I’m not the fastest reader you’ll ever meet, but I love to read and I try to read a lot. I don’t always accomplish that goal, but still, I try. I try to read all kinds of books, because I read Mortimer Adler’s How To Read A Book, and I realize that there is a difference between being “widely” read and “well” read.
I also have a love for well-used words. I’m not saying that I always use my words well, just that I appreciate great prose; even poetry. I have always understood poetry to be the art of trying to say the most possible with the fewest words possible and prose as simply expanding on that concept; allowing for more “wiggle room.” I know it may sound trite to some, but I’ve recently become captivated by the prose/literature (where is the boundary, really?) of Cormac McCarthy. Like some of you, my first exposure to McCarthy’s apocalyptic vision was the Coen Brothers’ visitation of No Country For Old Men. Since watching that movie, I have now read six of McCarthy’s novels and I have been pushed to think, which I always appreciate.
As a pastor, and as a Christian, I often think, not only about my own sin but the sin of mankind as a whole, something which theologians often call, our depravity. If you are a parent, you know by harsh experience that you don’t have to ever teach your children to disobey. It comes quite naturally to them. In fact, it comes so naturally to them that you spend a great deal of your time and energy trying to get them to think thoughts and do deeds that actually seem unnatural to them. In other words, I think a lot about sin.
I have found that, personally, one of the best ways for me to think about sin is by reading fiction. Not just any fiction. Certain authors and certain books. I realize that there are Christians who claim that we should read only books that help us grow in faith, but I not only think that looking sin in the eyes helps us grow in faith, I think that this is a short-sighted understanding of man’s role as creator in reflecting the image of God (Imago Dei) to creation. In fact, there are three fiction books that have helped me think about the concept(s) of sin like no other: Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged (OK, so that’s actually two books [two very, very, very loooooong books], but for the sake of argument, we’ll consider them as one, primarily focusing on The Fountainhead) and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
The order in which these books have helped me think about the the various prism-angles of sin is not necessarily the order in which I read them. But, Rand’s emphasis on “the virtue of selfishness,” and her characters, who pursue nothing but self-interest seems to me to be the perfect starting point for understanding our own rebellion against God. We alone want the ability/right to define what is right and/or wrong and we wan to take that right from God. When these pursuits are thwarted, this often leads us to outright violence in our actions (Blood Meridian), and when our internal/external violence does not accomplish our goals, this leads us to a detached state of being driven about by our circumstances (The Stranger/Blood Meridian).
I know that I have experienced this trajectory in my own life. You may or may not have had the same experiences but I’m fairly certain you can relate (if you have not read these novels and want summaries of the plots, go buy the Cliff’s Notes, sorry, I am taking it for granted here that you have read them). As we pursue self-interest and things get in our way, we become violent, or at least internally angry. As that anger does not accomplish what we hoped it might (James 1:20), we become detached and blown about by our circumstances (James 1:7, etc.).
Though there is much more to be said about each of these magnificent novels, all of this is to say that I think many Christians need to revisit their notions of reading fiction. So often, we believe that to remain “unstained from the world” (James 1:27), we have to entirely separate ourselves from everything “they” do, their art, music, speech, politics, etc. Quite to the contrary, fiction is a wonderful way for us to understand the heights of grace without having to plumb the depths of depravity ourselves. Writers like Camus, Rand and McCarthy should not be overlooked simply (and blindly) because they do not write from “a Christian perspective, whatever that means). In fact, they should be mined for the riches they reveal to us about the human heart, riches we often overlook in our attempts to be “holy.”
I’m not saying that these novels are for everyone. In fact, they’re probably not. But if you really want to understand grace, at some point you have to look at sin. No one sees fireworks in the broad of day. You have to see them against the backdrop of night. You don’t fully understand the variegated firework-colors of grace until you see them against the backdrop of our proclivity towards sin. Fiction has helped me think about these concepts in a way that I’m thankful life never had to. Maybe we should all go read more good fiction to draw closer to the Cross?