A Little Thought on the Value of Literature

Dear Reader,

I am sure I seem very opinionated here on this blog. But in real life I find it very hard to argue with people or to get out coherent thoughts in a decent span of time. I need time to process and come up with the right words which, I suppose, is why blogging works better for me; I am able to take my time to choose my words — and then to go back and change them before anyone sees them anyway.

So another homeschooling mom was asking me recently why we need to study literature at all and especially to study it critically. It is a conversation she and I have had before in various forms, but I didn’t have a good answer on the spot. However, I have been reading a book on literature, How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster (review to come, I am sure), and it has helped me clarify my thoughts on one point in particular.

You see, along with Charlotte Mason whose philosophy of education I do my best to adhere to, I would say that the value in books is in the ideas they present and that we are able across time to connect with the minds of other people. I feel this profoundly to be true, but I had been missing one piece of the puzzle which Foster’s book has helped me discover. It is an assumption that I am making which I had not even realized. And it is this: That there is a progression in the thoughts and ideas of humanity as a whole. This may sound pretty basic but it is by no means obvious and it has profound theological implications.

From a purely scientific, evolutionary and atheistic point of view, there can be no progression. That is, humanity itself has evolved and one presumes continues to evolve (I’ve never actually been clear what such people think on this point, truth be known), but this evolution is merely change. There cannot be a progression in terms of a moving forward or advancing in any way because there is no standard by which to measure progress — to say this change moves us further towards some goal or standard — and particularly no moral standard.

But even for Christians, this is by no means an obvious conclusion. We have an absolute moral standard so we do have a way to measure but the question of whether the human race as a whole is getting closer to this standard is a  major point of dispute. And it has a lot to do with everyone’s favorite topic, one’s view of the end times. This is the point here we get to use fun words like dispensation and post-millenialism. It also hinges on our view of revelation.

Now personally, I believe the Bible is the complete and perfect Word of God and that nothing can be added to it. I am not a big fan of things like prophecy and tongues. I do not completely rule out further supernatural revelations from God, but I do not think they are His ordinary means of dealing with His people today. They were at one point but no longer. Now we have His written Word and in most times and circumstances, especially in places where that Word is available, He does not choose to give us other dramatic revelations. And even if He did do so, perhaps as a witness to the truth of His gospel on some remote Pacific island, that revelation would not supersede or add to the Bible but would only confirm and point to His written Word.

But, while I am pretty conservative on my view of continuing revelation, yet I still believe that God speaks to us today and that there is more truth to be revealed than is found in the Bible. The Bible, while perfect, does not address every topic nor is it all there is to say or know on every subject. It tells us what we need to know of God, but there is still a lot we can and have learned from other sources — science, for instance. There are Christians who will disagree with this. I think there are probably more of them in homeschooling circles than elsewhere. They believe instead that all we need to know on any subject can be found in the Bible. So they look to it for answers to theological questions but also to scientific ones and dietary ones and  . . . well, everything.

So this, then, is the first assumption I am making: that there is more that we, humankind, can learn beyond what is in the Bible. The corollary to this is that God does reveal truth to us through other means, human reason and scientific inquiry for instance. Though I will acknowledge that since our reason is fallen along with the rest of our natures that we must always question such things and put them to the test against God’s Word. Nonetheless, God does continue to reveal certain kinds of truth to us since the completion of the biblical canon. All of which is to say, that it can be worthwhile to read things other than the Bible.

The second assumption I am making is that we are progressing – that is that we are moving forward as judged by God’s eternal standard of right and wrong. This is again by no means obvious or widely accepted. Among conservative Christians I dare say the opposite belief abounds — that we are getting worse and worse and falling more and more into sinful ways. Just look at the issues our society is dealing with — abortion, gay marriage, and the like. But on the other side I could point to an end to the institution of slavery in the western world, acceptance of interracial marriages, the idea that in war one should not kill all the civilians as a matter of course, an acknowledgement and respect for the rights women have over their own bodies.

Foster, to return to him, talks in his book about how some author reinterprets a Shakespeare play (this is all going to be very vague because I am not actually at this moment looking back at the book). The play itself wrestled with some ideas but still accepted others as a matter of course. The later author created a very similar plot, clearly referring back to Shakespeare, but went further than the Bard could have done and also questioned the privilege of the nobility in the play, the inherent elitism, if you will. Something that could not have been imagined in Shakespeare’s day is called into question by a later author. This is not to diminish Shakespeare’s work — it would be hard to do that –but only to say that we as a people were able to move on and to discuss new issues. And sometimes it is not even about whether we agree with the author, it is just that we are able to wrestle with the issues.

But to return to my main point, if we view literature as a great conversation humanity has with itself, then when we read and study the literature of a given period, it is because we agree that it is a valuable part of the conversation. We could, as Christians, stop with the Bible and say that is all we need and nothing significant can be added. We could, as many Christians seem to do, pick a point in history and say that everything since has gone down hill and is less valuable if at all. We could also exclude certain authors from the conversation, or at least from the parts of it we subscribe too. Many Christians would diminish if not ignore the contributions of non-Christians. This too, I think, is a mistake. We may take what an author says with a grain of salt but there is still a lot of wisdom that God can give us through non-Christians. This is the work of common grace that sends rain or sun on the righteous and unrighteous alike.

My little thought has turned into a very long post but I will try to boil it down one more time if I can. When we read literature, we participate in the conversation, the flow of ideas, humanity has with itself. By doing so, we implicitly say that there is something more to be said, that there can be new ideas and that they can be valuable to us. I would add that I think we have to have a pretty positive view of where things are going too. If you think there is nothing good since 1900, there is no point in reading books written since then. I am not saying that all human thought is moving forward. I think there are a lot of fits and starts, but I do find myself more and more leaning towards an optimistic view of human history. I don’t really want to get into the whole end times thing here; it is a huge topic and this post is already longer than I anticipated. Suffice it to say that if you expect a millennium of bad days before Christ come back yet and especially if you think we are in that time, then you are not likely to expect anything of value to be produced.

What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill here?


2 responses to this post.

  1. […] « A Little Thought on the Value of Literature […]


  2. […] have mentioned this book in some earlier posts (see here and here), but I have now finished it and wanted to give a proper review. How to Read Literature […]


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