A note from Dr. Gene Edward Veith on the release of his redesigned Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature:
A number of years ago, after a speaking engagement, a young man of around 10 years old, wearing a white shirt and tie, came up to me. “Sir,” he said, as he shook my hand, exuding impeccable manners, “I just wanted to say how much I liked your book.”
My book? I had written quite a few, but I couldn’t think of any aimed at 10-year-olds. I asked him, “What book?”
He replied as if it were obvious, “Reading between the Lines!” It turns out my “Christian Guide to Literature,” as it was subtitled, was made part of his homeschool curriculum. Not knowing much at the time about homeschooling, I was still astonished. I wrote the book with my college students in mind, but that experience kept repeating itself, and I treasured the thought that homeschoolers were using my book and that my young readers were not only understanding it but liking it. I was teaching students whom I had never met, many of a younger age than I realized and many, as I heard later, of an older age who were just discovering literature as adults. Since what I had to say was written down in a book, it could take on a life of its own beyond the life and limits of its author. Which was one of my points about literature.
Marvin Olasky was editing a series of books relating Christianity to various fields, which would become Crossway’s Turning Point Series. He asked me to write one about literature. I had already done some writing about Christianity and the arts and Christianity and culture. But literature was my real specialty and teaching literature as an English professor was my day job. So I threw myself into the task. Though I had published some academic scholarship in the field, I knew this book needed to be cast for a broader audience. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be simplistic and elementary. I wanted to put down what I had learned myself, not only about but from literature, and to express some of the insights I had discovered about literary art and its relationship to God’s design.
The book, which came out in 1990, is sort of a distillation of my teaching, my research, and my theories about literature. Here I explore the nature of comedy (in the medieval sense of a story that begins in pain but ends in joy) and of tragedy (in both the medieval sense of a story that begins in joy and ends in pain and in the classical sense of the fall of a noble hero because of hamartia, a word that critics translate as “tragic flaw” but that is simply the New Testament word for “sin”). Here I delve into different modes of literature, such as realism and fantasy, discussing why Christian authors have so often favored fantasy. I try to explain how to read poetry, which I define as literature written in lines, and I defend fiction from the charge that it isn’t true. Helping me with that last point was Sir Phillip Sydney, and I draw on, introduce, and elucidate lots and lots of great authors, whom I try to help my readers befriend.
I think the book—my wife came up with the title—bears up pretty well after all these years. I appreciate Crossway re-booting it with a fresh design and bringing it into the 21st century.
There are, of course, other issues that have come up in literary studies since I wrote the book, and there are new writers, Christian and otherwise, that would deserve mention if I were writing it today. But this book still reflects my approach to literature. In fact, if my college students today wanted to understand more fully what I’m talking about in class—say, in studying for a final, making up for a class they missed, or making sense of a lecture—they could read this book. That might give them an unfair advantage, so I won’t tell them of that option. I’m assuming they won’t be reading this blog. Then again, they might already have read the thing when they were 10.
Gene Edward Veith Jr. (PhD, University of Kansas) is provost and professor of literature at Patrick Henry College and the director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary. He has been a columnist for World magazine and TableTalk, and is the author of a number of noted books on Christianity and culture, including God at Work.