A Good Read

Turn off the television set and pick up a good book. How often we hear those words. A lot of people are worried about the deterioration of television programming-and with good reason. But Americans who flip off the TV and pick up a book are liable to be disappointed. The typical book off the newsstand bears all the marks of cheap entertainment: obscene language, graphic sexual scenes, tasteless sensationalism. How can Christians find good books to read? Not just by closing our eyes to the junk and smut, says literature professor Gene Edward Veith, but by learning to recognize good writing. In Reading Between the Lines, Veith argues that there are aesthetic laws for literature—objective principles of art and beauty—and that we can learn to recognize them. In literature, aesthetic laws start with the artistic use of language: crisp phrases, colorful imagery, vivid descriptions. When you pick up a book, skim a few pages to see whether the language is artistic—or whether it is marred by clichés, slang, and obscenities. But literature depends on more than a facility with words. Good writing flows from good character. To portray characters realistically, an author must have empathy. To weave a convincing plot, he must understand personal motivations. To portray the battle between good and evil—the struggle of conscience—he must be morally sensitive. In short, even if an author is not a Christian, he must understand the world as God created it—otherwise his writing is flat and shallow. What this means is that once we learn to recognize artistic language and an effective story, that alone is enough to steer us through most of the mindless material spewed out by today's presses. Most immoral literature is also bad literature—artistically bad. Consider what happens when an author goes for shock value by spiking a story with graphic scenes. The reader has been engrossed in a dramatic plot, he is identifying with the characters, and suddenly the story erupts into sex or violence. The reader is jerked away from the story line by sexual reactions or disgust or morbid fascination. The artistic mood is completely shattered. Of course, it's far easier to shock readers than to create real art, and so the bad writer is quick to resort to it. "Original sin has great marketing potential," Veith quips. Of course, when Christians object to bad literature, we are quickly caricatured as anti-cultural, anti-intellectual, and anti-art. But it's really the smutty writers themselves who are anti-art: because they are subverting art to sex and sensationalism. So if you want to protect your children-and yourself-read the great classics: books by Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen. Whether Christian or not, classic literature will hone your ability to distinguish good literature from bad—both artistically and morally. Then go ahead and turn off the TV set, and curl up with a good book. It's a very Christian thing to do.


Chuck Colson


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