Why Read Literature?

Leland Ryken

At the beginning of every summer, the weekly newsletter that accompanies the morning worship service at my church includes a sidebar listing the books that the pastors and selected elders plan to read during the upcoming summer. I can recall only once or twice when a work of literature appeared on the list. The reading lists are solidly in the category of religious reading, with an occasional excursion into such topics as leadership and current cultural hot topics.

Why do I experience this as such a huge letdown—in fact, as an annual depression? Because of the missed opportunity that it represents. The exact nature of that opportunity is what I will explore in this article.

A Practical Experiment

Why read literature? Answering that question is what in the academy is called “an apology” for literature. I have been proclaiming such an apology for more than four decades, and I will do so again in this article. But it occurs to me that my readers can forge their own apology for literature if they will simply set aside the time to read a work of literature that they have not read before (or have not read for a very long time) and then analyze what the effects of that reading experience were.

I will take the lead by reconstructing a recent reading experience of my own. One of the benefits of my having coauthored a book about the portrayal of pastors in literary masterpieces is that I read works that I had never read before and that I probably would not have read without the impetus provided by the publishing venture. I will arbitrarily choose one of those books for purposes of self-scrutiny of the type I am urging upon my readers in this article.

Once the project of writing about pastors in the literary classics commenced, the list of candidates for inclusion kept growing. A colleague in my own department suggested a book entitled The Hammer of God, authored by a twentieth-century Swedish churchman named Bo Giertz. Initially I undertook the assignment of reading the book with the intention of adding it to the handbook section of our book (a compendium of five dozen one-page entries on books dealing with ministerial issues). But I was so captivated by what I read that the book quickly catapulted into the section of our book where we give extended coverage to twelve major classics of clerical fiction.

The Hammer of God is a collection of three novellas. Each of the three stories follows a young Lutheran pastor over approximately a two-year span at the beginning of his ministerial career, all in the same rural parish in Sweden. Each of the three pastors arrives fresh from theological training and decidedly immature (and in two cases a nominal rather than genuine believer). Each of the three attains maturity of faith through encounters with parishioners, fellow pastors, and various religious movements that were in fact prominent in Sweden during the historical eras covered. There are two plot lines: the “coming of age” spiritual pilgrimages of the three young ministers, and an episodic fictional history of a rural Swedish parish.

So what transpired in my spiritual and imaginative life as I undertook my excursion into a hitherto unknown work of literature? Before I break my answer into the subjects that will indirectly comprise an apology for literature, let me comment on the exhilaration of committing myself to mastering a new realm of the imagination. When I situate myself in front of a television set for a bit of relaxation, I do not feel as though I have embarked on something momentous. But when I choose to read a novel or collection of poems, I feel elevated by what I have undertaken.

English poet John Keats wrote a great sonnet on this very subject (“Sonnet on First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” 1815). Using the metaphor of geographic discovery, Keats pictures reading literature as “traveling in the realms of gold.” On the logic of this metaphor, encountering a new work of literature possesses all the thrill of discovering a new country.

As I make the case for the importance of literature, therefore, I want first to extend a challenge to my readers. If you want to know why it is important to read literature, answer the question for yourself by reading a novel or play or browsing in an anthology of poetry in the next two or three weeks. If a chapter per day seems like an insurmountable barrier, resolve to read six pages a day. I predict that the moment you commit to the program, you will feel that you have crossed a threshold and stepped into a liberating space.

The Power of Transport

As I have already implied, the first gift that a great work of literature imparts is the power of transport. Children know this power when they thrill to the formula “once upon a time.” But this childhood thrill is actually universal. It is an impulse that adults, too, need to cultivate (as Jesus practiced when he told his parables).

The word escape is equally accurate as a name for what I am commending. We all need beneficial escapes from burdensome reality. We long for a sense of having gotten out of our workaday world with its pressures. We feel equally a sense of exhilaration when we pass through a door of the imagination and discover that we have gotten into an alternate world (and even a short poem is such a world). Literature illuminates the life we live in this world, but it does so by first removing us from our world.

I can think of two good reasons to undertake excursions into imaginary realms. One is that the rush of everyday duties becomes confining to the human spirit if we never get out of the daily routine and its duties. The second is that our culture seeks to encompass us and even suffocate us with the cheap and tawdry. It is untrue that we are cut off from our own culture; on the contrary, we are bombarded by it. The problem is that our secular culture is demeaning rather than elevating.

C. S. Lewis has written particularly well on the nature of reading as an escape. The discussion appears in his small classic of literary theory (the only one that Lewis wrote) entitled An Experiment in Criticism. In defending the reading of literature as a beneficial escape (and not automatically deserving of the stigma of being considered escapist), Lewis acknowledges that we need to monitor what we escape to in our reading experiences.[1] This is exactly where great literature makes its strongest claim to our attention.

The avenues that comprise a Christian defense of literature are tried and true and are essentially three in number. The order in which I will discuss them in the rest of this article is arbitrary, so no importance should be attached to the order in which they appear.

One more preliminary point that I need to make is that when literature is commended to pastors and other church leaders, the discussion almost inevitably gets slanted toward fictional narrative, chiefly novels. But narrative makes up only half of the realms of gold that we call literature. The other half is poetry. If given the choice, I myself prefer to read poems and to give them the reflection they deserve. In any case, as I extol the rewards of reading literature, I would like my readers to have poems in view as well as novels and plays.

Literature as Entertainment and a Form of Beauty

The Roman author Horace wrote a treatise (Ars Poetica) just twenty years before the birth of Jesus in which he bequeathed a formula regarding the function of literature that has stood the test of time. Horace claimed that literature combines what is dolci (literally “sweet”) with what is utile (useful). The words used to express this duality have varied slightly from one person to another, but perhaps the preferred formula has been delight and wisdom (or its variant truth). The writer of Ecclesiastes uses that formula near the end of his compilation of proverbs (12:9–10) when he claims to have “sought to find words of delight” and to have written “words of truth.” The Romantic poet Shelley called literature “a fountain forever overflowing with wisdom and delight.”[2] And Robert Frost claimed a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”[3]

To defend literature for the pleasure that it gives is what I call a hedonistic defense of literature, and it has been a cornerstone of my own thinking on the subject for half a century. There are two sides to such a defense. One is the element of beauty that we find in a well-crafted story or poem. Artistry is another name for it. C. S. Lewis offered the word deliciousness as a synonym for such beauty.

There is no need to spell out the details of what makes up artistic beauty in a story or poem. It extends all the way from the overall structure of the work to the very words that the writer has chosen. I am fond of a comment that C. S. Lewis made in defending the importance of form in literature: “Every episode, explanation, description, dialogue—ideally every sentence—must be pleasurable and interesting.”[4]

The other aspect of the delight of literature is its entertainment value, or its status as an enlightened use of leisure time. Again it is beyond the scope of this discussion to spell out what things make literature entertaining. I am speaking of the principle of the thing, so whatever you as a reader find entertaining in reading a poem or watching a performance of a play is what I am defending. I commend a comment by Charles Williams who follows up his observation that “Paradise Lost is much more fun written in blank verse than it would be in prose” with the statement, “Let us have all the delights of which we are capable.”[5]

The Authentic Voice of Human Experience

Form is half of the literary equation, and content is the other half. Of course works of literature embody ideas and offer some of them for our approval. I will get to that subject eventually, but the forte of literature is not its ability to embody ideas. The truth that literature stands ready to impart is primarily truthfulness to human experience. It is a point of vexation to me that so few people have this category as one of the types of truth.

I will hazard a guess that the element of literature that registers most clearly with my students is that the subject of literature is universal human experience concretely rendered. In fact, I never let my students lose sight of it. It is also my observation that the people who never see the point of literature are the ones who have never been coached to see the recognizable human experiences that every work of literature embodies.

One of my favorite texts for proving this point is the story of Cain (Genesis 4:1–16). The story is briefly narrated, and it takes place at the dawn of history. I theorize to my students that if we can find two dozen universal human experiences in such a text, we can find it anywhere. So my strategy is to stand at the white board and announce that my hand is the pen of a ready scribe, waiting to record the universal human experiences embodied in the story. The answers typically begin with the obvious: sibling rivalry, earning a livelihood, envy, harboring a grudge, murder, lack of self-control.

At that point I declare the floodgates opened, and the answers continue to tumble forth: self-pity, attempted cover-up, exile, making a bad decision and having to live with the consequences, a sense of entitlement, etc., etc. I then clinch the point by quoting John Steinbeck's verdict that “this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story, . . . the symbol story of the human soul.”[6]

Once alerted to this aspect of literature, we can scarcely avoid finding it in the literature that we read or view. I call it knowledge in the form of right seeing. As we contemplate the human experiences that a writer puts before us, we see those experiences clearly and accurately. Truth and knowledge are more than ideational. A good photograph or painting gets us to see life accurately, and so does a work of literature. A poem does it in more concentrated fashion than a novel does.

Why is it important for Christians to possess this form of knowledge? My answer is that it is part of our bond with the human race and one that evaporates if we do not renew our contact with it. The pressures of daily living are ready to envelope us and cut us off from broader human interests. We need windows beyond the exigencies of the moment. C. S. Lewis said in regard to literature that “we demand windows. Literature . . . is a series of windows, even of doors” (Lewis said this in the same passage at the end of An Experiment in Criticism where he famously endorsed literature for “the enlargement of our being” that it imparts).[7]

Let me relate this to preachers and preaching. Those who end up in the pulpit are a self-selecting group right from the start. They love the Bible, and they love theological abstraction. Unless something intervenes, these people tend to produce sermons that whisk us away to a biblical and theological world that is sealed off from daily life. Frederick Buechner wrote about this very insightfully in a book entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (1977), which discusses the need for preachers to tell the truth with an imagination informed by contact with literature as well as a mind informed by theology.

A visit to a patient in a hospital also pulls a minister back into the world of human experience, but literature covers more territory than our personal routine is likely to do, and it silhouettes human experiences with interpretive insight. The Renaissance essayist Francis Bacon said that “reading maketh a full man.” I would challenge all of my readers, but preeminently those who are pastors, to put that to the test. I think the results will be very positive.

The Intellectual Pleasures of Literature

Although the forte of literature and the arts is their ability to “hold the mirror up to nature”—to be an accurate picture of life in the world—that does not mean that literature is devoid of ideas. When in the first half of the twentieth century poets and critics were obsessed with the theory “no ideas but in things” (implying that literature does no more than embody human experience), poet Denise Levertov provided a counterbalance with the catchy one-liner, “No ideas but in things does not mean no ideas.”[8]

Given Horace's division of labor between what is “sweet” (delightful) and what is useful in the literary enterprise, I am certain that most people would put the ideational aspect of literature into the box labeled “useful.” I do not question that it is useful, but I consider my encounters with the ideas embodied in literature to be one of the intellectual pleasures of my life.

That literature embodies important ideas is one of the presuppositions that we rightly make regarding literature. A towering literary scholar of an earlier generation spoke of the rule of significance, by which he meant, “Read the [work] as expressing a significant attitude to some problem concerning man and/or his relation to the universe.”[9] Equally helpful is the statement of novelist Joyce Cary that “all writers . . . must have, to compose any kind of story, some picture of the world, and of what is right and wrong in that world.”[10]

There are multiple ways in which to encounter the great ideas of the human race. Nonetheless, I incline toward the view of Henry Zylstra that “if you really want to get at the spirit of an age and the soul of a time you can hardly do better than to consult the literature of that age and that time.”[11]

Part of the pleasure that I derive from contemplating and weighing the ideas of literature is akin to the pleasure of a puzzle or riddle. The process starts with figuring out what the writer is saying and offering for my approval. Then I face the task (but it is not burdensome) of testing the intellectual spirits to see if they are from God. Certainly this is a way of being in my own culture but not of it, but one of the great strengths of literature is that its ideas are not limited to our own moment in history. They stretch over the whole expense of human history. One of the lessons of literary history is that not all of the good ideas were produced in the last fifty years.

When I interact with the ideas of literature, I find it useful to have a roadmap in my mind regarding the intellectual territory through which I am traversing. The type of intellectual or ideational pleasure and profit I gain from literature depends on the category to which it belongs. One category is the literature of Christian affirmation, as in the poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, and John Milton. A second category is what I call the literature of common humanity. An equally good label is the literature of clarification. Such literature does not endorse explicitly Christian ideas, but it clarifies the human situation (including the realm of ideas) to which the Christian faith speaks. Assimilating such literature in a spiritually uplifting manner depends on what a reader does with the ideas that are offered for approval, and I find this a pleasurable challenge.

A third category is the literature of unbelief. It espouses ideas that contradict the ideas of the Christian faith and world view. I find that the intellectual effort that such literature requires from me can be a highly profitable exercise. Among other things, it sends me continuously to the Bible to find the standard of truth by which I reject what an author has placed before me.

Tips for the Journey

My readers will have noticed that I have provided few literary examples of the principles that I have asserted. That is by design. I have provided an outline for which I want my readers to fill in the illustrations. For those who lack sufficient contact with literature to provide illustrations, my advice is to take immediate corrective action.

But doesn’t the Bible provide a sufficient sourcebook for a Christian's reading? I remind my readers of a command with which they are thoroughly familiar, namely, the command to sing to the Lord a new song. We do not need literature to provide our world view and doctrinal framework. Nonetheless, as English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge correctly observed, ideas can become so familiar “that they lose all the life and efficiency of truth and lie bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul” (Biographia Literaria, 1817). Good literature rescues the great ideas from becoming platitudes and clichés.

I would compare the effect of literature to the effect of a good sermon. Both are capable of providing fresh insights and apt formulations of timeless truths. We do not scorn a good sermon because we already know the biblical text and its theological ideas. I propose that we should equally value what the storyteller and poet can do for us in their handling of human experience and expressing insights more beautifully and powerfully than we have recently (or ever) experienced them.

As a postscript, I find that people shun literature for two main reasons. One is that they do not know why and how literature can enrich their lives. My challenge to such people is the motto of the car salesman: take a test drive. The other category of nonreaders is people who are too busy to conceive of reading literature as a possibility. My encouragement to such people is to begin modestly, with a fifteen-minute-per-day commitment.


[1] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 69.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry (1821).

[3] Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” repr. Perspectives on Poetry, ed. James Calderwood and Harold Toliver (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 350.

[4] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 84.

[5] Charles Williams, Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 5.

[6] John Steinbeck, East of Eden, (New York: Viking Press, 1952), chap. 22.

[7] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 138.

[8] Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World (New York: New Directions, 1973); qtd. Leland Ryken in The Christian Imagination (Colorado Springs: Shaw, 2002), 143.

[9] Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), 115.

[10] Joyce Cary, Art and Reality (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), 174.

[11] Henry Zylstra, Testament of Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 5.

Leland Ryken is Professor of English at Wheaton College, where he has taught for forty-three years. He has had a publishing career as well as a teaching career. His three dozen books cover a broad range of subjects, including the Puritans, the Bible as literature, and Bible translation. He is the author of The Legacy of the King James Bible (Crossway, 2011). Ordained Servant Online, May 2012.

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Ordained Servant: May 2012

Lit? Why Bother?

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Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books

A Profitable Pleasure for Pastors

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