What Should You Read?

Last week, Tim Challies and David Murray’s Connected Kingdom was on reading literature. As Christians, should we read anything but the Bible? David did a great job explaining why believers should read literature.

What we should read as believers is another question. Every Christian needs to develop what English professors call a critical orientation. What sort of literature should we be putting into our heads? A biblical approach to literature should be a very careful one since novels, plays and poetry engage our minds and emotions. Going into someone else’s mind can be a dangerous thing. Fiction which is fit for Christians to read should be mimetic-pragmatic; accurately reflecting this world, asking the right questions and teaching some truth to readers.

Only in the past hundred years or so has fiction become viewed as acceptable reading for Christians. Outside of a few great poets like Milton, literature – and especially novels – were considered “dangerous reading.” R. L. Dabney condemns novels as dangerous for several reasons: “To the thoughtless young, in search of entertainment, it seems a tale constructed to amuse, and nothing more, and yet every character represented in it, and all the plan of the book, may be designed to place religion, morality and right principles in a contemptible attitude, and to present the characters who advocate error in an attitude of superiority. How delusive this mode of teaching is…”

It takes both genius and experience to accurately portray human character in an fictitious work, Dabney points out: few authors have this ability. As a result, their work is a skewed reflection of this world. Novels are also full of scenes that continually arouse the emotions. Dabney argues that they make readers sentimental and inhuman: though they become attached to imaginary characters and concerned about their fates, readers are deadened to the needs of people around them.

But Dabney points out that the most dangerous aspect about novels is their often covert agendas and the exposure to scenes of sin. Of all such novels, Dabney argues that those calling themselves “Christian” are the worst; they disarm the Christian reader’s criticism while they are often full of social and political liberalism, bad theology and weak characters. In all of this, Dabney is right. This does not mean, though, that Christians cannot read fiction.

Human nature is complex, and though we are surrounded by it, we often do not understand it. Literature helps us in this. A novel records not only characters’ conversations and actions, but their thoughts as well, so that readers can learn about human nature from a gifted author, such as Charles Dickens or George Orwell. In order to accurately reflect this human nature and give readers correct instruction, an author must have a wide experience, but also genius. It is an achievement to understand human character; quite another to be able to write about it with verisimilitude, enabling others to understand it. Works which fail to do this – and that means ninety percent of novels – are simply “casual tales told by casual persons” and have no value for the Christian.

Do we always have to learn from the novels we read, though? Can’t we simply let our minds be entertained? We always learn from what we read. Books are never simply entertainment. They indoctrinate. Either a book will change how you think about an aspect of life, or it will reinforce your worldview. Some authors do not set out to force their ideas onto the public, but almost all of them want to influence their readers and all of them do, because by their very nature, books teach. C. S. Lewis pointed out that “There is nothing in literature which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.”

That is why we have to be so careful that no unbiblical ideas seep into our thinking through the literature that we read. For example, when reading Dickens, Christians must remind themselves that no social action or universal educational programmes will get rid of vice and poverty. Only the gospel can do that. When reading George Eliot remember that your own wisdom and maturation cannot turn your life around. Only Christ can do that.

Can’t an author simply express their own opinions and feelings on a subject in their literature? They can, and they certainly do. But the idea that an author may freely express their subjective views on a topic is relatively new, dating to the nineteenth-century Romantic movement – “a full-scale rebellion against the God of the Bible”. Authors whose novels are simply a vent for their emotions give us no view of reality besides the alternate one that the author creates. Since we always learn from books, Christians should read only books which help us understand this world better, not ones that bog our minds down with an overload of a pagan author’s emotions.

Novels are also dangerous reading not only because they are often inaccurate, but also because they grip our emotions so powerfully. That is why they are so indoctrinating. Works of literature – and especially the well-written ones – can work us up so much that it is easy to become involved in the story on a purely emotional level. That is always wrong. As Christians, we need to evaluate every extra-biblical work that we read. When we become so engrossed by a story that we cannot learn from it, judge it, or objectively evaluate the imagined scenario, it is time to put the book down. We must read all literature critically, even if we are reading for recreation. If we do not, the author’s worldview will influence our own without our realizing it. Since no author’s worldview is in perfect accordance with Scripture, and because most are in rebellion against God, such reading can hurt our souls and deaden our minds.

Does this mean that Christians should only read literature that is emotionally static or dull? Of course not. The Scriptures themselves are full of emotion. The Song of Solomon gives us a powerful picture of love and godly desire; Exodus discusses grumbling, discontent and rebellion; I Samuel shows us a friendship; Job paints a picture of grief, and so on. Emotions – even some passions – are God-given, and so we cannot say that they are wrong, and have no place in our lives or our books. However, the emotions portrayed in the Bible belong to real people, and they were recorded by “holy men taught by the Holy Spirit” as part of God’s divinely revealed Word. No author can do the same thing for characters in a novel.

If emotion is all right in some works, but we should not be drawn in on a purely emotional level, what sort of literature should we read? All works of literature involve some sort of sin to a certain degree in the story. That is because we live in a fallen world and authors cannot even imagine a perfect one, let alone create a work that reflects this world without reflecting its sin. If a novel portrays sin as sin, though, it can be acceptable reading. The Bible talks about sin all the time and chronicles murder, rape, revenge, idolatry, etc., while showing the ugliness of these things and God’s anger against them. Novels can also show the ugliness of sin, even if the author is not a Christian.

As a Christian, it is not appropriate to read any work which portrays sin as right or desirable. Does that mean that a classic work like The Count of Monte Cristo is off limits, as it has the hero Edmond plotting and executing revenge? Probably. Any work that advocates something which Scripture forbids in a way that makes us agree (either because the author is persuasive or because we are easily tempted) should never find its way to our coffee-table or bookshelves. Literature tends to make our minds follow “where desire will lead,” and so we need to always keep both our desire and our reading habits under tight control.

However, stories that describe the particulars of a sin, like adultery, should be avoided. The ideas that we have in our minds after reading such scenes are devoid of goodness, truth and beauty. These scenes can also pose temptations to the reader. We all have our besetting sins. Someone prone to sexual sin should not read Homer’s Odyssey. Even if it is committed by the antagonist, graphically described sin should stay out of our minds and the books we read.

Neither should Christians read novels which discuss something good if our own minds make us sin by taking the good presented by the author and idolizing it. Jane Austen wrote lovely books, but if Emma makes you want a Mr. Knightly more than you want your husband, put it down. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is incredible, but if it makes you love leniency more than justice as a rule, you should stop reading it.

Perhaps the novels we have to be most careful in approaching are ones written by Christians and advertised as such, especially “Christian” romance novels. Because we live in a post-Christian era, we know that we have to be on our guard against the world. But when a “Christian” novel about some couple comes around, we think that we can take a break from evaluating and critiquing. We sit back and suck it up. And it’s usually junk. Far worse, I would argue than a well written “pagan” classic, like Our Mutual Friend. That is partly because Christian books usually hit us when our defenses are down.

But they are also generally poorly written. Someone somewhere with limited life experience and a mediocre education decides (with the best intentions) to write Christian books for other Christian women out there. Literarily, the results are disastrous. The plot, centered around a shallow, romantic relationship, is predictable; the characters are poorly developed, the language is basic, accents are poorly done, and the novel does not make you grapple with or even consider concepts beyond the wonder of love on the prairies.

Doug Wilson asserts that such books are simply “pornography for the emotions.” They portray man’s most emotional moments – birth, love, death and salvation – with little or no context. Though the writing is poor, it graphically describes the character’s feelings which readers can identify with. It is the only aspect which readers can identify with (since there is no intellectual element, and none of us have lived in the mid-eighteen hundreds), and the book is written in such a way that a reader is involved only at an emotional level, simply because there is no other level to the book. Constant “floods” of grief, frustration, joy, relief and (most important of all) love, are all packed so closely that there is no room for anything else. The reader is strapped to an emotional roller coaster that takes them to view one character’s depression and another’s excitement, before rushing them on to the next peep-show.

Such books are also not very Christian. Take the first volume of the Love Comes Softly series as an example. The heroine is not converted until halfway through the story – “conversion” meaning she now believes there is a God – well after a “Christian” man married her. There are a few mentions of Christ, at Christmas and Easter, but the book sees His humiliation and exaltation a means of saving people “from self” without dealing with man’s fallen condition. Any discussions of religion by the characters are shallow, focusing on what God does for them: makes them happy, keeps them healthy, etc. The book is deistic and man-centered. The climax of the plot comes not with the heroine’s conversion, but her decision to bed the hunk she’s been married to for several months. And this seems to by typical of the genre. These “Christian” novels are often simply baptized harlequins – G-rated deism. Russell Moore notes that “They are nicely sanitized of bedroom scenes and profanity, but they are escapist romance for evangelical Protestant wives who seem to be missing something.”

So, if we can not, as Christians read books that inaccurately reflect this world, graphically portray sin, make us want sin, or relax our defenses, you may be asking, “What can we read?” A lot of novels are dangerous, as Dabney says, but some accurately mirror human nature and carefully explore sin and its effects, while showing and explaining goodness, truth and beauty. Perhaps it is not so much a question of what good books we read (as long as we do not indulge in any book which falls into an above category), as who can read. What sort of person should be allowed to read Shakespeare? Wordsworth? T. S. Eliot? Or any other author?

Because there is nothing in literature that does not percolate into life, only believers who are consciously aware of the great antithesis – the war between the City of God and the City of Man – should read classics written by unbelievers. Sorting the gold from the dross in a work can be difficult. George Eliot’s Adam Bede is full of Methodist prayers and sermons; prayers and sermons that come from the mind of an apostate woman whose life experience and presuppositions informed her writing, no matter how objective she tried to be. The Christian elements in this book – far more Christian than Janette Oke, by the way – still need careful sifting since they contain denominational and historical peculiarities not in accordance with Scripture. Only a biblically informed mind will have the ability and to spot the “vain philosophies of men” while gathering from the work instruction which enforces biblical truth. That is why we need to be immersed in the Word, and remember than anything, however good, that takes away from our study of the Scriptures is not legitimate.

What we really need is an application of Philippians 4:8 with regards to the literature we read: “Finally, brethern, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things. The things that you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.”
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Works Cited

R. L. Dabney, “On Dangerous Reading” in Discussions, vol. II (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1982).
Plato, “The Republic” in The World’s Greatest Thinkers (New York: Random house, 1947).
C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965).
Douglas Wilson, Repairing the Ruins (Moscow, ID: Canon Press).
Russell Moore, “Biblical Sexuality” in “The Tie” (Louisville, KY: Southern Baptist Seminary, 2004).