This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
In the first article in this series on literary criticism and the Biblical worldview, I argued that literature is like every other department of life in so far as it must be approached through the lens of the Biblical worldview. In that article I also attempted to expose some of the mistakes that Christians can land into when approaching literary texts. In particular, I suggested that Christians must resist the impulse to ‘Christianize’ texts when doing so means we abandon readings grounded in the interpretative primacy of authorial intent.
In the present article I want to expand on two points that I made at the end of the preceding article, namely that a Christian approach to literary criticism should involve: (1) enjoying literary works for their own sake regardless of any functional value; (2) surrendering to artworks in a way that causes us to grow into richer and deeper people.
Let’s start with the first of these.
Art for Art’s Sake (kind of)
Art and aesthetics played an important part in the Genesis creation narrative, as I showed in my article ‘Aesthetics and Creation.’ One of the features of being God’s image-bearers is that we are designed to appreciate things that are aesthetically pleasing, as well as to create artistically significant artifacts. Our creative products, like God’s creation, have a significance beyond the purely pragmatic. As I pointed out in ‘Aesthetics and Creation’:
“When we look over God’s artwork, we see that not everything in our world has a purely functional or instrumental value. Whatever evolutionists may try to say, there are some things that God made just to look nice, to smell pleasant, and to sound delightful. This suggests that God puts a premium on aesthetic considerations.”
Since we are made in the image of God, there is a place for us to appreciate things for their aesthetic qualities even when there is no immediate utility value involved in doing so. For example, when we set the table nicely with flowers and candles, this has no functional value in terms of eating, but it has aesthetic value that adds richness to our lives. (This is a point that Thomas Howard develops masterfully in his book Chance or the Dance?)
Similarly, the value that literary works have for us as believers does not depend on our ability to wrest from them specific lessons we can apply in our lives. Indeed, to engage with books on a purely aesthetic level is already to be operating under the canopy of the Biblical worldview. We do not have to discover a Christian message in a work of literature before it becomes Christian, any more than we need to do story problems about the dimensions of Noah’s ark before math becomes Christian. Beautiful literature, like math, is already implicitly Christian because of what it is in itself.
Unfortunately, many Christians who desire to apply the Biblical worldview to literary criticism often resemble the evolutionist approaching creation. Just as the evolutionist cannot accept that beauty has any ultimate value for its own sake, and so will try to explain all of nature’s beauty in terms of utility, so Christians sometimes have a hard time accepting that beautiful works of literature have any value apart from their instrumental purposes in helping us to be better people or learn more about God. The liability of this approach is that it holds us back from being able to appreciate art as art. Essentially this approach turns all works of literature into sermons.
The best parallel I can think of here is by comparing our engagement with literature (or to any kind of art, for that matter) to what Protestant reformers like Luther said about work. This will require me to take you on a short rabbit trial before returning to the main point.
Art and the Protestant Work Ethic
The Protestant reformers looked at the Bible’s teaching about taking dominion and realized that all legitimate callings have inherent value. Because the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 sanctifies all honest labor, the work of a baker, housewife, carpenter or administrator is just as valuable as the work of a priest or a nun. Luther put it like this:
“it looks like a small thing when a maid cooks, and cleans, and does other housework. But because God’s command is there, even such a lowly employment must be praised as a service of God, far surpassing the holiness and asceticism of all monks and nuns.”
This idea does not originate with Luther. The apostle Paul told Titus that bondservants could “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10) through faithful labor to their masters. What this means is that any worker, no matter how low his or her station or how menial their task, can glorify God through honest labor. God has created the world in such a way that work has intrinsic value because of what it is in itself; therefore, it can be done to self-consciously glorify God. The spiritual value of our labor is not tied specifically to its functional value. If I spend a month constructing a building that later topples down in an earthquake, my time has (in one sense) not been wasted.
Thus, the Protestant work ethic affirms that all work is valuable because of the nature of work itself, and not specifically because of the consequences of the work. Hence, under the Protestant canopy, the term ‘vocation’ (calling) which had previously only applied only to full-time ministry, came to refer to all legitimate professions.
Now take these principles and apply them to the literary arts. Just as God’s sanctification of work means that all honest labor has value for its own sake, so too because our production and enjoyment of aesthetically pleasing artifacts such as books is also an outworking of the dominion mandate, it follows that our aesthetic engagement with and enjoyment of such artworks has value in itself. Consequently, we should not feel that we need to tie the value of a literary work to an instrumental purpose outside the artwork itself.
This aligns with what many art theorists have tried to get at when they have described art as disinterested, meaning that it does not have an immediate agenda to push outside itself. Art, like labor and mathematics, gives glory to God for what it is in itself. Where a Christian approach to literature differs from a non-Christian approach will lie primarily in recognizing this fact, and being able to glorify God for the beauty and creativity He has made it possible for writers to achieve. (Obviously many of these categories breakdown for artworks that are explicitly pagan and subversive to the Christian worldview, but that is not something I am dealing with in this article.)
Thus, Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterful novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde doesn’t become more Christian if we make the struggle between Jekyll and Hyde analogous to the battle between the flesh and the spirit. We do not have to reduce classic works of literature to a Christian tract in order for them to come under the canons of the Biblical worldview. By being quality works of imagination, they already come under the Biblical worldview because of what they are intrinsically, in a way that is again analogous to the value of labor in all lawful vocations.
Because of common grace, even art produced by unbelievers can possess this intrinsic value, just as the lawful labor of pagans can. What Gregory Wolfe wrote in his book Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, about Christian art being incarnational, applies to much art that is produced by unbelievers:
All great Christian art is incarnational because art itself is the act of uniting form and content, drama and idea, the medium and the message. If art is dominated by a moralistic desire to preach at the audience, it will become lifeless and didactic. We can easily spot didactivism when its message is different from what we believe, but no one who cares about art should confuse it with politics or theology. Art does not work through propositions, but through the indirect, ‘between the lines’ means used by the imagination.
A Work of Art is a Work of Art
This realization is incredibly freeing to the Christian art critic, educator and student since it frees us to appreciate art as art. We can learn to enjoy the aesthetic appeal of a book like Mobby-Dick or Hamlet for what these books are as quality works of imagination and beauty rather than for their utility value to help us live better lives or learn Christian doctrines. We can give glory to God, not for what these books do for us, but for what they are as great works of art.
As worldview-conscious Christians, we can sometimes be so eager to plumb works of literature for potential theological or ethical content that we neglect this important dimension. Instead of taking artworks on their own terms and learning to enjoy them for what they are, we turn them into something that is didactic. In so doing, we flatten out the richness of art and turn it into something blunt. This allows the critics of Christianity to be able to accuse conservative Christians of succumbing to artistic philistinism.
This is a point that the Christian apologists C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer were both sensitive not to overlook. Both of these men were deeply sensitive to beauty and urged people to move beyond shallow, moralistic interpretations of literary works which reduced everything to a disguised sermon. Lewis explored some of these ideas in his book An Experiment in Criticism while Schaeffer wrote about it in Art and the Bible. In Schaeffer’s book he compares the top-heavy mode of some modern artists to the way that many Christians unfortunately approach works of art:
Many modern artists, it seems to me, have forgotten the value that art has in itself. Much modern art is far too intellectual to be great art. …it is a part of the lostness of modern man that they no longer see value in the work of art as a work of art.
I am afraid, however, that as evangelicals we have largely made the same mistake. Too often we think that a work of art has value only if we reduce it to a tract. This too is to view art solely as a message for the intellect…. Perspective number one is that a work of art is first of all a work of art.
When we let a work of art be a work of art, rather than using it as didactic fodder, it deepens our imaginative capabilities and, in so doing, increases our ability to love. Art allows us to enter into the realm of contemplation that Christian sages and mystics have always emphasized is a necessary precondition to action in the world. This is a point that Gregory Wolfe makes throughout his book Beauty Will Save the World. Wolfe points out that attention to mystery, imagination and wonder in literary works come hard to the pragmatic and rationalistic Americans:
The root of the problem I believe, is a misunderstanding of, or aversion to, the nature of the imagination itself. Part of this can be traced to the Puritan and pragmatic strains in the American character. Conservatives have, by and large, focused their energies on political action and the theoretical work necessary to undertake action. The indirection of art, with its lack of moralizing and categorizing, strikes the pragmatic mind as being unedifying, and thus as inessential. Insofar as the great artists and writers of the past are admired, it is for their support of some idea, rather than for the complex, many-sided vision of their art….
The relentless negativism of the culture wars and the suspicion of imagination that runs deep in our American religious tradition remain potent forces. …art becomes useful insofar as it conveys the Christian message.”
Surrendering to Artwork
Just as a Christian approach to literature involves enjoying literary works for their own sake regardless of any functional value, so it also involves surrendering to artworks in a way that causes us to grow into deeper and richer people. To explain what I mean by this, I’d like to draw your attention to a portion of the haunting poem ‘Remembering Marie’ written by the German poet Bertolt Brecht (1898 –1956):
It was a day in that blue month September
Silent beneath the plum trees’ slender shade
I held her there
My love, so pale and silent
As if she were a dream that must not fade
Above us in the shining summer heaven
There was a cloud my eyes dwelled long upon
It was quite white and very high above us
Then I looked up
And found that it had gone
Even in translation, this portion of Brecht’s poem is profound. When the subject looks up and finds that the cloud has vanished, there is a sense of sadness that hits the reader, though it’s hard to explain just why. One is impressed, on a very deep level, by the transience of time and love. ‘Remembering Marie’ moves us if we let it, yet it does not have any immediate functional value for the Christian life. The value that it has is artistic, not pragmatic.
Now certainly if we surrender to these types of works and let them work on us as people, we become richer and deeper men and women, and so there ends up being a certain functional value. But that is not where we start. We start by learning to surrender to the artwork and letting it change us in undefinable ways, as C.S. Lewis argued in An Experiment in Criticism.
When we surrender to works of art – whether a song, poem, film, novel, painting or ballet – and let the artwork stir our imagination, we are often changed in ways that are hard to quantify. Often the experience may be difficult to articulate and may actually lose something if we try to put it into words. This is what I experienced when I watched the foreign language film The Lives of Others (warning: there is at least one inappropriate scene that should be fast-forwarded).
Sometimes we have to simply let ourselves experience a work of art before we try to explain it, to let ourselves surrender to it in a way analogous to our approach to persons. The way to get to know a person is not to begin analyzing him or her, but just to enjoy the relationship, to listen to what the person has to say, to empathize with the person, to allow ourselves to experience life through our friend’s perspective. In doing this, the horizons of our own personhood are expanded. It is the same with literature.
When we approach literary texts like this, we often find that they are laced with paradoxes and evade any straight-forward explanation. For example, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it can be tempting to see Brutus as the villain and to then approach the play as a straight-forward lesson about the dangers of treachery. But this approach actually destroys the ambiguity of the play. If you take Shakespeare’s play on its own terms, one of the things you have to wrestle with is that Brutus is not a textbook villain, but is actually motivated by good desires and wrestles with moral choices that are by no means straight forward. The same is true for the character of Michael Corleone in the iconic The Godfather films.
Now I am not saying that we shouldn’t have good worldview discussion about the books we read or the movies we watch. On the contrary, ever since reading Brian Godawa’s book Hollywood Worldviews, I have loved to watch movies with friends and then discuss the worldview implications. But what I am saying is that we should avoid being so eager to forage texts for their didactic and pragmatic value that we stop being sensitive to the sense of mystery and wonder that good art can evoke. We need to understand that sometimes the most meaningful parts of a story are actually what is said between the lines. Evelyn Waugh’s masterful novel Brideshead Revisited comes to mind. In this work Waugh weaves a narrative of grace through a tale of alcoholism, sin, adultery and misery, yet the grace theme is not something that can be reduced to a proposition. When we surrender to the power of Waugh’s narrative the grace is something we experience, but it is a grace that meets us through the paradox of people’s messy lives.
To sum, a Christian approach to literary criticism should involve enjoying literary works for their own sake regardless of any functional value we may derive from them. It should also involve surrendering to artworks in a way that allows them to work on us and, in the process, helps us to grow into richer and deeper people. This idea that art can be appreciated for its own sake rests on a theological understanding about art which is analogous to the understanding of labor within the Protestant work ethic. This is in contrast to the type of approaches which erroneously assume that a Christian approach to literature involves having to derive an explicitly Christian application from a story.
I’d like to close with a quotation from one of my favorite fiction writers, Flannery O’Connor, who believed that the aim of learning is not to eliminate mystery but to make students more sensitive to it. This is what she writes in her book Mystery and Manners:
“The fact is, people don’t know what they are expected to do with a novel, believing, as so many do, that art must be utilitarian, that it must do something, rather than be something. Their eyes have not been opened to what fiction is, and they are like the blind men who went to visit the elephant – each feels a different part and comes away with a different impression….
It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind…. The result of the proper study of a novel should be contemplation of the mystery embodied in it.”