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Poet perspective

William Shakespeare (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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Poet perspective

Christians and Shakespeare: Blame him or claim him?

Three-fourths full or one-fourth empty? I recently read one new Christian book that blasts William Shakespeare for sub-Christian thinking, but then received Leland Ryken’s Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Crossway, 2014), an 83-page analysis that high-school and college students should consume. He notes that Shakespeare’s plays “assume the same kind of reality the Bible does with such Christian beliefs as the existence of God and Satan, heaven and hell, good and evil, and punishment for sin.”

Ryken, for more than 45 years a Wheaton professor of English, lists the providential events that happen in the second half of Hamlet: a traveling troupe of players visits so Hamlet can get them to perform the mousetrap scene; he passes by the door of Claudius as the murderer is kneeling in prayer; Polonius rather than Claudius is behind the curtain; Gertrude happens to grab the poisoned chalice. Ryken says another author could have made these all chance occurrences, but “Shakespeare (as always) shows his theological allegiance by turning the chain of events in the direction of Christian faith in God’s providence.”

Ryken points out that when Hamlet’s friend Horatio entreats him to back out of the Act V duel, Hamlet replies, “we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If [death] … be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.” Hamlet rejects pagan notions of fortunetelling, alludes to Jesus’ famous remark about God’s care even for sparrows, and becomes, in Ryken’s words, “an example of Christian courage.”

Ryken also notes that Hamlet declares “the existence of an unseen spiritual world … in addition to the physical world in which we live.” And for those who want to see the play as well as read it, Ryken says the 1987 BBC production of Hamlet, with Derek Jacobi and Claire Bloom, is the best film version. 

Short stops

Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet’s Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage (Baker, 2014) displays truth-in-subtitling: The authors thoughtfully show us how to be both bold and compassionate. They are thoroughly biblical in opposing sin but not declaring homosexuals the worst of sinners or pretending the rest of us are pure. 

If your church seems to be falling into legalism, read Douglas Bond’s Grace Works! (P&R, 2014). He shows that an emphasis on grace differentiates Christianity from all the works religions invented by man. Bond also explains well what happens when we decide the cake God gives us needs our own frosting: We get a sugar rush now and a stomachache later.

Tony Lane’s Exploring Christian Doctrine: A Guide to What Christians Believe (IVP, 2014) is a good textbook for a comparative religion or intro to Christianity course. Anthony Cavaliere’s Bible Meditations for Busy People (WestBow, 2013) is a succinct chapter-by-chapter introduction to the Pentateuch. Jonathan Sarfati’s Refuting Compromise (Creation, 2014) critiques “progressive creationism.”

John Frame’s Selected Shorter Writings (P&R, 2014, vol. 1) is ideal for those wanting an introduction to perspectivalism: Frame also explains “Why I Vote Conservative” and how America is and is not a Christian country. James Sire’s two new books—Apologetics Beyond Reason (IVP) and Echoes of a Voice (Cascade)—are fitting capstones to the career of the thinker who gave us The Universe Next Door (1976): Echoes provides acute profiles of some writers and thinkers who live intellectually in other universes, with dire results.

Ethan Gutmann’s The Slaughter (Prometheus, 2014) looks at mass killing and organ harvesting in China and focuses on the rise and partial fall of the Falun Gong movement. Frank Miniter’s The Future of the Gun (Regnery, 2014) provides useful information in a lively style for Second Amendment defenders. Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of the American Debate (Encounter, 2014, new edition) traces the development of campus speech codes and other restrictions on debate. —M.O.