The Company of the Creative: A Christian Reader's Guide to Great Literature and Its Themes

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2000-01-01
  • Publisher: Lightning Source, Inc.
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Great works and authors of the world are introduced and reviewed artistically, intellectually, and theologically. Persons discussed include Plato, Milton, Dickens, Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, and C. S. Lewis.

Table of Contents

Preface 9(2)
What's at Stake in Christian Exposure to Great Literature?
Mining the Ore of the Classical World
Identifying Our Assets from the Middle Ages
Tapping the Vitality of the Renaissance and Reformation
Revisiting Crucial Ideas, from the Enlightenment to Postmodernity
Weighing the Christian Heritage of William Shakespeare
Appreciating the Treasures of British Poetry
Inquiring into the Values of American Poetry
Sifting the Amazing Trove of British Fiction
Examining the Startling Surges in American Fiction
Broadening the Search into World Literature
Exploring the Literature of and About the Jews and Israel
Assessing the Literature of Drama and the Legitimate Stage
Searching Through the Vast World of the Imaginative and Informative Essay
Selecting the Best in the Daunting Array of Biography and Autobiography
Postscript: Reading and Its Future
Appendix 1: Suggestions for Further Reading 585(5)
Appendix 2: Greek and Roman Mythology 590(2)
Select Name Index 592(13)
Select Title Index 605(24)
Subject Index 629(10)
Timeline Index 639


Chapter One

What's at Stake in Christian

Exposure to Great Literature?

Of making many books there is no end.

--Ecclesiastes 12:12b

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.

--2 Timothy 4:13

Reading makes the full man.

--Francis Bacon

You can learn more about a nation from reading yesterday's novel than today's newspaper.

--James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress

The Bible is our book. Though surrounded by a vast array of volumes, Sir Walter Scott on his death bed in 1832 asked for "the book." No one doubted that he wanted the Bible brought to him. The Bible is the book to which we are called for lifelong study and memorization. Its riches and depths are inexhaustible. But God did not intend that we study our Bibles in a mental vacuum. John Nelson Darby and G. Campbell Morgan both decided that for an extended time they would read only the Bible. They soon discovered that this plan was a mistake. The danger of reading only the Bible is that we do not then really read the Bible. The Bible comes out of an ancient cultural setting. We need the bridges to our own culture that reading more broadly can supply. We need to understand what we bring to the text.

    Our thesis in this study is that all Christians--especially Christian leaders and communicators--need to read broadly, deeply, and copiously. The reading enterprise is perched precariously on the edge of today's complex, stress-driven world. Christians possess the Holy Scriptures in numerous translations and paraphrases, but do today's Christians really read the Bible? Biblical illiteracy seems to be mounting. Americans are buying both secular and religious books as no other generation in history; great chains of booksellers proliferate. Do we read the books we buy? A review of one pop science best-seller, A Brief History of Time by physicist Stephen Hawking, was that it had been "bought by more people and read by fewer people than any book of its kind." Something similar might be said of books that are far less complex than is Hawking's.

    Television has profoundly altered modern life. The average American has seen 350,000 television commercials before graduation from high school. Television has turned many Americans into shut-ins. Meaning and values develop, and are debated, via the electronic media. Neil Postman has alerted us to the shift from the Age of Exposition to the Age of Entertainment courtesy the media. Will this inexorably lead us further into what Andrew Delbanco calls "the decline of discourse"? Many people are reading less because of their addiction to the aural alcohol of television.

    With the computerization of culture and the advent of the Internet, will books and libraries become obsolescent? Some cultural analysts warn that the information highway leads nowhere. That prophecy seems severe, though we can understand why Sven Birkerts foresees an electronic future in which there is a "vanishing assumption of coherence." Still, the Net can be a virtual messiah.

    Notice that the debate among "netheads" is largely carried on in printed books. Many books on the virtual world still come into existence in paper and ink. More ominous to society's intellectual health, perhaps, is what Birkerts elsewhere describes as "the dethronement of the sovereignty of authorship and the revelation of the status of texts as unstable entities." Deconstructionists from Jacques Derrida on have challenged the notion that the mind of an author can be known and that any text can be authoritatively read. The implication is that given words have no meaning--or potentially have many meanings--so that one may argue that any given text says virtually anything. The same words can be interpreted in either of diametrically opposed ways. Few would be as pessimistic as the Princeton scholar Alvin Kernan, who speaks of "the death of literature."

    The assault on the canon of "Great Books" has left the classics gasping in the literary air of such institutions as Dartmouth and Stanford. The postmodern climate, according to Gertrude Himmelfarb, is "radical relativism and skepticism that rejects any idea of truth, knowledge or objectivity." The present climate is not congenial to those who advocate absolute truth and authoritative systems of belief, yet "we do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age, or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing" (1 Cor. 2:6). Humbly, and yet most firmly, we insist that "God's secret wisdom" has been "revealed to us by his Spirit" (1 Cor. 2:7, 10).

    The Christian has a high stake in the reading of classical and contemporary works of excellence. When Philip Yancey celebrates "the power of writing," he is following a concept always cherished by believers in Scripture.

    Study and discussion of The Harvard Classics or Britannica's Great Books of the Western World, with its invaluable "Syntopicon," are still most worthwhile. Harold Bloom's best-selling The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages identifies twenty-six authors whose work is indispensable. David Denby. a New York magazine critic, felt depressed and lost in the media, having "information without knowledge, opinions without principles, instincts without beliefs." He turned back to study and discuss some of the great works of literature and eventually concluded that the "great books" are great. In a "frankly oppositional work," The Pleasures of Reading , Robert Alter is so presumptuous as to believe reality can be represented in print persuasively. How sad that such a perspective should be generally seen as outmoded and impossibly rare.

    In a very thoughtful essay seeking to argue "The Reason for Reading," the author at bottom line insists that communicators must read if they are to communicate. D. James Kennedy has said, "Great preachers have almost inevitably been men who were broadly read in the great books of the world." The history of preaching bears this out. Ravi Zacharias scores the same point in a pithy article, "Bring Me the Books," allowing that a good book "is as delectable as a slice of infinity, lasting a lifetime."

    In identifying what pastors need to read to become authentic pastors, Arndt Halvorson, of Luther/Northwestern Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, insists that pastors must read more than technical theology and exegetical works. He estimates that fewer than 10 percent of parish pastors are reading the kinds of books that will really help them in their preaching task. In an issue of Fuller Seminary's Theology News and Notes devoted to "Literature and Ministry." Lewis Smedes, among others, makes a convincing case for reading good fiction. Smedes relates: "I like the feel of language; I like the texture of it, the flow, especially when it flows leisurely and lovingly and elaborately through the eddies of memory." Eminent literary critic Alfred Kazin laments cultural trends at the turn of the twenty-first century and is particularly angered by the neglect of literature.

    We are pressing the irresistible rewards of reading not simply in the interests of emotional balance and personal fulfillment. There are serious faith issues that evangelicals can only address if their minds as well as their theology are engaged. Reading has a contribution to make to the advancement of God's kingdom work. This is particularly true in that reading helps us understand issues and people. It nurtures imagination and stimulates the vocabulary and stylistic skills needed to represent God effectively.


    Christians should be concerned about relating issues to people. The Bible is filled with the ways in which people relate to God in their life contexts. Compare this issues awareness with that gained by reading the novels of Charles Dickens. Dickens presented the burning social issues of his time in stories populated with unforgettable people. To be in ministry is to forever need to grow in the skills of character and personality analysis. Good biography and solid fiction can probe the human psyche in historic or modern settings.

    We should be aware that many themes in literature are, at bottom, biblical:

• William Lyon Phelps of Yale contended that "The Bible has been a greater influence on the course of English literature than all other forces put together."

• There is no more basic literary theme than the biblical dialectic between Eden's innocence and the post-fall need for transforming redemption. Homer's two great epic poems deal with a journey (Odyssey) and a battle (Iliad) . Here are commanding metaphors that speak to the human experience of depravity. The journey motif is picked up by Boccaccio, Chaucer, Dante, Bunyan, and James Joyce, to name but a few. It stands against the anti-novel, which demolishes rational construct and is suspicious of coherence in plot that might infuse meaning into life.

• Dennis Kinlaw draws upon William Barrett's "Irrational Man" in showing how frequently modern writing flattens the climax of the plot and closes the characters off from anything that seems transcendent. Much newer writing seems "market-driven" and caters (as does much late-twentieth-century preaching) to shallow culture and pop psychology. It is left to ethnic fiction, such as Maeve Binchey's stories about Ireland, to open unbelievable doors of insight. Such writing helps us to get inside the minds of people.


    All studies of imagination, "the queen of the faculties" (Baudelaire), show that the fires can be fueled in one way: "Read, read, read." G. Campbell Morgan said that imagination is the supreme work in sermon preparation. How can we overcome the stereotypically dull presentation of "the glorious gospel of our blessed God"? Here is "the failure of creativity at the symbolic level." Bible-believing preachers are vulnerable to this virus. This hackneyed use of communication has been described as a practical utilitarianism , a subconscious bow to John Locke. Vivid communication seeks metaphors and deals with symbols. Here is where we need release from analytical "left-brain" dominance. We need the right-brain's more creatively artistic freedom.

    Poetry is language at its most verbal. Poet John Ciardi well observed that "reading poetry gives vicarious experience--it stretches one's capacity for life." Eugene Peterson is a contemporary writer and preacher who has partaken deeply of poetry and novels. As a result he moves away from the routine to creative centers in living. Much evangelical teaching and preaching could stand a fresh baptism of creativity. Reading is part of the strategy for growth in this freedom. David Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological School has lectured on secular and fraudulent views of the kingdom. His launching point was the very pedestrian novel Thornbirds , by Kathleen McCulloch. From it he traced the worldview of a secular Christology that apes Christianity but lacks a genuine Savior. This was a powerful opening to the subject.


    Words are the preacher's stock-in-trade. Yet most people stop adding vocabulary by the time they reach their mid-twenties. James Cox, in his widely read study of preaching, devotes a section to words and their importance. Samuel Clemens said that the difference between the right word and the "almost-right word" is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Let us ransack great literature for the words and phrases that grip and move and convey precise meaning. Content is primary, but form is so intertwined with content that inattention to either can be disastrous. Weary words need to be put out to pasture and their places taken by race-winning thoroughbreds. Poverty of expression can be redressed, and denatured language can be rejuvenated and enriched through reading.


    We should all identify and pursue some favorite writers, analyzing the styles that make their work so appealing. How do they introduce material? How do they conclude? What patterns in sentence structure do they utilize to effective advantage? Style is power. In today's rediscovery of narrative--so appropriate in our very visual age--we need to work on telling the story more effectively. Reading the master tellers of tales, especially the writers of short stories, can be a tonic. Reading a good short story every week can work stylistic wonders. We should not disparage the use of fictional plots when clearly designated as such. The parables Jesus told were not always factual incidents. They were hypothetical: "Let's pretend ..." "Now picture with me ..."

    Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch preacher, theologian, and Prime Minister, was actually converted as the consequence of reading the English novel The Heir of Redclyffe . During a low ebb in his own life, he was caught up in the drama of the story. Years ago Lance Morrow wrote a searching essay entitled, "Have We Abandoned Excellence?" No preacher or teacher can afford to rust on our laurels. We need to keep working for improvement and grown-up growth to the last breath we take. Who among us ever arrives in our calling before God?

    Frank Gaebelein wrote pungently about "regaining the vision of greatness" in what we do for our Lord. It is time to end slackness, sloth, and lackadaisical carelessness. Let us give ourselves anew to the never-ending quest of communicating better and more effectively. The ability to paint a picture or to make it "come alive" needs cultivation.


    In a stirring appeal to read widely and without embarrassment, Fred Craddock, the distinguished homiletician, warns against "the vulgar practice of combing through literature for illustrations." There is grave danger in wanting to sound learned by quoting literature we have not actually read. We must beware of such subtle braggadocio.

    Yet there may be some material which is usable with caution. Illustrations of vicarious suffering are rare because ours is such a selfish world, but such characters as Jean Valjean in Victor-Marie Hugo's Les Misérables or Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens's Tale of Two Cities embody self-giving love. Couplets or quatrains of poetry can be of immense help in discourse or the apt quotation.

    Illustrations do not always help communication. A story may have power to elicit emotion, yet not quite address the point. Theorists speak of this as a "feeling tone" that causes a desired response while raising barriers against what the communicator hoped to say. Preachers want their hearers to grasp truth in their minds, while the spiritual reality grips their hearts.

    Clearly this is chiefly the province of the Holy Spirit. But discourse should be balanced. Evangelical preaching often is highly cerebral. Reading can help deepen the affective impact. This is where reading can open resources to communicators who want to refurbish and enhance the necessary balance between heart and mind. To know the truth as it is in Christ, to be persuaded of it, and to implement it in behavior and obedience involve the capture of the whole person.


    "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," wrote John Keats. A work of art, a musical composition, a vivid drama, a lovely poem, or an engaging story--each is a work of art. And the sermon, while being many things, can also be a presentation that is beautiful. Many evangelicals are aesthetically starved, and we of all people should worship the God of creation and redemption, who is Himself beautiful. I am not referring to nihilistic junk food fiction or the faux-arts on which many in society subsist. Henry Martyn, the missionary martyr, testified that after he was converted he came to a new appreciation of paintings, poetry, and music. Even George Fox, founder of the Quakers, exulted after he met Christ, "All things were new! Even creation gave forth another smell!" Nineteenth-century pastor-novelist Charles Kingsley told of his determination "never to lose an opportunity to see something beautiful."

    Reading exposes us to new vistas, extends horizons, and opens new doors into God's plans and purposes and mighty acts. William Wordsworth had such love for the divine handiwork. He said, "We sit at His feet to emulate Him." True art can inform as well as inspire.

    But where shall we find this reinvigorating art in the maze of options? About fifty thousand books are published annually in the United States alone. One of our goals here is to chart a course across the map of reading. We shall survey various types of material and recommend some of the best examples.

    Concentration on certain appealing writers has merit, but it is also good to cultivate breadth. Tastes and palates differ. My biases and predilections will show in the reading lists that follow, but I shall be broad-brushed. If you feel you do not have time to read, examine the little niches and crevices of your life for moments to dedicate to reading. It can be either early or late, or in transit, or in life's waiting times. One man wrote a well-received book of poetry while traveling to and from his regular employment on public transportation. It may have been a book describing the interesting people he noticed around him.

    What a privilege and pleasure to read! You may never be a bona fide bookworm or true bibliophile, but in the words of Scripture. "gird up the loins" of your mind for action.

* Counsel for readers: Francis Bacon said, "Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."

Copyright © 1999 David L. Larsen. All rights reserved.

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