harmless enough, yet Screwtape realizes that this direct experience of genuine pleasure facilitated for the patient a “second conversion,” a personal encounter with the source of that pleasure, namely God himself. It would have been better for the demons’ purposes if the patient had read the book to impress others, to make witty remarks upon it, or otherwise to self-aggrandize. Instead, the patient’s innate desire for the good was satisfied by an authentic delight of an intrinsically delightful book. This pleasurable experience, Screwtape realizes, has provided the patient with a “touchstone of reality” not easily dislodged by counterfeits. And the more the patient embraces that touchstone, the more intimately connected he is with God and, by extension, with himself.
The kind of enjoyment Screwtape fears, enjoyment of something worthwhile for its own sake and not for self-advantage, becomes simultaneously a pathway to God and a hedge against delusion. In Screwtape’s words, his hostility notwithstanding, “The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack.”3 What Screwtape unwittingly offers readers is thus a parable of spiritual awakening and discipleship, with the written word—most likely a story, given Lewis’s literary background and creative work—as the catalyst.
In this way, The Screwtape Letters both promotes and exemplifies the value of literature to a Christian liberal arts education. As we’ve noted, the so-called patient is benefited by his exposure to the goodness of this enjoyable written word. It enables in him repentance and a renewal of grace, a kind of self-recovery and reunion with God. But on another level, Lewis’s book itself exudes the good, the true, and the beautiful, inviting his readers to partake of the very same enchantment the fictional patient does. While Lewis’s character may be made up, the scenario described tells us much about our reality; not to mention, with its imaginative twists, the book is wildly fun to read, and reread. Through all its multifaceted dimensions, including the pleasure it gives, literature can direct us to no less than God himself, as we will consider in the final installment.
- Luci Shaw, “Beauty and the Creative Impulse,” The Christian Imagination (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books, 2002), 94. Shaw’s insight resonates with J. R. R. Tolkien’s discussion of the realm of Faerie, especially in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Ray, 1986), 33-99.
- Basil, Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature 3.
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Centenary Press, 1944), 69.