Thinking again about Terry Pratchett, and secular fiction. This is important for me as an English teacher. Is there spiritual value in reading deliberately secular fiction? Or for that matter, secular poetry, or secular drama? Yes, I would argue.
There is a school of thought that says Christians only need the Bible. Sometimes I completely agree with that. There are stages of our lives, there are moment, where nothing else will do. Moments of every day, indeed. The Bible needs daily attention, just like our hearts.
There is a purity, a power, a precision about the Bible that is like no other text. But the paradox is, it is possible to read the Bible your whole life and it to have little effect on you. It’s like holding a scalpel at arm’s length and never at any point letting it pierce your skin. It can do you no harm, but it can do you no good either. In 1 Timothy, of course, we read that ‘the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit’, slightly paraphrased perhaps. But the Bible is a medicine, and like any medicine, it must be taken. It must be swallowed. It needs to be applied to our lives. Parts of it, yes, are unpleasant. But the whole of life is there. Don’t forget that either!
Read the Bible, and go away and forget what it says, and you may as well not have read it in the first place. The Bible must be read in a humble, a prayerful, an attentive way.
Now, here is the thrilling and also the scary point about this post. We can read ANY book like that. Dare we to? Ought we to? Shouldn’t we keep everything at arm’s length, just in case it demonises us, or terrorises us, or subtly allows our souls to be conformed to the world, rather than transformed by God?
I would argue that there are many books penned by believers, that do much more damage to us than great literature. Perhaps the first rule of thumb with books is know what NOT to read. Know what is bad for the soul.
We read to stay alive, to know we’re not alone. We can read great literature and be pierced to the soul. And that is the same with the Bible. In fact, much of western literature is saturated with biblical thought. The noblest and the highest moments in western literature are frequently studded with God, and are either moving towards Him or moving away from Him. (25 out of this Goodreads list of classic novels AT LEAST engage with Christianity in profound and essential ways and could form the basis of a spiritual reading group – work out which ones; I’m happy to respond to comments). There are lessons to be learned in either case.
If you have not encountered great literature, you have missed out on some of the most profound thoughts about God and humanity. For starters, the Bible is great literature. David crying out: ‘O Absalom, my son, O my son Absalom!’ Paul arguing: ‘Whatever I do, I don’t want to do…. There is a war in my members….’ in Romans 7. The stirring account of Christ riding out of heaven on a horse, Faithful and True, with a name written on his thigh, King of kings and Lord of Lords.’ I could go on…
Great literature is great because, often, it is true. It may be true about man’s depravity, it may be true about human love, it may be authentic about the significance of a situation. We are going way beyond the surface details of witches and wizards, of alternative universes. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie, made him persona non grata (in a big way) with many Muslims. Yet the novel was great literature, and it was a homage to Islam, not a desecration of it. In the same way, The Lord of the Rings, written by a devout Catholic, has many powerful messages for the spiritual pilgrim.
Likewise, you cannot read Middlemarch, by George Eliot (herself an atheist), without asking some serious questions of yourself. Allowing the text, that is, to hold a scalpel to your own heart and to divide between soul and spirit – to identify the parts of you that are like Casaubon, that are like Rosamond, or too close to Bulstrode for comfort.
Don’t tell me that reading Silas Marner (another Eliot piece) is not going to deeply edify and enrich you. Don’t tell me that reading To Kill a Mockingbird is not going to change you in a way that only great literature can. Don’t stand there and warn me that ‘The Reaper Man’ or ‘Mort’ by Terry Pratchett is not going to sneak in, even past the wordplay and the light touch, some pretty profound thoughts about Life and Death that might just make you a bit more humble, a bit more kind, a bit more reflective. I might add for those who don’t know, that one of Pratchett’s immortal creations in his Discworld novels was the character of Death, who always spoke in capital letters (and rode a horse called Binky). Here is an exchange from Reaper Man between a hapless victim and Death:
“That’s not fair, you know. If we knew when we were going to die, people would lead better lives.”
IF PEOPLE KNEW WHEN THEY WERE GOING TO DIE, I THINK THEY PROBABLY WOULDN’T LIVE AT ALL.”
Or try this one, which has a nice ring when you put it alongside 1 Corinthians 15:55:
– I USHERED SOULS INTO THE NEXT WORLD. I WAS THE GRAVE OF ALL HOPE. I
WAS THE ULTIMATE REALITY. I WAS THE ASSASSIN AGAINST WHOM NO LOCK
– “Yes, point taken, but do you have any particular skills?”
— Death consults a job broker (Terry Pratchett, Mort)
And there’s quite a lot more where that came from; I’m not necessarily equating Pratchett with great literature (for that’s another discussion and I’m not well-versed enough with his work to really try). I know enough to class his writing AS literature, rather than as potboiler. What I’m saying, is that there is some writing that, if approached in a devout, in a humble, in a prayerful spirit, will do you good. Will move you closer to the Almighty. Will change and transform you. Why not stand on the shoulders of giants? Why not show some respect and attribute some value to the greatest things that have been thought and written? And even some of the more recent, too.