Prepare to be offended. I want to ask two related questions. First, should Christians read the classics? Second, what principles should guide their reading?
Let me share the background of what got me thinking on this. Recently, I was having an email conversation with a “Facebook friend.” We’re both Christians, both thoughtful people, and both reasonably well educated. In the course of our writing back and forth, she asked me why I had read Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Here are my exact words to her: “Ha, I read widely. I was a latecomer to Harry Potter (sic). I read a lot of history, theology, and literature. But when something is as influential as those books, I thought I should read them all in order to understand their worldview. Just because I read something doesn’t mean that I buy into its ideology or worldview. I read many things with which I disagree. But I think it’s important to know the entire marketplace of ideas, not just things that make me comfortable or with which I agree.”
Can you guess her response? Here is the first part: “I’ve heard that before. Please don’t be offended, but don’t you think we can know about it because we know about the enemy and his worldview? All I need to know is that it is inspired by the dark side. When Harry uses supernatural powers that do not glorify Jesus Christ, it’s pretty obvious that it’s not good for us. We can know a lot about it because we know the enemy. We know how he works and we know his tactics, but we don’t need to eat from his table. It’s kinda (sic) like the Lord’s warnings in the Old Testament about going to them for counsel.”
What does that conversation reveal about the issues raised? Am I sinning because I read the Harry Potter books? I don’t practice divination; I don’t consult the dead; I don’t cast spells. But I did enjoy the books. I cannot speak for other readers, but I was never as interested in the magic that Harry performed as I was in Harry’s character—how Rowling made him (and other characters) come alive in the stories. We see how Harry grew up, and how and why his personality was the way it was.
The same goes for any literary character, right? Read The Great Gatsby? I feel like Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and Daisy Buchanan live in my imagination, but they were just literary characters. I don’t worship them. Rather I learn from them. How? I can only say, in the way that great literature alone accomplishes. It is part of the (forgive the pun) magic of great literature.
On the other hand, I have tried to think through my friend’s counsel. She is right in that Scripture clearly condemns magic, astrology, demonic spirits, witchcraft, etc. (see Deut. 18:9-12 and 1 Chr. 10:13, e.g.). There are scores of examples in Scripture where witchcraft is condemned. I selected these as among the most obvious, for those who will read them and think through them. Does thinking on things that are honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable (Phil. 4:8) preclude me from reading anything but Scripture and Sunday school literature?
I asked her if Christians should read War and Peace and Huckleberry Finn. I’m still waiting on her answer. Because we need to think through these things. Much is at stake. I’d hate to think that all my shelves of Dostoyevsky, Tolkien, O’Connor, Walker Percy, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, Larry Woiwode, and T.S. Eliot are for naught. Murders abound in Dostoyevsky, but he’s generally considered a Christian novelist. Tolkien wrote of hobbits, magic, etc., but his writings have reached thousands with the gospel worldview. O’Connor’s writings are filled with sexual deviancy but she’s overtly biblical. Percy, like O’Connor, was Roman Catholic, but I wrote my master’s thesis on Percy, and he was saturated with the biblical worldview, and warned through his writings of man, outside of Christ, is “lost in the cosmos.” Tolstoy, Lewis, Woiwode, Eliot, et al were all orthodox Christians, but each had things in his writings that wouldn’t make it into one’s Sunday school curricula. And the Christian world should evade reading them? I don’t think so.
Fear not, we’re still “Facebook friends.” Iron sharpens iron, right? Hopefully, we can discuss more than the 66 books we both cherish. I hear some good ones have been written. Many even term them “the classics.”
I realize I didn’t answer the questions myself, but you might infer what I think. I continue to teach literature and writing to this very day. I think life without literature, like life without music, would be a mistake. Scripture must guide our evaluations of what constitutes “great” literature (often termed ‘the classics’). Though I don’t make the case that the Harry Potter books constitute great literature, I do think they’re worthy of being read.
Secularism does not lend itself to the creation of great literature simply because secularism is reductionistic. Only a biblical Judeo-Christian worldview gives objective reasons for man’s dignity (he is the creation of God who is goodness Himself) and art, as an ability of co-creation of the true, good, and beautiful, is rooted in a biblical worldview. But to disparage quality literature as inspired by the devil, it seems to me, cheapens the discussion and tends more towards intellectual cowardice than towards sanctification. Romeo and Juliet, e.g. is replete with metaphors about astrology and the roles of fate. However, to ignore and/or forsake the incomparable beauty and truths in that play, or others of that caliber, ends in making Christian holy huddles an object of pity.
As thoughtful Christians, let us trust truth-tellers, even if they don’t have coffee with us in our Sunday school classes. God even uses pharaohs to manifest his glory.