As a PhD student in Literature, a typical question I get asked when I meet someone is what my field is. My answer, Modern American literature, has seldom been received well, as it is also known as a dreadfully depressing period in American fiction. Usually the follow up question goes something like: “Do you read those books because they are assigned or because you enjoy reading them?” The implied question is why anyone, particularly a Christian, would choose to read a book like As I Lay Dying or The Sun Also Rises with their vivid depictions of sin and its tragic effects. Why choose to be depressed? Readers with a well-rounded knowledge of literature will know that serious and “depressing” themes can be found in every period of literature, not just Modern American. Simply put, literature quite often forces us to engage with ideas, images, and issues that make us uncomfortable, issues we would otherwise avoid.
By “forces us,” of course, I mean only if we make the effort to read, which is the problem. As the National Endowment for the Arts has shown in their extensive studies, in the past few decades there has been a dramatic decrease in the amount of time many Americans spent reading literature. Not that we need a study to know this; an honest survey of our own reading and media habits will probably reveal an inordinate amount of time spent needlessly refreshing Facebook and little time with our noses in a good book. This trend should be frightening to Christians because we are people of the Book. While it might be an acceptable choice for a non-Christian to confine their regular reading to blogs (CaPC?), news scrolls, Twilight novels, and text messages, Christians traditionally have believed that regular and active reading of Scripture is essential to a healthy and growing Faith. But if the reading habits of Christians are declining along with those of the rest of the country, how might that affect our ability to read the Word? More specifically, is it possible that choosing to read serious, disturbing, and sometimes depressing literature might make us better readers of the Bible?
Before I start talking about how literature can help us to become more attentive and sensitive readers of the Word, let me address some objections that are probably percolating among some readers. First off, I am not implying that the Bible is a work of fiction like any modern novel and that if you learn to read a novel you’ll know how to read the Bible. Obviously there are significant differences between The Sound and the Fury and The Book of Job; for example, one is divinely inspired (hint: it’s not the one with “fury” in the title). However, as I hope to show, there are still some essential similarities between reading literature and the Bible. Second, I do not believe that reading literature will necessarily make you a better Bible reader. There are plenty of well-read people who cannot interpret the Bible, and plenty of godly theologians who are not well-read in literature. What I am saying is that if there are significant similarities between the experience of reading the Bible and of reading a work of literature, there will likely be a benefit to reading literature. Finally, I do not want to suggest that all Christians must read literature or that this is the only reason to read. There are many reasons that reading can be a blessing in someone’s life, and I do not think that Christians need to “justify” reading literature by the fact that it makes them better Bible readers.
Instead, what I hope to show is that when we choose to delve into challenging, disturbing, and even “sad” books, and devote the time to wrestling with the issues we find in them, we will be exercising our ability to read that foundational and central text of our Faith, which also confounds us with disturbing stories, challenging parables, depressing psalms, and depictions of sin and its effects. For the sake of brevity, I am only going to highlight one feature that most good literature and the Bible share. If enough readers are interested, I will gladly talk about how literature and Scripture both are marked by tragedy, metaphor and symbolism, passages where hope is illusive, and other features, but for this post I will focus on the way they both unsettle us.
A common quality in literature is that it unsettles us. Not that it just surprises us with some unexpected twist in the plot (it was the butler the whole time!), but that it strikes us with an idea that confounds our expectations so that we are forced to reevaluate our understanding of the character, event, image, or text. The boy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road should unsettle us with his morality and his hope, both which defy his circumstances. The father and the mother we can understand and relate to, but a boy who choses to love in a horrifically violent and hostile world confounds our expectations, so throughout the novel we are encouraged to try to explain the boy’s worldview, to understand how he fits in his world.
Examples of this kind of unsettling effect abound in literature: Lady Macbeth’s lust for power, Quentin’s love for his sister in The Sound and the Fury, the grandmother’s conversion in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” or Jay Gatsby’s true character. The point is that in these texts we are challenged by something (a character’s action, true identity, a plot twist, etc) that requires us to reassess what we understood about the world of the novel or the characters. When we learn the surprising and sordid history of a character half-way through a novel, it makes us recall the earlier chapters and reconsider the character’s actions in light of this information. Other times a work might present us with an unsettling perspective on justice, or love, or faith which demands that we wrestle with it or remain confused for the rest of the novel. Such moments in a work of literature produce a gnawing, even anxious feeling in us that we might not enjoy. So we can see why so many people don’t find reading literature fun! Entertaining an unsettling feeling, particularly on issues that touch on our core beliefs, might not sound like a good time, but if we are careful readers of the Bible, this should be a familiar feeling to us!
While we might not like to admit it, the Bible contains stories, ideas, and images that are just as unsettling as what we might find in much modern fiction. Take one example: the story of the Levite and his concubine from chapter 19 of The Book of Judges. Read this chapter carefully and you will be confronted with a series of startling events: a house is surrounded by men who demand that the Levite is brought out so they can rape him, the Levite sends out his concubine instead, the concubine is horribly raped until she collapses on the doorstep, dead; we learn that the Levite slept through the night while his concubine was being abused outside; when he goes out and sees her he tells her to “get up” so they can leave; finally, when he realizes she has been killed, he cuts her body into twelve pieces and sends them throughout Israel. If we allow it to, this chapter should unsettle us, forcing us to ask questions about who is righteous in this story, where God is, who exactly ought to be “judged,” and how the Levite could (apparently) feel morally justified in sending out his concubine to be raped (he did sleep through the night, after all) and then feel indignant at the rapists the next morning. The images in this tale are just as troubling. Even if the text does not go into details about the rape, murder, and dissection, the images are clear and disturbing for any close reader. How can you not visualize the beaten, bloody, exhausted, dying concubine falling to the ground at the door? And when you do visualize this, how can you help but be unsettled that this biblical figure threw her out to be abused? When we come to this chapter in Judges we can either read through it quickly, denying the disturbing questions it raises, or we can allow it to unsettle us and choose to wrestle with the text until we gain a better understanding.
The Bible unsettles us from beginning to end; in fact, we might say that one of the main features of Scriptures that it defies our expectations and requires that we wrestle with it. Jesus unsettles the Jewish religious leaders’ expectations about the Messiah, Job’s plight unsettles his friends’ understanding of justice, and Christ’s Sermon on the Mount should unsettle us today just as when it was first delivered. If we are careful readers of the Word, we will often be confronted with stories, ideas, and images that disturb us. Ideally, these troubling passages should lead us to meditate on Scripture, to wrestle with the text, to look for clues to help explain it from the surrounding passages and books and from commentaries. And once we have gained a better understanding of the story, it should effect the rest of our understanding of Scripture. For example, if you read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, once you get to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount you should immediately be troubled. Why was it that God seems to give His people a more lenient Law in the Old Testament than in the new? It is far easier to avoid adultery than it is to avoid lusting with your eyes. How is it that Christ apparently raises the standard of the Law while at the same time removing the burden of the Law from His people? Then, when you reach Paul in Acts 15 and he says that the Jews and their fathers were unable to bear the yoke of the Law, you can understand the deep gratitude that Paul must have felt when he said, “But we believe that we will be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” By reading the Sermon on the Mount, allowing it to unsettle you, and then working through that uncomfortable confusion, you can gain a more nuanced understanding of the rest of Scripture.
So what does this have to do with literature? If we are people of the Book, people whose Faith is built upon the Word of God as it is given to us in the Bible, then we need to be a reading people. And by reading I do not mean merely that we are literate, but that we are able to read carefully, that we are comfortable reading slowly, and allow passages to challenge our preconceptions and to change us. This kind of reading takes practice, just like becoming and remaining literate takes practice, and reading literature is one way to stay in practice. Reading should not be a foreign activity for Christians, but a daily habit. By choosing to read novels and poems that unsettle us, that we might not “enjoy,” and also choosing to wrestle with those texts, we are exercising some of the same skills used to read the Bible. Again, I want to stress that I am not saying that reading literature is one of the spiritual disciplines, or that you must read literature to be a faithful reader of the Word; however, as Christians I do believe that we should be comfortable engaging works that trouble us, and that by ignoring such texts we can cultivate a habit of reading that privileges what is easy, simple, and comfortable, rather than what is true.
Edited 1/12/10: Changed Levi to Levite.