What is Christian literature? God’s truth, wherever you find it

What is Christian literature? God’s truth, wherever you find it June 27, 2013

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 all things that are pure, lovely, and so on. Paul’s word choice does not exclude. If you find anything good, true, or beautiful, it may be read and enjoyed and used. It is worthy of contemplation. I like how Russian writer Sergei Fudel put it:

[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.

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)

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  • Tom Hering

    Excellent! I’ve bookmarked this post for permanent reference.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks, Tom. Glad to hear it was beneficial for you.

  • Philip Wade

    On the other hand, if baseball had been invented, Jesus would have been a big fan, maybe even formed his own team with the apostles.

    • Joel J. Miller

      That’s a given 🙂

    • Funny you should mention that but the first baseball game happened in Genesis 1:1, “In the big inning . . . .”

      • Joel J. Miller

        Tee hee.

      • PMark

        …Eve took First, Adam took Second, and the Lord threw them both out.

        • Kevin Payne

          Actually, God is a railfan. Particularly steam locomotives.

          Says right there, numerous times, that His mighty train fills the temple, with smoke and with fire.

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    Nice post Joel. A timely message against the protectivism of modern day fundamentalists. Of course, the Roman church has gone through periods of book burning and supressing pagan texts, so this impulse is not new. But you are correct, if you have a christian mind, you can see the truth as great artists over time have percieved it through their sensitivity. Seraphim Rose said that us westerners need to be listening to the great composers, and reading the great works to develop an orthodox compassion in the the cold western breast. He loved Dickens in particular. I have found great Christian wisdom in Seneca, and don’t even get me started on Plato and Socrates! Plato’s apology should be required reading before you can graduate high school it is so great (in Greek preferably) If you don’t find Christian truth in the Apology, you are simply being close minded, it is there smacking you in the face. OH, and I can promise you one thing, Jesus would not have been a Yankees fan!

  • Susan_G1

    Thank you for this post. It comes, for me, on the heels of a blogger’s post praising Christian writing and an admonishment which floored me: that we should read nothing that does not praise God. Cultural literacy is of some value to me, and I worked hard to pass some on to my children, to their delight and dismay (they have never forgiven me for making them watch 2001: A Space Odyssey; on the other hand, they loved my reading them Greek myths most days.) The blogger praising Amish Romance (as I’ve lived quite close to Amish country for 30 years and have had many interactions with them, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t find it realistic) made me think another bonfire of the vanities was in the works.

    To know Paul was well versed in secular writings is comforting. To read that Paul’s exhortations include secular works of beauty? That’s wonderful!

    • Joel J. Miller

      You are 100 percent welcome. The question of what praises God is an interesting one. Paul’s statement in Phil 4.8 is quite broad and includes far more than Amish romance! There’s a difference between being prudish and prudent. A wise reading of secular literature is of great advantage. Same with viewing movies or listening to music.

      To run the other direction would mean Christian doctors could only read research by Christian scientists, right? Or that Christian statesmen could only read those laws and court decisions authored by Christian politicians and judges. It’s absurd, really.

      I understand that people don’t want to open themselves up to evil — neither did any of the theologians and others quoted above. But Paul’s own statements about contemplating and proving the good assumes some contact with the bad. It’s unavoidable this side of Eden. To erect a wall around it is bad theology, a poor reading of the scripture, and makes for a lot of bad literature. (Consult Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners on that last point.)

      • Kevin Payne

        I am reminded of a song by Christian musician Steven Taylor called “Guilty by Association”:

        You’ll be keeping all your money In the Kingdom now
        And you’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow

        Avoid temptation, guilty by association


        • Joel J. Miller

          That was the very first album I ever purchased. “Meltdown.” A blue-colored cassette tape from Sparrow if memory serves.

          • Kevin Payne

            I used to work at a small Christian TV network in southern Illinois. From time to time I would run into that attitude from some of my co-workers. I wish I had had your commentary to share with them at the time!

            Truth is truth, whether I find it in Plato, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Schaeffer, or a comic book.

            Thank you for your blog, I have only just discovered it thanks to a posting on the Fellow ship of Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican Christians page on Facebook but I will be returning frequently in future.

  • Joel, thank you so much for this. I’ve often tried to say something in defense of broad reading, without ever being as thoroughly thought through. This is tremendously helpful, especially as I work through what my kids “should” be reading.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Glad it was useful to you, Andrew. We have to show discernment, obviously, but the field is a lot wider than some assume.

  • Excellent article that I’ll share with my students. Francis Schaeffer’s little book “Art and the Bible” continues this conversation . His discussion of art work in the tabernacle is especially germaine.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Another book you might like on the role of imagination (particularly story and the visual arts) in communicating God’s truth is “Word Pictures” by screenwriter Brian Godawa. Recommended.

  • Mary Kelso

    This post was linked through Patheos and the title in my e-mail spoke to
    offering our kids pagan material. I was REFRESHED by your article, I
    learned some things, and I’m glad I read it. I’m also glad you didn’t
    say I should let my kids read anything they want. My only concern, and I
    don’t say this in correction or to bring conviction AT ALL simply to
    add to the conversation, would be that we are SURE to be full of Truth before we delve into other literature.
    It is so easy to be duped by “good” teaching, even in “Christian”
    literature and miss what is best because we followed the wrong path.
    There is no substitute for knowing the truth, but I love that God
    sprinkles that truth in unlikely places as well.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I think that’s right. The ability to test all all things as Paul says presumes something to test them against.

  • Teresa Jerry Nelson

    I find this to be true in the realm of music, as well. Why some Christians insist that a “true” Christian only and always listens to “Christian” music is baffling to me. I find Chris Martin’s (Coldplay) “Yellow” to be Christ’s anthem to the sinner. If you listen to it in any other context, it is a picture of unhealthy love, but to see it as Christ’s measure of love toward us makes complete sense. Thanks for your insight.

  • Guest

    While I generally agree, this advice CAN be taken a bit too far. The Bible is the ultimate hero-story and basically the model for all western literature, so every hero-story is in some sense going to be at least a dim reflection of the Christ-story. You will find a “nugget” of Biblical wisdom or a “Christ-figure” almost everywhere. This can, however, trick us. Stories really do, eventually, have to be assessed on their own merits and themes, and we should not super-impose a Christian interpretation on them. (Example: Dracula is a Marxist story, the “Count” represents the ruling class sucking life from the working class. Any examination of the author and the culture that produced the story verifies this. Yes, you can see Dracula as a “Satan-figure,” but that is a super-imposition.)