Through Literature to the Gospel

The great 19th-century American evangelist Charles Finney once declared, “I cannot believe that a person who has ever known the love of God can relish a secular novel.” And he went on to denounce explicitly Lord Byron, Walter Scott, even Shakespeare. Now such attitudes may strike some as strange, yet, historically, some American evangelicals have been suspicious toward secular literature. To give us the tools we need to know whether that attitude is justified, Louise Cowan and Os Guinness have published a new book entitled Invitation to the Classics. It can help Christians understand not just what classic books to read, but how they can lead us to a richer understanding of the Gospel. It’s hard to believe that Finney would have had disdain for Shakespeare. One wonders what he might have made of Dostoyevsky, who often wove profoundly Christian themes into his otherwise “secular” novels. Interestingly, the works of both writers led Louise Cowan—co-editor of Invitation to the Classics—back to Christian faith after she had left it. Cowan had read all sorts of theological works, and even the Bible itself, but had failed to regain her faith. Then she read Hamlet and other Shakespearean plays, and was struck by the frequent Christian themes. Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, one of my favorite novels, led Cowan to explore Christianity further, eventually resulting in her own spiritual reawakening. “Not until a literary work of art awakened my imaginative faculties,” she writes, “could the possibility of a larger context and reason alone engage my mind.... I had to be transformed in the way that literature transforms—by story, image, symbol—before I could see the simple truths of the Gospel.” We live in a technological society that rejects anything that can’t be measured and verified. People are crying out for something more, for language that speaks to the soul. I know that when it comes to learning moral lessons, I’ve often been much more affected by classic works of fiction than by abstract theological discourses. Scenes from some of the greatest works like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the grand inquisitor scene in particular, had etched moral truths deeply into my soul. And my friend, Irena Ratushinskaya, the great Russian poet, imprisoned by the Soviets, grew up in Odessa with atheist parents who never allowed her a Bible. But she read literature—Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy—in which she saw the Gospel, and which led to her conversion. Biblical figures understood the power of a good story. Remember the prophet, Nathan, confronting King David about his affair with Bathsheba? Nathan didn’t offer David a dry lecture on the sin of adultery. Instead, Nathan spun a story about a rich man who took the only lamb belonging to a poor man. In order to get past David’s defenses, Nathan told an allegorical story. In 20th Century America, you and I can use that same strategy. And so Christians ought to become reacquainted with classic literature. We can allow its rich evocative words to penetrate our imaginations and our souls. And then we can pass on these stories as a witness to unsaved friends. Why not take a look at Cowan and Guinness' Invitation to the Classics and see what they have to say about writers like Shakespeare, Milton and Dostoyevsky. Better yet, why not get a copy of Paradise Lost or The Brothers Karamazov. It may whet your appetite for other good books, which in turn may whet your appetite for the Good Book.


Chuck Colson


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