Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books
208 pp., 17.99
Lit! God's Generosity
I am grateful for Karen's insights in this conversation. Today I get to close the series out, and I'd like to do that with one more look at the shaping influence of the gospel.
Earlier in this series I said the gospel liberates literacy. The gospel does not shrivel the Christian soul, but enlarges it. The gospel does not shelter the Christian soul, but makes it discerning—and discerningly generous with the literature at its disposal. Reborn hearts turn from the worship of human creative genius to worship the Giver behind all the truth, goodness, and beauty given form in the pages of great literature.
Puritan preacher Richard Sibbes explained this liberation in his old book A Christian's Portion, an exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:21-23. His point: the Church possesses all truth, even if that truth emerges in the pages of books written by non-Christian authors. He writes:
Again, 'all things are ours' [1 Cor. 3:21]. Therefore truth, wheresoever we find it, is ours. We may read [a] heathen author. Truth comes from God, wheresoever we find it, and it is ours, it is the church's. We may take it from them as a just possession. Those truths that they have, there may be good use of those truths; but we must not use them for ostentation. For that is to do as the Israelites; when they had gotten treasure out of Egypt, they made a calf, an idol of them. So we must not make an idol of these things. But truth, wheresoever we find it, is the church's. Therefore with a good conscience we may make use of any human author. I thought good to touch this, because some make a scruple of it.
Christians still "make a scruple" of this point. But by taking "all things" in the broadest sense, Sibbes deepens our appreciation of the generosity of God to an equally large degree. The big-hearted Puritan appreciated a spectrum of books because his theological head was on straight. He walked into the library aware that all the truth he would find there was derivative.
This is a posture of Christian generosity toward literature, but also one of discernment. Here we avoid boasting in authors, but delight in the Giver of all literary skill. It is a position that reminds us that if we are in Christ, then all things are ours, whether Shakespeare or Aristotle or Chaucer or Joyce or Dante or Yeats or Plato or Wordsworth—all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's. Literature—at least the best part of it—is a beautiful gift. And we've been liberated to treasure it.
But there's nothing automatic about this. The posture of Sibbes, and those like him, is reserved for the children of God who are surefooted inside a library or a bookstore. When literacy in the church diminishes, the church simultaneously loses its generosity, and appropriate cultural generosity can be very difficult to reclaim.
Tony Reinke is the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Crossway).
Copyright © 2011 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.