Literature and the Christian
Language: A Tool with a Purpose
"English teachers lead people astray," a father admonished his off-to-college daughter, according to a recent textbook quoted by Virginia Lowell Grabill in an essay on English literature in the book Christ and the Modern Mind.1 She then goes on to prove that the author of that textbook, by implying that poetry, fiction, and drama are at best pleasant leisure fillers and at worst pretty lures of the devil, must have been very ignorant and narrow-minded. According to Grabill, literature in itself is neither good nor bad. It is an instrument or medium for artistic communication. Stressing that this God-given instrument or ability is one that may not be neglected by Christians, she writes:
Among leisure activities, those concentrating on the aesthetic seem especially natural and appropriate for Christians or others interested in living fully if one observes the color of sky and grass, the balanced form of evergreens, the rhythm of planets and gazelles, the melody of meadowlark and waterfall. The urge in men to produce art may indeed echo whatever caused God — looking on a world "without form" and empty and dark — to create intricate forms, fill emptiness with beauty, and make darkness light.
We can agree with Grabill that literature is an instrument or medium which God has granted to man. We may even add that language and its artistic form, literature, are instruments given by God so that we might communicate and express the beauty of creation in adoration of the Creator and in praise of His Holy Name. In the Scriptures, which is God's communication to man, we also find various genres of literature, such as poetry, prose, and parables. Literary devices are used in the Scriptures to teach us the truth about God and declare the riches of His covenant. Use is made of symbolism, allegory, irony, and so forth. It is important for the student to learn about the various forms and tools of literature to read and understand the Scriptures and to be able to clearly communicate the glory of the Creator.
However, I disagree with Grabill when she makes the unsubstantiated assumption that all literature, to a certain extent, successfully expresses the work of the Creator. She correctly states that much of older English literature could not be understood without knowledge of the Bible. Many of the poets and early writers borrowed names, words, and symbols from the Scriptures. She refers to works like Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Swift's The Abolishing of Christianity, and several others. She asks whether Shakespeare was a Christian, but does not give a direct answer. Instead she refers to the play Macbeth, and quotes Macbeth's reaction to Lady Macbeth's suicide:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
About these words Grabill says: "Surely this is the Christian view of the man who has turned from God and righteousness."
Purpose of Literature
It is indeed true that the Lord teaches us in the Scriptures that the life of man fallen into sin is vain. The Scriptures, however, say more. In the words that Shakespeare places in the mouth of Macbeth there is no expression of hope. A heathen who does not know God at all could express the fleetingness of life in a similar way. Grabill sees this not only in Shakespeare but also in many contemporary authors. She says:
Many — Woolf, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence, Joyce, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams among them — write of a world peopled with the depressed, the indecisive, the animalistic.
She admits a little later: Though all are clear on man's baseness and many on guilt and impending judgment, they do not suggest what can be recognized as Christian solutions.
She implies that we can learn about human sin and misery from these authors. We must ask, however, "Where are we to learn about sin and misery?" In Lord's Day II of the Heidelberg Catechism, we confess to know about sin and misery from the law of God. Besides, we must question whether contemporary authors truly express the misery of human sin. How many modern authors hold to the Pelagian teaching revived by the philosopher Locke that man is born like a blank page, being neither sinful nor good? How many contemporary authors assume or imply that some good comes forth from human thought and human works?
Earlier in her essay Grabill had implied that literature as an instrument in itself is neither good nor bad. We agree. The question is: How is literature to be used? What is its purpose? To quote Grabill once more:
More clearly than any other arts, though, literature has — from classical times at least — claimed two purposes: to delight and also to teach by so wedding content and form as to arouse and satisfy sense, emotion, and mind.
This is the only purpose which she gives to literature: to delight, and to teach, and she stresses to delight. In the conclusion of the essay she writes:
So where does English lead? Courses in literature lead to learning what is delightful in content and form...
Here we find a stress upon the aesthetic; "to delight" is the central purpose of literature. She stresses human sense and emotion, but gives no indication that human senses and emotions and delight have been broken by sin. While man is enslaved to sin, he delights in what is sinful.
Grabill does say that a Christian must be careful with what he reads. She tells us to read critically and search for the truth. She informs us:
The Latin word for the creative writer, vates, means both "poet" and "prophet," and literary artists have felt that a prophetic responsibility as well as a delighting privilege came with the creative gift...
but at the same time she does not give adequate warning about possible false prophesy.
Substance Over Form
Grabill's writing has been used extensively as a reference, presenting an attitude towards literature which has been expressed by many others. However, it is an attitude which can close our eyes to the false prophesies which they contain. We think especially of the stress on the "delight" or the aesthetic value of literature. The form is brought more to the fore than the content and is often discussed as if it has nothing to do with the content. To use a comparison with fine arts, it has been argued that the artistic forms in many of the Roman Cathedrals is beautiful and worthy of admiration. The skill of the artists is praised. Yet they are idols by which the Holy Name of God is blasphemed. Can we who serve the Lord "delight" in idols by which God's name is profaned, even though they have been carved with much detail? Does the artwork itself, in all its minute detail, not express and communicate the idolatrous heart and thoughts of the artist? Likewise, can we "delight" in novels which blaspheme the Lord in a beautiful way? Should we not rather mourn?
The artistic form, which is often said or thought to be neutral, is not always so neutral. Certainly, prose, poetry, and symbolism can be used in a good and a bad way. Yet the use of them in particular circumstances can convey a certain meaning or leave a unexpressed impression. We can think, for example, of fine arts. Michelangelo's statue of David is received as one of history's masterpieces. It is very realistic. It is very humanistic. It is a clear reflection of the Renaissance optimism in human strength. Likewise studies have been done concerning the different ways in which pictures of the Lord Jesus have been drawn to show that they reflect differing human philosophies.
The Spirit of the Age
In the history of literature the form in which man takes delight changes along with the philosophy and spirit of the age. If we were to study the histories of the various art forms, — music, fine arts, and literature, — it would therefore not be very surprising to discover that the changes in them are parallel.
Early English literature places much emphasis on sound. It was written to be read aloud. This was necessary before the invention of the printing press. Much emphasis was placed on rhyme, rhythm, and symmetry. An early Scottish ballad, for example, begins this way:
High upon the Highlands,
And low upon Tay,
Bonnie George Campbell
Rode out on a day;
Saddled and bridled,
And gallant to see:
Home came his good horse
But home came not he.
There is rhyme: "Tay" and "Day," "see" and "he." There is a steady rhythm of accents. There is symmetry; every line has an appointed number of syllables. Should we read on, we would notice that every verse has the same pattern of rhyme, rhythm, and symmetry.
For a long time, even after the printing press was invented, such orderliness remained. It became attractive to humanist thought as a way to show the strength of human abilities.
We think of William Shakespeare who lived from 1564-1616. He used rhyme, rhythm, and symmetry and played with them. He played with words and their meanings by intertwining ideas as in a symphony one melody rides over top of another one and blends together to form one theme carefully directed towards a crescendo of events and suspense. The elegant way in which he wrote became a model for many writers after him. We think, for example, of writers like Robert Browning and Gerald Manley Hopkins.
Shakespeare lived during the restless years of the Reformation. Thirty years before his birth the Church of England had been founded. The English monarchy had swayed back and forth between the Roman and Anglican Church. His works reflect some influence of Christian thought, but they are basically humanistic. Their bold, elegant form betrays a high expectation from human strength.
Macbeth was written and first performed when the King of Denmark visited the new English King, James I. Pragmatic humanistic thoughts are evident in this play. One striking instance is when, in the second act, Macbeth speaks to his wife about the intended murder of Banquo. Macbeth fears that he has been overheard by two watchmen while making his plans for murder. His suspicion rests upon what he had heard the watchmen say. Macbeth speaks about the watchmen to his wife:
One cried, "God bless us!" and
"Amen" the other,
As they had seen me with these
Listening their fear, I could not say
When they did say, "God bless us!"
Consider it not so deeply.
But wherefore could I not pronounce "Amen"?
I had most need of blessing and
"Amen" stuck in my throat.
These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad.
Here we find a portrayal of the whole reformational struggle in England: Macbeth voicing what is in his conscience, Lady Macbeth expressing arrogant humanistic strength. One maybe inclined to sympathize with Shakespeare by suggesting that he intends to expose the king's court to its own inconsistencies. However, no alternative is given. It is provided as entertainment. It is laughed at. We hear Shakespeare laugh at it himself. How foolish is man! Yet, he gives no hope. He does not direct the ways of the kingly court to true wisdom. One may consider the way in which Shakespeare writes beautiful, magnificent, or powerful, but it is an empty beauty, a magnitude filled with air, and a power without strength.
About a hundred years after Shakespeare, John Milton (1608-1674), known as the Christian poet, wrote with similar stylistic elegance. Yet in his Paradise Lost Satan is made to say: "The mind is its own place, and itself can make a Heaven of Hell, and a Hell of Heaven."
Satan tries to reduce the punishment of hell to a state of mind which he can control by his own thoughts.
Perhaps Milton intended to illustrate how arrogant a rebel Satan is, defying God to the bitter end. But also: how heroic! It is especially here that the strength of man's determination, so much idealized in Milton's day, was made the foundation of hope.
That the style of literature changes along with its content, and that the content changes along with the spirit of the age, becomes obvious when the reaction comes to the Renaissance-like humanism of priding in human strength. Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote about what takes place in royal courts and among the nobles. A hundred years later, the poets started to write about simple man. Even though the style and the use of rhyme, rhythm, and symmetry are still there, they have been simplified. Robert Burns, for example, who lived from 1759 to 1796, wrote a poem entitled, "For A' That and A' That." He did not write it in stylish English, but in dialect. The last verse of the poem goes like this:
Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a' that,
That sense and worth, o'er a' the earth.
May bear the gree (i.e. prize), and a' that.
For a' that, and a' that,
It's coming yet, for a' that,
That man to man the warld o'er
Shall brothers be for a' that.
Although this last verse is called a prayer, it is certainly no Christian prayer. It is not a prayer for the Lord to destroy the power of Satan and redeem His children. It is a prayer for the brotherhood of mankind. The intention is to break down the wall of difference between the strong and weak and between the rich and poor. At the same time eyes are closed to the enmity which the Lord has established between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.
This kind of reaction to the complicated elegance of the courtly style soon began to take root. Human feelings, rather than human strength, began to play a more important role — so much so that an air of mysticism becomes evident. There is no longer pride in the strength of the strong. Instead, there is an attraction for the strength of the weak. The best known example is Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The rhythm is very simple. It sways gently back and forth, relaxing, but not inducing sleep. The rhythm itself is enough to open up the dream world of the poem: The contents also creates a feeling of mystery. Who is the ancient mariner? Whom does he represent? What is the wedding feast? Are we to think of the wedding of the Lamb and the Church? Who is the wedding guest that is detained? What is the ship? What is the albatross? What is said about good and evil?
No clear answers are forthcoming. Asking questions threatens mysticism. The reply to him who asks is, "Who knows?" One who answers is told, "You are right," no matter what he says. The poem itself is intended to be an experience. Let everyone experience it in his own way! The poet does not matter. The poem itself does not matter. It is only a vehicle by which the reader can fly off to an unreal world. All that matters is oneself and one's own petty perceptions and pleasures.
The Romantics introduced a new attitude towards arts, including literature. It is a new kind of individualism. About seventy years after Coleridge lived and wrote, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) published his novel entitled, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The preface to this novel is important. In it he gives a commentary about art. Among other things, he says:
The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim...
What had already been brewing for some time comes out into the open here. The artist does not matter. He only creates beautiful things. The content does not really matter either. What matters is art itself. From Dorian Grey comes the philosophical view of "art for the sake of art." It tends to nullify any form of criticism. In the same preface Oscar Wilde also writes: "The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography."
In other words, the critic does not really criticize literature, but by his criticism he reveals himself. He is a critic, not of an art work, but of himself.
This philosophy towards art as a whole, including literature, gives license to any kind of form, style, and content. The artist hides himself. His art is beyond criticism. Should any criticize, he is accused of self-criticism! The artist splatters paint on the canvas, the musician mingles notes and beats and leaves it all to chance, the author scatters words on paper. People stand gaping at it all! Read it for your pleasure. Experience it. The world is a chaos! It is expressed on the splattered canvas, in the discordant music, and in the words of many modern poems and novels.
The chaos of discord upon discord screams out. Let us watch out! It is false prophesy. Some of the novels which our children are required to read at public high schools (this requirement varies from place to place and from school to school) can be given as evidence. Edith Wharton, in her novel entitled Ethan Frome, builds up sympathy and understanding for those who have committed adultery.
Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath uses language which expresses hate and contempt for the Lord God. He makes murder seem a minor crime because of circumstances. He pleads for complete socialism and makes it appear to be necessary and inevitable. We hear it in statements like: "Marx is not the cause, but was caused." He means to say that Karl Marx's philosophy was the result of how the rich had exploited the poor. What he says may be partly true. But he states no basic truth, because he does not get down to the root of the matter: human sin.
We also think of the novel by W.O. Mitchell, Who has Seen the Wind. It is very mystical. It is an attempt of man to free himself from his own limitations by escaping all social structures.
The list of authors and titles can go on. One need only browse through a library or bookstore to see row upon row of literary works, each with its own message of chaos, each with its own expression of contempt for law, order, and the will of the Lord God.
Only some tendencies have been given here in a very general way to make the reader more fully aware of what is happening. Many more details could be added about authors' explicit writing about sex and perverted forms of it, and about their use of foul language and many swearing words marking revolution and hate and contempt.
The question which we are facing today, however, is: Where does the believing Christian stand in this flood of revolutionary literature? May our children study such books at school and in college? The way in which Grabill wrote about it is obviously not acceptable. She sees more good in modern literature than is really there. After hearing in what way the spirits, of the air are directing published literature, the father's warning to his daughter going off to college is understandable and Grabill's arguments lose much strength.
Another attitude taken toward the exposure of Christians to literature is the one that we are confronted by good and evil, that we cannot smoothen out the dirty world around us and give it a Christian finish, and that it is better to have our children confront facts while under supervision at school than to be exposed to them in later life.
Although not directly dealing with literature, some articles recently appeared in a Dutch church paper, the Gereformeerde Kerkbode, concerning this matter. In the September 10 and 17, 1983, issues, the Rev. P. Van Gurp, under the title "Begeleide Confrontatie" (Supervised Confrontation), writes about a suggestion that H.R. Schaafsma entertained. Schaafsma had suggested that it may be good to invite unbelieving men to Christian schools and let them address the students so that they may learn how to oppose un-Christian views. This was to be done under the supervision and guidance of the teaching staff. He argued that the Scriptures teach us to "exercise" our faith. Dr. Arntzen and the Rev. D. Van Houdt have rightly expressed strong objections to what Schaafsma suggested. They argue that an invitation extended to unbelievers to speak in school reduces the antithesis which the Lord has established. The Lord certainly does not tell us to invite Satan so that we might be confronted by him or discuss our differences. The enmity is so great that we cannot sit at a conference together. They rightly refer to 2 John 9-11 where we read;
Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. If any man comes to you and does not receive this doctrine, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work.
How can an unbeliever then be invited to speak in a school? The Rev. Van Gurp himself adds that when we are taught to pray that the Lord may not lead us into temptation, it also means that we may not subject ourselves to temptation. Moreover, he shows from the Scriptures that the "exercise" about which we read in the Scriptures is never an exercise by which we go out to the enemy and test our strength against him. It is always an exercise in righteousness. It is always to be done by searching God's Word and holding it fast.
Although reading a literary work is different from having someone coming into a school to teach, there are similarities. Grabill calls authors "prophets." Most of them are false prophets. We certainly do not have to read a novel or listen to someone blaspheme God in order to learn what life is all about and how sinful it is to take God's Name in vain. The Roman Church has issued a list of forbidden books because the power of prophesy from novels is known to its leaders. Behind the Iron Curtain books which attack the accepted philosophical and political ideals are considered a threat and are therefore forbidden. The Church of Christ may certainly not add to God's Word by making a list of forbidden books, but at the same time it must beware of false prophesy, so easily spread through literature. It is not without reason that the Synod of Dort, in the Church Order it accepted, directed the overseers of the Church to warn members against books which militate against Christ and the Church. Perhaps this is not done enough. Parents and teachers have a very great task and responsibility towards the covenant children. They must see to it, as much as possible, that their children are not destroyed by the false prophesy found in most literary works. This may mean that they will not let their children read all the literary works their children may wish to read. This does not mean that they themselves have to read every poem or novel to test it, but they will be testing the spirits of the air. Very often just a glance at the title or cover or preface will give sufficient indication. Parents and teachers, too, must be examples of restraint, knowing that we live in a world broken by sin. It may seem to be an almost impossible task to discern the various spirits of the air which are out to trap us and our children. However, we do not stand alone in the flood of attacks by lying prophesies. Christ has gone up before us. He has revealed the truth to us. Let us follow Him.
Does all this mean that there is no place left for the Christian in the literary field? No, it does not. For nobody can demand sinless perfection. A poem or novel written by someone who outwardly appears to be a very faithful man, will still reflect the sinful nature with which he was born. As far as reading literary works goes, we should determine the aim of the author. Is he out to honor the Name of God or to blaspheme it? There is no need to read every book that is written! Think of the magicians at Ephesus. When they came to the faith, they burned all their handbooks. Luke even gave an appraisal of their value (Acts 19:19).
We must always read with a critical eye, also when there is an attempt to magnify the Name of God. Did the author succeed? We ask questions like: Does his style, form and content reflect God's image of righteousness and holiness in which man has been created?
Besides, while the flood of literature which contains lying prophesies continues, those who trust in the Lord and believe in Christ have the great task to produce literature which teaches men what literature to the full praise of the Creator is like. It may seem impossible while dirty novels roll off the presses and books which promote humanistic individualism rather than Christian fellowship receive awards. A Christian, however, trusts in the Christ after whom he is named. He trusts in the Christ who has bought him, freeing him from humanistic individualism and drawing him to fellowship with Christ and His Church. This faith compels the Christian to search out his ability to use words, sentences, periods, exclamation marks, symbolism, irony, and every literary instrument to the praise of His Creator.