The question of moral values in modern literature is one which confronts many earnest Christians who wish to keep abreast of contemporary art. All too often such people are left with furtive, semiapologetic feelings about their reading interests. That there is some value in contemporary fiction, poetry, or drama they may not doubt; but often the values remain only half-formulated or completely hazy. The problem, then, of a Christian approach to modern literature is worthy of consideration.

For example, suppose a Christian, knowing that William Faulkner is considered one of America’s greatest literary artists, desires to read, say, The Sound and the Fury. Beginning the book, he notices first of all a rather difficult style (this alone, unfortunately, is enough to stop many would-be readers of the modern authors). Persevering, he discovers coarse words and themes of sex, incest and lust. Often the result is either that he throws the book aside in disgust, or that he goes on reading because he is fascinated in spite of himself. Either result is lamentable. The usual remark, heard sometimes in academic, highly cultured Christian circles, runs something like this: “Faulkner certainly is brilliant stylistically; it’s just too bad he chose these poor subjects.”

Such readers obviously forget that the distinction between style and content is largely an artificial one; form and content are in essence inseparable.

If form is content, the position of praising the style of Faulkner and other moderns, particularly the naturalists, while deprecating their content, seems to need rethinking.

What, then, are some principles that should guide a Christian reader in his approach to modern literature?

In the first place, every book, poem, or play deserves to be judged on the basis of its author’s purpose. This is of prime importance in distinguishing the worthy and the unworthy in recent literature—or in any literature, for that matter. Potboilers, written for immediate sale and often catering to the lower nature simply to attract hosts of buyers, are ordinarily almost worthless. But often a writer of integrity must picture human violence and depravity to carry out his theme, to express his ideas. This concept should not be foreign to the Christian who is familiar with the Old Testament stories of violence, told not for the sake of violence but to illustrate man’s degradation and God’s righteousness.

To return to the case of William Faulkner, a large part of his purpose in The Sound and the Fury and other novels is to reveal the degradation of the Old South—and of modern society—through materialism. Furthermore, according to Faulkner’s 1949 Stockholm Address, all his writing is an attempt to show “the human heart in conflict with itself … to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” In the view of many critical readers, these purposes could not be achieved without the inclusion of much sordid material. In fact, Faulkner believes that mature man must learn to accept evil as well as good in the harmony of the world—and this part of his religious perception should not be too strange to one who realizes that without a knowledge of sin there can be no salvation.

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We should not, therefore, be too quick to accuse an author of “wallowing in filth.” Although this charge is brought most often against recent writers, it is actually connected with literature of any age; the same charge has been leveled at Jonathan Swift of the eighteenth century and Geoffrey Chaucer of the fourteenth. The only solution is to learn to judge a man’s work by his purposes, his motives, and how well he achieves his goals with the material he uses.

Second, it is wise to approach a work of modern literature seeking actively for the values it can impart. And, as in the case of true art in any period, these are many—but they are rendered possibly more immediate because they are the contribution of great minds living in our own century, our own world climate.

For one thing, modern literature can bring an awareness of world views that oppose our own. This is valuable for obvious reasons; we need to break out of our insularity, to understand the concepts which large minds are thinking beyond the boundaries of our own ideological environment, however excellent that environment may be (cf. Acts 7:22: “And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians …”). This is not to say, however, that we should accept these opposing world views—or that we should become dulled in our rejection of the low moral standards we may read about. As T. S. Eliot points out in Religion and Literature, “So long as we are conscious of the gulf fixed between ourselves and the greater part of contemporary literature (i.e., that which does not admit of a Christian supernatural order) we are more or less protected from being harmed by it, and are in a position to extract from it what good it has to offer us.”

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Another value one may well seek in recent literature is a widening of his human sympathies. In The Sound and the Fury, for instance, Faulkner gives the stream of consciousness of Benjy, an idiot. Whether or not Faulkner is completely correct in his surmises about what goes on in an undeveloped mind, certainly this sympathetic insight tends to soften one’s attitude toward such members of the human race. There is also the confused stream of consciousness of a man about to commit suicide. In other words, life in other emotional climates is opened up. Certainly this deepening of human sympathy, the extension of our ability to “feel in” with others, is a part of maturation.

This heightened perception of human emotions often leads, furthermore, to the solution of one’s own personal problems and to a better self-understanding.

Another result of the intelligent reading of contemporary literature is a sharpening of the analytical powers. One reason for Faulkner’s difficult style—run-together sentences, abrupt gaps and jumps in the chronology—is to force the reader to participate in the story, to keep wrestling with the ideas until they come clear. This is true also in the symbolism of novelists like Ernest Hemingway and poets like T. S. Eliot. The same techniques of intensive, thoughtful reading are extremely valuable in Bible study, leading us to become aware of allusions and subtle shades of meaning.

All these values will, however, be received only through reading books commonly recognized as works of art. How can one tell, before he invests his time and money in a book, whether it is worthwhile? One can certainly not tell a book by its cover, and even dependence on the author’s reputation may at times be deceiving. The best answer is probably reliance on the critic. Although twentieth-century “classics” are still fluid and it is dangerous to foretell which works will stand the test of time—we lack the perspective for that—the critics and reviewers in reputable newspapers or magazines are usually well enough trained and widely enough read to guide us through the deluge of printed matter to that which is of particular interest to us, and that which is worth our while.


Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Associate Professor of English at Shelton College, holds the M.A. degree from Temple University. She has done some radio script writing and has published short stories integrating biblical and literary themes.

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