This is the final post in a 4-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3) from Dr. Leland Ryken, former professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics series, which explores great works of Western literature.
Reclaiming the Christian Classics
We live in a day when revisionism is the rave in the academy and in our culture generally. The way to get attention and be mainstream in the secular establishment is to debunk what has been accepted as true for centuries. Being of conservative Christian conviction, I am always on the periphery in this world of revisionism. Sometimes I am left wondering, When will I get to have some fun debunking established positions?
The debunking niche that I have carved out for myself is small, but I have claimed it with zest. I have a flourishing side-career as a defender of Christian classics that the world at large claims to be non-Christian or secular. I can accurately speak of these as misunderstood Christian classics—Christian classics that are denied their identity as Christian works. To make my rehabilitation projects even more invigorating, I often end up combating Christian colleagues and students who naively accept the mainstream view of a secular culture.
In the Christian guides to the classics that I am publishing with Crossway, three of the first wave of books fall into this venture in reclaiming Christian classics. First, in the latter stages of my academic career it became increasingly clear to me that the intellectual allegiance and worldview of Shakespeare’s major plays is Christian. I have not highlighted this in my guides to Macbeth and Hamlet, but it is a template on which I constructed my commentary and that a reader of those guides can detect. I could even see myself writing a book on “Christian Shakespeare.”
A Case Study
The classic whose denial of Christian standing vexes me most is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It became obvious to me right at the start of my teaching career that The Scarlet Letter is a Christian classic. In fact, at the end of Hawthorne’s story, in the celebrated confession scene set on the town scaffold in the next-to-last chapter, Hawthorne springs a surprise ending on us as the book becomes as explicitly Christian as a story can possibly be. Why do Christian readers not see this? Because they accept the entrenched secular view that loves to discredit Christianity wherever it can.
Instead of recreating the specifics of my handling of The Scarlet Letter in my guide (though I strongly recommend the purchase and reading of it!), I will use my experience with that book as a case study in how I have gone about reclaiming lost Christian classics for the category to which they belong. As I reconstruct the history of my involvement with Hawthorne’s classic story, I will be identifying stages through which I pass with my other reclamation projects.
Often the genesis for my eventual reclamation began in a graduate school classroom, where I endured what seemed to me a deliberate attempt to suppress the Christian element in a work of literature. Often this was part of a larger disparagement of the Christian faith. Of course I encountered the anti-Christian interpretation of the work in published literary scholarship as well.
Obviously I would not have chafed under the way in which the work was being handled in the classroom if I had not reached a preliminary conviction that the work was Christian in orientation. Whenever I keep reading scholarship in quest for Christian readings of the misunderstood work, I always encounter an eventual cloud of witnesses who are excellent guides to the Christian element in the work. I have never been a lone voice in reclaiming Christian classics. I will also note that when I publish my interpretations of misunderstood Christian classics, I regularly receive correspondence from likeminded scholars. With my own intuitions reinforced by published scholarship, I typically go back to the text with renewed vigor and find more and more Christian elements in the work.
I will end with four principles based on my own experience that might lift some drooping hands among my readers. (1) Do not be intimidated by the pronouncements of a non-Christian or secular culture or viewpoint (even if that viewpoint is urged upon you by a fellow Christian). (2) Operate on the premise that if you search thoroughly enough, you will find published scholarship to confirm you in your interpretation. (3) If you are sure that your Christian interpretation is supported by the text, keep digging for more and more data to confirm your interpretation. (4) Share the good news. Start a debate. Tell someone off. Start a book discussion group.
Or, you could write a reader’s guide to the book.
Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society, and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version. His Christian Guides to the Classics series includes Homer’s The Odyssey, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Dickens’s Great Expectations, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.