Although we live in an age with the highest literacy rate in world history, we also live in an age where people are reading less and less. The amount of Americans reading literature continues to decline every year. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) have not read a book in the past year.
The digital revolution has ushered the once-commonplace discipline of reading off the American nightstand, replaced by the technological allure and informational expediency of our phones, tablets, and screens. One of the greatest American writers and humorists, Mark Twain, once famously said that “the man who chooses not to read has no advantage over the man who cannot.” This quote prompts a significant question for the reader: What exactly is the advantage of reading literature, and how can literature shape us as Christians?
The Relationship Between Good and Evil
I once stumbled upon a curious quote from Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and controversial cultural figure, who wisely said that “I don’t think that you have any insight into your capacity for good until you have some well-developed insight into your capacity for evil.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian philosopher-novelist, furthers Peterson’s point—and seems to echo Paul’s statement that “I want to do good, [but] evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21)—when he says: “The line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” In an effort to synthesize the claims of both Peterson and Solzhenitsyn, it seems if good is to be, in fact, good, when it accompanies the acknowledgment of evil.
Take, for instance, the idea of courage. Courageous actions are not courageous unless done for good. In other words, courage is inherently tethered to justice. And because justice is determined by reason, any courageous action is a work of reason. In illustrating this point, Karen Swallow Prior, in her book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, says that a child who stumbles into oncoming traffic to save a ball, unaware of the risk at hand, is not displaying courage because the child is acting without reason. But an adult who puts him or herself in harm’s way to save the child, taking into account the potential danger, is certainly courageous.
The person who acts dangerously without reason, and thus without any level of fear, is being reckless and not courageous. Aristotle puts it this way: “So the courageous person endures and fears—and likewise is confident about—the right things.” In the same way, if we truly want to be good and right as humans, or courageous for that matter, we must understand our own vices and sins. Properly valuing good comes when recognizing its inverse. And it so happens that literature aids us in seeing our own sins.
Reading Literature for Virtue
Another way of defining good is virtue. Thomas Aquinas echoes Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics when he says that virtue is “a kind of mean between excess and defect.” Take temperance, for example. Temperance is the virtue of indulging in neither too little nor too much, it is, like virtue itself, the just mean. Furthermore, in order to correctly acquire any virtue, we must first grapple with what is too much and what is too little. Much like Peterson’s acknowledgment that, in order to grasp our capacity for good, we must first have some “well-developed insight into [our] capacity for evil,” the essence of virtue necessitates understanding what is not virtuous. And what virtue is not—these extremes of too little and too much—is vice, typically understood as sin.
As Christians concerned with living virtuously, we must be quick to rid ourselves of vice, the deadly impairment that restricts us from imitating Christ. And one of the most accessible ways we can “throw off… the sin that so easily entangles us,” is to read literature. Good literature creates a sort of microcosm of life, teaching us right from wrong by allowing the reader to live vicariously through fictional characters. Consider the following from John Milton, author of arguably the greatest English epic poem, Paradise Lost:
Since the knowledge of vice is so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of reasons? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.
Milton helps us see that reading literature exposes us to another realm of understanding, a realm that would otherwise not exist without this excellent medium. The pleasure of reading—and, yes, it should be a pleasure!—gives us an opportunity to dive deep into the uncharted waters of “sin and falsity” that we would otherwise not be exposed to. Literature brings our sin and vice into the light by presenting us with characters who represent those sins and vices.
Take The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe’s character Edmund Pevensie for example. As soon as Edmund enters Narnia for the first time, he is met by the White Witch. The White Witch offers Edmund any desert of his choosing in hopes that he might bring his siblings to Narnia, a dangerous proposition considering the Witch’s mischievous plans. Edmund is transfixed upon the possibility of having his favorite dessert, Turkish Delight. He blindly and immediately cooperates, letting his passions override his reason. Lewis describes the scene:
While he was eating the Queen kept asking him questions. At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen [the Witch] should be so inquisitive.
Lewis exposes the reader to the deadly sin of gluttony through Edmund’s impulsive actions. It is not that Edmund’s consumption of Turkish Delight is a sin in and of itself, but it is rather that the way in which he eats is sinful. Edmund eats with such ravenous zeal, haste, and greed that he gratifies his fleshly desires, which also leaves him wanting more and more.
Edmund’s sinful inability to put his reason above his passions and see the Witch’s oddly inquisitive and pointed questions eventually leads Edmund to put his siblings in peril. Lewis uses this scene to provide the reader with a negative moral example, an example that reveals virtue by way of vice, furthering our understanding of our own capacity for evil. Edmund’s negative example, inversely, shows us the perversion of the virtue of temperance.
The Advantage of Literature
So, the advantage of reading literature is that literature gives the Christian a healthy and unique avenue to delve into the crevices of his or her own soul. Literature allows the reader to escape to unforeseen worlds and remarkable adventures yet also forces us to consider the nature of our own existence, furthering our ability to contemplate some of life’s greatest questions and “throw off… the sin that so easily entangles us” all at the same time. With the exception of our Holy Scriptures, there is perhaps no other vessel so worthy of our attention than great literature.