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Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind... Romans 12:2

The Christian and Literature

by Peter J. Leithart

Adapted from Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1996), 11-21.
Used with permission.

Christians have often had a difficult time with the study of literature. Fiction has been seen as a seductive distraction from the serious business of holy living. Poetry's rich language has been viewed as a means of promoting beautiful falsehoods. Drama has been condemned for depicting immorality and violence, for tempting audiences to lust and anger. Why should the Christian spend time with novels or plays or short stories? Shouldn't we be concerned with "real life," with edifying the Church and building God's kingdom, with witness and worship?

Christians who have warned of the dangers of literature have a point. Anything in this world can be abused, of course, but it does seem that language and literature are particularly susceptible to abuse and particularly suited to seduce. Having recognized the danger of abuse, however, we need not conclude that literature has no proper use.

In defending the study of literature, it is worth pointing out that Scripture itself is a literary work, and while it is a unique book in being divinely inspired, it also uses a variety of common literary types or genres: poetry, narrative, epistle, and prophetic vision. C.S. Lewis rightly pointed out that understanding how literature works can lead to a better understanding of Scripture. Rather than follow this valuable line of thought, however, I want to challenge the assumption that there is a sharp distinction between literature and life. Obviously, there are differences between studying history and studying literature. Far from being sharply opposed, however, humans have a natural tendency to think about their lives in narrative terms. Our lives are story-shaped. Let's think about this with a story; or a bit of one:
Will Lissen and Stuart Tistix met for the first time at a wedding reception. After introductions, Lissen took a sip of champagne and said, "So, Stu, tell me about yourself."

"I'm five foot eight and weigh 175 pounds buck-naked. I wear size 9 1/2 shoes. My annual gross income is $53,560. The mortgage on my house is $69,890 with an interest rate of 7.5%. I own a 1992 Honda Accord with 57,906 miles on it—last I checked—Ha! Ha! I've forgotten the registration number ... it'll come to me."

Lissen shivered, gulped down his champagne, and excused himself with all the grace he could muster. Moments later, still sweating, he found himself at the punch bowl, where he met Ann Terestin. They exchanged pleasantries and found they had mutual friends in the wedding party. "So, tell me about yourself," Lissen said, wincing slightly.

"Well, I was an army brat," Ann said. "I was born in Germany, but my father was transferred every few years, so I've lived all over the place. That was hard, having to make new friends all the time, but it was exciting too. It got me hooked, so I majored in international finance and spent a few years working at the Tokyo stock exchange. When I got married and had kids, though, my husband and I decided we wanted a quieter life, so we settled in a little town in Vermont. My husband runs a printing shop. Now that the kids are older, we're starting to do some travelling again. We love the Far East. Last summer, we went to China with a Christian mission and took in a crate full of Bibles."

Glancing across the room, Lissen saw Stu Tistix in an animated conversation with Congressman Ira Ess, the brains behind the National Survey of Shoe Sizes. With a feeling of intense gratitude for which he immediately felt guilty, Lissen settled into an engrossing conversation with Ann Terestin.
When you ask someone to describe himself, you are expecting to hear a story or a series of stories, not a collection of statistics. Individual identity is bound up with the stories we have lived. Stu Tistix may be Ira Ess's dream citizen, but he has never learned how civilized people answer the question, "Who are you?" For normal people, the question, "Who am I?" is inseparable from the question, "What is my story?"

Giving a narrative shape to the events in our lives is virtually inescapable. Historians are quite conscious that they have to select and arrange facts in order to make sense of a topic. It is literally impossible for them to know, much less record, everything. In selecting and arranging the facts of history, they give narrative shape to what they study. What is true for historians is true for each of us who tries to make sense of a complex world. The number of events in the real world is impossible for us to even think about, much less record. To make any sense of what seems to be the bloomin', buzzin' confusion that surrounds us, we need to select and arrange the facts of our existence into a manageable order. And this order turns out, frequently, if not always, to be the order of a story.

Our understanding of the world typically takes the shape of a story because we are temporal creatures. That is, we exist in time. In a timeless universe, a painting or photograph would be able to picture the world as it is. But we live in a universe where time is constantly moving, where the present instantly fades into the past and the future becomes present. To depict the way the world is, we need some way to depict the flow of time. A picture cannot do it; it can give the illusion of movement, but in the end a picture gives a timeless slice of life. But a story is able to depict a temporal flow and change, as are those ways of depicting the world that have derived from literature—film and drama. Music too has a temporal dimension, but its language is too abstract and specialized for most people to use. So, if we want to describe the world, we are pretty much left with telling stories.

The Bible as a Master Story
How should a Christian approach literature? It is helpful to compare the study of literature to learning a foreign language. In general, we learn not just by studying individual things but, perhaps more importantly, by comparing one thing to another. As you learn about Latin, you compare its grammar and vocabulary to English grammar and vocabulary. You can remember that agricola means "farmer" because you know the word "agriculture"; you can remember that amo means "love" because you link it with the word "amorous." Grammar is learned in a similar way. In English, word order is very important; if you switch the subject and the direct object, you change the sense of the sentence. In Latin, word order is not so important for making sense and has more to do with emphasis and style. When, as a native speaker of English, you learn a new language, English functions as your "master language." You learn the new language by noticing similarities and differences between it and your native tongue.

We can approach learning literature in a similar way. Just as we learn a new language by reference to a "master language" or a "native tongue," so we learn literature by reference to a "master story" that we already know. As Christians, our "native" or "master" story is the story revealed in the Bible, the real-life story of God's works in history. In fact, the Bible gives us several of what I am calling "master stories" or "model stories." Once we have grasped the architecture of these stories, we can make comparisons with other examples of narrative and dramatic literature.

The first of these model stories is the "fall story," which follows basically this sequence of events: God makes a world and places human beings in it. He gives them instructions about how to behave, but they don't listen and they violate His instructions. Because of their sin, they are punished, and their fall into sin leads to a decline. This story can be pictured as a upside down U: the character starts in a low position, is raised higher, but from that height, he descends on account of his sin.

The first and most familiar fall story in the Bible is of Adam and Eve, and it sets the pattern for other fall stories. Adam and Eve were given great privileges and blessings; God instructed them not to eat of the tree of knowledge, but they disobeyed; as a result, they were cursed in various ways. Though this is the most familiar fall story, it is far from the only one. The line of Seth, the "sons of God" fell into the sin of intermarriage with the heathen (Gen 6). Because of their sin, God did not merely remove them out of the garden but removed all living things from the world through the flood. Saul's history is a fall story: he was a member of a small and despised tribe; God chose him to be the first king of Israel and raised him to the throne; and for a while Saul was an admirable figure, a great warrior and a good king. But Saul refused to listen to the Lord's prophet, and eventually the Lord abandoned him. Saul is an Adam whose kingdom is taken from him. The whole history of Israel can be seen as a fall story: Israel was elected by God in Abraham, brought into the land, where they abandoned the Lord and went after idols. After calling them patiently to return to Him, the Lord finally drove them into exile. Though they returned, they later rejected their Messiah, and the kingdom was given to another nation (Matt 2 1:33-46).

The upside-down U pattern appears in literature outside the Bible so often that it is one of the basic narrative patterns of world literature. By studying the various fall stories in the Bible, and by comparing literature outside the Bible to these master stories, our understanding and appreciation of the extra-biblical literature will be enhanced. For example, we shall see that Macbeth is a "fall story," which focuses on what comes to pass when an ambitious man impenitently commits murder. Comparing Macbeth to the master story in the Bible leads us to make many fruitful comparisons: Macbeth's murder of King Duncan is something like the original fall of Adam; Lady Macbeth, who encourages and tempts her husband to commit murder, is a combination of Eve and the serpent; just as Adam's sin led to a curse on the earth, so Macbeth's plunges Scotland into a dark age. Some fall stories will diverge significantly from the biblical pattern. Oedipus, for instance, falls because his fate has been unchangeably determined, not because he sins.

The other master story the Bible tells is a reversal of the fall. Where the fall story has the shape of an upside-down U, this other story has a U-shape. We can call this a "redemption story" This is the main story the Bible tells, the main point of the story of history. Man fell into sin and became alienated from God with his whole life under God's curse. God rescued him from sin, death, and Satan, and brought those who believe into fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit. The redemption story can take a number of forms. The gospel is an adventure story: Jesus is a Hero who comes to rescue his people from their enemies. He is the Stronger Man who binds Satan and plunders His house, and the gospel is the story of His holy war against Satan and his triumph over death and sin. When you read an adventure story, as a Christian you have a built-in model to compare it to. Every hero in an adventure story is something of a "saviour," and all his opponents have something of the demonic about them. The gospel is also a Romance. Jesus is the Lover who comes to rescue His Bride. To put it differently, He comes to recover His unfaithful Bride (cf. Hos. 1-2).

Again, the master redemption story of the Bible can be compared and contrasted with the stories found in other literature. Though Macbeth is in one respect a fall story, it ends with Malcolm's triumph over Macbeth and the beginning of Scotland's restoration. We will find it useful to compare Macbeth's fall from power to Jesus' triumph over Satan, "the ruler of this world," and to consider Malcolm and Macduff as something like "Christ figures."

Return to Volume 8, Number 2.

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