Friday, January 13, 2006

Thomas Stearns Eliot and the Christian Reader

I am frequently asked questions with a familiar ring: "what should a Christian think about Harry Potter?" "Should a Christian read fiction?" "Why does C.S. Lewis populate Narnia with Naiads, Dryads, Witches, and Dufflepuds?" My usual response? "Whoa, wait, back up! Your first question should be, 'As a Christian, how can I become a more discerning reader?'"

I want to highly recommend The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, edited by Leland Ryken. In the preface Ryken writes, "I know of know other book that brings together this much information about Christianity and literature." I agree. I certainly don't support all the conclusions of all the contributors, but the book has much to teach us about cultivating discernment as we read and enjoy good books.

For example, here's a taste from one essay, T.S. Eliot's, "Religion and Literature."

Reading priorities

"And there never was a time, I believe, when the reading public was so large, or so helplessly exposed to the influences of its own time. There never was a time, I believe when those who read at all, read so many more books by living authors than books by dead authors; there never was a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past. There may be too many publishers; there are certainly too many books published; and the journals ever incite the reader to 'keep up' with what is being published."

You are what you read

"The author of a work of imagination is trying to affect us wholly, as human beings, whether he knows it or not; and we are affected by it, as human beings, whether we intend to be or not. I suppose that everything we eat has some other effect upon us than merely the pleasure of taste and mastication; it affects us during the process of assimilation and digestion; and I believe that exactly the same is true of anything we read."

No insignificant reading

“But I incline to come to the alarming conclusion that it is just the literature that we read for 'amusement,' or 'purely for pleasure' that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us. It is the literature which we read with the least effort that can have the easiest and most insidious influence upon us. Hence it is that the influence of popular novelists, and of popular plays of contemporary life, requires to be scrutinized most closely. And it is chiefly contemporary literature that the majority of people ever read in this attitude of 'purely for pleasure,' of pure passivity.”

Christian standards for reading

"The two forms of self-consciousness, knowing what we are and what we ought to be, must go together. It is our business, as readers of literature, to know what we like. It is our business, as Christians, as well as readers of literature, to know what we ought to like. It is our business as honest men, not to assume that whatever we like is what we ought to like. And the last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world. What I believe to be incumbent upon all Christians is the duty of maintaining consciously certain standards and criteria of criticism over and above those applied by the rest of the world; and that by these criteria and standards everything that we read must be tested. We must remember that the greater part of our current reading matter is written for us by people who have no real belief in a supernatural order, though some of it may be written by people with individual notions of supernatural order which are not ours. And the greater part of our reading matter is coming to be written by people who not only have no such belief, but are even ignorant of the fact that there are still people in the world so 'backward' or so 'eccentric' as to continue to believe. So long as we are conscious of the gulf fixed between ourselves and the greater part of contemporary literature, we are more or less protected from being harmed by it, and are in a position to extract from it what good it has to offer us."

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