How to read thoughtfully
Books | The Bible and literary criticism
by Emily Whitten
Posted 3/22/14, 09:58 am
Many intelligent, capable Christian authors and literature professors have sought to connect the Bible with the stories we read. But Christian literary criticism doesn’t seem to trickle down to the general Christian populace—except for criticism of one book, the Bible. That’s where crucial questions are asked: What authority does the author have? What about the reader? And how is God able to communicate to us?
As a book reviewer, among the many influential ideas I have borrowed from Biblical Criticism 101 is the idea of the Trinity. Communication within the Godhead Himself is described in this way: An author (God the Father) speaks, a Word (Jesus Christ) is spoken, and an interpreter (the Holy Spirit) then interprets that Word. As I have sought to apply this framework to the stories I review, I have come to see three links in the chain that must be counted: the author, the work itself, and the audience. From formalism to feminism, so many of the errors I have encountered in my reading tend to exalt one or two of those links to the exclusion of the rest.
Christian circles hold widely the idea that a book exists first and foremost in the mind of its author. In that view, the author defines the meaning of a work. The author alone can unpack characters, setting, or what is meant by the entire story. Later cultures are often tempted to reinterpret the work in ways obviously contrary to the author’s intent (such as the search for phallic symbols in Jane Austen’s work). I can understand why it’s tempting to do so.
As Christians see liberal Bible scholars dethroning God from His place as final arbiter of what the Bible means, it’s easy to make a one-to-one transfer to human works of art. But if we believe that God, as author, has the final say over what the Bible means, then shouldn’t human authors—made in His image—have final ownership of their own writing?
Here are a few problems with that supposition. First, God is authoritative in defining His work and communication in a way human beings are not. Man does not create ex nihilo, but rather, we draw from the stories and music of language around us. We inherit many ideas, symbols, and meanings of which we often are not even aware. Conversely, God does not borrow from anyone in His creation of meaning. He sees His Word truly and exhaustively in a way that human authors simply cannot see their own work. So, while God does have ownership of His work, ultimately He—and not human authors—owns our work, too.
Because man is made in His image, I, as a reviewer, ought to consider how a human author interprets his work. Good authors are often very insightful about their writing. It takes a lot of time and effort to get as close to the subject matter as the original author. But because human authors are finite and often misinterpret their own work, Christian reviewers must still weigh the work itself. We must also consider how that work interacts with its audience, including reader groups, genres, and the history of literature. Ultimately, an author’s view of his or her own work is important, but not authoritative.
In practical terms, the temptation to focus too much on the author’s faith and interpretation of a work is a real and constant danger. If an author or publisher is Christian, many Christians believe the work is Christian and must therefore be given precedence over the work of non-Christian writers. This kind of thinking dominates much of the Christian publishing industry and leads to sites like FamilyFiction.com that promote only one kind of overtly Christian author.
Yet, consider the portrayal of grace in True Grit by two very worldly filmmakers, the Coen brothers. In my review from 2011, I tried to show why that movie is one of my favorites. It was not intended to be a Christian film, but it nevertheless clearly portrays Christ and His justice in profound ways.
Overexalting the author’s role in storytelling denies the imago Dei present in non-Christians. It denies the fact that God has gifted many non-Christians far more than the average Christian in writing skills. And if we only take an author’s word for it, we will miss some of the greatest feasts of truth and beauty that God has prepared in our generation.
According to the Bible, a book exists not just in the mind of its author and readers, but—as the Word is united but also separate from the author and interpreter—on its own.
Perhaps the most common error I see on this front is Christians who cannot disentangle their own feelings and moral obligations from what a book actually is. In other words, before we decide what we ought to do about a book (recommend it, tell others not to buy it, etc.), we need know what it is. We ought to seek to understand how the story functions technically—the way we might seek to understand the workings of a car engine—before we decide whether we want to own it.
A good reviewer needs skill and insight to deconstruct the mechanics of a story. The more skilled a reviewer is, the better he will see how the parts of a story work together to create a whole. He’ll know how readers feel dismay when someone loses a job, or joy when two star-crossed lovers finally kiss.
When we don’t know those things, when storytellers seem to manipulate our feelings by magic, the temptation to idolatry will be very strong. On the other hand, those of us who know the tricks and who see the strings being pulled behind the scenes are likely to be ironic or overly dismissive. But a mature Christian reader has the great joy of reading without being manipulated or feeling jaded.
Christians honor stories not because they are magical, but because they powerful, ordered creations intended by God to move us, to show us something of ourselves, and point us to Him. Just as Christians reject scientific reductionism that says a person is just a collision of atoms, we also reject the idea that a story is just a string of literary techniques.
Here are a few suggestions for seeing stories more clearly:
Extract the blueprints
First, find the climax, and work backward and forward to find the meaning. A reviewer may want to read a book in a non-linear fashion to help find the “blueprints” of the story quickly. If a book is particularly unpalatable, reading in a non-linear fashion can help extract those blueprints without wallowing in the muck. (When I read 50 Shades of Grey for research purposes, I used this method.)
For example, in the Bible model, the climax is Christ’s death and resurrection. The meaningfulness of these historical events is dependent first on the meaning God has poured into that moment prior to the event and second on the meaning that builds after the event, looking back.
Likewise, in fiction, put your finger on the climax, the moment of greatest emotion, and answer these questions: What desire was met? What conflict or evil overcome? (I like to think of a book’s early chapters as water pouring into a glass the reader will drink at the climax.) In a great story, the denouement is critical to the meaning of the climax.
Weigh the aesthetics, not just the plot
The Gospel Coalition’s Trevin Wax and Christianity Today’s Alyssa Wilkinson recently sparred over reviewing R-rated films. Like Wilkinson, I occasionally receive criticism from immature readers. They read on a surface level, noting only the overt sins of a character without appreciating the aesthetic value of a story or what an author is doing to critique the characters’ sins.
The aesthetics—the milieu—of a story is just as important as the plot or main themes. I think of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as an example. The noble moral at the end in no way undoes the negative impact of graphic sexual material. As Christians, we must weigh both the impact of the plot and the aesthetics to arrive at a useful understanding of the media around us.
As a standard here, the Bible provides an excellent model of a book that treats all sorts of evil—from rape to burning children alive—in a way that is true and uncomfortable for readers, but does not entice us to sin or degrade our consciences.
Trace the inherent divine design
Using Biblical hermeneutics as a guide, I have found two main ways the Lord and His truth may be present in any story: historically and typologically.
God has worked in particular ways throughout history, and a story may portray that directly (Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) or allude to it indirectly (Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” stories). While Amish fiction or other Christian novels today exist in an imaginary world, they still invoke the historical work of God in their stories.
Stories, whether by Christian authors or not, use the web of relationships between mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, wives, and husbands. God created all those relationships to reflect who He is and what He has done for us. Even stories intended to undermine a reader’s view of God (think Death of a Salesman or Tess of the D’Urbervilles) trade in God’s symbolism and ultimately will reflect some part of God’s truth.
This way of reading is born out in Scripture itself. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, there is no mention of God. We know, because Christ tells us God is our heavenly Father, that the father of the tale represents God Himself.
When a fictional character does something heroic (think James Bond saving Western culture), the world will see a hero in contrast to Christ. Natural man tends to see such a hero as a type of himself. But a Christian sees every heroic act, even those within himself, as pointing to Christ. For us, Christ is the anti-type who fulfills what every other hero can only hint at. On the other hand, when we see a character fail miserably (Death of a Salesman), the Christian sees a type of Adam (a type of ourselves) who points to our need for Christ.
I can imagine some readers would object here that we are imposing our own worldview on the text. How is that different, they might ask, than the feminist search for phallic symbols in Jane Austen or the Marxist finding class warfare in every book?
The Christian who finds the Lord in all kinds of stories does not impose an alien type upon them, but rather legitimately finds Him in all man’s desires and relationships, whether filled or unfilled.
This means a Christian may see a story like Sleepless in Seattle—which is romantic and idealizes this life—as appropriate fodder for entertainment because its happy ending is ultimately true in Christ. He also may see a dark work like Crime and Punishment as powerfully showing our need for redemption.
The challenge, then, for the Christian reviewer is to determine whether a particular story fails or succeeds on the basis of good storytelling. Then, he ought to also measure that work based on the full picture of God’s revelation, including types and shadows God has built within Creation itself.
Once a review has weighed a book in terms of its author’s intent and objective function, the final issue is how it will affect readers. Some books will obviously be very harmful for everyone. Some will likely be helpful for most readers. But all will require discernment.
Some books, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, contain narratives so riddled with evil that they should not be read for entertainment by anyone. That’s not to say there aren’t good things about the book, distorted echoes of God’s design for love and sexuality. But the author intended this book to cause the reader to sin. Sexual sin defines its plot and aesthetics, and, in my judgment, no audience with normal faculties could read it unharmed.
That doesn’t mean that some people won’t be called to read it. I make the case in my discussion of 50 Shades that the books may be read for apologetic and discipleship purposes if absolutely necessary. The Great Commission tells us to go into the world, in all its rebellion, and offer God’s redemption to every kind of people. Sometimes that mission will require me to suffer through ugly stories to bring God’s perspective—both his judgment and his mercy—to all kinds of books. Unlike many conservative reviewers, there is no literary or moral sin too ugly for my eyes, if wisdom and love demand a response.
That said, I see the gross misuse of Christian liberty in this area as one of the most pressing issues of our time. Because we overestimate our immunity to evil in movies and books, or because we simply do not weigh sin with the horror and affront God does, too many Christians exercise their freedom to choose books and movies in tremendously unhelpful, unwise, and, frankly, dangerous ways.
Because of the fallen nature of man, even helpful books can affect readers in a negative way. For that reason, I cannot agree with Christians who say their main obligation in literary education is to support the “great books.” Think of how many cults use the Bible as the basis for their anti-Christian beliefs!
I spend much of my time as a reviewer seeking out books that I think will be helpful for my readers, but that is only the beginning of my responsibility.
In the middle
Some books are not easy to classify as either harmful or helpful. It is critical to identify who is reading them. For instance, a reviewer who approaches Hunger Games as a work for adults will likely come away with a different opinion of the work’s moral value than someone who realizes it is written for and marketed to 12-year-olds. It also matters who actually reads the work, not just for whom it was written. Publishing trend watchers say teenagers are reading 50 Shades of Grey.
In addition, we should ask how readers would interpret a book given broader literary and cultural trends. When writing about a modern interpretation of Anna Karenina, we should ask how it fits within the history of literature, as well as our own cultural landscape. Does Harry Potter fit within a general trend in American youth toward pagan spirituality? Are most books for teens getting darker, more violent, and more sexually graphic, or does The Perks of Being a Wallflower somehow provide a balance to all the fluff that’s out there?
Beyond those larger questions, individual Christians need to consider how particular stories affect them or their children. Wisdom in this area requires not only a knowledge of the temptations and nourishment a book may contain, but also the desires and proclivities of an individual.
The Lord is the only one who can see beyond a reviewer’s dim horizons. Only He can speak authoritatively about a book’s impact. Reviewers ought to acknowledge their dependence on Him in everything.
As we look to God in this area of life as in any other, I pray Christians (including myself) would grow in wisdom and grace to better reflect the Lord’s view of a work. As we consider the author, the work, and the audience of a story, may we remember our responsibility to do more than just consume stories. May we remember our frailty before Him, and how easily we are led into temptation. And may we read and interpret stories informed by the challenge Christ issued to Peter: “Do you love me? Feed My sheep” (John 21:17).