Guess Who Thought A Familiarity With Literature Could Help the Church?

For some reason, the words of a lady from our church in Florida still stick in my mind. She said them over ten years ago, but thinking back on them brings a slight increase in my blood pressure.

“God doesn’t like fiction,” she said with that tone of certainty peculiar to people who live at the extreme ends of the spectrum. “Don’t you know what the word ‘fiction’ means? It means ‘lies.’ Do you think Jesus would want you filling your head with lies?”

In that moment, the only thing I could say was…nothing. My eyebrows traveled north, my jaw dropped to the south, and I blinked a time or two, waiting for her to say she was joking. I was 22 years old at the time – since then I’ve thought of many a question to ask her, things like,

“Why, in the gospels, does it say that Jesus spoke to the crowd using stories? Why does one version say he never spoke to them without using stories? What is fiction if it’s not stories?”

* * * * *

Yesterday a friend of mine, studying theology at the Sorbonne in Paris, shared this quote on his blog:

“I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature, pure theology cannot at all endure. . . Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily. . . . Therefore I beg of you that by my request (if that has any weight) you will urge your young people to be diligent in the study of poetry and rhetoric.” Martin Luther

So, according to Luther, literature prepares our mind to grasp truth. But not only that – literature also helps us to handle truth skillfully and happily. Could the church’s practice of discouraging art, or at least ignoring it, explain why the church often seems to handle truth clumsily and with dour faces?

When’s the last time your pastor encouraged the young people in your congregation to be diligent in the study of poetry or music, debate or rhetoric, literature or cinema?

* * * * *

Then CS Lewis came along and said this:

“A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of NT texts and of other people’s studies of them, whose literary experiences of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is, I should think, very likely to miss the obvious things about them.”

So literature actually acts as a standard of comparison, and a better knowledge of it will help us not to miss the obvious things about religious texts.

Take that, church lady from ten years ago.

Why do you think a study in the arts allows us to handle sacred truth with more skill and joy?

18 Replies to “Guess Who Thought A Familiarity With Literature Could Help the Church?”

  1. As former IVCF staff, I have always found that education in literature helps people read the Bible better and vice versa.

    BioLogos did a post yesterday about how the parable of the Prodigal Son is a fictional story yet communicates truth. This was to bolster the argument that some stories in Genesis may not be exactly true literally but still communicate truth.

  2. There is a long and storied (pun intended) history dating well before Christianity of “stories” called midrash being written for any number of theological reasons – biblical exegesis, deeper understanding of what is in the text (drash), and explaining the many inconsistencies in the Bible. This was done by Jews for thousands of years before Christianity, and Jesus was well-versed in all the midrash of his time. Seems silly for G-d to suddenly change His mind. :P

  3. We’ve narrowed our understanding of Truth to a 30 second elevator pitch of the Roman’s Road instead of remembering that Truth is Jesus–Someone we know, not some list of cold doctrine.

    If Jesus is Truth, then all truth points to him–certainly truth in art. I remember talking about a Social Distortion song with my youth group kids, because it pointed out a longing and need for redemption not found in so many glossy “christian” songs. Glad I didn’t have your church lady breathing down my neck:)

    I love the quotes and perspective you’ve tackled here. If we are truly made in the image of a creative God, let us read and write and make art and point out Truth in places others deem unlikely. Our God is big and he is reconciling all things.

    1. Great verse, Suzannah! I had to look it up:

      “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven…”

      I’m so tired of the 30-second elevator pitch.

  4. Love this, Shawn! Your question about our pastors makes me realize that I’m so blessed to be led by one who values the arts.

    I think that a study and love of the arts, and of literature in particular, enriches our experience of scripture because it primes our minds and hearts to receive it in a way that nothing else I’ve seen can.

    1. Glad to hear about your pastor, Tamara. There are probably more like him now than there were 20 years ago, which I think is a good thing.

      I’ll never forget the first time I read “A Prayer For Owen Meany” at the age of 18 and thought, “So that’s what grace looks like. That’s what faith is.”

  5. When I wasn’t interested in God, God made me interested in science fiction and, eventually, I became interested in God again. Still like science fiction.

  6. Your opening story is so SAD! To me, fiction and literature is not about lies, it’s about imagination. And we need to cultivate redemptive imagination to span the gap between this earth now and the Kingdom to come. As Christ says, He has revealed the truths of heaven to children because adults could not understand them. A childlike way of seeing the world, a spiritual imagination, is cultivated by good stories.

    Thanks for these killer quotes, too.

  7. I’m glad she said that to you and not to me. I maintain you are a far kinder person than I shall ever be. I wonder about Christians who stay away from pop culture out of fear that it will distort their vision. As a M. L’Engle fan, I concur with her; all art (good art…) reflects the character of God and that special Truth. Take that, church lady, indeed.

  8. “The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales… Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense… I have explained that the fairy tales rounded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness. But I found the whole modern world running like a high tide against both my tendernesses.” – G.K Chesterton, Orthodoxy [he, by the way, had a great deal of influence on C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien]

    Chesterton is right: the whole emphasis on Truth vs. Fiction, as the old lady would have it, is the product of Enlightenment Modernity, and the belief that empirical science can turn every stone and bring about every certainty. Literalist-Foundationalist approaches to Scripture are grounded in this view–and their faith crumbles once their evidentialist apologetics don’t prove as useful as it promised to or with the faint possibility that some cherished Bible story is a “fiction” (Lewis, by the way, thought much of the early Genesis account to be myth).

    The Literalist approach especially fails to (1) appreciate that something can be “true” without being historical and (2) take into account the fact that all experiences [i.e., our access to empirical truths] are mediated through multiple interpretive frameworks: language, culture, finite memory, desire, “laws” we impose upon nature, and so forth.

    Many of the best fairy tales–Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, The Brothers Karamazov, Les Miserables, Harry Potter–enrich my imagination, recreate the truths of the Gospel, and enliven me with hope that this Faith is true.

  9. Bravo! It’s been awhile since I’ve felt like cheering Martin Luther on! I absolutely believe that literature and art help us grasp truth, and that stories are at the root of our faith–both as it was and as it shall be, as we continue to live out and share the story.

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