What Good Is Reading Literature for the Christian?

C. S. Lewis compares the question, “What is the good of reading what anyone writes?” to the question, “What is the good of listening to what anyone says?” No one would ask preachers to stop explicating Scripture on Sunday because nothing should be added to the gospel. Churches often hold book clubs or Sunday school classes on the latest Christian-living book without wondering whether we should read books other than the Bible. Only when the books are poetry, biography, fiction, or some other humanities genre do we balk at the necessity of such reading. How could it be beneficial to the life of a believer to read the belles lettres, the classics, the great books?

“Unless you contain in yourself sources that supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke and merriment you want, the answer is obvious,” Lewis responds. We are not self-contained entities with the ability to unpack Scripture and all its mysteries. Rather, we should look to other books the way we seek spiritual teachers, models, and leaders in our faith to guide us. Lewis adds, “And if it is worthwhile listening or reading at all, it is often worth doing so attentively.” If we are going to read—the Bible included—we should learn how to read well. We should become readers who do not read for our own gain but who read as a spiritual practice, always open to how the Lord is planting seeds in our heart, teaching us more about him, and showing us ways of living more like Christ in the world.

The Difference between the Bible and Other Literature

Recognizing the Bible as literature opens us up to a fuller appreciation of the holy book than if we treat it like an instruction manual or to-do list. The Bible is a bibliography of genres, including poetry, song, lament, prophecy, history, narrative, parables, letters, dreams, and so forth. We should practice reading in such a way as to enjoy the fullness of that literary experience. However, being divinely authored by God, the Bible also stands apart from all literature penned by human authors. God inspired human writers to pen the words that we receive, but God also authorized those pages. No matter what other beauty, truth, and goodness may be found elsewhere, other works of literature lack the same authority over Christians as the work of Scripture has.

We may read with a certain freedom when it comes to Scripture, which is not the case with nonsacred writings. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he assures the young disciple, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Our Judeo-Christian Scriptures provide an assurance of their authority—literally, their author is God—as well as their usefulness for forming readers into righteous servants and for gifting us with the power for kingdom work. This authority of the Scriptures relieves readers of the burden to sift through what is fallible and what is divine.

Over years of reading, we may begin to trust certain authors and regard them as teachers, but there remains a difference between their genius and the authority of the apostles. I trust Fyodor Dostoevsky, Eugene Peterson, Fleming Rutledge. By God’s grace, any person, any book or artwork, any element of God’s creation may speak to a heart. But no matter how much truth or beauty these writers engender, they do not possess the apostolic authority granted to the writers of Scripture. In 1847 Søren Kierkegaard outlined the difference between an apostle and a genius: “Genius is what it is of itself, i.e., through that which it is in itself; an Apostle is what he is by his divine authority.” Confronting the manifold theological arguments that focused on Paul’s rhetorical or aesthetic brilliance as a writer, Kierkegaard reminds readers that Paul’s Letters belong to a different category of assessment. “When someone with authority says to a person, go! and when someone who has not the authority says, go! the expression (go!) and its content are identical; aesthetically it is, if you like, equally well said, but the authority makes the difference.” Whether or not you the reader approve of an apostle’s style matters less in view of eternity than whether you heed the message and submit your life to its authority.

Other literature may act as a gloss on divine Scripture, responding to the authoritative book with exposition, praise, poetry, narrative creations, and so forth, but none of them carry the weight of the inspired Word. When reading works by geniuses, to use Kierkegaard’s label, the readers must evaluate those works as true, good, or beautiful. Unlike the fealty we show to Paul, we owe no obedience to Rembrandt, Gabriel García Márquez, Tchaikovsky. In a metaphor in which Kierkegaard compares a genius to a bird, he writes, “It is modest of the nightingale not to require any one to listen to it; but it is also proud of the nightingale not to care whether any one listens to it or not.” Like the nightingale, the genius has an “immanent telos,” Kierkegaard says, meaning that the end of the work lies within this plane of existence. The genius’s book or art may or may not extend through time, being praised for generations, but ultimately that work is not eternally mandated. There may be glimpses of eternity highlighted by a genius in their art, but such reflections of divine reality are not sanctioned in the genius. Instead of the obedience owed to the apostles, geniuses only request our attention.

Excerpted from Reading for the Love of God by Jessica Hooten Wilson, ©2023. Used by permission of Brazos Press.