Can Christians handle literature?

A guest post by Nic Markham

By this I don’t mean the controversy or the ugliness to be found in literature. I don’t mean the explicit content, or the Nietzscheanism, or the violence. I mean what we consider to be good books – books that find something clean and pure in a mucky world, polish it up and present it to the reader with all the niceties of a simpler and more beautiful age. I mean those. Are we safe around those?

The triumph and sanctity of love are hugely popular themes in what we like to call literature. And there’s truth in it: love does triumph, love is sacred – when it comes from Christ. But as writers plot their many paths to that end, where love is extolled as The Greatest Virtue of Them All, and grace is confirmed to be Dwelling Between the Souls of All Men, the Christian may lean back a little and worry. If a really good book can satisfy, do we really need the Good Book?

Another way to put it: when a book or film not only agrees with Christian values but offers a way of holding them without actually being Christian, how do we continue being Christian?

Now, if this sounds like a question with some really obvious Sunday School answers, let me backtrack a little bit, and hopefully prove it’s a little more tricky than crying, “Jesus!” like a six year old.

Psalm 101:3 says, “I will set before my eyes no vile thing. The deeds of faithless men I hate; they will not cling to me.”

This seems to be speaking directly about the explicit content, the Nietzscheanism, and the violence, right? Sure – but is that all it’s saying? I think if we more closely examined the works that do pass our Christian censorship, things we would call Clean or G-rated, we would definitely discover untruth, inequality, faithlessness and disrespect for very special things.

We seem very confident in our ability to see through artistic construction. We assure ourselves that we’re so critically aware that we’re actually one step ahead of a filmmaker or an author. We’re not going to adopt any of his violent or lust-driven ideas, we promise. Don’t worry.

And we dismiss the notion that entertainment could dislodge our faith on the basis that we see through it.However, this awareness, if it does exist, is almost never applied to content that is subtler and more palatable to general audiences. We’re so sure we only need our gospel-based protective eyewear when the content is dodgy that we forget to do the same with the good books we would let our little sister read.

What a well written book does is put you in the story. When we are engulfed by good writing, we start to walk in the characters’ shoes, experience what they experience, and think what they think. Our worldview expands to include more than just ourselves.

When we are changed by the gospel, our worldview also gets a makeover, and the work of a pastor is to do the same as a good author – draw you in, show you something superior to how you are now, and help you to be changed.

But if the work is similar, the method differs. Faith is characteristically conscious. It requires eyes-wide-open choices. No matter what denomination you come from, at some point it is agreed that an individual needs to consciously “accept” Christ. The whole evangelistic apparatus of the church is built around this notion.

Art, however, does exactly the opposite. We don’t consciously step into the shoes of another, we’re led there. We’re put there. If we see the gears turning behind the images and words, we call it bad art (while still purporting to enjoy our critical awareness). No matter what we say, we want to be tricked. We encourage the illusion. First and foremost, our response is emotional and unconscious.

And so we resent the notion that we should interrogate messages we emotionally agree with. Confusingly, a lot of endearing things in modern literary discourse don’t work from a Christian framework, and while being half true forget the vital component to truth that is Christ, and so produce an idea that sounds good and at first tastes good, but goes bad a little while later.

When we watch the ‘good’ films and read the ‘good’ books, the ones that don’t assault us with obvious vulgarities and vile things, we let them

in without interrogation. And without really thinking about it, we adopt modes of truth and codes of morality that have their basis outside Christianity.

In the 2009 Woody Allen film Whatever Works, Boris makes a simple appeal to the viewer: “Whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works.” What attractive conclusions! They come from apparent experience, they are tempered by humility, and they seem somehow complete, not requiring any more questions. The film puts you in the shoes of a secular “good guy” and dares you to call him bad.

There is a little Christian You and a little non- Christian You deep inside your thought process fighting for moral superiority. In my experience, what attracts a Christian to secularism is not all the sin they would be free to do, but the moral lives they would be free to live without the “burden” of God.

It would be sad to leave this battle in the unconscious. Even if we’re watching a film we wouldn’t mind our parents walking in on, it doesn’t mean we should forget to think about the ideas we’re being tempted to adopt. Switching off for the sake of entertainment, no matter how wholesome, will, over time, deprive us of our choice of beliefs.

Paul put it well: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

Or as Flight of the Concords would say: “You gotta think about it, think think about it.”

Can Christians handle literature?

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