Articles posts of '2015' 'November'

The Song of Mary

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoiced in God my Savior.
Luke 1:46–47

As the lights of the Christmas season begin to fill the countryside, we do well to remember the promises that God has given to us. The first is the promise of life, and the second is the promise of love. Both of these promises are reflected in the Song of Mary.

Christmas is a delightfully exciting time! What fun it is to put up the tree. In our house we have three trees. We decorate the house, we shop for gifts, we anticipate opening gifts, and there is always lots of candy and cookies around at Christmastime.

As exciting as all of this may be, the time leading up to the first Christmas was so much more exciting for Mary than it is for us. An angel had visited her. She had received a message from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She was going to have a Son, even God’s own Child. The God who had given His promise of life. The God who had given His promise of love was about to reveal to the world His greatest promise of life. He was about to give His greatest display of love!

The song that Mary sings is a song filled with faith and joy. It is a song for each one of us as we reflect upon the promises of God. Mary’s song marks a transition from Old Testament way of praising God to New Testament way of praising God.
In the Old Testament God was praised for His promises. The people eagerly anticipated the fulfillment of those promises. In the New Testament the people still praised God for His promises, but beginning with Mary, God is praised for the fulfillment of those promises.

A Song of Joy
Mary’s song is a song of joy and gratitude. It speaks of God’s goodness and God’s greatness. It is a personal confession of His love, His mercy, and His grace. Just think of what God has announced to Mary through His angel. The birth of the child who would be called Jesus was the hope of redemption being fulfilled. Nothing like that had ever happened before. Oh, there had been plenty of times when God’s people were saved from their enemies. There had been prophets before, but all those events and prophets foretold of this day. This day when a Savior, when “God with us,” would come into the world! And Mary was chosen to be the one through whom this prophecy of life and love is fulfilled.

Why Mary? Mary recognized that it was not because of who she was or what she had done. It was God’s condescending love that chose Mary. Mary recognized herself as the subject of great mercy from the Holy One. The same Holy One who showed mercy to Noah during the flood. The same Holy One who came to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The same Holy One who led Israel into the Promised Land.
And why Jesus? Why would God send His Son? Why should God send His Son into this sinful world? Because of His promise of life and His promise of love. Because the love of God has no limit. His love knows no measure. The love of God is like a river that empties itself but never runs dry. What else could Mary do but sing a song of praise to Jehovah, the God of promises fulfilled (vv. 46–49)?

A Song of Deliverance
In addition, the song of Mary is a song of deliverance. God had promised salvation in word and in deed. The last few centuries had been woefully discouraging for Israel. The voice of prophecy was no longer being heard. The hated Romans had subjected the country to an oppressive tyranny. Where was the hope of Israel? How long would the Lord tolerate this chastisement of His people?
At last, the messenger of God comes to Mary and tells her that God has not forgotten His promise. One named Jesus is coming. And the messenger says (v. 22), “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give Him the throne of His father, David, and His kingdom will never end.”
What can Mary do but sing her song of joy (vv. 50–53)?

A Song of Faithfulness
And finally, Mary’s song is a song of God’s covenant faithfulness. One thing had always been a comfort to Israel: the promises of God. His promise of life and His promise of love. Many times in the Old Testament those promises had been expressed and expounded upon. Many times those promises were all Israel had to hope upon. That God would be faithful. That God would remember His people.
Ultimately these promises were all wrapped up in the swaddling clothes of the manger, in the Messiah, in Jesus Christ. Every word of prophecy, every sacrifice Israel made, every experience of deliverance pointed in His direction. They all pointed to Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, God was sending real help to His people. It was His crowning act of mercy and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Adam and Eve, and to Noah, and to Abraham and to his seed. He is the hope and consolation of all who look to the Lord.
And so, having been addressed by the God of her fathers, having been thrilled by the confirmation of that promise by Elizabeth, what can Mary do but sing this song of joy (vv. 54–55): “My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”?

A Song for Us
Rest assured that this song is not just for Mary. It is not just for the Old Testament Israel. It is for you and me, as well. Just as the messenger came to Mary with his message of joy, with his message of deliverance, and with his message of God’s faithfulness, so the message comes to you today through the Word of God. The message is this: God has not forgotten His promise of life and His promise of love.

The promise of life and the promise of love isn’t just about a little boy born in a manger. No, there’s so much more going on here! Mary, though she was unworthy to receive such an honor, gave birth to the Son of God. But think of the lowly state God found us in! He found us in the depth of our error. He found us in the height of our folly. He found us in the width of wrong within our hearts. And yet, God mercifully looks upon us in His love.

Certainly Mary was unworthy to give life to the Son of God. But how much more unworthy are we to have Him die upon the cross for us because of our sin? What a great love God has shown to us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us! It is with a great salvation that God has delivered us through Jesus Christ. It is a salvation that is truly so much greater than the one Mary expected. Mary thought her son would somehow deliver Israel from national oppression. But Jesus came to deliver His own from our spiritual oppression. He came to deliver us from Satan. He came to deliver us from sin. He came to give us new life, everlasting life. A promise of life fulfilled in a way no Old Testament prophet could have dreamed possible. A promise of love fulfilled in a way Mary could not have dreamed possible.

What should our response be to God the Father for the love He has shown to us in Jesus Christ? We should have great gladness in our hearts, even as Mary did when she sang her song. We should rejoice in God our Savior, welcoming Him into our hearts, trusting in Him for our salvation, believing that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Every time you drive through town to see the Christmas lights, remember the promise of God’s love given to us through Jesus Christ. Remember also the assurance of new life given to all who trust in the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made on our behalf. May the red lights remind us of our sin and how they have been washed whiter than snow. Let the green lights focus you upon the promised Savior and the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus. Use the blue as a reminder that we, like the wise men, should worship the One whom the Father has sent to save us. And let the purple lights remind us to live all our lives in service to Jesus Christ.
We have seen a great light. Let us no longer walk in darkness.

Rev. Wybren Oord
is a member of the Trinity Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta. He serves as pulpit supply for the Grace Reformed Church in the same city.

A Multitude of Counselors: Benefits of Reading Books About the Bible

It seems everyone has an opinion to publish these days, and with the advent of social media, everyone has a venue for getting it in print. In the past, only material that had made the editorial cut would be circulated more broadly in books or magazines. Blogs and Facebook, however, enable anyone to write anything and have it read throughout the world. Though e-publishing is booming in our day, most of this writing lacks peer review to ensure quality. Ecclesiastes seems to echo our own exhaustion from all the chatter: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccles. 12:12).

The abundance of bad reading material can tempt us to despair. We must not, however, forget the value of making and reading books. Though weary of the so-called wisdom of the world, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes did not abandon all studying and all reading: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.” Craig Bartholomew explains that wise words “prod us into wise action and, like nails firmly embedded, provide us with a place that holds us.”1

In this article, we will consider the great value of reading the words of the wise that are found in good biblical and theological books.

The Importance of Reading
Although there have been some exceptions in history, most people recognize the value of reading. The Greek philosopher Plato felt that reading hindered true knowledge. Oral learning, memorization, and recitation were for him the key to wisdom. While there is a legitimate distinction to be made between listening (a more passive learning) and reading (a more active learning), Plato regrettably widened that into an unwarranted divide.2

The advantages of learning through reading are widely recognized. There is, however, a most important reason for Christians to develop their reading abilities, one that goes beyond pragmatics and pedagogy. The very medium of God’s Word (i.e., words written on paper) has huge ramifications for Christian learning. Brian Lee explains: “The Bible exists because our God speaks, and because he not only speaks, he also writes.” In light of this fact, “God’s revelation demands the literacy of his people.”3 Our social-media-saturated culture has had a profound effect on our ability to give sustained attention to God’s own voice. And because God’s voice comes to us in a lengthy written form—a slowly unfolding narrative—Christians do well to cultivate their reading skills.

The Importance of Reading Secondary Literature
Before we detail some particular benefits of reading, we must distinguish two different kinds of written sources: primary literature and secondary literature. Primary literature is original, unfiltered writing, whereas secondary literature is based upon primary texts. As an example, in Heroes of the City of Man, Peter Leithart analyzes and interprets ancient stories like The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer.4 Leithart’s book is secondary literature, and the original stories by Homer are the primary texts. Secondary literature analyzes and interprets the contents of a primary text. Throughout church history, Christians not only have read the Bible (primary literature) but also have written and read books about the Bible (secondary literature) in order to aid their understanding of the Bible. The magazine you are currently holding, The Outlook, is itself an example of secondary literature.

It is interesting that at the end of 2 Timothy, the apostle Paul asked for two different kinds of reading materials: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Paul’s request for books (Greek: biblia) seems to mean biblical scrolls (primary literature), and his reference to parchments (Greek: membranas) seems a likely reference to other Christian writings (secondary literature).5

In his famous Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon made clear that every minister has in his possession a deep well from which to draw: the Bible. He wrote, “In the Bible we have a perfect library, and he who studies it thoroughly will be a better scholar than if he had devoured the Alexandrian Library entire.”6 Yet Spurgeon also recognized that it was a great hindrance to suffer from “slender apparatus” (i.e., lack of secondary literature). He devoted several pages of suggestions to ministers for how to gain access to more books written about God’s Word because of the great value of reading secondary literature: “Up to the highest measure of their ability, [churches] should furnish their minister not only with the food that is needful to sustain the life of his body, but with mental nourishment, so that his soul may not be starved. A good library should be looked upon as an indispensible part of church furniture.”7
This in no way downplays the superiority and indispensability of the Bible, but it does illustrate the special value of secondary literature. If Spurgeon saw the great importance of books for pastors, those who have been rigorously trained in seminary, books would seem to be at least as beneficial—if not more so—to those who have not had formal training in biblical and theological studies.8

The Benefits of Reading Secondary Literature
There are many good reasons to regularly read books and articles about theology and biblical studies. Here are a few of note:

1 Reading secondary literature makes us better readers of the Bible itself. Any opportunity we take to improve our reading skills makes us better readers of Scripture. Tony Reinke ably notes the connection between the two: “Honestly, I think we read our Bibles poorly because we read all of our nonfiction books poorly. To better read our Bibles, or any nonfiction book, we must work to improve our reading skills. Sharpening our reading skills will improve how we read and how we benefit from all our nonfiction books—including the most important Book of them all.”9 There are, of course, great benefits to reading fiction books in addition to nonfiction or secondary literature. The interview with Glenda Mathes in this issue of The Outlook wonderfully describes how. But whether it is fiction or nonfiction, when we read literature other than the Bible, we improve a number of skills that make us better readers of the Bible.

2 Reading secondary literature helps us cultivate love for God. Jesus answered the Pharisee-lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment in the law by stating: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:27). This is a far cry from the overly emotive, sappy, sentimental view of love embraced widely in our culture. Jesus shows that the mind must be active in our love for God.10 Donald Whitney explains the connection between love of God and learning: “What God wants most from you is your love. And one of the ways He wants you [to] show love and obedience to Him is by Godly learning. God is glorified when we use the mind He made to learn of Him, His ways, His Word, and His World.”11 Secondary literature gives us insight into God’s Word that helps to fuel our love for God.

3 Reading secondary literature helps us to learn Scripture in community. The Christian faith is not an individualistic affair. God has called together a church, a gathering of people from every tribe and tongue to worship and glorify Him corporately (Rev. 7:9–10). What is more, this community engages in mutual, “one another” care (cf. 1 Cor. 12:25; 1 Thess. 5:11; Gal. 5:13; Col. 3:13) and instruction of one another. Paul tells the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). And the Thessalonians: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).
Gene Veith notes that the corporate character of the church has a direct bearing on the corporate study of God’s Word: “[T]he act of reading God’s Word . . . takes place not merely as part of one’s private devotions but also in the church. Here God’s Word is read together by his people; it is studied, and it is preached.”12 The Old Testament sages stressed the importance of an “abundance of counselors” (Prov. 11:14; 24:6), and in subsequent history, the most common way Christians have learned the Word of God is through the teaching of others. The Westminster Shorter Catechism highlights this corporate context: “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (WSC Q.89; cf. WLC Q.155) The teaching of others includes sermons, Sunday school classes, conferences, and radio broadcasts, but as Jerry Bridges notes, “it also includes the reading of Christian books.”13 Even when two or three are unavailable to gather in Christ’s name, secondary literature still allows Christians to learn God’s Word with others. This leads us to our next point.

4 Reading secondary literature helps us learn from skilled teachers who are otherwise inaccessible. Because Christ’s church consists of people who are temporally and spatially removed from us, many of its finest teachers are inaccessible to us. Secondary literature, however, enables us to read Scripture in community even with them.
Teachers who are no longer living come to life, as it were, through their books. Joel Beeke explains that godly conversation “ought not to exclude the reading of godly treatises of former ages which promote holiness. Luther said that some of his best friends were dead ones.” Beeke concludes, “Let [the] divines of former ages become your spiritual mentors and friends.”14 I will never have the opportunity to sit under the preaching and teaching of John Calvin, Athanasius, Herman Bavinck, Chrysostom, or John Owen, to name only a few. Yet through their writings, I have indeed been taught by these men.
Some teachers live too far away from us or are people with whom we cannot develop a personal acquaintance. In former times, we would be unable to benefit from their tutelage. But through books and articles, many people, regardless of distance or familiarity, are able to spend time learning from them. As an example: my use of numerous citations and endnotes in this article is an effort to model this very thing. I have met only three of the teachers I have cited below, and of those three, the closest one lives more than eighteen hundred miles away! Nevertheless, I have been able to spend hours with them through their writings.

5 Reading secondary literature helps us to learn from specialized teachers. Though as Christians indwelt by the Holy Spirit there is a sense in which we have no need for any man to teach us (1 John 2:27), this does not minimize the importance and value of reading in community, a point we have considered already. After all, Christ’s body, the church, consists of many different members with many different gifts (1 Cor. 12:1–31). When it comes to the study of God’s Word, different people possess gifts and skill sets not possessed by others. Some are experts in Greek. Others are knowledgeable in church history. Some Christians are skillful apologists and debaters while others have devoted their time to studying systematic theology or Hebrew. Reading the writings of others allows us to learn from those with unique expertise and specialization. When we have questions, we do not need to start from scratch and become masters of an entirely new area. Instead, secondary literature helps us to find answers from experts who have trod this path already.

6 Reading secondary literature helps us to learn about issues we might otherwise overlook. Because we naturally gravitate toward topics that interest us, reading secondary literature helps us to become informed about important matters that we might not otherwise consider. Thomas Murphy, a nineteenth-century Presbyterian pastor, urged ministers to devote considerable time and energy to perusing the periodical literature (i.e., magazines, journals, and newspapers) of the day.15 Why? Murphy explains: “There are grave questions of the times which it will not do for [pastors] to be ignorant of, or to understand only in a vague manner. . . . [T]here are living issues which the pulpit must take up; there are present wants that it must meet; there are current thoughts in religious and other periodicals which should stimulate the heart and mind of every preacher.”16 And yet it is not ministers only who must understand the ideas and issues of the present day. The apostle Peter urged all in his Christian audience: “[I]n your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Suggestions for Becoming Better Readers
Reading books and articles about the Bible and theology is of great benefit to us. And yet many of us feel far too busy to read. What can we do to improve our own reading practices and encourage a culture of reading in our churches and our families? Here are a few suggestions:

1 Make time to read. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we always make time to do what we like. If we work hard to cultivate a love of reading, we will find that every day contains some time to read secondary literature. If you start with easier books and start by reading during times ordinarily spent watching television or “vegging,” you will have an easier time making reading a habit.

2 Read good books. Ask your pastor to recommend some classic Christian books or books that will dovetail with his preaching and teaching. Good reading material will more easily cultivate a love of reading and a hunger for more.

3 Read Christian periodicals. The Outlook, Christian Renewal, Modern Reformation, World Magazine—these kinds of secondary sources will give you an array of shorter readings on a wide range of topics.

4 Go public with your reading. Always keep a book on hand for your train ride, lunch break, or wait at the DMV. Talk with people about things you are reading and solicit their feedback. To encourage reading in others, consider purchasing books and periodical subscriptions for them as gifts. Make sure to follow up and ask them about what they are reading.

Though it will eventually become very enjoyable, developing new reading habits will likely take some effort. Tony Reinke explains: “When we set out to read important books, we can expect opposition from our hearts. Reading is a discipline, and all disciplines require self-discipline, and self-discipline is the one thing our sinful flesh will resist.”17 Yet remember the great gift that we have in reading. God has made us His own through the work of Jesus Christ and has given us His Word to draw us unto Himself and teach us about His plan of redemption. The more we read God’s Word, the more we know God. The better we understand God’s Word, the better we know God. And this knowledge is not just cerebral; it is a most marvelous and delightful experience. J. I. Packer sums it up well: “Well might God say through Jeremiah, ‘Let him that glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me’—for knowing God is a relationship calculated to thrill a person’s heart.”18

1. Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 366.
2. For more on the Greek approach of Plato and others, see David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 95–99.
3. Brian Lee, “Is Reformation Christianity Just for Eggheads,” Modern Reformation 21, no. 5 (September/October 2012): 18.
4. Peter J. Leithart, Heroes of the City of Man: A Christian Guide to Select Ancient Literature (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999).
5. See Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 129. See too E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 57.
6. Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, First Series (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1890), 289.
7. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 282.
8. For an example of how some of the brightest theological minds of our own day have followed Spurgeon’s lead, see You Must Read: Books That Have Shaped Our Lives (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2015).
9. Tony Reinke, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 118.
10. For problems with the modern use of the word feelings, see David Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 211–23, a chapter entitled “What Do You Feel?”
11. Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991), 226.
12. Gene Edward Veith, Why God Gave Us a Book (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011), 40.
13. Jerry Bridges, Growing Your Faith: How to Mature in Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004), 65–66.
14. Joel R. Beeke, Overcoming the World: Grace to Win the Daily Battle (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 92–93.
15. Thomas Murphy, Pastoral Theology: The Pastor in the Various Duties of His Office (1877; repr., Willow Street: Old Paths Publications, 1996), 147.
16. Murphy, Pastoral Theology, 147–48.
17. Reinke, Lit!, 131.
18. J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 20th anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 36.

Rev. R. Andrew Compton  
is the associate pastor at Christ Reformed Church (URCNA), Anaheim, CA, where he has served since 2008. He holds an MDiv from Westminster Seminary California and an MA in Old Testament from the University of California, Los Angeles.


Fiction’s Delight and Truth

How do you view fiction? Simply as mindless amusement? A waste of time better spent studying Scripture or reading edifying nonfiction? Or do you appreciate excellent fiction for the ways it generates delight and proclaims truth?
The biblical Preacher “sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (Eccles. 12:10, ESV). Through the ages, literature’s twofold purpose has been viewed as delight and truth.

Readers and writers may revel in novels with beautiful language and complex characters, which engage and entertain far more than shallow or poorly written books. Fiction can be a legitimate leisure pursuit, particularly when novels reflect the Truth.

Fiction entertains. After a busy day, many people love to sink into an easy chair and pick up a novel. Imaginative stories refresh weary minds and spirits. God established a creation pattern of work followed by rest, and his image-bearers may delight in his good gifts of literature and leisure.

Leland Ryken writes, “A person with a Christian worldview has a reason to value enjoyment and the enlightened use of leisure time in ways that the human race at large does not. Christians are the last people in the world who should feel guilty about the enjoyment of literature” (The Christian Imagination, p. 149).

As Bible believers and image-bearers, Christians should be discerning readers who enjoy fiction’s many pleasures: expanding personal horizons, promoting authentic empathy, continuing civilization’s conversation, and revealing biblical truth.
Bible Believers

Christians should primarily read God’s Word. And the more carefully we read Scripture, the more we see our freedom to read imaginative stories.

In Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination, Brian Godawa writes: “Roughly 30 percent of the Bible is rational propositional truth and laws, while 70 percent of the Bible is story, vision, symbol and narrative—that is, image” (p. 53).
The Bible extensively uses creative devices to convey truth. Prophets told imaginary narratives, including Nathan’s story convicting David of his sin (2 Sam. 12). Jesus taught truth through fiction: A man scatters seed or buys a pearl or discovers buried treasure. A father loves the libertine as well as the legalistic son. A sheep wanders off, and a coin rolls out of sight. “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it” (Mark 4:33, ESV).

Godawa writes, “As we enter into the stories and see ourselves in them, we see truth in a way that mere logical or doctrinal discourse simply cannot evoke” (Word Pictures, p. 70).

Christians should study God’s Word and read secondary literature (see Andrew Compton’s compelling arguments in this issue) as well as other fine works of nonfiction. But Scripture shows that we may also embrace quality fiction.

Created in God’s image, people have intrinsic dignity and creativity. They can read, speak, reason, love, and worship. They imagine and make, crafting quilts or sculptures, cakes or paintings, blog posts or fiction.

When we exercise creativity, we dimly reflect the Creator. In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers draws analogies between the Trinity and the threefold nature of human creativity. About reading, she writes: “For the reader . . . the book itself is presented as a threefold being. First: The Book as Thought—the Idea of the book existing in the writer’s mind. . . . Secondly: the Book as Written—the Energy or Word incarnate, the express image of the Idea. . . . Thirdly: the Book as Read—the Power of its effect upon and in the responsive mind” (pp. 113–15).

The author images the Creator in crafting a fictional work, but the reader reflects God’s triune nature in assimilating a book’s idea, energy, and power. Both writing and reading implement imagination and creativity.
God created a marvelous cosmos, teeming with amazing features and incredible creatures. He crowned creation with us as his image-bearers. Why shy from artistic expressions of creativity?

Discerning Readers
A discerning reader views every novel through a robust Christian worldview that includes biblical knowledge and artistic appreciation.
Like the Bereans, discerning readers compare what they read with what Scripture teaches. This doesn’t mean constantly and consciously assessing every sentence. But biblical knowledge must govern the thought process in determining whether or not a book is good. Does it portray humanity as essentially good or essentially sinful and in need of redemption? How does it reflect God’s truth or the devil’s lies?

A discerning reader may read dark fiction depicting the biblical reality of broken people living in a fallen world. Genuinely realistic fiction, however, must be pierced by glimmers of redemption’s light. (Pornographic or gratuitously violent material should be avoided, despite possible claims of redeeming value.)

The discerning person does not read only safe or banal fiction that never causes uncomfortable feelings or engages the brain. Such novels fail to acknowledge life’s pain or beauty. Reading only novels that generate warm, fuzzy feelings is like eating only cotton candy.
Christians may read a range of styles, according to personal limits and taste, as long as we determine fiction’s value on biblical principles. But there’s more to being discerning than simply knowing sound doctrine. God’s artistry shines in His Word and His world, and we should learn to recognize and appreciate artistic expression.

Scripture repeatedly shows God’s love for beauty and excellence. Artisans skillfully wrought valuable textiles into priestly garments, glinting with gold and colorful gems, which God designed “for glory and for beauty” (Exod. 28:40, ESV, emphasis added).

God’s creation testifies to His love for splendor and intricacy. From the glowing red of a lunar eclipse to the elaborate mechanism of a tiny cell, we see how much our Creator enjoys astounding beauty and complex design.
Well-written fiction demonstrates artistic and literary excellence. In an engaging narrative, believable characters progress through conflict to resolution. Vivid imagery and figurative language add beauty and meaning while propelling the plot.
Discerning Christians read through the dual lens of biblical truth and literary excellence.

Excellent Fiction
Some Christians advocate realism that embraces disturbing images and words. Others promote work that is overtly evangelistic but aesthetically poor. Still others believe art should be judged by aesthetic standards within biblical parameters. Fiction can be realistic without being vulgar, evangelistic without being didactic, and beautiful without being esoteric.

Bret Lott explains fiction differences this way to his college students:
I tell them that literary fiction is fiction that examines the character of the people involved in the story, and that popular fiction is driven by plot. Whereas popular fiction, I tell them, is meant primarily as a means of escape, one way or another, from this present life, a kind of book equivalent of comfort food, literary fiction confronts us with who we are and makes us look deeply at the human condition. (Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, on Being a Christian, p. 14)

Excellent fiction goes beyond page-turning action and predictable plots to a skillfully constructed narrative about complex characters. As it engages the mind and emotions with beautiful language and meaningful story, the reader enjoys multiple pleasures.

Expanded Horizons
Through fiction, our self-contained existences transcend geographic, ethnic, and time barriers. We experience the underbelly of Victorian London with Pip, whose Great Expectations end up inverting his perspective as much as a convict on a desolate marsh once inverted his small body. We travel by spaceship to Perelandra with Ransom, who slogs through an interminable fight with evil. Though settings and struggles of characters may be far removed from personal experience, we share common fears and hopes.
Why explore fictional places and feelings? C. S. Lewis answers in An Experiment in Criticism:

What then is the good of—what is even the defence for—occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist . . . ? The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. . . . We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own. (p. 137)

Reading literary fiction expands our horizons and enriches our lives. We discover shared emotions that touch our heartstrings, reverberating humanity’s common chords.

Authentic Empathy
Christians should be known for their compassion. Sadly, we are often judgmental, insular, and unloving. Excellent fiction cracks our self-absorbed shells and pours empathy into our souls. Fictional struggles of realistic characters cultivate more understanding for real people.

Julianne Chiaet described a study supporting this in an online Scientific American article entitled “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Subjects who read literary fiction displayed an increased ability “to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions” over those who read genre or popular fiction.

With Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, we grow in our understanding of black victims and social outcasts. Through reading Island of the World by Michael O’Brien, we share Josip’s trauma—due to horrific destruction of his Balkan village and dehumanizing torture in a Communist concentration camp—and rejoice in his redemption and healing through faith.

Reading about unfamiliar struggles increases our compassion for others. It may even help us better understand the sin within ourselves.
Civilization’s Conversation
When we read fiction, particularly classics, we participate in civilization’s ongoing conversation. In The Two Towers, Sam Gamgee speaks about the “the old songs and tales . . . that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind” (p. 321). Classic stories multiply experiential knowledge and share timeless meaning.

No individual can conceive or encounter everything in one lifetime, but through fiction we learn from many lives. Gene Edward Veith Jr. writes, “When ideas and experiences can be written down, they are, in effect, stored permanently. People are no longer bound by their own limited insights and experiences, but they can draw on those of other people as well. Instead of continually starting over again, people can build upon what others have discovered and have written down” (Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, p. 19).

Christians can benefit from classics that distill the accumulated wisdom and beauty of the ages in an accessible form.

Biblical Truth
Truth in fiction reflects God’s truth. Postmodernists and literary deconstructionists deny this axiom, but it reflects a Christian worldview espoused by theologians through the centuries.

Augustine urged every “true Christian” to “understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master” (On Christian Doctrine, II.18). John Calvin wrote: “All truth is from God” (Commentary on Titus 1:12). Herman Bavinck proclaimed God as “truth in its absolute fullness . . . the original truth, the source of all truth, the truth in all truth” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p. 209).
The Canterbury Tales, told by fictitious pilgrims of dubious character, convict readers of their own hypocrisy. Macbeth depicts the power of evil warring within a heart. Rev. John Ames, dying in his hometown of Gilead, awakens our souls to life’s piercing beauty.
Fiction—classic or contemporary—advocates the author’s view of what is true. Christians must consider the “truth” being communicated in light of the One who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

When reading fiction, we should aim for an appropriate balance. We need neither reject it as a waste of time nor immerse ourselves in poorly written work.

Leland Ryken writes, “Christians should neither undervalue nor overvalue literature. Literature is not exempt from artistic, moral, and intellectual criticism. Yet its gifts to the human race are immeasurable: artistic enrichment, pleasurable pastime, self-understanding, clarification of human experience, and, in its highest reaches, the expression of truth and beauty that can become worship of God” (The Christian Imagination, p. 32).

Christians may embrace the delight and truth of excellent fiction. While we enjoy its beauty and other pleasures, we participate in an ongoing conversation that increases our understanding of ourselves and others. We may even discover that fiction brings us closer to God.

Glenda Faye Mathes writes across genres for all generations. Her fiction and nonfiction convey timeless truths about literary excellence. She and her husband, David, live on a wooded acreage in Iowa and teach catechism to fourth-grade students at Covenant Reformed Church (URC) in Pella. She regularly blogs at her website:

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