I had never thought of myself as someone capable of an affair.
Sure, even as a Christian I had traded in some biblical teachings for a more up-to-date morality. But "thou shalt not commit adultery" happened to be one teaching I agreed with, so it remained in my moral repertoire.
Then I read Madame Bovary, the 19th-century French classic by Gustave Flaubert. The truth was laid out starkly on the pages: In Emma Bovary, an adulteress and, ultimately, a self-murderer, I saw myself. Not in her depraved actions, but in her way of thinking, which led to those very horrific acts.
The starry-eyed Emma dreamed of marrying a dreamy man and living a dreamy life in a dreamy place. She thought life was supposed to resemble the torrid romances and love poems she had read while cloistered in a convent as a schoolgirl.
Real life caught her unawares.
The novel caught me unawares, too. Unaware of how many of my expectations for my new marriage were as rooted in fantasy as Emma's were. Unaware of how such unrealistic assumptions steal away the pleasures of everyday life. Flaubert's skillful artistry made plain to me, even more importantly than the problems of adultery and suicide, the more subtle robbers of joy: elitism, materialism, listlessness, and the continual need for novelty rather than the peace of contentment.
As a lifelong church member and Sunday school scholar, I should have known these things. Madame Bovary's lessons are contained in the Bible, after all: Galatians 5:26 cautions against the vainglory Emma hopes her doctor-husband will attain; passages like Luke 12:15 warn against the frenetic materialism that overtakes Emma; Ecclesiastes offers various antidotes to the boredom that plagues her; and, of course, there are many warnings against adultery, including the bald proclamation of Proverbs 6:32: "[A] man who commits adultery . . . destroys himself."
But while I had been taught the things in the Bible, I hadn't learned to think biblically.
Ironically, then, the first time I encountered a worldview I could clearly identify, it wasn't a biblical one, but Emma's romantic one. And I recognized it as my own.
One of the gifts of reading good literature is "discovering oneself as one is," Mark Edmundson states in his book Why Read? This is the revelation Madame Bovary and many other novels have offered me: a mirror in which to see myself as I really am, sinful yet being redeemed. Literature's "second, and perhaps more important" gift, Edmundson suggests, "is to see glimpses of a self—and too, perhaps, of a world—that might be, a self and world that you can begin working to create."
Certainly, books—even the greats—cannot replace the Book. Words cannot substitute for the Word. For as Psalm 36:9 says, God himself is "the fountain of life," and in his light "we see light." Using this verse, Tony Reinke, author of Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books(Crossway), explains how good literature is charged with the grandeur of God: "This light includes any number of generous gifts and blessings from the Creator, but especially truth, goodness, and beauty. This light in creation is made visible to us because God first illumines us with his glory and presence. Illuminated by God, Christians now perceive and appreciate the light of divine truth, goodness, and beauty that glow in the pages of great books."
Books flesh out divine truths, allowing us to test all things in order to cling to the good. In Walt Whitman's poem "A Noiseless Patient Spider," for example, we sense the existential angst of people living in modern times. The despair of disbelief waxes vivid in the works of Thomas Hardy. In Heart of Darkness, we come face to face with the horror of denying God. The inseparable connection between the spiritual and the material is manifest in the writings of John Donne. The satire of Jonathan Swift spurs us to laugh at ourselves. In Death of a Salesman, we confront the mortal significance of vocational calling. Overconfidence in our ability to judge others is chastened by Pride and Prejudice. We see better how to be who God created us to be from reading Jane Eyre.
Many forms of natural revelation declare the glory of God. But for me, great books have bridged the gap between truths contained in the Bible and their application in my life. Literature has allowed me to see myself as I am and as I need to be in Christ. It has shaped me and changed me. And it likely saved my marriage before I knew it needed saving. By the grace of God, his gift of literature helped save my soul.
Karen Swallow Prior is an English professor at Liberty University and author of the forthcoming Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press). Visit Her.meneutics, CT's women's site, at ChristianityToday.com/women.
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