A woman who is a neighbour of one of my colleagues home schools her three kids. She does a great job—except for one thing: She won’t let them read novels. At worst, they might be trashy; at best, she says, they’re a waste of time.
This faithful Christian mom could not be more mistaken. But sadly, she has a lot of company—including great ministers of the faith. For instance, in the 19th century, American evangelist Charles Finney declared, “I cannot believe that a person who has ever known the love of God can relish a secular novel.” He explicitly denounced Byron, Walter Scott, and even Shakespeare.
Historically, American evangelicals have often been suspicious of secular literature. A few years ago—to give us the tools we need to counter that attitude—Os Guinness and Louise Cowan published a book entitled Invitation to the Classics. It helps Christians to understand not just what classic books to read, but how they can lead us to a richer understanding of the Gospel.
It’s hard to believe that Finney would have disdain for Shakespeare. One wonders what he would have made of Dostoevsky, who often wove Christian themes into his otherwise “secular” novels. Interestingly the work of both writers led Louise Cowan back to Christian faith after she had lost it.
Cowan had read various theological works, and even the Bible itself, but had failed to find faith. Then she read Hamlet, and other Shakespearian plays, and was struck by their frequent Christian themes.
Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov—my personal favourite—led Cowan to explore Christianity further, eventually resulting in her conversion. “Not until a literary work of art awakened my imaginative faculties,” she writes, “could the possibility of a larger context than reason alone engage my mind … I had to be transformed in the way that literature transforms—by story, image, symbol—before I could see the simple truths of the gospel.”
When it comes to learning moral lessons, I’ve often been much more impressed by profound works of fiction than by abstract theological discourses. Scenes from some of the greatest stories ever told have etched moral truths deeply into my soul. Their characters and lessons are so vivid I can’t forget them, and they’re a continuing source of inspiration in my Christian walk.
Biblical figures knew all about the power of a good story. Remember when the Old Testament prophet, Nathan, confronted King David about his affair with Bathsheba? Nathan didn’t offer David a dry lecture on the sin of adultery. Instead, Nathan spun a story about a rich man who took the only lamb belonging to a poor man. In order to get past David’s defences, Nathan told an allegorical story. You and I can use exactly that same strategy.
Christians ought to become reacquainted with classic literature. We can allow its rich, evocative words to speak to our souls. And then we can pass on these stories as a comfort and witness to unsaved friends.
This is the message we ought to give Christian neighbours who think novels are a waste of time. Great works of fiction can whet our appetite, not only for good books, but also for the Good Book itself.
Visit our website, breakpoint.org, and we’ll give you a list of some of the greatest Christian-themed novels of all time. Or visit our book store to order Invitation to the Classics.
From BreakPoint, 18 March 2010. Copyright 2010 Prison Fellowship, PO Box 17500, Washington, DC, 20041-0500, USA. Web site – www.breakpoint.org.