Archives For Literature

Fiction writers create characters. By putting words on a page, the fiction writer makes these characters come alive in the imagination of readers around the world. The fiction writer also creates plots, weaving these characters together into intricate storylines that reveal the unique personality of each character, revealing and growing each character in the minds of his or her readers.

Sculptors take a raw mass of material and shape it into something purposeful. The shape becomes the art, the form is the beauty. A sculpture speaks of intent, of realized potential. When we look at sculptures, even putting our hands on them or at times standing within them, we get a sense of spatial awareness, of carefully designed form, and of the features of the material itself.

A musician takes the physical stuff of this world, manipulates it into making the sounds which that particular matter is capable of projecting, and combines those sounds in ways that resonate with both body and soul. A musician carefully shapes sounds and lyrics, where every tone, every syllable, every phrase carries more meaning than we might think possible.

A painter takes colors in a variety of mediums and combines them in ways that are pleasing to the eye, provoking to the mind, even moving to the body. The painter spreads his or her colors across the canvas and creates a window to a world that is often simultaneously familiar and odd.

The poet uses sounds and syllables to wring every ounce of meaning, connotation, and suggestion out of the words we use every day. By juxtaposing phrases and drawing on rich imagery, the poet creates through language and draws us to contemplate, to enjoy, to rethink.

The dancer uses movement to communicate. In a language that no mouth speaks, the dancer moves his or her body in ways that call attention to our physicality even while pointing beyond it. Beauty in motion, beauty in using the most practical of instruments—a hand, a leg—for the most impractical and meaningful of displays.


All of these human artists are mirrors. In their artistry, they call attention to the ultimate Artist. Each art form in its unique way points us to the God who stands as the Master and Originator of that form, who has taken that form of art infinitely farther than is strictly possible.

The Artist in His Studio (Rembrandt)

God creates characters—not purely on pages and not merely in imaginations, but in reality. We bump into these characters daily. We are these characters. God makes use of plot, but his version of plot is far grander, encompassing all of human history as it does, and far more intricate, making brilliant use of each boring daily detail of each of the lives of each and every character—even those who seem the most incidental to what we would consider to be the main plotline.

God sculpts bodies out of dirt. He shapes trees and oceans and canyons. His sculptures come alive and swim, run, fly. He breathes life into his sculptures and they live and act, displaying the unique properties of the matter from which they are formed and pointing infinitely beyond.

God made the possibility of sound itself by ingraining musical qualities into the raw materials of this world. He gives each human a unique voice, ensuring that his creation will be filled with a diversity of musical tones and timbres.

God paints in colors every day, as the light he creates refracts through water in the sky, a brand new water-color masterpiece for literally every second of every sunrise and sunset. He adorns us with irises and skin tones and hair colors, paints in flowers and vegetables and fruits, splashes color across the skies and oceans and plains and valleys and canyons. His combinations and juxtapositions are endless, most of which will never be seen by human eyes.

His poetry creates worlds. He spoke and the then-nonexistent world obediently came into being. His words fill the Bible with more meaning than we can imagine, which every generation mines for meaning and comes to the end of their lives seeing the infinite depth of suggestion, connotation, and imagery still to be discovered.

He fills his world with meaningful motion, from the everyday dances we do with friends and families, embedded in hugs and acts of service, to the flight of the hawk and the rhythm of the ocean and the unexpected shift of the breeze. Each movement calling attention to the physicality of the world God made and pointing beyond.

God has filled his world with art. He has shown himself to be infinitely skilled in each art form. He constantly demonstrates his capacity to mix these forms, to transcend the boundaries that we place around specific disciplines. God is the ultimate Artist, and he has ingeniously created humanity with the ability to work within and continue his artistic endeavors. Each human artist is a mirror, each work of art a reminder that art is possible because God is the Artist, a fresh vision granted by the One who created sight, a testimony to the meaning injected in every corner of this world by the Creator.

Every day we encounter his artistry. Every day we are his artistry. We are his characters. We move within his plot, traversing his canvases, traveling as his sculptures, speaking according to his meter, moving as his dancers. We seldom notice the art we inhabit, the art we embody, but the art is there nonetheless, and it is magnificent.

Thank God for J. K. Rowling

Mark Beuving —  January 27, 2014 — 4 Comments

“Christians should thank God for J. K. Rowling and for her clear presentation of the central values that are at the core of Christian faith and practice.”

That’s not my statement, though as I’ll explain I agree with it enthusiastically. That statement comes from Jerram Barrs, in his excellent book Echoes of Eden. Barrs is not an immature culture junkie. He’s not a hipster twenty-something trying to convince teens that Jesus is cool and so is he. No, Jerram Barrs is an older gentlemen. A scholar. He’s the Resident Scholar at the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he teaches apologetics and outreach. So one might ask how a serious scholar can honestly thank God for books that many Christians have denounced as satanic.

I’ll address the concerns about occultism in a moment. First let me explain why I love these books so much, and why a scholar like Jerram Barrs is equally enthusiastic. I read the whole Harry Potter series twice in 2013. They were good for my soul. They were entertaining, yes, and millions of children and adults lugging these lengthy volumes around and becoming passionate about reading for the first time proves this fact. But these books are deeply touching and inspiring.

I have been asked if I can honestly say that I love Jesus more after having read these books, and I don’t hesitate to answer: absolutely! The books don’t use Jesus’ name, but by living within these stories I am a better person and a greater lover of Jesus Christ.

Jerram Barrs read the last book six times in the six months following its release and says:

“I found myself weeping with joy many, many times as I read and reread this wonderful reflection on the work of Christ.”

Here’s a brief rundown of the storyline that will show why this book is more overtly Christian, in my opinion, than The Lord of the Rings series and more powerfully Christian, in my opinion, than the Narnia series. [And by the way, serious spoiler alert!]

The Dark Lord, Voldemort, rises to power, himself consumed with evil and spreading evil throughout the world, turning the wizarding world from the good use of magic to the evil abuse of it. Intriguingly, Voldemort is connected with the image of a serpent. Then a prophecy is made, declaring that a child would be born who would be Voldemort’s demise. Voldemort tries to kill this child, Harry Potter, in infancy, and in trying to destroy the child he loses his own powers.

Voldemort eventually regains his power and tries repeatedly to kill Harry, only to find that Harry is powerfully protected by the self-sacrificing love of his parents, his friends, and even the lowly and marginalized toward whom Harry directs his own self-sacrifical love.

Harry eventually discovers that the only way to destroy the Dark Lord is to willingly offer himself as a sacrifice for the sake of his friends. When Voldemort kills Harry, Harry finds (in a chapter that is entitled, remarkably, “King’s Cross”) that he can now return to put the nail in Voldemort’s coffin. He returns and defeats Voldemort—not by issuing the deadly killing curse, but with the use of a disarming spell that causes Voldemort’s own killing curse to rebound upon himself and thereby rid the world of his evil presence.

The Christian parallels are unmistakable. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: J. K. Rowling has acknowledged that she is a Christian, and she worships at the Church of Scotland. If Christians could only come to terms with their suspicions regarding the fictional presence of magic, they could find themselves greatly enriched by these wonderful stories.

I am sympathetic towards those who choose not to allow their children to read these books out of concern over the use of magic. But J. K. Rowling insists that she is not interested in the occult and had no intention of promoting it through Harry Potter. I think we should take her seriously, and I do not think these books promote the use of magic in the real world. I encourage you to take a look at my thoughts on the matter.

But here’s the point. Fiction is powerful stuff. Everyone is eating up these powerful stories. Seriously. The last of the Harry Potter books sold 11 million copies within 24 hours of its release, making it the fastest selling book of all time. The books have reportedly sold over 400 million copies. The last of the Harry Potter films also became one of the highest grossing films in box office history.

People can’t get enough of these stories. They may not know why they find Harry Potter so compelling, but we as Christians know a powerful part of the answer: at their core these stories relate integrally to the greatest story ever told. Do not violate your conscience, but if you find yourself compelled, I encourage you warmly to pick up book 1, read it eagerly and with discernment, and see if you find the Christian nature of these books as compelling as Jerram Barrs and I do.

C S Lewis 5Last week we looked at C. S. Lewis’ thoughts on what makes a good reader and what makes a good book. Today I want to close off that series by examining Lewis’ thoughts on fiction.

I don’t believe it’s too much to say that Lewis found fiction indispensible to his spiritual life. Think of how seriously (in the proper sense of the word) he took his Narnia series. For Lewis, fiction was an important part of enjoying and exploring the world in which God placed us.

I’m going to let Lewis do the talking here:

“What then is the good of—what is even the defence for—occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist…? …The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by natures sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself…We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.”[1]

The bookstore offers an unbelievable opportunity: Here are thousands of perspectives on this world. Here are a host of experiences, carefully shaped and transmitted for a variety of reasons. Crack the cover and you can enter another world, you can see with another’s eyes, you can revisit your past or lean into your future. Why wouldn’t we be readers?

“The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented…

“Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality…in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself…Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”[2]

All of the arts give us this opportunity. A chance to see the world as we’ve never seen it before—a promise of transfiguration. Cornelius Plantinga explains that “the educated Christian has more to be Christian with.” So it is with the literary Christian.

This world of unfathomable diversity and beauty lies all around us. Some of it can be experienced outside our front doors. Other parts lie just beyond the horizon. Some of it is experienced through conversation. Still other parts of our world can be explored only by turning pages. But it’s all there, like a gift waiting to be unwrapped and enjoyed.

C. S. Lewis knew well the joys of reading. And I am beyond thankful for the books he left us to read, including the advice he gave us for reading well.


[1] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) 137.

[2] Ibid., 140-141.

C S Lewis 4We all want to read good books and avoid bad ones. But how do we know the difference? C. S. Lewis helps us here.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis proposes that what makes a book good or bad is the type of reading it invites. He begins by stating that he wants to define good literature as “that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading” and bad literature as “that which does the same for bad reading.”[1] He is forced to conclude, however, that adding the word “compels” is only wishful thinking. Ultimately, “what damns a book is not the existence of bad readings but the absence of good ones.”[2]

In other words, a good book is one that draws the reader in so that she reads it as a true reader. Lewis explains that there are some books we read and wonder with excitement, “Will the hero escape?” But there are other books we read (or perhaps even the same books, read with an extra level of depth), where we feel deeply, “I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.”[3]

It’s not that a good book pulls every reader into this type of reading. Remember that there are different types of readers in the world. Lewis insists that if even one person reads the book this way then we cannot dismiss it as a bad book. A bad book is a book that makes a good reading impossible.

And we have to keep in mind that this can be any type of book. Christians can become suspicious of the imagination, thinking that we have to be serious. We have to move beyond childish fantasies and grow up by thinking only of the real world. But Lewis won’t have any of that. While some things are “childish” in a bad sense, there are many traits in children that we ought to pursue:

“The process of growing up is to be valued for what we gain, not for what we lose. Not to acquire a taste for the realistic is childish in the bad sense; to have lost the taste for marvels and adventures is no more a matter for congratulation than losing our teeth, our hair, our palate, and finally, our hopes.”[4]

For C. S. Lewis, literature is a means of exploring and enjoying this world and the human experience. A good reader will open himself up to the books he reads—he will enter into them—and allow himself to be changed in all of the right ways. A good reader won’t assume that some types of books (Lewis also gives a defense of comedy) are worthless, but instead he will give any genre of literature a fair chance.

Some of my favorite sections from Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism come from his discussion of reading fiction, and his thoughts here warrant some extra attention. But for that, you’ll have to wait until Monday.

 


[1] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) 104.

[2] Ibid., 113.

[3] Ibid., 48-49.

[4] Ibid., 71-72.

C S Lewis 3What makes a good reader? With C. S. Lewis’ help, we have already exposed “the unliterary,” “the status seeker,” and “the devotee of culture” as poor readers. But what makes a good reader?

Lewis explains that a good reader has a much different experience with a book than a poor reader does. The “unliterary” toss a book once it’s been read—it’s been used up. For a “literary man,” his first reading of a book is often:

“an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.”[1]

Many readers will know immediately what Lewis is talking about there. The best stories get into us so deeply that we know we won’t walk away from the book unchanged.

And here is where the distinction between the poor reader and the true reader comes more clear. Lewis explains that so many people get so caught up in their desire to do this or that with the book that they give the book no chance to do anything to them. If we force a book to suit our own needs, we are not letting the book speak. When we do this, Lewis says, we read a book by someone else but ultimately “we meet only ourselves.”

“In reading imaginative work, I suggest, we should be much less concerned with altering our own opinions—though this of course is sometimes their effect—than with entering fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men.“[2]

Step 1 is not critiquing the opinions of others. Step 1 is entering their opinions.

Many people are too agenda-driven to be good readers. Lewis insists that we must read as a means of experiencing:

“The question ‘What is the good of reading what anyone writes?’ is very like the question ‘What is the good of listening to what anyone says?’ Unless you contain in yourself sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke and merriment you want, the answer is obvious.”[3]

And this where Lewis gives another helpful caution regarding our standards in reading books. You might be tempted to say, “Ok, I’ll do this with good books. But I’m not going to give any time to bad books.” Lewis responds by saying that we can’t possibly know that a book is bad if we haven’t given it a fair chance.

“We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.”[4]

No one has time to read everything, of course. But Lewis’ words keep our judgmental spirit in check. There are many books that I disliked—until I actually read them. There are some books I have read and hated that I suspect might prove to be good books were I to read them again with a gracious spirit. I haven’t always given the books I’ve read a fair chance.

Serious ReaderI want to include one other important point that Lewis makes about being a good reader. He clarifies that there is a difference between calling someone a “good reader” and calling her a “serious reader.” Serious can mean “devoted,” but it can also mean “grave” and “humorless.” Lewis proposes we use the term “true readers.”

“Now the true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can. But for that very reason he cannot possibly read every work solemnly or gravely. For he will read ‘in the same spirit that the author writ’. What is meant lightly he will take lightly; what is meant gravely, gravely.”[5]

For Lewis, it’s possible to be too serious as a person to be serious as a reader.

Thus far we’ve been talking only about types of readers. But the point of Lewis’ book (An Experiment in Criticism) is actually the means by which we can judge a book to be good. So tomorrow we will let C. S. Lewis answer the question, What makes a book good?


[1] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) 3.

[2] Ibid., 85.

[3] Ibid., 132.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ibid., 11.