Henry Zylstra and the Love of Literature

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

In my never-ending search for more to read about reformed education, I recently picked up Henry Zylstra’s Testament of Vision (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958). Though there is a good section on this book on education (which I will return to; see also this earlier post on Zylstra), I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the first half of the book is devoted to his thoughts on literature. I have been arguing, among other things, that we should be reading people who love their subjects. Zylstra’s love is clearly literature. I thought about just emending my earlier post on why we study literature but decided that Zylstra’s thoughts merit their own post.

Zylstra argues that being well-educated used to mean being well-read, that literature used to be the focal point of education and that it should be again (p. 26). In today’s world, everything is STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math (or perhaps STEAM, with a nod to art). Van Til, as we have seen, argues that history should be the core since it is about man. Zylstra argues for literature which he believes is philosophical and embodies the thinking of an age:

“If you really want to get at the spirit of an age and the soul of a time you can hardly do better than to consult the literature of that age and that time. In the novels and stories and poems and plays of a period you have a good indication of what, deep down, that period was about. I am thinking now, of course, of the real literature, the honest and soul-searching literaure, the valid and undissimulating literature.” (p. 15)

Zylstra goes on to make clear that he does not includng the pop culture of an era, its popular fiction, movies, etc. This is mere entertainment, but the literature of a time and place is “important, literally full of import.” It conveys the knowledge and should be the principal means of education (p. 27).

Other areas of study may give us facts, but literature interprets those facts. “In fiction,” Zylstra tells us, “the skeleton of life takes on the body” (p. 49). Though he does not flesh out (pun intended) the allusion to Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, one thinks that for Zylstra the other subjects must be dry and dead until they are vivified and given spirit by the literary arts. He singles out poetry as particularly life-giving:

“More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us . . . to sustain us. Without poetry, science will appear incomplete.” (p. 27)

We have seen that various reformed thinkers trace the work of education to the early chapters of Genesis. Some place its origins in the Fall as a correction to the corruption of mankind. Others trace it back to Genesis 1 and the “cultural mandate,” the commands given to Adam to care for God’s Creation. Zylstra here places the origins of literature in Genesis 2:

“In a way, the novelist is doing what Adam did in Paradise. I do not mean the pruning and the trimming. I mean the naming of created things. Words are poems really. This name-giving is artistic work.” (p. 47)

When we start talking about literatute, a couple of questions always arise — What makes a book literature? and Should we only read Christian authors?

Looking at the second question first, Zylstra argues that we need not only read Christians. Though our object is to see interpretations of life and though non-Christians will get some things wrong, yet there is truth that they can reveal to us (p. 51). In fact, Zylstra argues, most modern Christian literature is not worth reading because it does not wrestle with issues or question ideas.

What then is literature? Whereas “[t]he popular novel accepts and affirms the existing values of the people of its time, …. the great literature challenges those values” (p. 65). It includes “fidelity to the truth about life” (p. 59). Zylstra’s one sentence definition of literature might be:

“A novel is literature if a comprehensive vision of life, sensitively perceived, is given aesthetic embodiment in it.” (p. 52)

Because this vision of life is not necessarily our vision, Zylstra gives some insight into how we should approach literature. We should “look for the author’s uncritically accepted religious dogmas” (p. 67). “Since the light falls on [a given piece of literature] from the wrong angle, we must in the knowledge of faith cause it to fall from the right one” (p. 68). In the end good literature, though the author’s own assumptions and views may be faulty, will drive us to Christ. Of Thomas Hardy he says that:

“There is more of you, after reading Hardy, to be Christian with than there was before you read him, and there is also more conviction that you want to be it.” (p. 67).

If Zylstra’s goal was to give me a better appreciation for literature and desire to get reading, he has achieved it. I don’t know if I am willing to say that literature should be the backbone of the curriculum. I am half-convinced but need to think on it a little more. I am beginning to plot what books I will make my high schoolers read next year and I have compiled a list of the authors that Zylstra commends for my own reading. If nothing else, Zylstra shows us once again how someone who loves his field can inspire that love in others. He has certainly done so for me.



2 responses to this post.

  1. […] four sections: essays on literature, education, and doctrine, and letters. I have written a bit on Zylstra’s take on literature and now I am ready to tackle education which is my main interest. Of the seven essays on this […]


  2. […] We can and should use non-Christian books and resources . . .  (In Defense of Truth and Beauty; Zylstra on the Love of Literature) […]


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