For me, as I’m sure for many of you as well, summer is a time for reading. A time to catch up on the tomes and tomes that have been added to my reading list since the last time I had a moment to breathe. I’ve noticed, curiously, that my bookshelf is full of novels written by authors who disagree with me on the most fundamental questions—yet I love them. So, is this a good thing? What do Christians have to gain, spiritually, from reading novels by writers who do not believe in the true God, or even in truth at all? I hope to show that there is eternal significance to all of our reading, even in the most mundane or sacrilegious texts.
One of my favorites, Of Mice and Men, attempts to communicate the ultimate futility of our aspirations, and the isolation and brutality which make up life. This is no feel-good rom-com. Reading the story might even give us a sort of “existential dread”—the feeling we get when books walk us to the edge of “the abyss,” and give us a view of the endless void below. The novel’s dejecting ending may bring us the closest to experiencing Hell we will ever get.
And yet, reading these disheartening stories ought to show us God. If all truth is granted to us by God, Christians must take seriously our hunt for it, wherever truth may be. Indeed, John Steinbeck’s claim in Of Mice and Men is mostly correct. Life is vanity; there is nothing to feel but despair—that is, if God were not there to tell us otherwise. After all, what meaning could we hope to have if there were no eternal justice or consequence to our living. Christians too would conceive of things no differently, with the same nihilistic cynicism, but for the grace of God. Followers of Christ are commanded to dwell on whatsoever is true, lovely, or commendable. There is no presumption that those attributes are only found in The Chronicles of Narnia, or a Bach symphony.
In fact, insofar as they display truth and beauty, these pages are quite possibly the closest to Heaven many of our compatriots will ever experience. And for Christians, exposure to sobering themes is at minimum an exercise in sympathy. How can we truly love our friends if we don’t know what a life without hope feels like? How might we communicate a transformative relationship with Christ when we don’t remember what we’ve been delivered from? Books can help us tremendously, not only understanding how the world is today, in all its chaotic imperfections, but also the psychology of our family, neighbors, and fellow students.
Whenever I read books like Of Mice and Men, I get the sense that there is something missing for the author. Yes, even for the writer who attempts to embrace the “cold, hard facts” of post-Christian life, whom today we might call “woke.” It is not enough to rid oneself of the “infantile delusions” of religion by simply calling them such. There is always a sense of longing that is latent in these brutally sincere books, a longing which cannot be fulfilled so easily. Literature gets its power as a world created by the author, as a projection of his or her worldview. The question we must ask, then, is whether this world’s gloomy simplicity is true to reality. I would argue that we can simply walk outside, or converse with an old friend, and discover otherwise. Sometimes, we can spot these kind of cracks in the author’s worldview just by reading attentively.
All this to say, whenever we flip through a book this summer, whether out of preference or obligation, we ought not to do so mindlessly. Much good can come out of so simple an act as reading, provided we read in a spirit of curiosity, humility, and love.
Bryce McDonald ’21 is a sophomore in Leverett House.