Finding God in Literature
Finding God is the primary task of everyone born into the human race. This calling includes multiple dimensions, but the one that towers above all others in importance is finding God as Lord and Savior of one’s life. This comes in the form of either a conscious turning to God—a conversion—at a specific moment in time, or a gradual assent of the mind and heart to believe that God exists and is Lord of all and one’s personal Savior.
Can literature be the actual agent God uses to bring a person to conversion? If we are skeptical, it is probably because we have not encountered people who trace their Christian conversion to reading specific works of literature. Considering the following testimonials will be both enlightening and edifying.1
Someone joining Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia began his written testimony with the statement, “I was led to the Lord by John Milton.” He went on to explain that while reading Paradise Lost he felt within himself an “unholy alliance” with the character of Satan. He realized he was a sinner, “cried out to the Lord to save [him],” and found his prayer answered a week later.2
A professor of English who was raised in a liberal Protestant church repudiated his faith when he entered college. He recounts how “God drew me to him (unbeknownst to me at the time)” through four novels recommended to him by secular friends. He “was saved [through the influence] of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh [rather than] a preacher.”
In today’s technology-driven culture, reading has become a lost art. Recovering the Lost Art of Reading explores the importance of reading generally and of studying the Bible as literature, while giving practical suggestions on how to read well.
A young woman was brought into a personal encounter with Jesus leading to her conversion as a result of a two-hour reading of what would seem to be an unlikely agent of salvation—J. D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey.
Other people testify to how literature brought them back to belief after having drifted from it. One of these stories comes from a college student who found himself bereft of his childhood faith in the gospel. His girlfriend (and eventual wife) suggested he read C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. While reading The Silver Chair, this person “put [his] faith back in Jesus Christ.” His fuller account is that “as I read The Silver Chair I encountered the presence of the living God.”
These are striking instances of finding God in literature. We should neither sensationalize them nor underrate them. As vehicles for conversion or recommitment, they are on a par with reading the Bible or listening to a sermon or conversing with a Christian in a coffee shop. Although the Bible is God’s inspired word, he can choose any hearing of the word or reading of any words to bring spiritual renewal in a person. Just as the literary imagination often heightens human experience to help us see issues with greater clarity, the anecdotes we have cited prove with more-than-ordinary clarity that we can find God in literature.
Assured that this can happen, we can consider how it happens. First we need to recognize how large a proportion of English and American literature sprang from Christian cultures. To this we can add the literature written by Christians even in the secular modern era. Because most of this literature is God-centered and biblical, it is no wonder we find God in it. Even secular readers or scholars would encounter God in their ordinary reading or literary analysis of it. For a reader who wishes to find God in literature, the task consists partly of choosing literature with God in the picture.
Literature on a Continuum
At this point, it is useful to review the paradigm of a continuum on which we can place literature as a whole. At one end we find the literature of Christian affirmation. In the middle we have the literature of common human experience (literature that expresses the shared wisdom of the human race while stopping short of explicit Christian references), and at the other end is the literature of unbelief. Even if the literature of common humanity does not bring God explicitly into its picture of reality, it is easy for a Christian reader to supply the God who is there but not acknowledged in the work itself. If a nature poem stops short of ascribing the beauty or benevolence of nature to God, a Christian reader can still ascribe it to God. Such literature provides the materials for finding God, with the responsibility for doing so residing with the reader.
What about the literature of unbelief? Can we find God in it? If we are sufficiently active in supplying our own Christian convictions, we can. Just as in ordinary life a person can be present in our awareness even when absent, and often because of that absence, so too we can sense the existence of God even in literature that fails to acknowledge him. The literature of unbelief creates a vacant space, which a Christian reader correctly sees as needing to be filled by God. In the very act of protesting the omission of God, we find God—not in the work but in our interaction with it.
Although the Bible is God’s inspired word, he can choose any hearing of the word or reading of any words to bring spiritual renewal in a person.
Finding Spiritual Nurture in Literature
God is the essence of the spiritual life. Finding him is the greatest treasure, and after he is found, he remains at the center. As Christians we desire all of life to be part of our spiritual existence. We want the events of our lives, including our literary experiences, to nurture our spiritual life in Christ. Because it is a life, it needs to be fed. How can literature feed us spiritually?
Before we proceed to consider how literature can provide spiritual nurture for daily living, we should recall the idea of the Bible as literature. At least three-fourths of the Bible is literary in form. In other words, literature is the most customary vehicle for conveying truth in the Bible. People who undervalue the spiritual potential of literature tend to assume that the literary forms of the Bible are different from literary forms in literature generally, but this is a false assumption. A story is a story, and a poem is a poem. Each format operates exactly the same in the Bible and beyond the Bible. Furthermore, it is incorrect to separate the content of the Bible from the form in which it is expressed. When a person embraces the truth of the Bible as presented in a story or poem, the vehicle has been the story or poem, not some illusory free-floating truth separate from a literary vehicle. Our argument is that of course literature can be a channel by which spiritual nurture enters our lives. The Bible proves it.
Literature achieves its spiritual influence in ways parallel to those in the preceding section about finding God in literature. Christian sustenance comes most naturally when we read the literature of Christian affirmation. Here the process is the same as when we read the Bible. The Victorian enthusiast for literature Matthew Arnold overstated the case when he said that literature as a whole, regardless of its ideational perspective, tells us the truth about “how to live,”3 but we can affirm Arnold’s formula with the literature of Christian affirmation. Such literature is a spiritual guide first through the examples of characters and events it places before us. With literature, including the literature of the Bible, an author presents us with positive examples to emulate and negative ones to avoid. To say (as debunkers do) that this is a simplistic view of literature is beside the point; it is how literature works. In addition to presenting examples of character and action, literary authors use devices of disclosure and authorial assertions and persuasive strategies to prompt readers’ responses. Christian authors point us down a spiritually correct path.
With the literature of common human experience and the literature of unbelief, spiritual nurture requires a more active stance from us. Sometimes we need to add something to a picture that is not wrong but simply incomplete—as with a story that elevates domestic values as a human experience only. At other times, we need to exercise corrective action to counter what a work is prompting us to believe or emulate. In the very act of countering and correcting what is being urged upon us, we can be strengthened in our spiritual commitment. Additionally, when we compare literature that is devoid of spiritual truth to the truth that we have in our Christian faith, we are led to gratitude for our riches in Christ. Interacting with the literature of unbelief can thus become a spiritual exercise.
- All testimonials shared in this article not attributed to a source are to be understood as having been given to Leland Ryken over the course of his teaching career by students at the time, former students, or professional colleagues, in the form of emails, notes, paragraphs in class assignments, or oral communications.
- Content of the testimonial was shared with us by this person’s pastor, Dr. Philip Ryken.
- Matthew Arnold, “Wordsworth,” in Criticism: The Major Texts, ed. Walter Jackson Bate (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952), 478.
This article is adapted from Recovering the Lost Art of Reading: A Quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
We will often neglect what we don’t prioritize. And book reading is often neglected because it fails to be a priority.
God has implanted in people longing and desire for the true, the good, and the beautiful. The Bible speaks to all three of these.
The decline of reading has impoverished our culture and individual lives. We have lost mental sharpness, verbal skills, and ability to think and imagine.
When the Bible gives us literary subject matter, that subject matter is present through the agency of divine inspiration. The same is true of the genres and forms of the Bible.