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Literature and Theology.

Literature of the day is of concern to a Christian theologian. M. Luther*: “I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters have declined and lain prostrate, it [theology] too has very wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate; on the other hand, I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless He has first prepared the way by the rise and flowering of languages and letters, as though they were forerunner [John the] Baptists. … Certainly it is my desire that there be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for grasping sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and effectively. … Therefore I beg you that at my request (if that has any weight) you will urge your young people to study poetry and rhetoric diligently” (cf. WA-Br 3, 50).

Many problems arise as a Christian examines a work of literary artistry. The author's intention and the work's integrity must be considered. A critic must beware of the “heresy of paraphrase” and observe the rules of literary criticism. The besetting question is when, if at all, a statement of Christian “judgment” should be made on the Weltanschauung of an artist or of his protagonists.

Major concerns involved include the inherent quality of the work itself. In contrast to most contemporary writing, which only mirrors life as some authors see it, are those works which some call “great.” For purposes of analysis, “great” literature is sometimes regarded as that which honestly comes to grips with man's existential problems (see Existentialism) and which, if written by a Christian, does not ignore tension and struggle in the life of one who is both saint and sinner (Lat. simul justus et peccator).

Literature dealing with man's ultimate destiny and responsibility to the Creator is sometimes called religious writing. It may be held that though the question of a God is raised and His existence denied, an author's coping with the issue makes his writing “religious.” Some authors hold that they need not deal with man's responsibility to any being extrinsic to his world.

Much ostensibly Christian writing is not great, and in a sense not “religious” or “Christian,” because it does not come to grips with life; some of it depicts an unreal, saccharine world.

Another issue is the question whether a theol. can be a writer, and vice versa. A theol. may be tempted to sit in judgment on literature and be inclined to be didactic. But some hold that the more veiled a literary work is, the “greater” it is.

Those who feel constrained to make a Christian judgment on literature raise such questions as whether man's problems are seen in relation to his Creator and whether evil and guilt are simply seen as “the state of us all” or an adequate picture is drawn of personal guilt and of one's radical, individual rebellion against God. Others hold that though some writers do not do justice to ethical questions, they may perform a service in grappling with the question of existence itself. An increasing number of students of the interrelationship of literature and theol. hold that Christ-man (one who claims assoc. with Christ) must begin his dialogue with pagan man in the realm of the ontological and ethical.

Despite disagreement as to meaning, such terms as “truths,” “values,” “law-affirmations,” and “Biblical insights” are often used in discussing “great” writing. At what point an author's statements on the nature of man and his condition become “Christian” truths is debatable; but Christian ideas and insights may appear in works of one who is not a professed Christian.

Another concern is that of a possible “Christ-figure” (character with qualities of Christ) in an author's work and the concomitant need to distinguish bet. imitation of Christ and substitution for Him, bet. reflection of Christ-like qualities and replacement of the need for Christ and His work, bet. a follower of Christ and a substitute for Him.

Theologians are increasingly interested in contemporary writing. More and more literature is being viewed as a “prophetic voice,” a “handwriting on the wall,” indicating what our culture is and may become. Besides gaining rich insights into internal struggles of man, Christians have also seen enlightening images of themselves in writings of perceptive contemporary authors, esp. in depictions of the Old Adam plaguing the Christian in this life. Many hold that lack of a full portrayal of the “new man” (Eph 4:24; Cl 3:10) drives one back to the Christ of the Gospels where one finds the true Christ-figure, who is at once the person like whom man is to be, and in whom one finds the power to become Christian man. DLD

E. Fuller, Man in Modern Fiction (New York, 1949); R. M. Frye, Perspective on Man: Literature and the Christian Tradition (Philadelphia, 1961); R. W. B. Lewis, The Picaresque Saint: Representative Figures in Contemporary Fiction (Philadelphia, 1958); N. A. Scott Jr., Modern Literature and the Religious Frontier (New York, 1958); R. Stewart, American Literature & Christian Doctrine (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1958).


Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

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The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod


Original Editions ©Copyright 1954, 1975, 2000
Concordia Publishing House
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Content Reproduced with Permission

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