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January 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 1 · pp. 3–8 

The Role of Literature in Christian Higher Education

Richard Epp

I ask her, “Have you considered taking an English course?—English as in literature, I mean.”

Her hands move suddenly in her lap and she smiles nervously past my left ear at the Tolkien calendar hanging on my office wall. She knows I teach English, and she’s new on campus and doesn’t want to hurt my feelings—or take English. “I dunno, I liked English in high school . . . I guess. But I think I’d rather take psychology; it seems more . . . useful; I want to understand people. . . .”

There are three other students in the hall waiting to see me, and, after all, why shouldn’t she take psychology if she wants to? So I merely nod and initial her program form.

But what if her parents (who have sent their daughter to Bible college so she can learn to serve the Lord) and her pastor (who hopes the girl will come home next summer and take charge of the youth group) were all jammed into my little office, and what if we took the time to talk about literature and what place it could have in the Christian education of that girl. . . . what might I say in support of literature, my specialty?

Mother tries to help: “You know, I’d like Joan to take English because I want her to learn how to write correctly. It’s so important and they don’t seem to learn that in high school anymore.” But you understand that I must reject her help because her statement implies shocking things about my colleagues in other disciplines: that they do not care about clear, correct writing and that they do not take the time (or have the necessary skills) to adequately mark student essays.

Then the pastor spies a book behind me: “Sociology through Literature, say, could I see that?—makes a lot of sense to me. I was a {4} sociology major at college. You can probably learn a fair amount about different areas—sociology, philosophy, psychology—through English courses, eh?” But I regretfully decline his help as well. Literature needs its own justification. A Christian shouldn’t waste his or her time on literature if literature is just a presweetened, watered-down version of something else which is the real thing.


An understanding of literature’s true worth begins with an understanding of its true nature—“verbal art.” This definition at least has the advantage of brevity, and has, as well, the advantage that it clearly implies the essential doubleness of literature. A work of literature is an art object, and as an art object it has meaning because of its structure, its patterns, its complexity, perhaps—because of its inner relationships. That meaning is formed into the work by the creativity of the artist. That meaning must be apprehended aesthetically and is called beauty.

We cannot here explore arguments in favor of a view of man as essentially creative and aesthetic and, therefore, of a view of the creation and appreciation of art as—not frills—but essential to full humanity. I can only here affirm my belief that (in the words of Colossians 3:10) a Christian is one who has “put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.” We are created and re-created in the image of God. And what is most obvious about God in the creation story in Genesis 1 and 2 and in the Colossians quotation is that He is creative. Mature Christians, then, take seriously the development of that creative potential which is theirs by nature, and which through that development becomes more fully human, more fully what God intends them to be. As art objects, works of literature are products of human creativity, and as such they are worthwhile; they are to be taken seriously. A work of literature needs no other justification for its existence and for the attention we give it than is to be found in the creativity which it embodies. We become more fully human by our appreciation of that creativity. Surely the development of such aesthetic appreciation deserves a place in Christian higher education.

But we spoke of literature’s doubleness. As verbal art the work of literature is art object, but it is also medium—conveyer of messages. As art object, its meaning (which meaning is beauty) is, in a sense, self-sufficient—it arises from inner relationships. As medium, the literary work has meaning only in relation to objects and concepts outside of itself. This is so, of course, because the work of literature is constructed of words—and words are symbols which by their very {5} nature convey “external” messages about things and people and ideas.

So—from literature we expect beauty and message. Not a very startling conclusion, you may say. It is, at least, not a new conclusion. Six hundred years ago, Chaucer, the first great author writing in a language which most of us could recognize as English, was concerned in his writing with both sentence and solas, meaning and amusement. And Chaucer was hardly the first to think in these terms; in the century before Christ, Horace, in his Ars Poetica, set poets the task of providing instruction and entertainment. Instruction implies message. The entertainment and amusement provided by literature relate to the literary work’s structure and style and tone; they are finally aesthetic matters. Literature is double.

Except that, for some reason or other, many people do not like doubleness . . . and they often, therefore, proclaim singleness instead. Many critics, for example, today get upset if you evaluate a poem or a novel in terms of its message; literature is art and we need “art for art’s sake” (which is a cry they picked up in the nineteenth century from critics like Walter Pater) and, after all, “a poem should not mean but be” (which is a line, the meaning of which they like, that they picked up from a poem by the American poet, Archibald MacLeish). I have already declared my agreement with the common-sensical and traditional understanding that words have “external” meanings, and that therefore poems or novels, which are words put together, have meanings—messages which we should not try to pretend to be able to ignore. In fact, in fact, we as Christians have more than a common-sensical basis for arguing for the possibility, the centrality in human history of communications. That firmer basis is the fact which we affirm: the Word became flesh. We believe in the Word of God and God’s written word—we affirm meaning in the world and in words.

As Mennonite Brethren we aren’t immune from an inability to deal in doubles. But most of us probably will not fall over on the side of literature-as-art-only. Whatever the reason, we are much more likely to ignore the aesthetic aspect of a literary work, to blind ourselves to its validity as work of art—to perceive literature as medium only. We want a message which can be capsulized, and then we conclude that, since we bought iron pills, we don’t need to eat liver or read literature. It is when we have started popping pills that we need to rediscover ourselves as created and re-created in the image of the Creator. After we have an understanding of literature’s worth as art firmly in our minds (and, more important, in our experience) then, and only then, is it safe to ask of literature the nature of its usefulness. {6}


We cannot hope in this discussion to get very far with such an inquiry—the uses of literature are so varied, profound and (often) subtle. I will only suggest two of the many possible directions such a discussion might take.

(Naturally we will be concerning ourselves more with literature-as-medium than with literature-as-art-objects, although, we would benefit as people if we could learn more fully, for example, the relationship between the development of the aesthetic sense and worship—a relationship which goes beyond the forms of worship. Worship can be defined as the affirmation by the whole person of the nature and acts of God. The Creator, beautiful in holiness, is a God of pattern, complexity, unity, and perfection. An aesthetic sense—not, of course, in isolation, but combined with a will committed to obedience—can direct us toward understanding the nature of God . . . as well as for developing forms of worship. The psalms teach us how closely a sense of beauty is related to a sense of God.)

Our first approach to the usefulness of literary study emphasizes its role in increasing our sensitivity to language. A sensitivity to language is crucial in the verbal communication of the gospel—it is, perhaps, even more important to our understanding of the gospel. Christians today are bombarded by slogans and clichés—and not only from secular sources. “Christ Is the Answer,” “I Found It”: these are the words of the Gospel According to St. Icker. We grew up on chorus-Christianity: “Why should I care if the sun doesn’t shine, Jesus is mine,” “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before,” “I’m so happy and here’s the reason why. . . .” There is, of course, some truth in each of these slogans and phrases, but as a steady diet and as distillations of the Word of God they are pathetically shallow—and as statements of Christian experience they ignore the dark realities of what it means to be human in a fallen world. The problem is intensified in that we so easily learn to read the Scriptures in terms of these slogans rather than to evaluate the slogans in the light of Scripture. We have to train our young people to think about our clichés and about the views of Christianity and of life which they imply. A study of literature encourages such sensitivity. A work like Rudy Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China, for example, with its probing of the meaning and reality of suffering will force the reader to at least think twice before plastering the easy-answer “Christian” bumper sticker on his car. Christian authors are not alone in their ability to initiate healthy reassessments; any author, by forcing us to face a difficult fact together with its emotional meaning in the life of an individual, can liberate us into a more profound faith. Newspapers are useful for facts, but it is too easy to paste bumper stickers over {7} newspapers. A good novel presents facts in a context of meaning, and because of that context the facts are harder to dismiss—they can effectively challenge us (even though we are forced to reject the particular meaning which that fact has been given in the novel). The study of literature can liberate us from clichés because the study of literature is the study of how words mean.

Words mean differently than chemical symbols, for example. We have already noted that people tend to have double-trouble; we want life black and white, nice and neat. But often life is not clear-cut, black and white, nice and neat. Literature is art object and medium; Jesus Christ is man and God; man is animal and spiritual; death means sorrow and joy; motives are almost always mixed—life is more complex—and richer—than univalence allows. Life is multivalent and God cannot be boxed. We have been borrowing terms from science, but the humanities are, I suspect, better able to deal with the richness of life than sciences. Literature depends on this richness (a source of much frustration to many freshman English students, by the way). Consider the meaning of the scientific symbol “H2O” as compared to the meanings of the linguistic symbol “water.” Students often want water to be only H2O, but as Christians we cannot allow ourselves to see the world in such reduced terms or we will lose (along with many another richness) the Water of Life. To be human means to be confronted with (as the literary critics say) “fruitful ambiguity.” The study of literature helps us in the harvest.

Our second approach to the usefulness of literature is based on a scriptural principle of how we learn to love. In 1 John 4:20 the principle is clearly implied: it is silly to talk about loving God, whom we have not seen, if we have not learned to love our brother whom we have seen. According to Scripture, Christians learn to love that which is visible first, and it is through this love that they learn to love the invisible. We learn to love our heavenly Father through learning love by and for our earthly fathers. What about our eschatological longings? The psalmists knew the earth is fallen, but they also were able to love this earth as beautiful, bountiful, and as pointing to the goodness of God. We had better not claim great love for the yet unseen new heaven and new earth if we have not learned to love this old earth we have seen—or perhaps merely overlooked. Is it better to look at a tree or to look at a photograph of that tree? Both have their validity, of course; the point is that perhaps I will never really see (and thus, love) the real tree until I look at the photograph and it teaches me about the beauty of the tree’s form. Literature, no less than photography, teaches us to see. I grew up on the Canadian prairies; they were all around. However, it was the author W.O. Mitchell, who through his Jake and the Kid stories taught me (and many others, I would think, including some of you reading this article) to see the {8} prairies and so to love them. Literature makes visible to us the earth—and, it may be, our brother.

But the heart of the Christian message is that in love seeing becomes being; the love of God for us is such that through Christ He became one of us. “For whom he did foreknow he did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, 23). An important part of Christian discipleship involves our identifying with others so that we can understand them and bear their burdens. Christ came into our space; we are to get into other people’s space—to empathize with others. Literature is valuable to the Christian because to experience a literary work is often to experience empathy. In sociology, psychology and anthropology one has the opportunity to study about other people; in literature we can become another person.

An example of this possibility is suggested to us by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:20: “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews.” How can I learn to love a Jewish friend? There are many sources from which I could learn about Jews in Canada in the 1970s. But how can I be a Jew? Through identification with one of Mordecai Richler’s heroes in novels such as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz or St. Urbain’s Horseman I can understand something of what the world looks like, feels like, to my Jewish friend. Literature is a path to love, for both literature and love demand empathy.

But love cannot be forced, neither love for people nor love for literature. We cannot force the girl in my office or her parents or pastor or anyone else into an appreciation of literature’s intrinsic worth and thus of its place in Christian higher education. However, I believe that there are many Christians who have known the beauty and power of literature, but whose knowledge is tinged with feelings of guilt—guilt because their understanding of Christ has not been enlarged to the extent that it can include such beauty and power. To such captives we can preach liberty.

Richard Epp is teaching at Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and working toward a doctorate in English at the University of Alberta, Edmonton.

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