Are the secular classics I love to read compatible with my Christian faith?

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"It does sometimes seem a shame that Noah and his party did not miss the boat," quips Mark Twain as his sharp tongue aims at the heart of humanity. My favorite thing that Mark Twain satirically advocated, however, was to bring home missionaries from China. He wanted them to "sivilize" Southern white men who had sworn allegiance to the Ku Klux Klan. "You (missionaries) convert roughly one Chinaman per missionary per annum. That is an uphill fight against 33,000 pagans born every day." At such moments, Twain makes me think about Jesus.

But he isn't the only one. In fact, reading led me to Christ. I did not have a conversion experience. No drugs or alcohol sank me to rock bottom. I had no one mentor to lead me to church and ultimately to Christ. The Lord did not call me in a dream or speak in my ear. My faith in Jesus grew over time. I don't think I ever didn't believe in God. From the time I was born, I was brought up in the Protestant church, and while various of my family members traveled far and wide on spiritual journeys, I never did. But I read. I read a great deal.

After a short stint working in radio, I became a teacher and a writer. Soon the books I taught my students began to take hold of me—books I'd known since the time I was in high school were now my own personal Bible of sorts. I taught John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and found that I looked forward to it almost as much as my students loathed it. Reading a book of 500-plus pages is usually not an event anticipated with glee. But as a teacher, I did find joy in it, and what's more, I found God in it.

Steinbeck's "Jesus"

Steinbeck, who was not known for devout Christian faith, wrote about it all the time. In The Grapes of Wrath, the secondary character, Jim Casy (note the initials J.C., I always tell my students), is an itinerant preacher who has fallen away from the mainstream church. "Just Jim Casy now. Ain't got the call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears—but they seem kinda sensible." Casy is confused and in his confusion he says, "I went off alone and sat and figured. The sperit's strong in me, on'y it ain't the same. I ain't so sure of a lot of things." The tension between human mind and spirit—our desire to do what pleases God and upon trying, our inability to do so—is laid bare here.

Casy's death is even more allegorical than his life. In an attempt to stop farm owners from driving down wages, he leads some of the migrant workers on a strike and tries to force a settlement. It doesn't work, of course, and in a moment of violence remarkable for its sparse telling, Casy is killed. He is standing in a stream of clear water as a flashlight from one of the men chasing him falls on his face. He turns to the man and says, "Listen … You fellas don' know what you're doin'. You're helpin' to starve kids." And with that the man, armed with a pick handle, hammers across Casy's cheek and brow. He lays in the stream, lifeless, the flashlight beaming on him. Steinbeck merely dramatized what the Bible has said all along: God is on the side of the downtrodden.

Perhaps no one "secular" author has contributed so much to the Christian faith as Charles Dickens. His novella, A Christmas Carol, is perhaps single-handedly responsible for making Christmas a household celebration, as well as a pagan celebration. But in light of his stories of redemption, salvation, and grace, he can be forgiven and perhaps even lauded for bringing Christmas out of the basement of the Western conscience and moving it into the living room.

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