October 17, 2017

A Book’s Best Critic

Beatrice Ward

Christians need to be selective in their reading, and God has given a standard for their selection.

If a man sets out to write a pornographic novel and in it uses interesting characters, suspenseful plot, and believable dialogue, has he written good literature? That question was posed to a group of Christian young people who responded without a dissenting voice, “Well, — I might not like it, but I guess I’d have to call it good literature.”

Think about the question and maybe you’ll agree with them. After all, who are you to impose your literary taste on someone else’s work? Just because the content may be morally objectionable to you doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, does it?

This type of reasoning is exactly what thousands of students are being handed in public school! and state colleges. It’s no wonder Christians coming through that system hesitate to call trash exactly what it is — trash.

The basic assumption behind this line of reasoning is relativism. That is, no one’s opinion is worth any more or less than anyone else’s; everything is relative. But certainly a Christian cannot accept this philosophy. The Word of God is not simply another opinion; it is the Truth. A Christian believes that, and he should be guided by the Bible in every area of his life, for Biblical principles apply not only to religion, but also to politics, science, economics, and literature.

Form and Content

In the field of literature, Biblical principles can be applied in this way: A work of literature can be divided for analysis into two areas — form and content. There are generally accepted standards that govern the form of a work. That is, a good poem will usually follow certain criteria; a good novel, others. We can judge a poem as bad because perhaps there are faults in the meter or the rhyme scheme is ineffective, or a novel may not be very good because the characters are poorly drawn. Thus, there are some fairly objective standards to govern the form of literature.

But what about content? Despite contemporary arguments to the contrary, there are standards for the content of literature. It is not simply a relative matter of taste. The Bible has many criteria for content. Philippians 4:8, Ephesians 4:29, and Galatians 5:17·24 are a few passages that give us specific guidelines to follow in the area of morality. Any philosophy contrary to the Bible — be it hedonism, humanism, or whatever — in a piece of literature should be condemned.

One Authority

Is the Bible the truth only for the Christian? Or is it the truth for everyone-believer and non-believer? That is, must you say, “As a Christian, I think it’s bad for me, but it might not be bad for a non-Christian”? What you’re saying, then, is that the work itself is not inherently good or bad; the final judgment depends upon the reader. This idea is an existential one coming from the faulty notion that there is no objective meaning to life outside oneself. Christians know this idea is false since God has declared Himself and His Word to be the objective truth (John 14:6, II Timothy 2:15). Thus, no matter who writes or who reads a work, the only correct evaluation of it will be made using Biblical standards. A Christian can say of a television program, novel, or play, “It could have been a good work except for its poor content.” And he can make that pronouncement, confident that he has judged it by the only valid criterion, the Bible.

I am not advocating censorship, but I am advising discernment. Some Christians are so smitten by the masterful style of a writer that they fail to recognize the poisonous content in the work. A television documentary on Red China may be beautifully photographed and superbly edited, but if the content extolls a godless, communistic way of life, that aspect of the program must be judged as a failure. A non-Christian may not agree with this judgment, but the principles of the Word of God stand eternally whether anyone recognizes them or not.

Also, the more appealing and exciting the form, the more the reader needs to be wary of the content. An idyllic, romantic, picturesque movie like Camelot does more to glorify adultery than could a shoddy, low budget, R-rated treatment of the same subject.

The Christian’s Guide

This does not mean that a Christian should read only the Bible or other Christian literature. Certainly the Bible should be the staple of a Christian’s reading diet, but unfortunately much Christian literature, while excellent in content, is very weak in form. Christians can and should read secular literature. There are, however, some practical guidelines to follow in selecting or judging reading and viewing material.

Christians cannot grow up naively unaware of the evil in the world. However, it’s best that Christians become inoculated to evil in a guided, controlled environment rather than be thrust into it unprepared. Good literature can provide this controlled inoculation. When any mention of moral judgment is voiced, … “Liberals” are quick to point out that the Bible contains episodes of gross sins of immorality. True, it does, but the Biblical principle in exposing immorality has been phrased succinctly by the most eminent eighteenth-century literary critic in England, Samuel Johnson: “Vice (for vice is necessary to be shown) should always disgust.” An earlier English critic, Sir Philip Sidney, in evaluating the literature of his day, declared that the aim of all literature should be to teach “virtuous action.” I have found these tests-the debunking of vice and the extolling of virtue-to be excellent guides for judging the worth of any type of literature.

The Bible is not simply another opinion in an already cluttered muddle of opinions; It is the truth, the standard for every situation. Certainly we ought to let its judgments rule every aspect of our lives. Literature is a very powerful weapon, and the Christian especially needs to be critically aware of its dangers and potentials.


Beatrice Ward taught literature at Bob Jones University for many years.

This article first appeared in Faith for the Family, January/February 1996. It is republished here by permission.


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