Monday, March 04, 2013

The Joy of Reading Great Books, Part I

Years ago, I came across this meaty article. I tried to relocate it (the former link is now broken), finally found it, and reposted it here divided into five parts due to its length

Enjoy and tell me your favorite quotes!


The Joy of Reading Great Books
by Kathleen Nielson

Why should we make time to read great books? What should we read? How should we read most effectively? The very idea of this subject is downright radical these days. We are familiar with that villain—postmodernism—who embezzled the store of confidence in objective meaning, especially the objective meaning of words spoken and written, and who then deposited that meaning in the hands of the receivers of the words—who must not receive those words but rather shape them into something meaningful for themselves.

The flow of postmodern thinking has left in its wake a general strong suspicion that we have been duped. The works called "classics" do not after all hold intrinsic value or meaning; they are simply products of their writers and times, and the best we can do is to shape meaning for them through each new reader and time. Most works traditionally considered classics, at least in our Western culture, are rather widely acknowledged now to be simply the oppressive expressions of "dead white European males." In many intellectual circles, we are now called on to laugh at these works, condemn them, radically reinterpret them, or simply ignore them as irrelevant. It is important to acknowledge that, when we talk about reading classic works, we are, to say the least, going against the flow—but it is an exhilarating going, and a crucial one, especially if we can both look back and value what our heritage brings to us and at the same time continue the flow by looking around and ahead and receiving the great works to be discovered in our world today.

Developing a Doctrine of Reading

Why should we value great works of literature? The only satisfying answer I find is one couched in biblical doctrine. There are not two different answers to this question—the general answer that applies to every human being, and the "Christian" answer. There is only one satisfactory answer, which is found in the very structure of the universe as God has revealed it, and which some people acknowledge and some people do not. This answer can be expressed in more or less theological terminology, of course. 

We Create With Words Because We Bear His Image

We start, of course, with the doctrine of creation, which affirms from Scripture that God is the Creator of all things, ex nihilo. The Lord God is the great Maker, from whom all other creativity springs. Only because God formed all creation and declared it good can we human beings made in His image imitate Him by making things and declaring them good. And only because God spoke words and made the universe can we human beings speak words after Him, fulfilling His image in us as we create with words. The biblical starting point of creation establishes human making-with-words as a holy and appropriate response to the Creator God who poured His goodness into creation and His own image into the human beings at the center of it. If we begin the human story anywhere else but with the words of Genesis, then we lose the ultimate reason and glory of any kind of words, and particularly of the artful shaping of words that is literature.

If any human beings should be people of words, they should be believers in the biblical story of a God who speaks to create and then continues to deal with His creation through His Word—His inspired, living Word, and ultimately Christ the Word made flesh. Believers in Christ will make the increasingly incomprehensible claim that we humans were made to live by and love words. It is almost a cliché to point out that the world presently is making a huge shift in focus from words to images (2). Words are everywhere, of course, but they’ve become cheap, utilitarian. We can make thousands of them disappear with a quick touch on a keyboard. We use reading, but we do not value it.

The dramatic decline in knowledge and enjoyment of great literature surely constitutes a part of the great divide Nancy Pearcey describes in her book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity (3). The divide Pearcey addresses is the one society in general has come to accept: between factual, scientific "truth," and utterly subjective experience and belief. Literature, of course, has been relegated to the realm of subjective experience. In so relegating it, we have cut off its connection to truth. We have, as Louise Cowan puts it, "harden[ed] our hearts against the presence of the holy(4)." We have ignored the power of our God-given imaginations, one crucial route through which God means to reach us and teach us and grow us into the image of our Creator. The glaring reality that much of the inspired word given by God comes to us in imaginative literary and poetic form makes Cowan’s charge even more pointed. Indeed, on many levels, as we ignore great literature, we are hardening our hearts against the presence of the holy.

Part 2 tomorrow. 

(1) See for example Leland Ryken’s Triumphs of the Imagination: Literature in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979) and Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985). See also Susan V. Gallagher and Roger Lundin, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989). See also The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996).

(2) For excellent discussions of words and images, see Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking, 1985), and Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990).

(3) Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004.

(4) "The Importance of the Classics," Invitation to the Classics, ed. Louise Cowan and Os Guinness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p. 23.

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