Readers of the Lost Art

We live in what could be called a content-rich culture. There are more movies, TV shows, miniseries and books than we could ever enjoy—and more are being made every day. But with this glut of new content, have we lost sight of the classic literature and poetry that has stood the test of time?

Over his half-century at Wheaton College, Professor of English Emeritus Leland Ryken has championed the reading life. He has authored or edited 60 books, including Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, and served as the literary stylist for the ESV Bible.

In Recovering the Lost Art of Reading: A Quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful (Crossway), Ryken and his co-author Glenda Faye Mathes argue for the myriad benefits of reading good literature and poetry. Here, Ryken explains why reading imaginative literature is worth the time invested, how a deeper understanding of literature helps us to better understand the Bible, and how we can (re)discover a love for classic literature. —J.S.

One of the greatest gifts of reading literature is its power of transport. We all need such transport in our lives. In our book, we quote the claim of C.S. Lewis that the most customary effect of sitting down to read a work of literature is the feeling “I have got out”—out of the preoccupations and limited world of our private concerns into something different and larger.

Through the years I have been a spokesperson for the idea that leisure is just as much a sphere of stewardship as work is. I do not hesitate to speak of leisure as a Christian calling—something that God commands. People, including church leaders, who do not take time for enlightened leisure become narrow people.

“If readers assimilate literature self-consciously as Christian readers, all the literature they read can nurture the spiritual side of life.”

In my view, it is just as defensible for a pastor to read a novel as it is to read a specifically religious book.

We all need beneficial and enriching escapes from our routines and the limited confines of our professional work. One of the paradoxes of literature is that it first removes us from life by transporting us away from our actual world, but then we return to life with a richer understanding of it and zest for it.

What role does imagination, particularly the kind of imagination literature encourages, play in a church leader’s life? To imagine is to enter into a realm beyond what we ordinarily experience when left to our daily routines.

One way to express this is to say that imagination enables us to contemplate and experience alternate worlds, which in the case of literature consists of the specific world that an author places before us. This is liberating in itself, and can lead to insights and experiences that we would otherwise miss.

Additionally, the word imagination contains the core word image. The imagination images forth its subject matter, which is primarily human experience. Today we live in the information age, and the problem with information as distinct from knowledge and understanding is that it is abstract and mere data removed from actual life.

Great literature offers multiple levels of enrichment. It gives more bang for the buck than ordinary expository writing and the trivia of the smartphone.

On one level, literature is a form of entertainment and enlightened leisure. Secondly, literature puts us in contact with bedrock, universal human experience, presented so concretely that we vicariously live the experiences that are placed before us. As we contemplate life in this way—as we stare at it—we come to see it clearly. What can be more important than seeing life accurately?

“Even when literature does not give us truth as we ourselves understand it, it serves as a catalyst to confirming our own convictions.”

And then, because literature offers an interpretation of the human experiences presented, it offers us ideas to contemplate as we reach our own conclusions about what is true and what is false. Even when literature does not give us truth as we ourselves understand it, it serves as a catalyst to confirming our own convictions.

Finally, literature is an art form like painting or music, so the usual rewards of artistry and beauty are available to us as well.

Can you get the same level of edification from a good TV documentary or miniseries? The answer is no. A documentary belongs to the realm of expository or informational discourse. Literature does not primarily give us information, so a documentary will not give us the type of knowledge and wisdom and enjoyment that literature gives.

Television drama represents a form of literature, and I want to give it its due as belonging to the realm of literature. But it does not attain the level of profundity and edification that great literature does. It is ephemeral and deals with the surface of life.

Great literature portrays the deep issues of life, and additionally offers superior entertainment or enjoyment. Reading great literature often transforms our lives, but what we see on television rarely does.

I can say unequivocally that literature has been a major input into my spiritual life. I happen to gravitate toward literature that espouses a Christian view of life and that presents spiritual experience for my contemplation.

It is only natural that Christians will read literature that presents and affirms the spiritual side of the Christian life. But if readers assimilate literature self-consciously as Christian readers, all the literature they read can nurture the spiritual side of life.

“I do not hesitate to speak of leisure as a Christian calling. People, including church leaders, who do not take time for enlightened leisure become narrow people.”

I have told my students through the years that all of the literature that we read can be read devotionally, though only if we are active rather than passive readers.

A two-way road exists between the Bible and literature. On one hand, our understanding of literature can feed into our ability to enjoy and understand the Bible (which is, after all, 80% literary in nature), and the Bible, in turn, can inform how we assimilate literature and judge its truth claims. [See “Why Should We Read the Bible as Literature?” below.]

Certainly the Bible possesses an authority for me beyond ordinary literature, and it reaches me at deeper levels of my being. But in general, the literature that I read and teach nurtures my soul and enlarges my understanding of life in the same ways the Bible does.

Pastors and church leaders exert a formative influence on the lives of parishioners. The person in the pew is influenced by what church leaders say or don’t say in regard to reading literature and taking time for enlightened leisure and paying attention to the literary nature of the Bible.

In the church that I attend, it is customary for the early summer newsletter to list the books that the pastoral staff intends to read during the upcoming months. The resulting lists consist almost entirely of religious reading, with an occasional excursion into such professional shoptalk as leadership and administration.

I experience this as an annual defeat. It locks church leaders even more firmly into their self-enclosed world, cut off from the larger concerns of the person in the pew.

“To bypass the rewards of reading is a missed opportunity of massive proportions, and missed opportunities are always sad occasions.”

Neither of my parents finished grade school because they needed to work on the farm. Nonetheless, my parents were readers, and I became a reader from a very early age.

To parents, I need to say that whether or not your children become readers who can tap the riches of literature throughout their lives depends on parental example and direction.

Coming to value literature begins by committing yourself to it, so the first step is to build time for reading into your schedule. Virtually everyone finds time for leisure, so the only question is what activities we choose for our leisure pursuits.

I would ask literature teachers or past English majors in my church for suggested readings. I would comb my memory for works that sparked my interest when I was in school. I would keep my antennae up for titles that cross my path.

An expert on the subject of reading has expressed that the reading state—the actual experience of immersing ourselves in a poem or story—is more important than the specific work we are reading. Reading any good story or poem is liberating and carries the rewards of which I have spoken above. If we seek out the reading state by setting aside time to lose ourselves in a poem or story, we will be on our way to being a reader of literature.

Recovering the art of reading stories and poetry is important because of what it can add to our lives, and because we are impoverished without it. To bypass the rewards of reading is a missed opportunity of massive proportions, and missed opportunities are always sad occasions. God wants us to be all that we can be, in all areas of life.

Why Should We Read the Bible as Literature?

By Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes

The quick answer to the question of why we should read the Bible as literature is that we cannot read it fully except as literature. Because most of the Bible is literary in nature, we cannot avoid interacting with its literary features. We cannot read a story in the Bible without interacting with its plot, setting and characters. We cannot assimilate a poem without encountering its images and figures of speech. People who are oblivious to these literary aspects of biblical texts may think they are getting by without literary analysis, but either they are performing literary analysis intuitively and unconsciously, or they are not really interacting with the Bible but with a substitute, probably in the form of context, background information or ideas someone has extracted from the Bible and passed on to them. Because the Bible is not a collection of directly stated ideas, some type of analysis of literary form is required before we can glean what the Bible says.

We also should read the Bible as literature be¬cause doing so opens the door to experiencing the fullness of a text, as opposed to various and common types of reductionism. The starting premise for reading a passage in the Bible is to assume that everything the author put into the text is important and worthy of our attention and admiration. The details of setting in a story are there for a purpose. The parallelism of biblical poetry and some of its prose did not appear by accident but by design. Literary analysis is based on the practice of close reading of a text. It assumes that everything present in the text is important, no matter how remote it may seem (but probably is not) from the text’s main purpose. This stands as an alternative to the reductionism extremely prominent in evangelical circles, namely, reducing every Bible passage to a set of ideas.

Reading the Bible as literature also opens the door to reading and teaching the whole Bible. If we are geared to read only idea-oriented expository prose, we do not know what to do with literary passages, especially ones belonging to unfamiliar genres. The solution to the problem is to acquaint ourselves with the Bible’s range of literary genres, which is approximately the same as is what is covered in high school and college literature courses.

Another reason to read the Bible as literature is that this approach respects the author’s intention. Evangelical biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) has championed the idea of authorial intention as the key concept, but it has not applied the concept widely enough. It stands to reason that whenever a biblical author entrusted his mes-sage to a literary form, he intended us to read the resulting work in a literary manner. To read in keeping with an author’s intention means to read and interpret a text in light of its literary qualities.

Many additional answers to the question of “why” can be adduced, but we have space for only one more. Reading the Bible as literature offers a fresh experience of the Bible. The things that make our recre¬ational reading a source of enjoyment can be transferred to our Bible reading. Most people who catch a vision for the literary approach to the Bible uniformly speak of how it rejuvenates their interest and joy in Bible reading and offers new angles of vision. Adding a literary dimension to Bible reading not only improves the accuracy of the enterprise, but also carries Bible reading beyond duty to delight.

Content taken from Recovering the Lost Art of Reading by Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes, © 2021. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.