Two months ago, a friend and I were sitting in the back seat of our van, talking a mile a minute as the sun set behind us. We ticked off the miles to that saddest of all sad moments, "Goodbye for now." We were taking her home after a long day of Christian teaching, great food, and some of the most epic conversations about literature I'd ever participated in.
But it wasn't over yet. The crowning delight of that heavenly day was one of our last discussions, about reading modern literature and capturing the hearts of our generation for Jesus.
It's an age-old question we wrestled through. Do you only read what's highbrow classic lit? Do you only read what is really, honestly good Christian literature? Is it OK to read books written by nonbelievers? Or is worthwhile to sample even literature you wouldn't approve of for the sake of knowing what your generation believes?
It's a tough question, and it's OK for the answer to vary from person to person. Today, I want to make a case for reading modern literature. Because Dickens and Elsie Dinsmore are awesome, but if we stop there, we have a pretty serious gap in our arsenal.
Reading modern literature helps us keep in mind what's capturing the heart of the next generation. In saying that, I'm not making an argument that you need to be relevant to modern times. Don't go read Game of Thrones just because everyone else is doing it. But you do need to be aware of the movies and books that are being produced and the elements inside them to know how Satan is countering the efforts of the church and family. He doesn't deal with generalities. He deals with very specific lies that have very devastating impact--and he's more than fine with using the entertainment industry to propagate it.
Yes, I know, I know. "Old authors write better!" But they don't have the corner on the market. And they're not the only authors influencing readers. So get in the game. You don't have to make a steady diet of modern literature. You don't even have to read a whole book if you need to skim. I'd suggest taking a popular book now and then, reading a few blog reviews, Wikipedia synopses, and picking a couple up at the bookstore to thoroughly skim every month. That goes a long way to help you keep in touch.
When you read, you're not there to moan over the writing style or pick apart the characters. (Though I certainly understand if not all the books you read are your cup of tea.) The primary goal in reading modern literature, should be, surprisingly enough, to listen.
Listening tells you what's going on among your peers. There are lots of bad things going on. There are also some good things. You should be aware of them, not only for your own protection, but also for the sake of your outpouring of ministry.
What questions do they have?
This calls for discernment and compassion. It's easy to pick up a romance book and make a swift judgement "modern girls are boy-crazy." Not so fast. Maybe modern girls are hungry for God-wired family and love, and that's the only place they know where to find it. It's easy to look at a fantasy book and say "Battles. boy stuff. Just like a video game." Not so fast. Maybe it's a sign that boys crave adventure, dominion, leadership, and they're finding it in that medium. Everybody's seeking. The books they pick up are yet another indication of questions they want truth on. Questions about religion, life purpose, and relationships.
What answers are they being given?
Every author gives answers according to their worldview. Some of the answers are good (creation, obedience, family, dominion, submission, authority, and Gospel) others are bad (evolution, autonomy, modernity, individual truth, and individuality). Listen to the answers before you fault the reader for asking the question. Everyone needs answers and growth. The false shepherds are the ones we should really be going after, not the hungry sheep.
What lies are they believing?
"Girls are tough; fend for yourself." "Any relationship is OK if your love need is being met." "You need a boyfriend." "It's OK to be who you truly are." All of these are major things taught in today's literature. Character journeys can tell you a lot about what your peers believe...and whether you, too, are being duped into lies outside the Bible.
What truth do they need?
Only after you have a basic idea of what your peers are being told, do you have an ability to offer the truth to them. Once you know the story elements they love (adventure, fantasy, romance) can you recommend books to them with those well-loved plots that actually teach truth: "Women have dignity." "Submission isn't subjection." "God is Love, Justice, Holiness, Master." "Men need adventure." "Families mirror Gospel." You bet girls need some strong lassies. But Britomart will teach them much more truth than Katniss, with the same elements of battle and adventure.
Four simple questions. They're the foundation of any literature experience. These are great questions for any book you read (after all, ancient writers taught truth and falsehoods to their generations as well) but especially vital to apply to modern literature.
I think a lot of Christians are afraid to develop a listening spirit in today's day and age. If they listen, they fear the other side might convince them. And they're right. We're a frail people, and that's why we need to be earnest in prayer for a mighty God's protection and grace. That risk requires being faithful in prayer, setting our standard exclusively by the Word of God, and having wise accountability partners. But if we don't listen, we risk something more important: losing hearts of people who we could bring back to a standard of truth.
John Mark N. Reynolds, in his introduction to The Great Books Reader, made one of the most profound statements about Christian reading that I've ever read:
Once again: Follow the argument, what Plato would call the logos, and keep an open mind. This pursuit is good for your soul and cannot harm you unless you stop being a follower.
That might feel scary or tiring: scary because you might think it implies there is no truth, or tiring because it possibly sets up an endless journey. Rather, the passionate pursuit of the argument is hopeful--it assumes that wondering can be wonderful and that humankind can continue making progress toward finding the truth. And the journey is not, so far as we know, endless; death brings us to the as-yet "undiscovered country" where, reports suggest, we will find the full rest.
[...] If Christianity is true, then every argument will, if pursued to the end, lead to Jesus.
In other words, listening and seeking won't kill your soul unless you stop seeking, and settle where you are. Reading modern literature opens the conversation about faith, life, love, and religion with our current generation. We should look to the tried and true authors for time-tested standards. Most of all to the Word of God to bring us back when we get out of sync. But we should also read new authors to see how modern believers and unbelievers are wrestling with issues in today's world. Then we can see where they say "I lack" and offer them books that will truly fill them with the bread of Christ.
"Jesus cares for that, too. The sex abuse. The modesty issues. The need for a boyfriend. The craving for fulfilling marriage. The hurting families. And in obedience to him, you can find your full contentment, and full rest."
Jesus doesn't walk ahead of us and say "When you finally get it, you'll catch up with me." He walks with us, and leads us to the place of Truth. We should walk with this generation and lead them to Jesus. Part of that is meeting them where they are, so we can lead them to where they need to be.
Meet them in the books you read. Again, as you feel able. God doesn't call everyone to be a front line soldier, and that's OK. But for those of us who are able and ready to be dominion-minded readers, stay in touch with your peers' reading habits. It's a mission field that needs to be taken captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ.