Thelma's Literary Studies

Why Study Literature?
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Why Study Literature?

For many years now I have read works, studied worldviews, and written curriculum to teach the concepts of Christian worldview literary criticism.  These studies have led me to the doorways of some important secular and religious thinkers who have all participated in what Mortimer Adler calls the Great Conversation.  The Great Conversation is the ‘conversation’ through literature that has progressed through the western intellectual tradition, transcending author life spans, cultures, continents, and even language barriers.  Each author in the strand is found to be influencing the next.  The Christian presupposition is that this conversation paints a picture of Man in all his God-reflected glory, or in all of his shame.  Each literary movement represents the greatest thinkers of the time, whether Christian or secular.  The job of the Christian literature teacher is to expose the underlying suppositions of those great thinkers and hold them up to the light of biblical truth, exposing truth and untruth.  The practice of this type of literary criticism provides the young students with important skills he/she will be able to employ for the rest of their reading lives.  And, more importantly, it will open to them the possibility of participating in the Great Conversation themselves, impacting their world for the glory of God.


In the lengthy history of the western Great Conversation there have been many thinkers who stand apart from the rest.  Their power to think out-of-the-box[1], their insights and profound influences have made their lives and ideas a powerful record of man’s attempt to explain the inexplicable completely apart from a Creator God.  In a world where so many blindly grope through life dealing with circumstances and reactions, unaware of the search for purpose and meaning - these thinkers have shaken the very foundations of their societies in their search for answers.  In their quest for a prime reality they seek to know ‘how should we then live?’ 


These powerful thinkers have not always been philosophers.  World-changing ideas arise from the minds of mathematicians, astronomers, scientists, naturalists, artists, musicians, doctors, theologians, poets, political leaders, and religious leaders who have demonstrated a resolution to rebel against accepted standards or ideals.  They desired ‘another’ or ‘different’ answer to the oldest questions of life; “Why am I here?” “How did I get here?” “Is there a God?” and “What is the purpose of life?” A man like Socrates, a wise man by the world’s standards, was one such individual.  He forced the students of his Thoughtery[2] to question the foundations of their own prime reality, what we might call Values Clarification today.  Borrowing as he did from the Delphic Oracle[3], Socrates’ motto was "Know thyself." Use your reason! Think! Find answers for yourself.  Above all, examine your life for "the unexamined life is not worth living."  As Christians, we proclaim, “Know Christ”, the absolute opposite![4]


In every one of us there are two ruling and directing principles, whose guidance we follow wherever they may lead; the one being an innate desire of pleasure; the other, an acquired judgment which aspires after excellence.

                                                      Socrates, Greek philosopher. Quoted in Plato’s, Phaedrus.


As shown in the above quote, great secular thinkers have often stumbled upon biblical truths.  Although their understanding of these truths proves to be limited, it does not discount their worth in the Great Conversation.  As Christian thinkers, students must first be challenged to discover biblical truths in the confines of the Bible itself before they are able to apply these truths, like a plastic overlay, to other literary works.  Teaching these skills, and opening minds to the Great Conversation in the light of biblical truth is the purpose of my ministry.


My own presuppositions are naturally the basis and hub for my literary studies.  As I approach a literary work I seek to uncover the author’s underlying assumptions.  Did he/she believe in God?  Did he/she accept or even know of Creation?  Who was the intended audience and what was the culture like that this work was addressed to?  What seems to be the purpose of this piece?  Has the author uncovered biblical truths or is he/she seeking to challenge my underlying assumptions - values clarification?  Literary criticism demands a careful study of the form and style of the work.  Is it a narrative?  Is it a recorded history?  Is it prescriptive?  Does it reflect pagan, renaissance, or reformation ideals?  My own worldview, my basic assumptions of truth, will affect the manner in which I approach, understand, and teach any specific piece of literature.


I presuppose Special Creation: a literal seven-day period as recorded in Genesis, ex nihilo.  I presuppose a purpose for men and women: that they were created in the image of God to glorify Him, that they broke fellowship when they disobeyed and have been reconciled again through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  I presuppose a purpose for all historical events: from Creation to the birth of Christ, and from Christ’s sacrifice to His Return.  I assume all of history prior to the birth of Christ as preparation to receive Him, and all of history since His death as preparation for His return.  My underlying assumption includes moral absolutes as found in the Bible, which are unchangeable throughout all of human history.  These timeless truths provide answers to all of the basic life questions. 


My ministry provides essential literature studies for students grades seven through 12.  Beginning with the standard concentric theory of learning, I teach what is closest to the student first, their national literature, and then move away in proximity to provide what I consider to be essential.  For the study of each category of literature there are highly divergent opinions as to what should be included in a survey class.  Choosing to place import on works not normally included in text anthologies places me in the difficult position of producing my own materials.  Many Christian publishers offer texts for the study of literature but none will present it in the light of the Great Conversation.  Many of these texts will offer excellent overviews of romanticism or realism but none will present it as Christian principles turned inside out and upside down, and none will reveal the chilling rebellious road from Theism to postmodernism (in American literature). 




Modernism and all it has taken away from western civilization is the prime example of depravity and moral decline from attempts to remove the Bible from our culture.  All moral progress of Adam’s race comes directly from the Bible.  It is the dividing line between chaos and real civilization.  To ignore the great western thinkers who have shaped our culture is foolish.  The only reason we can possibly give for the impact these men made is that they gave men an excuse to be what they truly are.  They glorified rebellious men as intellectuals, introducing elaborate arguments to explain away simple truths, pandering to the lusts of unregenerate men, with promises of clear consciences and relative morality.


The obvious failure of the last 200 years of secular thought opens doors of opportunity for students to witness to a dying lost world.  But like Paul on Mars Hill they must first know their audience so they know how to address issues that are relevant in an intelligent, understandable way.  I teach that the Bible is the dividing line between civilization and Chaos.  My goal is to change lives: to convince young people that they can understand their world by standing back and looking at the big picture of the Great Conversation: to equip them to make an intelligent difference in their world. 


[1] Out-of-the-box: a business term denoting a person who begins thinking outside of the normal established perimeters for any given subject or problem.  Someone with the creative ability to begin thinking previous from the point where others have assumed. 

[2] The Thoughtery is the name given to Socrates’ school in the parody The Clouds, by Aristophanes.

[3] The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, complete with priestesses, was consulted to settle matters by the ancient Greeks (6th century BC).  “Know thyself” was the inscription.  The oracle had earlier pronounced Socrates the wisest man.

[4] Dr. Jan Haluska, professor of literature at Southern Adventist University, electronic correspondence.

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