I love literature. To be honest, I haven’t always loved literature. I wasn’t that kid, hiding under my bed with a flashlight, reading Tom Sawyer. I preferred movies to books; that is, until I became a Christian.
I believe that books magnify our appetite for Christ, and I believe that they do this much better than movies or any other type of entertainment. The imagination and creativity that is required of me when I read a book is sanctifying. I mean that. I am required to create characters, and in a good book, I am required to contemplate characters’ motivations, which gives me the ability to empathize. The most profound movie cannot manage what even the most trite book can. That is this: a movie cannot force you to create images in your mind. The images are handed to you on a silver (okay, maybe not always silver) widescreen TV. The images are more impersonal, more distant, than the ones we can create in our head. They give us the distinct ability to empathize with characters very intimately as are near to us, their struggles are our struggles, Once I am able to empathize with characters, my understanding of humanity inevitably grows. Literature allows me to empathize in a way that nothing else really can. It diversifies my worldview, plunging me into the depths of human depravity and contrastingly, giving me glimpses of joy, building up the character of almighty Christ, a savior who would be willing to descend into such a world.
I’m speaking here of great works of fiction, not just any book. Great literature provides the kind of empathy that is only possible in so much as the characters are true representations of humanity. Trite, tawdry novels play on our emotions—though the situations are typically extreme and exciting, the characters are generally one-dimensional, predictable and internally consistent. This predictability tends to affirm readers’ preconceived notions of others, rather than expand our capacity for empathy. Popular fiction will not expand our capacity for empathy; rather, it will simply entertain us.
But through its ability to help us empathize, good literature shows us humanity’s dire need and provides small glimpses of the grand hope for humanity. If we’re reading through the right lens, we should see our Christ who is both what we need and our only hope.
A deeper knowledge of sin
Literature broadens our view of sin, giving us a more accurate and full portrayal of the wickedness that lives within us. Literature isn’t just a lens into a new world; it’s a mirror that we can hold up to ourselves. It exposes not just our sins, but motivations for sins. This, as Christians, should drive us to the heart of the gospel and to the feet of Christ himself, who descending into our world in order to redeem it. When you understand characters in their depravity, when you see pieces of yourself in them, it gives you a deeper understanding of just how serious your sinful nature is.
For example, seeing the sins of Mrs. Breedlove in The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison convicts my atrociously sinful nature. In a particularly poignant scene, Morrison describes the routine fights between Mrs. Breedlove and Cholly, her unruly and debauched husband. Cholly is a habitual drunk and Mrs. Breedlove finds an odd sense of worth in their fights.
“The tiny, undistinguished days that Mrs. Breedlove lived were identified, grouped and classed by these quarrels. The gave substance to the minutes and hours otherwise dim and unrecalled . . . In these violet breaks in routine, that were themselves routine, she could display the style and imagination of what she believed to be her own true self . . . If Cholly had stopped drinking, she would never have forgiven Jesus. She needed Cholly’s sins desperately.”
Mrs. Breedlove’s bent toward bitterness, her motivation for discord, and her insatiable desire to dominate her husband chimes in my ears as my own sin, masked as hers. I am reminded of my own tendency to criticize in order to find worth. It is profoundly human to find a motivation for discord, to look, search, and to be driven by seeing faults in others in order to justify our own sin. Seeing flawed characters sin, and sin profoundly, gives words and images to our struggles and drives us to contemplate our own need for Christ. We can search through the entire canon of literature and at the end of it find ourselves there. Here is why: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind,” (1 Cor 10:13).
No sin is new sin. The insatiable wrath of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, the envious Othello, the racial profiling that Jem and Scout see in Maycomb, Alabama—none of this is new—It is old sin. It is sin that we fight everyday, sin that we see in our friends and ourselves, sin that “so easily entangles,” (Hebrews 12:1).
Hope found in literature
But let us not stop there. Literature doesn’t just pinpoint sin, it also, oftentimes, provides glimpses of hope. Christ is in everything—so whether it’s small acts of mercy or gentle acts of humility, we can look all through literature and at the end of it, find Christ. This doesn’t mean every text is going to be as explicitly Christ-driven as The Chronicles of Narnia (though, if you want to read some Lewis, read on!).
The reason that we should read literature, ultimately, is to see more of Christ and His gospel. The gospel is not is not a gospel that separates sin and depravity from goodness and joy, rather it faces that reality head-on and provides the only way to true hope. That is why literature is so potent and relevant; good literature doesn’t gloss over hardship, good literature reminds us that hope can persist in sorrow. So then, Christian, hold fast to the hope that can be found in darkness, and use literature as a tool to drive you nearer to the hope of Christ—knowing that he encapsulates every archetype of literature. He is the ultimate epic-hero. He is the suffering, humble servant. He is the profound, empathetic friend. He is kind and gentle, yet firm and strong. He embodies all the characteristics that we love in literature. Furthermore, he takes on every ounce of depravity, sharing with us, in our sin, yet without sin, paying for the inequity of man.
Lastly, we read because God wrote a book; He crafted a story. Every well-written, smaller narrative points us to that grand narrative. Let the small stories of well-written fiction push you towards the greater story—the story of hope in midst of darkness, the hope found in Christ on a cross, smitten for your sins. So, Christian, next time you read a good piece of literature, and you see depravity, say to yourself, “Christ paid for that”; next time you see some intrinsic goodness in a character, say to yourself, “Christ embodies that”. Learn to see Christ in literature, and you will learn to love to read not simply as an act of leisure but as an act of sanctifying, God-glorifying worship.
Allie Osborn became a member at Emmaus in February. She recently graduated from Baylor University with a degree in English Literature. In the fall, Allie will begin teaching English Literature and Journalism at Kansas City Christian School. She moved to Kansas City in January after getting married to Drake Osborn, who just finished his first year at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.