Virtuous Reading


In the fourth and fifth chapters which round out the theology of reading in Lit! Reinke establishes the importance of approaching non-Christian literature with eyes wide open and ears tuned to note the blemishes and the discordances between the biblical worldview and the worldview presented by non-Christian authors. He cites truth, goodness and beauty, as virtues which can be apparent, or seen as a longing in non-Christian literature. He quotes Calvin from his Institutes, “Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator…In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver.” However, as Reinke rightly says there are limits to their wisdom, “…we can discover that non-Christian authors occasionally articulate genuine spiritual desires that we know can be satisfied nowhere else but in the living original, in the essence, in Christ himself.” (p. 75)

Alongside reading Reinke’s Lit! I have been reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, which is an extended essay on whether images of suffering (in particular, images of suffering in war) can change opinions on war. Sontag offers wisdom and speaks to our culture of things which Christians (particularly those in the West or developed nations) need to think about. In her writing there is a search for truth, a desire for goodness (she speaks of morality) and a consideration of beauty (or, in the case of this particular book, aberrations).

Sontag looks at the influence of images and technology on our culture, writing in one part on the so-called “death of reality” (and I will quote at length so that you can get a better sense of her argument): “To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment- that mature style of viewing which is a prime acquisition of ‘the modern’, and a prerequisite for dismantling traditional forms of party-based politics that offer real disagreement and debate. It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people’s pain, just as it is absurd to generalize about the ability to respond to the sufferings of others on the basis of the mind-set of those consumers of news who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.” (p. 98-99)

Here is someone who speaks wisely and winsomely. While I may not agree with everything Sontag says, she does express things that I can agree with. The Bible tells us that evil comes from the heart (Matthew 15:19); we understand people do awful things to each other because we understand sin (Romans 1). Sontag writes, “…it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.” (p. 102)

Reinke spends some time at the end of each of these chapters examining the decisions we need to make about the sorts of books we should avoid reading. I would venture that in chapter five he tends towards unnecessary restrictions in telling people to avoid a “majority” of non-Christian literature until they have “a functional biblical worldview”, (do we then close our eyes to television, or even to newspapers which have an editorial bent that is often less based on reportage of facts but providing an opinion on them? close our ears to all but Christian music? This speaks to me of a mindset of retreat, something which Reinke counters earlier in the chapter. Alas, the problem of pith!) but he does have a point, and a conscience and heart for his reader. He warns and that is good in a culture of permissiveness. His points made in chapter four are far better, emphasising that for many books it is a matter of not yes or no, but a question of now or later that will govern our choices. He also speaks of “avoiding” books which glorify evil and particular books for our own conscience. He is not asking us to burn books, or to ban books, but to avoid them. He is calling us to engage critically, “As book readers, we are mistaken when we categorically reject non-Christian books. And we are mistaken when we read non-Christian literature uncritically.” (p. 77)

There is great freedom in Christ.
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