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.
Summer reading with the Apostle Paul
Moses knew the Egyptian library and Daniel the Babylonian, but the most famous picture of this is the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill. Surrounded by idols, enveloped with pagan superstition, Paul didn’t quote Leviticus or Isaiah. He shared the gospel with pagans by quoting more pagans, namely the astronomer Aratus and his poem The Phenomena. “In him we live and move and have our being,” quoted the apostle, a line he put good effect (Acts 17.28).
On at least two other occasions Paul did the same thing, likely quoting Epimenides of Crete in Titus 1.12 (“Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons”) and another poet in 1 Corinthians 15.33 (“Bad company ruins good morals”). While early church historian Socrates Scholasticus ascribed the 1 Corinthian quote to the Athenian tragedian Euripides (Ecclesiastical History 3.16), it turns out the quote is more likely from the comic writer Menander and his play Thais.
What? you exclaim. The apostle and theologian Paul idly wasting time with comedies! It depends on what we mean by waste, right?
Paul was evidentially quite familiar with pagan literature. He quoted it too ably and too easily for his awareness to be forced. The references had to have been quick to mind for him to so readily apply them. After all, he was not in a position to run to a library and browse through a dozen codices looking for a choice line. He knew his stuff by memory.
Not only did Paul possess fluency in the cultural currents of his world, he undoubtedly found leisure, pathos, and humor in the works of pagan writers. I wouldn’t call that waste.
Go ahead. Read pagans
The refusal of Christians to read widely is an oddly modern impulse. Pastors and Christian pundits of the last hundred years seem more likely to circle the wagons around explicitly “Christian” or “biblical” literature than their predecessors.
Many of the church fathers were classically trained and knew their way around the library. Basil the Great, for instance, showed great familiarity with Greek literature and formally recommended it to students. In an address on the topic, he referenced Hesiod, Homer, Solon, Theognis, Heracles, Prodicus, and others. Of the last he says, “he is not a man to be rejected.” For his part, John Chrysostom was no raging fan of Greek literature, but he nonetheless found reason to recommend it to his congregation and assumed their familiarity regardless.
So why should Christians read non-Christians? The short answer is truth. Says Paul in his letter to the Philippians, which let’s recall was a church in a Grecian city and one drenched in pagan culture,
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (4.8)
The operative word there for us is whatever. It’s the most widely inclusive word available. We might say
[W]e must not deny that a light may be suddenly perceived in this dark forest. If all people can be “God’s people,” then so can their poems and their writings. Everything is from Him, by Him, towards Him.
God’s truth, wherever you find it
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.
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)