Integrating literature and the Christian faith is a task that has concerned Christian readers through the centuries. The arts have always insisted that God’s reality is not limited to the practical, philosophical, and scientific spheres but includes the artistic world also. Just what is the relation between this artistic world and the believer’s faith in God? What does the enjoyment of beauty have to do with the central doctrines of the Christian revelation?
Many have questioned whether literature can be related to a Christian commitment. The significant thing about the Western tradition that has declared an antithesis between literature and faith is that it is either pre-Christian (Platonic) or post-biblical (the patristic era and following). The Bible itself is emphatically not a part of the tradition. There is no trace in the Bible of a negative attitude toward literature. In fact, Scripture itself is for the most part a work of literature. That is, the Bible is not primarily an expository treatise on systematic theology (though it contains this too) but rather a concrete, experiential presentation of the Christian view of reality in an artistic form.
The concept of artistic form is worth emphasizing, because Christians with a high regard for God’s infallible Word are usually so absorbed in content that they are scarcely aware of the formal characteristics of the Bible. Yet the concern with literary form is so pervasive that one cannot ignore it without drastically distorting the Bible as a written document. In a book entitled The Literary Study of the Bible, Richard G. Moulton discusses the variety of literary forms found in the Bible—epics of various types, oration, drama, lyric, ode, acrostic, hymn, elegy, encomium, epigram, epithalamion, prophecy, parable, vision, and so forth. Now this concern in the Bible with the literary aspect of discourse raises a number of questions, such as whether God inspired the form as well as the content and whether the formal excellence of the Bible deserves our attention and appreciation on its own merits. What is indisputable is that biblical example supports the integration of literature and the Christian faith, for Scripture is literature.
Biblical doctrine also leads to the conclusion that there is an inescapable connection between man’s ability to enjoy beauty and the truth of God’s revelation. Scripture teaches that beauty is an attribute of God and that he is the source of beauty, just as he is the source of truth. We must conclude this, it seems to me, even though the word translated “beauty” in English versions of the Bible encompasses a variety of Hebrew terms and includes the idea of spiritual as well as physical beauty.
David “desired from the LORD … to behold the beauty of the LORD” (Ps. 27:4); this suggests not only that beauty is an attribute of God but that beholding it is the desire of the believer. Similarly, Moses prayed, “Let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us” (Ps. 90:17). Zechariah exclaimed regarding God, “How great is His goodness, and how great is His beauty” (Zech. 9:17).
In the prophet Ezekiel we read that God gave to his people the gift of his beauty, which was perfect until men in their sinfulness desecrated it: “And your fame went forth among the heathen, because of your beauty; for it was perfect in My beauty, which I had put upon you, says the Lord GOD. But you trusted in your own beauty.… You have also taken your beautiful jewels of My gold and of My silver, which I had given you, and made images of men to yourself” (Ezek. 16:14–15, 17). From such a passage it would seem clear that beauty is a quality of God, that he bestows it as a gift to men, and that, as with all of God’s gifts, men can either use beauty to God’s glory or defile it by making it the object of religious devotion.
We know, too, that God created a beautiful universe and that the creation reflects his own nature. The creation account in Genesis tells us that “the earth was without form”; the divine act of creation consisted of filling the earth with a host of beautiful forms—trees and mountains and stars and flowers and animals and man. The beauty of God’s created universe, even in its fallen condition, affords us a glimpse of God’s beauty and craftsmanship, so that we cannot help saying with the psalmist, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). That God, in his role as creator, is a craftsman with a great regard for beauty is equally evident in the descriptions of the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21). All descriptions of heaven indicate that it is a place of transcending beauty.
Various accounts of the Old Testament places of worship also tell us that God is the source of beauty and greatly concerned with it. We must conclude that God has a regard for more than functional practicality when we read that he “put this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the LORD” (Ezra 7:27). The Hebrew worshiper could declare about his God that “strength and beauty are in His sanctuary” (Ps. 96:6); if we could ask him whether the beauty he sensed at the temple was a quality of the God whom he worshiped there or of the temple surroundings, he would undoubtedly reply that both were a part of his total experience. In prophesying the restoration of Israel, God said, “The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box tree together, to beautify the place of My sanctuary; and I will make the place of My feet glorious” (Is. 60:13).
The account of the building of the tabernacle reinforces the idea of God as the source of beauty and the dispenser of artistic talent to men. Commenting on the tabernacle, Moses stressed that it was God who had called Bezaleel and “filled him with the spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all kinds of work, and to work out skillful works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in the cutting of stones to set, and in carving wood, to make any kind of skillful work” (Ex. 35:31–33). And he said the same thing about other artisans who beautified the tabernacle (Ex. 35:35). After pages describing the artistic beauty of the tabernacle, the thought is reiterated that the making of this beautiful structure was nothing less than the outworking of God’s creative imagination (Ex. 39:42, 43).
Beauty, we conclude, is divine in its origin, as these Old Testament passages suggest specifically and as we can infer from the broader principle that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). Indeed, if God is perfect in all his being, could we suppose for a moment that he would be ugly rather than beautiful, or that he would be the source of the unbeautiful rather than the beautiful?
A further aspect of God’s relation to beauty is simply that he enjoys the contemplation of his beautiful creation. We read that after each of the days of creation “God saw that it was good.” And after the act of creation was completed, “God saw everything that He had made, and behold! it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). God felt delight and satisfaction in contemplating the perfection and beauty of what he had created.
Now what does this biblical view of beauty have to do with reading literature? Primarily, it validates enjoyment of the imaginative beauty of literary form as a Christian activity. Scripture tells us that man was created in the image of God. This means, among other things, that man has the ability to make something beautiful and to delight in it. When we enjoy the beauty of a sonnet or the magnificent artistry of an epic or the fictional inventiveness of a novel, we are not only contemplating a quality of which God is the ultimate source but also performing an act analogous to God’s enjoyment of the beauty of created things. To the question, How do we read literature to the glory of God?, the answer would seem to be, By enthusiastically enjoying its beauty and recognizing God as the ultimate source of that beauty. If beauty is a gift of God, we can best demonstrate our gratitude for the gift by using and enjoying it.
If the act of enjoying something beautiful seems either blameworthy or trivial, it is because we have fallen prey to an unbiblical attitude, whether it be derived from Christian asceticism or the Puritan ethic or scientific pragmatism. It is a fallacy to suppose either that pleasure itself is wrong or that an activity must be directly useful in order to be considered worthwhile. God has created us with the ability to enjoy, in a purely contemplative act, that which is beautiful, even as he himself does. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Charge those who are rich in this world that they be not high-minded nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17), establishing the principles that God is the giver of all good things, that he gives us these things to enjoy, and that the real misuse of them consists of going beyond the enjoyment of them to trusting in them.
The principle that God has given us all things to enjoy has seldom been sufficiently heeded by Christians. They are not the only culprits in this regard: in the whole body of literary theory, ancient and modern, I have seen few writers who do not speak slightingly of the specifically entertaining function of literature. But this view, based on the unwarranted assumption that the act of enjoyment is somehow ignoble, is surely wrong. C. S. Lewis has argued cogently that the ability simply to enjoy literature is precisely what separates the Christian from the unbeliever:
The Christian will take literature a little less seriously than the cultured Pagan.… The unbeliever is always apt to make a kind of religion of his aesthetic experiences.… But the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world.… He has no objection to comedies that merely amuse and tales that merely refresh.… We can play, as we can eat, to the glory of God [Christian Reflections, p. 10].
The belief that pleasure itself is bad is not a biblical notion, though the Bible does emphasize that fallen man tends to pursue false or depraved pleasures. The biblical doctrine of heaven and hell, and the suffering of Jesus as bearer of our sin and pain, and the glorious fact that in the next life there will not “be any more pain” (Rev. 21:4) are intelligible only if pleasure is good and pain bad. In the same way, God’s natural revelation should have taught us long ago that enjoyment is not trivial simply because it does not produce practical results. Many of the most worthwhile things in life are matters of contemplation and enjoyment—sunsets and morning mists and mountain peaks and ocean waves and starlit skies and the play of children. The worship of practicality, so prevalent in our scientific culture, is something the Christian ought to be combating for the simple reason that it is not a Christian view of the world. We ought also to be in the forefront in the task of teaching people to enjoy the beautiful, whether in God’s natural creation or in culture. In an age when multitudes of people are using their leisure time in ridiculous and depraved ways, and when many do not know how to escape boredom in their leisure, the task of a truly liberal education—an education in literature and the arts as well as the sciences—becomes nothing less than a work of compassion.
Only the Christian has a genuine vision of the terrible effects of the fall and of the glory of restoration. He knows that he has been “bought with a price,” that God’s redeeming grace is not cheap but costly. I believe that the reality of Christian redemption is related to the Christian’s concern for the importance of beauty in the world and in culture. Having a high view of all that restoration of the fallen condition means, the Christian of all people should be protesting the ugliness of a fallen society. Restoration of that which is ugly to a state of beauty is a high and noble imperative, like restoring error-ridden fallen man to truth, depraved man to spiritual life. The Christian cannot be indifferent to the cultivation of beauty at a time when God’s creation, once perfect, is steadily being desecrated and stripped of its beauty. This explains, too, why the Christian can never rest content in an aesthetic theory that the artist has done his task if he has simply depicted ugliness and depravity, because these are the conditions of life. The whole point of Christian redemption is that it is not sufficient to leave fallen experience where it is. Restoration is the Christian’s calling—restoration from ugliness as well as from error and sin.
Literature is a powerful agent for arousing and energizing our awareness of beauty in all things. Our practical modern world is disposed to regard beauty as an extraneous luxury. But if one looks honestly and deeply within the human spirit as created by God, he will find a hunger for beauty as well as for truth and righteousness. And if one looks beyond the human spirit to the God of all glory—the God of creation and the God who reveals himself in a Book that is beautiful as well as truthful—he will conclude that God does not regard beauty as the unnecessary pursuit of an idle moment.
Matthew Arnold said the task of literature was to teach men “how to live.” What he had in mind was that literature, as the vehicle of classical, humanistic values, would become a substitute for the Christian religion and assume the role of a moral and spiritual guide in modern culture. Literature has not fulfilled—and for the Christian can never fulfill—what Arnold envisioned. But in a sense far richer than what Arnold intended, literature does address itself to the question of how to live. Seen from a Christian perspective, literature and the arts show us that life can be lived in a joyful awareness of the beauty God has poured forth on his creation and in culture. It is a great calling. The abundant life begins now and permeates the whole man, including his artistic impulses.
Leland Ryken is assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, Illinois. He holds teh B.A. from Central College, Illinois and teh Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. His book “The Apocalyptic Vision of Paradise Lost” is to be published by Cornell University Press next year.
THE BIRTH OF CHRIST
From the German of Rainer Maria RilkeMarienleben: Geburt Christi
Had you not your simplicity this Birth
Could not have happened thus to light our night.
God whose voice thunders over nations from His height
Makes Himself mild and comes through you to earth.
Had you imagined Him as greater might?
What then is greatness? By all ways of measure
His path is straight that leads Him to the Cross …
But here the kings come proffering their treasure—
Things they hold greatest gain against time’s loss.
Before your lap what gifts are these they toss?
All that has value in the world to them:
Are you surprised perhaps that they should fall
Before Him in the cave of Bethlehem?
Yet look within the soft folds of your shawl
Behold even now He has outdone them all!
The rarest amber ever shipped afar
Or goldsmith’s pride or spice on southwinds blowing—
Such as the Magi bear lured by His star—
Pass swiftly and pain marks them in their going;
But He (you’ll see) brings joy past all men’s knowing.
M. WHITCOMB HESS
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