Recently, one of the discussion prompts in my English Literature course asked how Christians should approach secular literature. I find this to be a particularly relevant question. My mom is a high school English teacher, and has enlisted my help in cataloging books she has in her classroom and recommending books for a reading list across all high school grades. I have found that much of classic and modern classic literature contains messages and content that is highly questionable from a Christian worldview standpoint. Thus, the issue of how such literature should be approached—if at all—is a pertinent issue in my life and the lives of others.
For example, the Great Gatsby is considered to be superb literature (rightly so) but presents a problem for Christians as it seems to reflect a somewhat Deist, hopeless worldview. On the other hand, the book also shows hollowness of materialism and glam and the consequences of bad choices—both messages that are in line with Biblical ideas. However, it is dangerous to read literature without being able to recognize whether its messages align with truth. This can be an especially difficult issue when literature explores and questions ideas rather than taking a clear stance. In the case of The Great Gatsby there is no one specific statement of worldview, rather a conglomeration of events, dialogue, and narration poised to cause the reader to make a certain conclusion: that God is distant and irrelevant to daily life. The most powerful weapon against this widespread untruth is not to hide from it or ignore it but rather to observe, understand, and counter it.
Literature from different viewpoints than our own is nothing to shy away from, and a combative approach is not always necessary. After all, it is sometimes said that the mark of an intelligent mind is the ability to entertain an idea or belief without actually adopting it. Moreover, being challenged in our faith can cause us to grow in our understanding of the world and people around us and can even strengthen our worldview when we analyze whether opposing viewpoints make sense. We may even discover weak points in our beliefs that can give us the opportunity to either learn more and sufficiently support the beliefs or modify them to be more accurate.
It is important to study secular literature not only to understand the world, but also to find the sacred amid the profane. As Augustine expressed, all truth is God’s truth. All people have access to God through natural revelation, whether they know it or not. Therefore, it would not surprise me in the least if “secular” literature occasionally happened upon eternal truths. In The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” As amoral as this quote may sound I believe it is true—as long as expressing a logical and balanced viewpoint criteria for good writing. Any book written from such a viewpoint will be true, and thus good because truth is good. To look at this from a different perspective, nothing can be good apart from God, so in one sense a book cannot be well written if it is not in some way of God. Meanwhile, a book labeled “Christian” that is poorly written or contains untruths is not actually of God.
In case you haven’t caught my drift, I don’t really believe in the word “secular.” Secular implies neutrality—a concept that does not exist in real life. For example, even things often considered “neutral” or “secular” such as a tree or an instruction manual are either of God or not of God. Consider this: a tree is of God because it is a beautiful piece of nature that displays His glory and an instruction manual that is helpful is a good thing, while an instruction manual that is confusing is a bad thing.
I once knew a family who trashed their Beethoven CDs when they learned he was an alcoholic. While perhaps this was a sincere attempt to “purify” their lives, surely this is madness. Though on some level I can relate: I’ve had a long time grudge against Frank Lloyd Wright for walking out on his wife and children for an affair. Yet, I have a photo of his Fallingwater house hanging on my wall, and detect no evil in it. I do not propose that we can entirely separate the work of art from the artist, but rather that we do not need to. Even a highly flawed person can use whatever piece of goodness that still exists to create Godly art. Moreover, art can transcend and become greater than its artist. A piece of truth professed by an atheist or a beautiful book written by a flawed person is not something to be seen as a threat but rather as a testament to God’s goodness revealed even in the most unlikely people and places and His ability to use anyone and everything for His glory.
On a related matter, one may argue that authorial intent should be the primary criteria in deciding if something is good or not—that a book is of God or of the world based on what the author intends. Yet consider: someone with a bad intent may manage to make a good piece of art despite themselves while someone with good intentions may by accident or a degree of carelessness create and evil final product. Moreover, non-Christian people can create things that result in glorifying God and even have the intent of glorifying God—even if those people are not aware of that fact. In example, C.S. Lewis’ touches on this idea in The Last Battle when Aslan (representing Jesus) speaks to pagan man: “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash [a false god]… if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me [Christ] that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”
Admittedly the word “secular” can have some degree of usefulness in casual conversation but I maintain that it has no true definition. Literature is either glorifies God in some way or is evil—neutrality is not an option. As Jesus says in Matthew 12:30, “Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me” (NLT).
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