The Christian and Secular Literature
“Eternal in might and malignance is the sea! It groweth not old with the men who toil from its coasts. Generation upon the heels of generation, infinitely arising, go forth in hope against it, continuing for a space, and returning spent to the dust. . . . As it is written, the life of a man is a shadow, swiftly passing, and the days of his strength are less; but the sea shall endure in the might of youth to the wreck of the world.” (From “The Fruits of Toil,” by Norman Duncan, in Elements of Literature.)
In “The Fruits of Toil,” Solomon Stride spends his life fighting against the sea that finally conquers him. As the passage above demonstrates, this poignant tale is suffused with beautiful language describing Solomon’s experiences—rich language that includes metaphor, alliteration, personification, and biblical allusions—yet it is a secular work.
Is a Christian justified in reading secular literature? After all, merely liking something (or disliking it) is not justification for its inclusion in (or rejection from) the Christian life. I like German chocolate cake and dislike exercise, but that’s no reason to fill my life with one while ignoring the other!
The question as to whether or not a Christian should read secular literature is worth examining; the answer comes from at least two considerations. First is the understanding that the highest forms of man’s work provide even greater appreciation of the perfection of God’s Word.
“Students [of good literature] will be sensitive and responsive to meanings in the Scriptures—even very basic ones—that were beyond them before. Students will be aware of the beauty and power of biblical expression and understand how artistry clarifies and reinforces meaning. For sheer variety and magnificence of artistic effects and structural finesse, the Bible is incomparable. It supernaturally excels in artistry of form as well as in truth of content” (Elements of Literature, Teacher’s Edition, p. i).
So understanding great literature and studying the techniques used to make it great enhance our appreciation for Scripture. When we understand concepts such as structural parallelism, metaphor, symbolism, irony, and differences between genres from seeing examples of them in flawed secular writings, we can better appreciate the beauty and artistry of the world’s only perfect book, the Bible. For example, “Sound and Syntax—Scripture and the Sea” (from the updated Elements of Literature, Teacher’s Edition) uses ideas from “The Fruits of Toil” to build an appreciation for the Bible’s high literary qualities.
Additionally, did you know that Scripture itself includes quotations from secular writers? Paul, the man whom God chose to write and spread His Word throughout the world, was well taught in the best of his day’s secular literature. And, surprisingly enough, Christ Himself quoted a secular source in a post-Resurrection appearance.
Acts 17:28—“For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.” Paul is quoting the pagan poets Aratus and Epimenides of Crete. “It is not by accident that Paul can quote from classical Greek poetry. He has obviously studied it and can use it as a bridge to reach the sensibilities of his Greek audience. Yet Paul keeps it in subservience to the divinely inspired Word of God” (Witness to Christ: A Commentary on Acts, pp. 253–54).
Acts 26:14—“And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” The phrase “kick against the pricks” “comes from Aeschylus (525–456 b.c.; Agamemnon, line 1624). Believers do not usually think of the Lord Jesus appearing in glory to convert an apostle, and quoting a line from Greek poetry!” (Witness to Christ, p. 364).
Titus 1:12—“One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said,The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.” Here Paul again quotes Epimenides of Crete (cf. Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 11 [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1978], pp. 432–33).
Thus we can conclude, based on Scripture, that it is not wrong to have an awareness of secular writings; I would even assert that Scripture encourages it. Such knowledge, however, as stated above, must always be subservient to the commands of Scripture—not all topics are wide open to the Christian. (For further discussion on this topic, see “A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Literature” on page 6 of this issue.)
So Scripture approves familiarity with and therefore, by extension, the study of secular literature. What’s the best way, then, to approach secular materials?
Clearly, our approach must be based on the Bible. When sending His disciples out “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Christ warned the twelve that they were “as sheep in the midst of wolves” and commanded them to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:6, 16).* We must realize that Christians who study literature—specially those who are young and inexperienced—are like sheep in the midst of wolves and must therefore be led by our Shepherd. That’s why a Christian literature series is extremely important. Here’s how we develop literary discernment, always keeping the Bible view in mind, in BJU Press’s literature series.
Explorations in Literature (Grade 7) starts young people off reading for pleasure and moves them to reading for wisdom and enrichment. Then in eighth grade (Excursions in Literature) we emphasize literary discernment and introduce literary criticism.
In ninth grade (Fundamentals of Literature) we teach the process of literary analysis so that young people can biblically interpret and evaluate writings. And grade ten (Elements of Literature) adds to analysis skills by focusing on advanced literary concepts such as allusion, symbolism, and irony, always drawing parallels with God’s Word.
The last stage expands our eleventh- and twelfth grade readers’ knowledge by giving them a historical approach. American Literature introduces more than seventy authors, connecting their lives and beliefs as revealed in their writings with corresponding literary periods. British Literature does the same for great works from the other side of the Atlantic, tracing English Christianity from its beginnings to the present.
So when we parents teach our children about things that are true, honorable, lovely, virtuous, and praiseworthy in secular literature (cf. Phil. 4:8), we are actually helping them develop a greater love for Scripture and thus helping them to be better witnesses for Christ. Ironic, isn’t it?