Posted by: Nathan | May 18, 2009

Secular Reading with a Christian Perspective

It is no secret that the world and faith often conflict, and it is the same in the realm of literature. Many of the best books humanity has produced have parts in them that run counter to the will of God. Several are written to defy him. Others promote (or at least do not condemn) all sorts of sordid, injurious actions and mindsets. But in the midst of all this darkness, there is dazzling light to be found as well. Sometimes the author plunges her reader into the dark only to bring the reader back out. Plumbing the depths of humanity often brings understanding. All of this is to say that literature is complex and a mixed bag. Although there are passages and entire works that run contrary to the nature of God, it is my job as a Christian reader work out how to react to them.

While I’ve often thought about what a Christian’s relationship to literature should be, reading Lolita really returned the issue to the front of my mind. Just about every novel has characters in it who are guilty of vices (we all are), but Nabokov’s novel is uniquely challenging for me for two reasons. First, pedophilia is an especially revolting transgression; second, the novel is written from Humbert’s perspective, and he constantly tries to persuade the reader that what he did isn’t so bad. At times he is almost convincing. Moments like those made me consider putting down the novel, and I wondered again if there are certain books a Christian should avoid. If so, which? If not, how should the believer approach such books?

The relationship between morality and literature is far from a new issue. Samuel Johnson thought that all reading material ought to both delight and instruct, and much of literary scholarship incorporated that idea for a century or two. Now, of course, the literati glower at any mention of instruction being an important part of reading because it brings up other ugly words like “didacticism” and “close-mindedness.” Worse, it runs counter to the primary literary dogma of our time: it doesn’t encourage diversity! Why? Johnson’s idea is inherently linked with his very strict Protestant ethics, and that’s just not okay.

However, much is lost by repudiating Johnson’s rule entirely. I freely admit that all literature will not conform to Christian ideals; we would be foolish to expect otherwise. Indeed, Johnson’s scruples when it comes to literature are too much even for me (read Rambler 4 sometime). Still, if a book does not impart something to the reader, I submit that said book has failed at least in part. I like to read things just for fun, but if a work is to affect readers in this generation and those to come, it must have something profitable to impart.

Since I expect to find meaning in a critically acclaimed work, I do not read things without interacting with them. Myriad are the books that challenge our perspectives, beliefs, creeds, and observations, and I welcome those books. I should be challenged. I do not know everything. Some works, however, evoke a world or situation that goes too far for me. I try to read with a critical yet open mind regarding these books because I want to get something of value from them if possible, but I approach each read as a Christian, too.

For me, the debate surrounding my choices in reading secular literature* come down to two passages of Scripture. The first is the injunction one finds in Philippians 4:8 to think about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. That is quite a litany of adjectives. I highly doubt that most books I read measure up to that high standard, though every book I’ve read is at least a few of those things. On the other hand, there is 1 Thessalonians 5:21, which reads, “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” This verse has served as my motto in approaching literature. Adjusting a bit, I apply this verse as “Read everything. Hold on to what is good.” If I hear that a book is worth my while to imbibe, I read it, even if it runs counter to my faith. I suppose there are many believers out there who disapprove of this approach (some deplore it), but I have found that this approach has enormous benefits.

One of reading’s most important functions is its capability to expand one’s knowledge of life and permit one to see from another’s viewpoint. Many Christians today suffer from an inability to understand how nonbelievers interpret things. In fact, the increasing polarization of our culture is an enormous and growing threat to our society’s ability to communicate. We need to be able to step outside of ourselves and look at issues from as many sides as we can. This does not mean a Christian should abandon squi’s faith, but one must be willing to appraise what the other side believes, thinks and feels. Literature is a most effective means of drawing one out of one’s self and into the viewpoint of another. Frequently, readers see aspects of existence from a point of view entirely dissimilar to their own. Viewing life through the eyes of murderers, pedophiles, mad people, cheats, liars, adulterers, and all other sorts of scoundrels shows me their humanity. Are they so unlike me? Sure, the vices vary, but I have no leg to stand on if it comes to condemning them. The knowledge I’ve gained from reading these “immoral” books has been invaluable because it helps me better understand others.

The danger of entering into the (fictional) minds of these people is, of course, that one could get sucked in. It’s not a stupid concept. People looking to justify their actions often find vindication in literature (think of Hitler and Nietzsche, for example). I suppose this danger is one of the objections other Christians might raise to my approach to reading. Perhaps they’d allude to the “glove and puddle” concept as well: when you throw a white glove into a dirty puddle, the glove gets dirty—the puddle does not become clean. This odious example would have us believe that purity is inherently fragile, and all contact with the world should be avoided. Is this the gospel we’ve heard? It does not sound like setting your light on a stand so others can see. If Christ has overcome the world, why are so afraid of being tainted? Indeed, darkness flees from the light because it has to, and in Christ, there are many dirty puddles being purified.

Non-Christians reading this post may find it overwhelmingly naive and perhaps prudish. I know this because I’ve been in classes with extremely intelligent and good people who find nothing of worth in Christianity. Morality in literature is most certainly not a literary field of study right now; one would be laughed at if any such suggestion were made. That’s okay. I do not expect to change anyone’s mind regarding squi’s approach to reading. However, I will continue to read in the effort to balance my search for understanding with Christian principles. Dr. Johnson is too severe in his efforts to make literature entirely moral, but there’s something to be gleaned from his ideas yet. Literature ought to delight and instruct, and let the instruction come in as many forms as possible. 

*The reader is to understand that by no means do all works of literary merit take an aggressively anti-Christian stance. Often, the reverse is true; one finds that many books put forward Christian truths under other guises, whether the author knows it or not. This is one of the best reasons to read literature.


  1. This is one of my favorite posts in the past few months, and the topic of Christians engaging with philosophies, lifestyles and backgrounds that are dissimilar is extremely important!

    I too believe that understanding different walks of life should be fundamental to Christianity, and I’ve seen a lot of the repercussions from people who don’t buy it. Their views of God are extemely boxed in! We have so much to learn from the general community that doesn’t grasp faith. There are a lot of non-Christians who look more like Jesus than I do.

    This topic extends from literature to music, housing/neighborhoods and beyond. Pulling away from areas of life that seem scary or different to feel more secure can be natural, but we should fight those instincts.

    I think our generation understands this better than ones in recent history, and we will see changes in how faith is played out in churches and communities. Already some younger figureheads like Rob Bell and Shane Claiborne clearly understand this better than the likes of Dr. JD. There are so many intentional communities sprouting up around the Cities that have a real focus on learning from and being with those of different perspectives. It’s encouraging to see these movements.

    My faith is strengthened by interacting with various viewpoints and backgrounds, and clearly yours is too. Excellent post!

  2. I didn’t find this to be naive or prudish.
    Although I’m not sure what I think of the “glove and puddle” concept. I know it wasn’t your point.

    On a side note, my mom regularly used Philippians 4:8 as an end-all “it is finished” move when she didn’t feel like discussing her parenting choices. I still cringe when I even see the notation.

  3. I also enjoyed the post. The only thing I would add is that the “correct” answer to your question probably varies by the person and how the person is approaching the art. First, maturity matters here. I would certainly not recommend every book, record, or movie to every person (Christian or otherwise). I’m not just talking about age either; some people have a difficult time separating truth from falsehood in art. Second, I think your approach works very well when reading or watching to get instruction, or to understand others; the problem is when we use art as entertainment. I would perhaps suggest Philippians 4:8 matters more when dealing with leisure time entertainment as a standard for what we should be focusing our attention on.

  4. Interesting post! Like Dan, I’d have to agree that what is good for someone to read can be different for different people. When I talk about a book being good or bad, I usually just mean whether it’s well-written. But of course books are influential, and they can influence us for good or bad. I agree with you, Nathan, that this is no reason to censor authors with different worldviews. Aside from their insights into people, conflicts, virtues, ideals, etc., the act of learning from those with different ideologies can also encourage empathy, humility, and understanding – as you said! But that doesn’t mean all well-written books are morally good to read. Some books may gratuitously wade in evil, and Phil 4:8 should come into play, or some books may encourage wrong thinking or behavior. (I’ll throw away a Christian writer’s book about the need for women to submit to men because I think the book is immoral, while lauding books by atheists.) And a book that’s bad for me to read because it encourages my bitterness, arrogance, and spite may be good for someone else to read (and may have the opposite effect on them). I think a book’s morality depends on both the book and the reader, but that there is a moral element to reading which we rarely think about now. Thanks for addressing this!

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