All literature can be Christian literature

Tom Hering, in saying kind things about my post on the Lutheran Theology of Culture, commended this piece by Joel J. Miller, What is Christian literature? God’s truth, wherever you find it. :

In a 1997 interview with Books and Culture, William F. Buckley Jr. was asked what thinkers influenced him theologically. “I’m a theological novice,” he answered, “but I simply assume that the Christian prism tends to inform Christians, whatever they are reading.”

All literature, in other words, has the potential to be Christian literature. A believer should be able to find something good, true, and beautiful thumbing through most any book — or at least be reminded of those things by their particular absence. Indeed there is a long tradition in the Christian world of reading books by non-Christians and finding in then both use and enjoyment. . . . [He goes on and show how St. Paul made use of pagan literature.]

All truth is God’s truth, so wherever we find it we have found something of God. In his Books and Culture interview, Buckley spoke of “the ubiquity of the Christian ideal.”Justin Martyr called it the logos spermatikos, the seminal word, the Truth of God that is spread throughout all of creation.

“For each [philosopher, poet, and historian] spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word,” said Justin. They “were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them.”

Because God’s truth can be found in the work of philosophers, poets, and historians, Christians can identify it and lay claim to it. “Whatever things were rightly said among all men are the property of us Christians,” said Justin in a flash of spectacular and liberating presumption (Second Apology 13).

Justin’s train of thought was widely adopted by Christian thinkers and writers. “[A]ll branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies,” said Augustine,

but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use for the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them.

Referring to the Israelites taking with them the gold and silver of Egypt in the Exodus, Augustine continued by saying that whatever truth the pagans have is “so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad.”

Going even further than Justin did, Augustine considers finding the finding truth in pagan literature as a recovery of stolen goods. Christians should “claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it” (On Christian Doctrine 2.40).

That means if you find God’s truth in Menander or Mencken or Melville or Mamet or Manga you should feel free to use it for your edification, enjoyment, and leisure. Of course, you may find things there that are less than beneficial too.

A warning

This is not to say that anything can be read indiscriminately. Buckley said the Christian view “tends to inform Christians,” but often it doesn’t. Literature is made by more than authors. It takes readers and what they bring to the work because interpretation is part of the literary process. If a Christian doesn’t read as a Christian, they’re setting themselves up for problems.

Basil compared it to taking poison with honey. Indeed some combs contain more poison than honey, and Christians should be sensible to what they’re working with. To those who say that all things are permissible, Paul himself counters by saying that some things are unhelpful (1 Cor 6.12).

“Greek literature certainly was never recognized either by Christ or his Apostles as divinely inspired,” explained Socrates Scholasticus, “nor on the other hand was it wholly rejected as pernicious.” Quoting 1 Thessalonians 5.21, he said Christians must “prove all things, and hold fast to that which is good” and concluded that we should read and understand literature of non-Christians,

taking care that in making this acquisition we do not adopt their sentiments, but testing them, reject the evil, but retain all that is good and true: for good wherever it is found is a property of truth. (Ecclesiastical History 3.16)

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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