Category Archives: Literature

Partaking of fiction with a biblical worldview (part 1)

Numerous parents over the past two decades have approached me with grave concerns over what their children are reading. Their concerns are wide-ranging and unpredictable.

Some say that their children should only read specifically Christian literature; anything else would be too much of the world. In fact, I taught for a year at a Christian school whose curriculum oversight committee refused to allow its students to read anything besides specifically Christian literature. To repeat, I taught there only a year.

Some parents allow their children to read a small selection of secular fiction, but they fret over it. (“Should they really read these books with sinful characters?”) Others take a very relaxed stance, allowing their children to read whatever their hearts desire, but not helping provide any kind of filter through which to read and understand this literature.

Same goes for movies, only more so. Since it is such a visual medium, movies are more scary to parents, who approach them with fear and caution—and rightly so.

This all begs an important question: What standards can Christians apply toward viewing/reading fiction?

The obvious answer is the Bible. Most parents will use Philippians 4:8 as the criteria for judging the readability of a book: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (ESV). Then they look at the work of fiction to see what is lovely, honorable, and just.

This is an excellent standard for a start. Let’s consider adding more of God’s Word to this list of criteria.

First, realize that “whatever is lovely” wants us to dwell on truth and beauty. Also realize that “whatever is true” includes not just beauty but also the whole truth about, well, truth. What’s true and real is that this world is full of sin. It’s ugly, and it warps everything it touches. And evil is evil; it is to be avoided, not desired.

How best to show that evil has consequences? Depict it in all its ugliness, and watch the consequences unfold. Well-written fiction will do just that. However, sugar-coating the truth provides an unrealistic picture of the “real world.” Does this mean that students should read every kind of pulp fiction out there? Absolutely not. Find good fiction that shows the true tension of good versus evil, that shows the repugnance of evil. Take a careful look at what happens when people give in to it.

Some of the dark literature of modernity will provide excellent examples. I want my students to read about the cry of man’s heart: “What do I do with the darkness I have inside me?” In realistically-depicted fiction, we can see what happens when man cries out for a savior and then tries to save himself, or invents his own savior, or destroys himself in pursuit of a better life. Perhaps he creates a whole new society in which everything can be manipulated so that human emotions and attitudes can be tightly controlled. We see how successful that is in Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World, Hunger Games, Divergent, Anthem, and Atlas Shrugged, to name just a few. And can a student learn something from the failed experiment of the creation of a new society? You bet.

The naked, ugly truth is that deep down, man cries out for a savior. That heart-wrenching agony can be clearly seen in Romans 7, in which Paul tells the truth of man’s situation: the things I want to do, I don’t do; those things I don’t want to do, I do. Then Paul cries out “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Isn’t this what every person despairs of, at some point in his life? What kind of sugar-coated, romanticized fiction ever depicts ugly, unbearable truth like that? Rarely does Christian fiction do it well.

However, look at Picture of Dorian Gray, Heart of Darkness, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example. The futility of trying to overcome one’s weaknesses by creating some sort of hero oneself is portrayed in all of its dark brutality. Did these authors know the one, true God? Some will argue the answer; however, it is clear that these authors realized the futility in their own lives and expressed it clearly.

Can a non-Christian depict the truth in his work of fiction? For an answer, take a look at Les Miserables or A Tale of Two Cities. (Some will argue that Dickens was a Christian; we will not take up that argument here—someone else can. We do know that Hugo was an avowed pagan.) What about revenge and its devastating results in The Count of Monte Cristo? The beauty of reconciliation and repentance is laid out clearly in all these books. Did God use these men? I would argue that yes, he did—and does.

So how do we approach literature with our children? Teach them the truth of the Law and the Gospel. Man is sinful and cannot save himself. He desperately needs a savior and tries to fill the void with his own works and inventions. Dead in his own sins, God reaches in and pulls him up out of the grave and into life. How tragic for those who have not been made alive by God!

Let’s see how this is played out in literature.

For more reading on how to view literature from a biblical worldview, see Reading Between the Lines by Gene Veith, The Twelve Trademarks of Literature by Jeff Baldwin, and How to Read Slowly by James Sire.

Part Two: “Bibles, Bonnets, and Brides: Christian Fiction”

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Booklist from 2011

I tried to remember all the books I’d read this year, and I was amazed at how little free time I have, but how many books I got through. That tells me that if I just had more time on my hands, I’d really get a lot read!

Here are a few highlights from this past year:

Theology:

  • A Gospel Primer for Christians: Learning to See the Glories of God’s Love by Vincent Milton. This is a great little book. A student’s parent mailed it to me, and the next week our pastor held up his copy and encouraged us to read it. A couple of weeks later another pastor friend was underlining passages in his copy of the same book. I got the hint and picked it up. The entire message of this little gem is that we must preach the gospel to ourselves every day. What a simple thought.
  • On the Incarnation by Athanasius. This is another little treasure, written by a 3rd century Christian thinker. His logic is flawless, and his vision is centered on Christ, who He is, and what He has done.
  • Luther on Prayer. Martin Luther wrote about prayer based on the Lord’s Prayer. This is not a “pray these prayers” book, but as I wonder and focus on what prayer should be, I find his words helpful and insightful.
  • The Heidelberg Confession. The Westminster Confession is by far the better-known, but the Heidelberg lays out the Christian confession very clearly, with clear scriptural support. This is a good reference for anyone wanting to refer to doctrinal questions regarding the Christian faith.
  • Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This was a quick read, a simple look at the different Psalms and how they prayed in different ways to God. I am encouraged by Bonhoeffer’s insistence that praying through the Psalms will strengthen one’s prayer life. Indeed, whenever I have done so, I find encouragement in the psalmists’ admission of their own weakness and God’s strength.
  • Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible by CFW Walther. Okay, I haven’t finished reading this yet, but I like working my way through each of Walther’s lectures. He emphasizes the balance of law and gospel (hence, I suppose, the title) as he teaches pastors, but even laypersons like me can learn how to apply Law and Gospel to my understanding.
  • Confessions by Augustine of Hippo. This is another I have been working my way through, and I love the way Augustine tells his life story as a prayer to an all-knowing God, who wove together the events in his life to bring Augustine to Himself at just the right time.
  • The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz. I should be putting this book in Fiction, but it is also Theology. It is a collection of stories, almost reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s tone, that tells the same truth throughout: true faith is a balance of Law and Gospel. I loved this book and highly recommend it to all.

Fiction, Classics:

  • The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz. Okay, this is for those of you who skipped over the Theology portion of my list and just landed here. See the above description of this book and go out and find it. It is a beautiful read.
  • The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. I hadn’t picked this one up in years, and it was just as delightful as I had found it as a young reader. I can’t wait until the movie comes out!
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. Sometimes I find books I hadn’t read as an English major, and this has sat on my shelf a long time without being read. I thought it was well done, intriguing all the way through, and not completely predictable. Hardy depicts a detestable character quite well.
  • Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. This was another book that somehow I had never read. Not sure I’d read it again, but it tells a sad story of hopeless individuals…really a day-brightener, I must say.
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin. This and Ethan Frome I promised a fellow teacher I would read and discuss with her. Thanks, Traci, for depressing me. This one shows the blossoming of a feminist perspective in the early 1900s. Selfish, self-centered, self-fulfilling, self-indulgent, and ultimately self-destructive. In a way, not too different from Picture of Dorian Gray. Lovely.
  • My Man Jeeves by PG Wodehouse. The author writes about a man with his butler near the turn of the 20th century. It’s cleverly written and amusing. I picked up his other books and found that they are pretty much the same thing, so I stopped there.

Fiction, Series:

  • The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling will always be on my list of favorites. I re-read it this year and loved it. I may have to do that again soon.
  • Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley. This starts with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and includes four more books so far. I hope there are more. This is the tale of an 11-year-old girl in post-WWII England, living in a drafty manor and experimenting with chemicals to her heart’s delight. She solves mysteries. This could be a child’s story, but it is a very delightful series of books that any adult would love, full of endearing characters, humor, and excitement.
  • I finished the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins this year. These dystopian novels about a bleak future world will soon be made into a movie. They are labeled for young adult readers–like me (ahem). Actually, if you are older than I, you will probably like it too.
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth was another well-written dystopian depiction of young people coming of age in a future world. People have been divided into factions and assigned certain roles to keep their world ordered. Behind the scenes, though, there is intrigue and insurrection. This is not yet a series, but I hear the second book comes out in May, so I’m categorizing it here, with much anticipation.
  • The World War II novels by Jeff Shaara. Beginning with The Steel Wave, Shaara tells the true-to-life stories from the earliest days of Rommel’s battles on the African continent. I haven’t begun the second book yet, but I love every Shaara novel I can get my hands on.
  • Lord Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy Sayer. Beginning with Clouds of Witness, we meet Lord Peter and learn his quirky ways to solve a mystery. These stories are humorous and quick to plow through.

Fiction, Non-series:

  • So Brave,  Young and Handsome by Leif Enger. I loved his first book, Peace Like a River, so I took a chance on this one, and he did not disappoint. He is a master storyteller, very poetic, and he tells a good old-fashioned western tale with marvelous characters.
  • To the Last Man by Jeff Shaara. I’m just finishing this novel, and as always, Shaara is a master at telling the stories behind the wars the US has been engaged in. This one is about the First World War. I learned a lot that I hadn’t learned before about this devastating war.
  • Demonic by Ann Coulter. Okay, yes, she is a bit nutty. But I was intrigued by the description of this book, because she tells of the evolution of the mob. She uses the French Revolution for a prime example of the way a mob runs amok–and how crowds just blindly follow along. Since I am a history buff, and since some of my students are studying the French Revolution, I thought I’d pick it up. I don’t recommend her to just anyone, because she uses some crude language, but the historical progression is well footnoted and well-written.

What about 2012?

I am open to suggestions. You can see how eclectic I am as a reader. I’m looking for good historical fiction, sometimes a mystery or two, and some excellent, biblically-based theology that doesn’t turn into a mushy self-help, I’m-okay-you’re-okay pile of fertilizer. On my list continues to reside Law and Gospel, the rest of the Shaara books I have not yet read, a couple of David Baldacci and John Grisham books, and maybe, just maybe, The Help. I’ve resisted it thus far simply because I am a bit snobbish about the very popular Oprah-type books. But someone I respect has just finished it and assures me it is good. Sigh.

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