Reading Between the Line: A Christian Guide to Literature by Gene Edward Veith Jr.
This new reprint of Reading Between the Lines is a welcome addition to the growing number of books on the Christian faith and the arts. The author, Gene Edward Veith Jr., is professor of literature at Patrick Henry College and is well acquainted with the struggle many Christians face when diving into the abyss of literature. There are four main sections in the book, an opening apologetic for reading and criticism and a section each on forms, modes and traditions of literature. The effectiveness of Veith’s proposal for seeing the dynamic importance of literature in the lives of our children hinges upon the idea that “If we cultivate reading – if we read habitually and for pleasure, reading the Bible, newspapers, the greats works of the past and the present, the wide-ranging “promiscuous reading” advocated by the Christian poet Milton – we will reinforce the patterns of the mind that support Christian faith and lead to a healthy and free society” (25). The image based society that we live in floods us with messages of a confusing nature, linking unbiblical and ethical thought together to provide a kind of immediate pull on our senses. I would propose with the work of Abraham Kuyper that the media or medium that the messages travel on (t.v., iPad, iPhone, tablet) are not the culprit, but the way in which they are manipulated by the people who put messages upon these devices.
Why read this book?
Veith points out the techniques an author uses to produce both high quality and poorly written works. He writes, “Bad nonfiction garbs simple ideas in overly complex language or scientific-sounding jargon. It is wordy. It sounds ugly….Such writing is arrogant in its pseudo –learning and in the way it neglects its readers’ needs” (52). This kind of writing is the fountainhead of hubris, which seeks to drain all the life out of writing by inserting fact, conjecture, and cliché. Why is this important? For one, all writing is aiming at a particular purpose; to move, encourage, edify, provide an emotional tug, or persuade. There is no neutral piece of writing, either in the area of fiction or non-fiction. If we understand how the writer uses language well or poorly, then we can also gauge the message of the material. Veith connects the different genres of writings with the particular purposes that they propose, therefore, aiding the reader with a specific reading strategy.
Secondly, Veith helps the reader understand the deep connections that exist between the biblical use of words and their meanings applied to literature. In writing about tragedy, Veith writes, “Aristotle’s concept of the “tragic flaw” has been very influential among critics….To us Christian terminology, the tragic hero falls because of sin….sin is not merely an action or an attitude, but a “tragic flaw” that exists deep in our personalities and in our fallen human nature” (106). Pride, love, pity, and fear all find their rightful places in classical works like Antigone, Beowulf, Paradise Lost. The biblical record corresponds beautifully with these virtues and vices found in great literature because they reside universally in humanity. Aristotle intimates that for tragedy to be true, a character must bring about a tragic state of circumstances himself, rather than having terrible things seize upon his life. What helps us here, in Veith’s writing, is that much ancient literature ‘portrays human greatness’ whereas the modern taste for literature only reveals man’s impotence, weakness, and struggle (109). This is not to say that some modern works prize a well-connected story with a main character who is good yet has a tragic flaw that leads to harm.
Gene Edward Veith has written a wonderful book that includes history, strategies for reading, chapters on modes and types of literature. This work is immensely helpful because it does not burden the reader with arcane ideas but imbues a sense of practicality with an eye towards those with faith reading pieces of great literature. Even with a short summary of John Milton’s life, Veith points out that Milton runs counter to the ‘stereotypes of Bible believing Christians’ that we so often hear. Milton held a high view of Scripture yet was learned, he was a spiritual and moral man, yet he championed liberty by promoting revolution. We are left with a reading guide that speaks to the forms of literature while also caring about what the effect literature has on its readers.
Thanks to Crossway for the review copy of this book in exchange for review.