What has the Bible to say to me as a reader of novels? Does it condemn me, as some of the Puritans thought, because I take seriously what in their view is essentially lies? Or does it have nothing to say to the point, so long as I keep my moral convictions in tune with its precepts? Perhaps there is something to be said for the secular-sacred dichotomy after all. But suppose I am committed to the integrative approach to life, convinced that everything I do is at least in some sense sacred? If the Scriptures do indeed govern all of life, they must give me some basis for criticism of the serious novel, making my perspective distinctively Christian.

The critic who is determined to work in full harmony with the biblical revelation will find, it seems to me, at least five working principles. The first principle should dismiss any uneasiness he may feel in working with the novel genre at all. It is that God himself places an astounding value on human experience. And the real qualities of human experience are the serious novelist’s prime concern.

How many students of Scripture have been adequately impressed with the attention the Bible gives to man’s experiences, both in poetic analyses (e.g., the Psalms) and in historical narratives? The Spirit chose to show us as a prime means of teaching us. He filled his revelation with narrative after narrative: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and on and on to John and his great visions on Patmos. Christ’s favorite tool for teaching was the parable. The Scriptures are together one great historical plot, with God the protagonist and the biblical personalities his foils. In the beginning he is presented creating all things, and in the end renovating and recreating all things, and all between he is shown momentously intervening in human history, moving it to its certain dénouement. The manner of these interventions should strike all Christians with great force. The Bible is centrally concerned with presenting the raw material of human experience. Underlying its entire form is the quiet, persistent assertion that concrete human experience—its particular events—is of profound importance.

To study these incidents carefully and work toward theological generalizations is necessary. But the Spirit does not intend this to be man’s whole response to his revelation, nor indeed the primary one. The Spirit uses various aspects of Scripture to bring man to truth. The Bible is able to grip the heart through the imagination, and through his imagination man can very directly approach truth. If the mind of man is to grasp the full truth of Scripture, it must not stifle the imagination’s power to recreate the experiences of particular men. Since God is a God of movement in the concrete world, kinetic rather than static, revealing himself more in the affairs of men than in their abstractions, the story form is an essential vehicle for communicating the truths of life.

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To approach truth through the imaginative re-creation of human experience is the object of the serious novelist. I can hear someone objecting: “Your comparisons between novels and the Bible are hopelessly invalid because the Bible is history, whereas fiction is merely the product of imaginative fancy. No practical Christian should take fiction seriously, no matter how beautiful it is as literature. Good novels may entertain harmlessly, perhaps, but that is all they are good for.” So we are getting back to the objection of certain Puritans: the novel is lies.

My objector really owes it to himself to read some of the classic discussions of the relation between truth and works of the imagination, such as Aristotle’s Poetics, Shelley’s Defense of Poetry, and Joseph Conrad’s Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus. To summarize: the novel presents an imaginative vision of life in order to tell higher truth. This is the compelling quality of the serious novelist’s vision: he has something true to say about life, but he can say it only by embodying it in an imaginative projection of life in an imagined real world. What a novelist says instructs, and that profoundly. It is a gross mistake to view the novel only as entertainment, or indeed to erect an apologetic for any literary genre on its aesthetic qualities alone, as if it could be divorced from practical life.

Granted, not all novels teach truth, and not all novelists are even interested in pursuing truth. Poor novels have a large capacity to impress the imagination with untruth and evil. But the existence of many cheap, escapist, and depraved works must not persuade the Christian to reject the entire genre. Part of his responsibility to his world is to bring to bear upon the novelist’s visions his deep conviction that all of human experience can be redeemed.


Joshua calls:
“Come up out of the Jordan!”
It was here
My soles sensed the sands of God.
I stood to hold the ark
While God here wrought
A great road in a river.
Move now, forsaking miracles?
It’s cleaner here, and safer,
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Than inside the evil city.
I stand for peace
Still in the Jordan.
Feet firm in the foam
I will remember:
God used me here!
(The Jordan rises.)

The Bible not only esteems human experience highly; it also sanctions full and uninhibited probing of the meaning of that experience. The second principle the Bible conveys to the literary critic is that man, an inveterate questioner, has full right to pose and boldly ponder all his hard questions about the whys of experience. Consider the Book of Job. Job is the completely honest questioner. He faces his experience inductively and fearlessly demands answers. And God in the end commends Job, nowhere condemning his inquiring spirit. Serious novelists such as Melville and Dostoevsky show a similar spirit. They are in a sense modern Jobs, imaginatively posing the hard questions of the meaning and nature of life in deep agony of mind.

In his attitudes and pronouncements as well as in his open questions Job anticipates the types of deep concerns man has in our own time. When he laments, “the arrows of the Almighty are within me, … the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me” (6:4, ASV), one thinks of novels of Thomas Hardy that make a similar remonstrance, such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Job expresses with poetic force the theme of alienation, so poignantly portrayed in many modern novels of existentialist cast: “He hath put my brethren for an alien in their sight” (19:13–15, ASV). And Job anticipates the concern of modern writers such as Nelson Algren who have delineated the plight of the ghetto: “From out of the populous city men groan, and the soul of the wounded crieth out: yet God regardeth not the folly” (24:12, ASV). This listing could go on at length.

Job is not only a book of laments, however. It also moves toward a conclusion that is far reaching and complete. Both the movement and the conclusion should be of interest to the student of the novel. They yield him a third biblical principle: the Bible presents us with a model of movement that is in a sense archetypal and that is all but inevitable in any narrative of serious purpose. The pattern is that of spiritual quest that leads to illumination, of moving from problem to solution or meaning within an imagined real world. There is hardly a serious novel that does not at least suggest this pattern. And even the most vulgar fiction sees man in quest, though he be depicted as an animal seeking bestial satisfaction through violence and sex.

The end of Job’s quest is fulfillment on the highest possible plane. He reaches the ultimate illumination: confrontation with God. The result is that Job is fully satisfied, but not with national answers. Instead, God meets him with more questions, for God is subject, not object. Job’s satisfaction derives from an experience with the One who is the true God, an experience that encompasses his whole person. His mind is not allowed to analyze God as it would some objective phenomenon. What Job learns is that he is a being with distinct limitations, that all of reality—not just evil and suffering—is veiled in mystery for man. In thus depicting man as a restless, questioning being who can find satisfaction only in God, the Book of Job offers the Christian critic of the novel an invaluable biblical base from which to operate.

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Job experienced an illumination of high degree, from the Voice of Ultimate Truth. Novels, by contrast, present human insights into human situations. They concentrate upon particular problems of human experience and move toward insights that, from the Christian perspective, may be partial.

The novel, however, does not work with the enigmas of experience as a detective story would, moving mechanically toward neat solutions. Rather, the novel allows experience to retain its open-endedness while offering insights into how one may order his life more satisfyingly. Novels that succeed in illuminating large numbers of readers will endure, outlasting their generation and their literary period to join that body of literature which seems to transcend time. This body endures precisely because generations of readers agree that these works give them certain insights into the human situation.

The fourth principle the Bible offers the critic gives him an important approach to the actual task of evaluating the literary worth of a given novel. It is that true meaning resides in form, and that any statement about the theme of the narrative must be supported by the form. This support must be convincing and aesthetically satisfying. Take, for instance, the Joseph story. It is history, but the principle it illustrates applies with equal force to serious fiction. Joseph himself announces one strong theme of the narrative in Genesis 50:20. Speaking to his brothers, he asserts: “And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (ASV). Whether this conclusion is valid depends ultimately not on Joseph’s saying so but upon his experiences in the narrative. So the reader ponders the personalities of Joseph and his brothers, their response to the incidents that befell them, the sequence of those incidents, their nature and outcome. Then, having concluded that all these attest beautifully to the truth of Joseph’s statement, the reader concludes that this statement is indeed part of the true meaning of the story.

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Or take the Book of Esther. Here the reader is favored with no summarizing statement of theme. Yet all lovers of Scripture agree that the story clearly teaches that a special providence of God guards his people. What conveys this meaning, except all the various aspects of the form of the book? These work in remarkable harmony to establish this meaning in the readers’ minds. The same sort of observation can be made of the Book of Jonah and other scriptural narratives, to say nothing of the parables of Christ.

And so in any novel: form indicates meaning. Much more needs to be said about the elements of form than can be said here. Let this suffice: Only as the form of a novel attests to one’s sense of the way things may happen—that is, one’s sense of plausibility (cf. Aristotle’s Poetics)—is the novel speaking truth. And when the elements of a story take the reader somewhat deeper, giving him new insights into the way things happen, showing him what he may have vaguely felt to be true but had never articulated, the reader may then be sure this story has a quality that makes for great literature. Thus literature clarifies life, helping us to interpret it. On the other hand, when a novel arouses a sense of improbability, and we feel that the author is missing the true qualities of reality, we are forced to conclude that his work fails as literary art.

In functioning as a critic of the novel, the Christian student rightly feels that, having examined the form and its relation to ideas, and thus determining literary worth, he is ready to confront his main task. He must now measure the validity of what this novel says, imaginatively, about life. He is equal to this task only if he brings to it a thorough knowledge of the Word of God, and has imbibed the spirit as well as the precepts of the Word. The fifth principle, then, is that the manner of Christ is the perfect model for making moral judgments. Christ’s manner was incisive yet kind, always penetrating to the heart of a matter, invariably seeing value where more obtuse minds did not. He always put the value of an individual first. He patiently understood the unregenerate mind.

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And no Christian critic can afford not to. The creative artist often evidences his fallen state primarily, it seems to me, in that he chooses not to have the true God consciously in his knowledge; the thrust of his energies is away from God. It is, therefore, in his speculations about the moral and spiritual aspects of experience and about the relation of man to God that a novelist must be most carefully examined.

Guided by an earnest talent, however, an unbelieving novelist may impressively penetrate the nature of human experience in its horizontal relations and in its effects upon the individual consciousness. In this lies his strongest claim to artistic achievement. And inasmuch as he accepts no supernatural revelation, he generally asks the hard questions of meaning more intensely than his Christian counterpart. He also scrutinizes life more closely, hoping it will give him some insights, some answers. The believing author is in danger of looking too quickly upward, thus failing to help us to see life from a more penetrating perspective. For the true novelist must, in the spirit of Job, insist on grappling inductively with experience itself for answers. He must reject solutions deductively conceived, no matter how logical, if they fail to fit the nature of things as he sees them.

As a critic of novels, then, the Christian takes the shape of his task from the Word of God. The Bible gives him at least the above five working principles. His task is to use them to evaluate the novel Christianly while not depreciating it as an art form valid in its own right. Performing his task, he finds that the novel can be a source not only of aesthetic delight but also of much indispensable instruction.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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