So, there I was. Attempting to pass time in the thriving economic hub of Ballymena. Clothes stores, card shops and perfume boutiques surround me, attempting to lure me in with unfathomable offers. And so, I sought refuge in the one place I thought I’d understand: Waterstones. Entering, I am immediately greeted by bestsellers and essential purchases of whose authorship I am, ashamedly, unaware. I lift down the most enigmatically named novel, with an equally mysterious cover, and proceed to read the blurb. Suddenly, I realise that, of all books to select, this strangely titled Fifty Shades of Grey is undoubtedly the least appropriate for an ESV toting male. I panic, and walk rather briskly out of Waterstones, refraining from oxygen until I reach the familiar surroundings of our local Christian bookstore.
You might be able to identify with my non-Christian literary culture ineptitude; you, too, might prefer the comfortable surroundings and recognisable authors of your local Christian bookshop, yet be totally overwhelmed by wealth of secular literature. And this raises an important question: should Christians read secular literature?
Honestly, I think we should! But, rather than concluding here, I’ll quickly consider the biblical relationship between words and Truth; then, we’ll reflect on how our forefathers viewed secular learning, before finally considering how we should read, and the benefits we can receive from, secular literature.
Well, as we know, God places great emphasis on words. In fact, not only is God the Word, – “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1) – but He has chosen to reveal, and bring glory to, Himself through words. Moses, in Deuteronomy 9:10, recounts the moment in which God choose to record “with [His] finger all the words that [He] had spoken” to the Israelites on Mount Sinai; “the One who created the cosmos by the word of His mouth in the beginning…now put finger to stone and wrote” (Reinke, 25). Therefore this Word, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12), is unique among any other literary work.
This God-breathed uniqueness marks Scripture as being the supreme source of knowledge and wisdom, and the model and guide for all writing, in any past, present or future culture. Augustine recognised this, in De doctrina Christiana, and stressed the pre-eminence of Scripture, but he did not discount secular learning. Instead, Augustine allegorises the relationship between Christian and non-Christian literature through the Exodus: the Israelites are commanded to take the “gold and silver jewellery” (Exodus 11:2) of the Egyptians, which Augustine corresponds to “any useful human learning” (Huppé, 4) which reinforces Biblical teaching. Calvin furthers this by highlighting the impact God’s common grace has on man’s literary endeavour. In his commentary on Timothy, Titus and Philemon, Calvin ascertained that “all truth is from God…consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it, for it has come from God” (301). This truth cannot be bound by genre or form, and therefore we should employ our Biblical worldview, directly discerned by the revelation of God in Scripture, to engage with both secular fiction and non-fiction.
This worldview is essential for Christian readership of both Christian and non-Christian works; a firm grasp of God’s teaching will prevent us from being swayed by the literary distortion, subtle or otherwise, of Truth. No work, bar Scripture, is living and active with salvation power, but the truth which accords with Scripture within a non-Christian book can be useful tool to further promote us to wise living.
Take, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American classic, The Great Gatsby. “How”, we might wonder, “does a novel concerned with the Prohibition reinforce Biblical teaching?”. Well, if we read The Great Gatsby through the lens of Scripture, we can see that it attests to the futility of man-made idols. Gatsby takes a created being, Daisy, and attempts to confer divinity onto her. Gatsby’s wild parties, fantastic house and involvement in the criminal world all highlight his chief end in life: the glorification of Daisy. Yet, throughout Gatsby, Fitzgerald clearly displays that Daisy’s imperfect human state cannot possibly fulfil Gatsby’s own expectations, let alone his purpose in life. Therefore, we can see that Gatsby reinforces the Biblical truth of the foolishness of idols (Isaiah 44:6-23 is a prime example), and in conjunction with Scripture can perhaps convict us of the idols in our own hearts.
In closing, I believe we should read non-Christian literature because Jesus, the author of our faith, stands as the greatest storyteller of all time. Stories such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son have gripped, and will continue to grip, the imagination for many generations. Reading good stories, which may reinforce Biblical truth, will develop our imaginations and increase our appreciation for the intricacies of Jesus’s stories and God’s Word as a whole. Unlike Gatsby, truth does not elude us; we will read and run with perseverance, stretching our minds and arms farther as God grows within us a greater understanding of Scripture. And then one fine morning, we will stand on the shores of heaven, and see the One who is all Truth in the fullness of His glory.
Hopefully, this article has been useful, and has at least caused you to pause and consider engaging with the wealth of secular literature available towards us. If you’d like to further consider this topic, then I’d strongly recommend grabbing a copy of Tony Reinke’s Lit (Crossway, 2011.).