From time to time I am asked about why I write stories and novels when there is “no spiritual value in it.” I disagree with the idea that there is no spiritual value in literature, both in and of itself, and as a furrowing force for the later harvest of truth. Here I want to focus on the latter. May I present some guy you’ve probably never heard of, Dr. Martin Luther:
“I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters [literature] have declined and lain prostrate, theology too, has wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate; nay, I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless he has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages and letters, as though they were John the Baptists. . . . Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily.”
Martin Luther, Letter to Eoban Hess, 29 March 1523. Werke, Weimar edition, Luthers Briefwechsel, III, 50. HT: Justin Taylor
So bouncing off of Luther’s quotation, and in an effort to directly answer the charge that love of literature is an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture, I write.
Scripture is sufficient. Preaching is needed for people to hear. If someone is deaf, they cannot hear. Since the Bible is in words, we need to develop ears to hear by understanding the use of language, words, and meaning. Reading good literature cannot help but aid this.
The Bible is not one long letter written in outline form with footnotes. It is made up of multiple genres and replete with figurative language and creative literary expressions. Reading widely has many benefits, and helping us to understand the Word of God on a few different levels is only part of those benefits. The fostering of wholesome imagination alone is a deeply beneficial spiritual blessing. Bathed in test-tube modernity we chart and graph truth until it is a mere set of facts with no power, no beauty, no glory. The truth is that we are saved by a story–by news. It is an unbelievable story from the hand of the sovereign Author of life.
Am I saying the Word of God is not important? No. It is infinitely important. It is the Book of books, God-breathed, inerrant. But it is a book. Books are read. By people who can read. And reading to understand usually requires extensive and wide reading.
Am I saying the illuminating work of the Spirit isn’t necessary? No. The Holy Spirit illuminates his Word, but he uses our faculties as he does in so many other of his actions. Can he overcome our ignorance of poetry and allow us to understand and teach well the Psalms? Sure. But I don’t think willful ignorance of helpful resources is his prescribed method. Can God heal? Yes. Does he usually heal every ailment directly by miracles? No. He usually calls doctors and others to serve, and they learned how to do this by engagement.
We must engage with words–stories, literature, poetry, figurative language, etc.–if we are to properly understand, appreciate, and help others to love God’s Word.
Is there a danger in our post-modern culture of over-emphasizing the value of stories? I think so. Particularly if we are so obsessed with ourselves as the point of view characters that we lose sight of the Authorship (and Authority) of God. If we inflate the importance of our own finite perspective and correspondingly diminish the authority of the Word of God (which, sadly, is a very fashionable fad right now) then we are on the wrong street going the wrong way.
But let us not be guilty of the very problem this post-modern fad has succumbed to and that is the problem of overcorrection. Stories do matter. They matter deeply. And we benefit greatly from expressing stories to one another, both wholly invented and parabolic. Let us do both. Let us love the Word. Let us also, for the glory of God and the Gospel of Christ, love words.
The Bible is in words. When we love literature (different genres, as in Scripture: poetry, songs, wise sayings, letters, narrative, etc.) we become better equipped to hear.
It is discouraging to hear “biblical” teaching from a man who has read so little and understands language so poorly that he falls into trap after trap of understanding which just a little reading would aid. Is it essential to be widely read? No. God in his mercy can superintend. But if you are handling words (the Word of God especially –and we are all called to this) then it is wise to have a more than surface understanding of how that works.
In my view Christians ought to love books, love words, and love expression. This is how truth is conveyed. Art enables this.
In other words, as with justification by grace through faith, I agree with Luther. Thankfully for him, Luther isn’t down here to be frightened by my agreement.
That’s my two cents worth. Anyone have some insight to add? I would love to hear what you think.