The Christian Reader

Read any good books lately? This time-honored conversation-starter leads to a discussion of the latest novel on the coffeetable—August 1914 or Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It can even lead to an aesthetic or philosophic debate over values. And for critics concerned with religion, it may lead to an analysis of, say, the seagull’s faith.

But behind this simple question is an implied premise—that we know how to identify a good book. For the usual reader or critic, this is a matter of aesthetic judgment. In a well-written book, certain accumulated standards in such areas as language, characterization, point of view, and probability, are presupposed. (In actuality, even in an age of “rules criticism” such as the eighteenth century there has been precious little agreement on such standards in particular cases, so we can expect even less in our libertarian era.)

For the Christian reader or critic, “good” involves more than an aesthetic judgment. It is an ethical and religious term, implying standards of another sort. For most of us, standards for goodness are even less clearly perceived than those for beauty. This perhaps accounts for the increasing array of criticism in which Christians analyze literature without evaluating it. Although we eagerly identify Christ figures or discuss religious imagery, we hesitate to posit a standard for good (moral or beautiful) literature.

On the other hand, we are often quite clear about what is bad: it is the book that is poorly conceived and clumsily written, thematically debasing, shallow, and false. Most books written in any age are not art. They may be propaganda, uplifting or downgrading tracts; they may serve a moral or spiritual function; but they are not art. Few works of Christian literature have enough beauty or intellectual content to be judged in the same category with the real touchstones of Christian literature: The Divine Comedy, Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost, Ash Wednesday. These pieces all have a grandeur in scope, a precision in expression, a reality in detail, a psychological truth, and an enduring appeal. The writers love words and form. They are craftsmen as well as impressive thinkers, who know how to transform individual experience into objects of beauty that communicate to man regardless of differences in country or period. Thus, we must first establish that a work is art; then we can explore the next question—is it Christian?

Is there a formula for Christian literature? One might be tempted to generalize about characteristics that must be present, such as: God must be a part of the story as an active force; man must be presented in a balanced, serious, and responsible way; actions must be seen to have significance and consequences; there can be no dishonest endings to reward the innocent and punish the guilty; the style must call attention to the idea rather than to the artist; the plot must reflect a universe with order and meaning. But such rules begin to sound suspiciously constricting. They ominously echo those precise regulations of the medieval church that perverted so much of art for so many years—the significance of colors, the proper subject matter, and the appropriate expression, composition, and presentation were all carefully dictated by the clergy. Even in the Renaissance we are repelled by orthodoxy’s infringement on the artist: putting loincloths on Michelangelo’s glorious nudes and white-washing the rainbow colors of the cathedrals. And the eighteenth century with its precise criticism seems equally unenlightened.

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While the Protestant may be somewhat less likely than the medieval or modern Catholic to restrict the artist in a programmed manner (except perhaps in his response to pornography), he is likely to have a deep-seated suspicion of beauty and a proclivity toward iconoclasm. Like the Old Testament Jew, he is distrustful of the graven image. Our capacity to create—to be makers—is but a dim reflection of that ultimate Creator’s genius; yet it tempts man to feel pride and to worship. The image of God looks at the products of his own creativity and worships both the golden calf he forms and the hands that formed it. Thus, we see that the golden calf is neither better nor worse than the cherubim of the temple; both are lifeless matter formed by man and surprisingly capable of eliciting a response in man. Yet one was created for the glorification of man and the other for the greater glory of God.

The difference lies not only in the motivating force behind the artist (which is always difficult to discern) but also in the response of the viewer. Do we marvel at the beauty of the work, at the genius of the artist, or at the magnificence of the God who gave man such capabilities? The Hebrew, living under the law, revered that beauty which pointed toward God—the temple, the paean of faith, the poetry of vision. But the Christian, inheritor of pagan as well as Hebrew traditions, has found his path more complex. Paul tells us we are obliged to walk with the Spirit as free men. This liberty has proven a blessing and a burden to the artist.

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Although there was little temptation to use pagan narrative forms in the early centuries of the Church—the narratives of the apostles (except for John’s) were simple catalogues of events with minimal stylistic interference—the early Christians did assimilate pagan architecture and art. In addition, Paul knew all the techniques of epistle writing, and John knew how to unite history with imagery for maximum effect.

After the theatres were condemned and closed, pagan drama moved over into the Church; and the medieval Christian writers drew heavily on such poets as Virgil for their technical inspiration. Gradually, as Christians grew willing to agree that fiction is not untruth, they incorporated this form into their culture as well. Thus, though the early Christian would have frowned on the frivolous and decadent forms of pagan prose fiction, drama, and poetry, later Christians gradually learned to use these art forms as tools for their faith. The medieval mystery plays, the poetry of Dante, the narrative of Bunyan’s Pilgrim all owe clear debts to pagan ancestors.

That early reluctance to embrace pagan beauty has reversed itself in the twentieth century. The Christian increasingly looks at the art world as territory to be colonized. Scholars are busily discovering the religious implications in Vonnegut’s latest novel, or the ritual structure of Albee’s plays. It reminds one of the days when Christians strove to find redeeming elements in Virgil so they could be justified in reading and copying him.

The growing zeal for religious content has resulted in (or perhaps resulted from) a growing tendency among artists to play with religious themes and ideas. It is natural that art would return to such central concerns of man. Art and religion both center on man’s deepest needs: for truth and beauty and meaning. Serious artists in the contemporary world frequently explore the nature of man, of innocence, of guilt, of freedom, of love, of death, and of God. The critic-scholars often see their obligation to help us understand our artists, and perhaps even to evaluate them.

This brings us back to our original problem: when the Christian reader or critic explores a novel, poem, or play, how does he judge? Does he analyze the ideas, hold them up against standards of orthodoxy (his, or the artist’s, or some church’s), and then evaluate the work as good or bad according to its “correctness”? Does he have in mind a model of the good play, novel, or poem? Does he believe there is such a thing as “Christian” literature?

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Most critics refuse to deal with this final question. Certainly a novel cannot be Christian any more than a golden calf can be pagan. It is the artist and the viewer who must bear the brunt of such judgment, not the work itself. Some works are more likely to provide orthodox responses than others. For example, Warren’s All the King’s Men provides rich materials for contemplating the Fall and the nature of man; the novel carries the reader along a path of thought that most Christians would approve. But this novel is more often read as a statement about the nature of American politics. The pagan reader can enjoy the social commentary and the romantic adventure, skipping hastily over the theological sections. Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory makes a very powerful statement about God and his priests in a most effective form. But again many readers enjoy the novel for its degrading portrayal of the whiskey priest who fathered an illegitimate child, missing the central point altogether.

We do not posit an ideal novel, poem, or play, because we cannot. We can cite touchstones of Christian expression (Milton’s or Dante’s) that grew out of those ages and those men and those audiences that once in a great while come together to produce greatness, but more than that we cannot do. Like Aristotle, who could tell us only what his favorite tragedy looked like, not what all good tragedy must be, most of us can point out novels or plays we have liked or disliked but cannot say what novels or plays must be. We can be analytic and descriptive, but not proscriptive and prescriptive.

Art is, after all, an exploration often beyond the limits of rational thought. It is frequently wiser than the artist; under the inspiration of the Muses or the Holy Spirit, he may have recorded more than he knew. Man cannot limit art without destroying it. Even in an individual artist this is obvious. War and Peace, growing out of the troubled, confused mind of Tolstoy, is aesthetically superior to the clear, doctrinaire products of his conversion to Christianity. The Communist world has found that its neat rules destroy art and breed rebellion. Ireland has found its artists leave when it seeks to legislate their art. We who have freedom in Christ are obliged to remember that this responsible freedom must extend to the writer and reader as well.

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Not all writers respond responsibly to their freedom. Milton commented on the license that so often replaces liberty. The plethora of pornography today is evidence that man is all too eager to sell his soul and his pen for a price. The chaotic content and form of so much modern literature shows man’s willingness to reflect his meaningless world rather than to strive for meaning and order. The delight in depravity and sniggering at morality should not surprise those of us accustomed to viewing man as fallen. We live, after all, east of Eden, where the world, man, and his art are all fallen and in need of redemption.

Even Christian writers lapse from time to time, substituting license for their liberty. In their day, all our heroes of Christian art have had their critics who pointed with horror to the feet of clay. The Church was shocked at Dante’s divine poetry; the orthodox were appalled by Milton’s view of creation and temptation, not to mention his defense of divorce; and many moderns doubt Eliot’s sincerity and artistry. We have no examples of perfect Christian artists, but then we have only one example of the perfect Christian. We should know better than to expect perfection. We should know better than to expect we shall ever see an artist who can satisfy Christians for his orthodoxy and critics for his excellence.

I am therefore inclined to accept Milton’s view that we must learn to piece together bits of perfection. Truth, he said, is like the body of Osiris, fragmented and scattered. Our job is to collect, to judge, and to select those pieces that truly belong to God. Thus we must learn to make use of those scattered insights that the artist captures and communicates.

Regardless of Solzhenitzyn’s religious stance, we can gain from his understanding of the nature of evil. He need not call man “fallen” to show that he is. Nor need he call those occasional flashes of beauty in human nature the “image of God.” Those moments of heroism, of generosity, of personal integrity, and of compassion in the cancer ward or prison camp portray man transcending his hellish surroundings. They make mockery of Pavlovian psychology and Marxian materialism.

Faulkner, in The Sound and the Fury, as he portrays the simple faith of Dilsey, who so willingly bears another’s burdens, also reflects something of the true experience of the Christian. The ageless black heroine takes the idiot offspring of the white “aristocrats” to her black church, where she staunchly faces the furious congregation. Her love for Benjy has nothing to do with race, class, sex, or mentality. But this does not mean Faulkner’s whole book is built on the Christian world-view. I would reject his central vision that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. On the contrary, I am convinced that we are part of a great plan and that each human life signifies a great deal.

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But this is what I mean by our need to take bits and pieces out of our reading to enrich our life and our faith. God can speak to us through secular literature in a manner parallel to his speaking in sacred literature. A phrase, an idea, or a situation will suddenly catch our attention and magically illumine our lives. A really good novel or poem or play—by either a Christian or a non-Christian writer—generally includes a host of such moments.

We might wish for a day like Dante’s when the creative imagination was aflame with Christian doctrine; but even in Dante’s day, Boccaccio and Chaucer were inspired by other materials. We are indeed lucky that the twentieth century has given us such Christian literary giants as Eliot and Auden, whom we should appreciate without growing uncritical in our love. God obviously intends us to find random flowers among the briars, testing us by our choices here as elsewhere in life. Literature allows us to experience people and situations out of our ken, to enlarge our ideas as well as our experience. It is as full of temptations as the life it mirrors; it is as full of vitality and peril as Adam and the Garden he inhabited. And we are as free as Adam was to choose which fruits we select to eat. A free man now, as then, is judged by his strength in the face of temptation.

Trusting the majesty and power of God, we need fear no words or ideas. We can devote the whole man to living the Christian life, using the mind to understand what is written, the eye and the heart to appreciate it emotionally and aesthetically. We should also bring to the analysis and appreciation of culture our wonder, responding to art as a mystery and a miracle, testimony to God’s creative power. The Christian’s response to art is parallel to his response to nature, joy in the created world, and worship of the Creator reflected in it.

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