I recently finished the book Reading Between the Lines by Gene Veith Jr. In simple terms, it was probably the most insightful book on literature by a Christian that I have ever read. I want you to read the book for yourself, but first, I’d like to sure five of my favorite quotes from the book, and why I think they’re just as important now as when the book was written 25 years ago.
“The sermon on the mount does not dictate that the subjects of of sexuality or violence are forbidden for Christians to contemplate . . . In evaluating the morality of a work of literature, we must realize that to depict sin is not necessarily to advocate sin.”
This, in my view, is one of the primary things that need addressed in how Christian culture tends to look at stories. An example that Veith uses in the books is Christians who call for their local school library to ban The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe because it has a witch in it. In like manner, Christians may criticize the sexual content of Les Miserables, for instance, which is meant to portray prostitution in all of its hideousness and sinfulness, not to glamorize it. In like fashion, authors may address any number of sins in a story, such as revenge, sexual promiscuity, or alcoholism, and do so in a way that brings glory to God. This leads very directly into the second quote that I want to highlight in the book.
“Modern Christians should not mistake our post-Victorian sense of propriety for moral purity.”
Christian films are a very good example of this. While they steer clear of the type of immoral content that could cause temptation issues, they also commonly fail to engage with sin in all of its ugliness, which ultimately dilutes the Christian message. In order to attain a truly biblical approach to sin, we can’t sugar coat how hideous it is. As Veith says, “The Bible is never dedicate” in how it treats sin.
“Empathy is a special application of the imagination. The ability to imagine what it would be like to experience what someone else is experiencing can be crucial to moral sensitivity.”
For a long time, it was something of a mystery to me why some stories worked and others didn’t, and sometimes writing style didn’t make a difference. It wasn’t until I started reading books about writing that I discovered the key: The writer must engage the reader emotionally with his or her characters. This is why To Kill a Mockingbird and Uncle Tom’s Cabin were as significant in the battle for racial equality as legislative action. Literature engenders our emotions, especially compassion, and can thus be a great tool for Christians.
“The popular culture gives us books that offer entertainment but no ideas. High culture gives us books that offer ideas but no entertainment. The best books manage to do both.”
The biggest point from this passage that I would like to impress upon Christians is that entertainment is, at its core, about ideas. Brian Godawa, a Christian in the filmmaking world (the author of Hollywood Worldviews, author of Biblical epic novels, and one of the writers behind the film “To End All Wars”) has even gone so far as to say that if filmmakers and writers tell you they aren’t trying to influence you, “they’re lying.” This is true in books just as much as it is in movies, if not more so. 1984 makes a statement about fascist government. In more modern times, Unwind is a splintering analysis of the abortion debate. The Wind in the Willows has great lessons about pride and selfishness. Good books are not just about a good time; they’re about good ideas, too.
“Christians need theologians to explain the Biblical text and to apply its truths, but Christians also need poets such as Milton who can help us imagine and contemplate those truths more fully. Milton also illustrates how Christian writers can appropriate non-Christian styles and subvert them to service of Christian truth.”
This is perhaps the most needed truth of the book, and something that I especially appreciate about Veith’s perspective. Christians have tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to many stories. Balance is needed in the way we approach fiction. Veith does an excellent job laying out just what the theological dangers and positive aspects are to each major cultural movement in fiction. By appropriating those non-Christian styles and subverting them to the service of Christian truth, Christian readers can appreciate the truths of a work without buying into its falsehoods, and Christian writers can reach the culture in a broader way without selling out to secular dogma.