In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis famously makes the case that believers should read “old books” just as often as new ones. “If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said,” he writes. While old books can help us make better sense of our present realities by offering contrasting perspectives of the past, a new book is “still on its trial,” he says, yet to be “tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages.”
Following Lewis, much has been written on how—and why—Christians should read classic literary fiction. Jessica Hooten Wilson (Reading for the Love of God), Leland Ryken (A Christian Guide to the Classics), and Karen Swallow Prior (On Reading Well) advocate for reading the great books, those by the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, for edification that is spiritual as much as intellectual.
“Reading,” Wilson says, “must be a daily spiritual practice for the Christian”—and not only the reading of Scripture. Unlike our often shallower engagement with screens, reading “asks something” of us, Wilson explains. It “cultivates” our imagination and “increases [our] vision of the world.”
Reading the classics is one way we can thus benefit from books. But is there also an advantage to reading new books? What spiritual value can we gain from the latest Pulitzer or Booker Prize winner or the works of the year’s Nobel laureate?
Coming in too late to a conversation is one way to miss out. But so also is choosing to hear only the first part of the conversation. If a new book is still “on its trial,” then history shows that Christians from the apostle Paul to Eugene Peterson actively helped render the verdicts for works of their generations, not as grim-faced judges but as a respectful and invested jury of contemporary peers. In our day, we must not abdicate our seats.
The poet Emily Dickinson, though famous for being a Christian and a recluse, had literary habits that were very much in the world. She lived in the late 19th century and—despite her father’s disapproval—read her Victorian and Romantic contemporaries with relish: the Brontës; Dickens; Walter Scott; William Wordsworth; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Many of these authors, also Christians, read and engaged with each other’s works as well.
When we read contemporary fiction, we are—ironically—in good historical company. In almost every era of history, Christian thought leaders have been clear-eyed readers of new-release works, and not only of overtly Christian volumes.
Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, who lived in the first half of the 20th century in the American South, filled her letters with commentary on the literary fiction of her day. She had pithy words for contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, including Henry Miller, Eudora Welty, and Iris Murdoch. Her criticism was not always positive. She found Franz Kafka difficult to read, for example, charitably noting that “reading a little of him perhaps makes you a bolder writer,” but she outright detested Ayn Rand, whose work she recommended throwing “in the nearest garbage pail.”
Why did Christian writers like Dickinson and O’Connor dip so frequently into the streams of contemporary literary fiction? O’Connor gives the reason that literature “usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not,” as she writes in her essay “Novelist and Believer.” Works of fiction, however “secular,” invited her to tread on theological ground. They also invited her to see “the particular tragedy” of her time, something she felt she could only glean from contemporary fiction.
Many other scholars and writers have echoed that stance. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson relates that William Faulkner—a probable agnostic—was “very important” to him because of how Faulkner exposed “both sin and redemption so skillfully.” Marilynne Robinson, a Congregationalist and author of Gilead, writes of the unbreakable connection between literature and religion in When I Was a Child I Read Books. The two “seem to have come into being together,” she muses. Both “put human life, causality, and meaning in relation, [making] each of them in some degree intelligible in terms of the other two.”
Contemporary fiction, in this way, can break theology out of the boxes we put it in, giving us eyes to see God where we least expect him and restoring our sense of mystery in the present. “Ostensibly secular novels can be profoundly theological,” as Andrew Tate puts it in Contemporary Fiction and Christianity.
This should not surprise us: If God has placed eternity in the heart of humanity (Ecc. 3:11) and made everything in the world to point to his glory (Col. 1:16), then great writers can help us see his face more clearly, even if they don’t know the truth to which they direct our gaze. The Word became flesh, and—astonishingly—we can glimpse reminders of his dwelling among us even in the pages of freshly printed secular books.
“I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor,” writes Randy Boyagoda of the University of Toronto in the journal First Things. “I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky.”
Somehow, these have become “the only authors that come up,” Boyagoda says, when he asks thoughtful Christian readers what literature they enjoy. Christians should go beyond this accepted literary canon, he urges, “to put down Flannery and her friends for a while and take a leap of faith into contemporary fiction.” But what will we find once we have leaped?
Part of the answer lies in the quality of the fiction we choose. Great literary works may touch not just theology but philosophy, psychology, pop culture, politics, sociology, science, economics, and all that undergirds human society. Though a work of fiction can do this outside of its original era—think of the enduring relevance of William Shakespeare—a novel from our time can speak to present questions with a directness older books can’t match.
That’s particularly valuable as we come to the end of the postmodern moment, a cultural shift the late novelist David Foster Wallace anticipated nearly 30 years ago. “Irony and sarcasm are fantastic for exploding hypocrisy and exposing what’s wrong in extant values,” Wallace said in a 1997 radio interview. “They are notably less good in erecting replacement values or coming close to the truth.” We need not just “an ambition to diagnose and ridicule,” as so much of postmodernism does, Wallace said, but also a desire “to redeem.”
Decades later, a new philosophical movement is emerging with an eye to the redemption Wallace described: metamodernism. As explained in “Notes on metamodernism,” a 2010 essay by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, this framework is a synthesis of modernism’s idealism and postmodernism’s apathy and skepticism. The metamodern attitude is “a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism.”
In other words, if postmodernity is the wrecking ball of modernity, then metamodernity is the simultaneously ironic and sincere individual looking at the rubble and wondering, Where do we go from here? Metamodernism uses postmodern tools like cynicism to deconstruct and question the world—but it also points to the possibility of connection and meaning, leading toward something akin to hope.
Metamodernism may only dimly imitate the gospel, and of course most people may never know what metamodernism is. But this kind of high-level philosophical label often captures something real and important about our society and the deepest questions asked by individuals within it. To say we are coming into metamodernity is another way of saying our neighbors are looking for signs of redemption and are longing for hope. Reading contemporary literature gives us a bird’s-eye view of those longings, a large-scale glimpse of the fundamental questions to which our faith has the ultimate answer.
Contemporary literature also helps us listen to more of our neighbors. Americans are increasingly in groups isolated from people unlike them. Journalist Bill Bishop writes in The Big Sort that we’ve spent decades organizing ourselves into demographically homogeneous communities, living ever more among people who worship, spend, learn, vote, and look like we do. And a 2022 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found Americans’ closest friends are overwhelmingly people of their own race.
The Western canon has been historically dominated by white, male authors, which means the classics won’t, in this sense, expand the conversations many American Christians are having. But secular classrooms and publishing houses are actively working to center historically marginalized voices by broadening the scope of authors and stories that fill Americans’ shelves.
For the believer, elevating diverse and previously silenced voices can be a constructive act of hope—a prefiguring of Revelation’s “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9)—and a reflection of the Bible’s emphatic concern for the marginalized. In this way, to read contemporary literature is to better understand the heart of God, lover of the nations and the downtrodden, who lifts up the weak and shows tender concern for the outcasts.
“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ ” philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes in After Virtue, “if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” Our stories are not only rooted in the past; they are unfolding even now. Reading contemporary literature helps us engage with the stories of the world around us, make sense of the polarities we live between, and hear the voices of those God holds close to his heart (Isa. 40:11). In the pages of new books, our love of God (and his love for us) can intersect the particular tragedies of our day—and the particular possibilities for redemption.
“Biblical stories, characters, motifs and references permeate the whole of [Western] literature,” write literary scholars Jo Carruthers, Mark Knight, and Andrew Tate in Literature and the Bible.
But is this true of contemporary literary fiction too?
If current demographic trends hold, Christians will be a minority in America within a couple of decades, and that single data point doesn’t capture the whole picture of Christianity’s decline in the West. Many Christian colleges are now in crisis; denominations are fracturing over issues like gay marriage; and church attendance rates are falling, especially among young people, singles, and liberals.
In 1900, nearly 95 percent of Europe professed to be Christ-ian, but in 2022, for the first time in centuries, less than half the population of England and Wales self-identified as believers. And according to 2018 data from the Pew Research Center, nonpracticing Christians and the religiously unaffiliated greatly outnumber church-attending Christians in every country in Western Europe.
Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that Christianity is less obviously or positively portrayed in much of contemporary Western literature.
The Christian faith, which “for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society,” now figures in literary fiction as “something between a dead language and a hangover,” argues writer Paul Elie in The New York Times. It is like “statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants,” or “a country for old men.”
“If any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature,” Elie continues. “Where has the novel of belief gone?”
This shift may make it easier for Christians to champion reading “old books,” many of which were written in cultures that were, at least superficially, aligned with Christian values, worldview, and culture. (Though, as one classics professor remarked to me recently, the old books aren’t “safe” either.)
But while the “novel of belief” doesn’t look like it did in the past, it hasn’t disappeared entirely. As Robinson reminds us, the connection between religion and literature is not easily broken. Today’s literature can speak to our theological and ontological questions about God, sin, and redemption obliquely, perhaps through criticism or omission of traditional Christian beliefs or by conveying an inchoate yearning for the divine.
We should not take that yearning lightly; the apostle Paul, who wrote of all of creation “groaning” for God, certainly did not (Rom. 8:22). Learning from contemporary literary fiction is akin to Paul speaking in the Areopagus using lines from pagan poets (Acts 17). He too was talking to a culture ignorant of Christian symbols and motifs.
Like Paul, we may be called to journey out of Jerusalem and into the heart of Greece, as pilgrims and sojourners in a culture where Christian stories are slowly fading or already forgotten—a culture developing amnesia toward God. As readers, we can answer Elie’s question of where belief can be found in today’s novels the same way he eventually does: We find it where we can.
When I was in college, my classmates and I discussed Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Chang-Rae Lee, and Chinua Achebe. Though I was a believer, not many of my professors or classmates—or the authors of the books we were reading—identified as such. Even so, there was something religious about the intensity with which we studied these texts. Like Robinson, we believed that through literature, we could somehow find meaning and our place in the world. Often, I felt the presence of God pressing upon us—the reality beyond the truths we half-glimpsed through those pages.
Even now, each time I read, it’s those friends and professors I think of—along with all who have tasted beauty, truth, and goodness but have yet to know the source. I hear the voice of the Shepherd who says, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also” (John 10:16), and I am thankful God draws us to him not only with fire and brimstone but also with beauty and kindness. I am thankful God graces fictitious words with his truth and glory.
Reading new books is a way to draw closer to the heartbeat of our God, who has filled his world with beautiful things and made us in his image to appreciate all that is lovely.
When done prayerfully and with eyes of faith, reading contemporary literature can be an exercise in waiting for hope to eclipse the present darkness. It can be an exercise in looking for our Lord.
Sara Kyoungah White is a copy editor at Christianity Today.
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