With several gaps, we’ve been covering the following idea for the past several weeks: “Good stories must point to truth, whetting the appetites of unbelievers and strengthening Christians: literature is a primer for the gospel.”. First, we looked at Truth-Whispering in our own writing, and then the idea of Living Stories, or echoing real life in writing. Finally, we’re closing out this series with the greatest story of all, and how that informs our look at the classics of literature. Read on for more:
The very best books come from a Christian worldview because this is the true story of the world. This doesn’t mean that all Christian books are automatically better than their non-Christian counterparts (far from it!) or that all non-Christian books are worthless. In fact, I believe that the church these days puts far too much emphasis on whether or not a book is “Christian,” or whether or not its author has said all the right sound bites to be approved as a kosher source of entertainment. But enough on that.
Like almost everything we look at in this column, the labels really don’t matter. Instead, it’s the heart and meat of the book that will truly identify its author. The best books are those that reflect the world that we’re living in, drawing observations from real life into a compelling story. As Christians, we know the true state of the world, and we can use that to judge the reflection of that world in the books we read.
William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, for example, is a well-regarded classic. It’s a masterful piece of writing that shows life in all its rawness and suffering. For what it is, As I Lay Dying is a very accurate picture of human life. We’ve all experienced suffering, and the raw thoughts coursing through the book are ones that every human can relate to. Because of this, Faulkner’s work is rightly considered part of the classics.
Faulkner, even while not identifying as a Christian, wrote in such a way that showed his deep understanding of human nature. We as a race are better off having confronted Faulkner’s powerful images of despair and human futility. It’s short-sighted to discount his books simply because they were written by someone who did not call themselves a Christian. Faulkner has much to teach his readers, even Christian readers: we would be wise to learn from him.
But now, let’s take As I lay Dying, and compare it to Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. These are the last books either author ever wrote, and they’re both widely considered the pinnacle of their respective writing careers. Dostoevsky’s writing can also be considered bleak. Brothers is, after all, a murder story, and is full of the depths of human depravity, just as Faulkner’s writing. And sure, there are obviously differences in era, writing style, and plot.
The main difference between the two, however, is Dostoevsky’s hope. The Brothers Karamazov, even as hopeless and confusing as it can seem, is at the root a hope-filled book. In the end, Dostoevsky has faith that the world is a comic place — that all will be made right, and pain will be erased. He doesn’t spell it out in so many words — instead, the worldview has seeped all through the book, just as we’ve been looking at in past weeks. It’s subtle, but also impossible to miss if you’re reading at all carefully.
Dostoevsky also includes the curious character of Alyosha Karamazov — a strange man, untouched by the darkness around him, standing as a beacon of light with an unusual connection to God and heaven. It’s the gospel in 19th century Russia, and it’s a beautiful thing. Not an allegory, The Brothers Karamazov is instead so filled with the gospel story that it’s unavoidable. Parallels and points come out at every turn.
You might ask, “Why does this give any sort of edge over Faulkner, though?” After all, both authors have done an incredible job of capturing human nature. Both have written enduring, finely-crafted classics. And one could make the argument that Faulkner’s despair is just as important for us to learn from as Dostoevsky’s hope. And I agree, even making that argument up above. Faulkner does have value, and he is a great author of great literature.
But even so, in the end, Dostoevsky’s book reflects the world that we know to be true. His value is in the fact that he doesn’t leave us in Faulkner’s despair. He brings us there, plunging us into the same flood of darkness that Faulkner did. But we know there is hope — it is the core of our being. Christ has come. Death is defeated. All tears will be wiped away, and though we live in a pained and broken world, we — and it — are being remade, one day at a time. This is great cause for hope.
The Word of God, who spoke existence into being with a command, became flesh and died for us.
We also have this power. After all, don’t we all live in this greatest of stories? This world is a tapestry, full of millions, even billions, of interlocking, totally unique stories. The tapestry is ancient: the first stitch began in the Garden of Eden when God said, “Let us make man in our own image,” and it’s continued throughout the thousands of years, telling the story of God’s love. The Word of God, who spoke existence into being with a command, became flesh and died for us. The God of tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanoes and power loves. This is the treasure that we’re echoing in our writing.
My admonishment is to hunt for treasure in every book. The best writers, Christian or not, will fill their books with shards of diamonds, even subconsciously. To some respect, because this is a world that is being changed by the gospel, non-Christian writers will echo that truth in their books because they are seeing that truth in the world around them. But if you are on the hunt for an entire, gleaming, diamond, read the great Christian writers. Read the great 19th century Russian novelists (Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoi). Read the 20th English apologists (Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, and Chesterton). Heck, try some 21st century writers that aren’t even classics yet (Gary Schmidt, Kate DeCamillo, N.D. Wilson, Andrew Peterson).
We’ve reviewed a lot of these books at ItB and hope to review more of them in the future. Because, like you, we want to go treasure-hunting in every book we read. We are in search of diamonds. Come and search with us.