A Novel Conversion

The great 19th-century American evangelist Charles Finney once declared, "I cannot believe that a person who has ever known the love of God can relish a secular novel." And he went on to explicitly denounce Byron, Walter Scott, and even Shakespeare. Such an attitude may strike us as strange, yet historically, American evangelicals have often been suspicious toward secular literature. To give us the tools we need to counter that attitude, Os Guinness and Louise Cowan have published a new book titled Invitation to the Classics. It can help Christians understand not just what classic books to read, but how they can lead us to a richer understanding of the gospel. It's hard to believe that Finney would have disdain for Shakespeare. One wonders what he would have made of Dostoevsky, who often wove Christian themes into his otherwise "secular" novels. Interestingly the works of both writers led Louise Cowan—co-editor of Invitation to the Classics—back to Christian faith after she had lost it. Cowan had read various theological works, and even the Bible itself, but had failed to find faith. Then she read Hamlet, and other Shakespeare plays, and was struck by their frequent Christian themes. Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov led Cowan to explore Christianity further, eventually resulting in her conversion. "Not until a literary work of art awakened my imaginative faculties," she writes, "could the possibility of a larger context than reason alone engage my mind . . . I had to be transformed in the way that literature transforms—by story, image, symbol—before I could see the simple truths of the gospel." We live in a technological society that rejects anything that can't be measured and quantified. People are crying out for something more—for language that speaks to the soul. I know that when it comes to learning moral lessons, I've often been much more impressed by profound works of fiction than by abstract theological discourses. Scenes from some of the greatest stories ever told have etched moral truths deeply into my soul. Their characters and lessons are so vivid I can't forget them, and they're a continuing source of inspiration in my Christian walk. Biblical figures knew all about the power of a good story. Remember when the Old Testament prophet, Nathan, confronted King David about his affair with Bathsheba? Nathan didn't offer David a dry lecture on the sin of adultery. Instead, Nathan spun a story about a rich man who took the only lamb belonging to a poor man. In order to get past David's defenses, Nathan told an allegorical story. And in 20th century America you and I can use the same strategy. Christians should become reacquainted with classic literature. We can allow its rich, evocative words to speak to our own souls. And then we can pass on these stories as a comfort and a witness to unsaved friends. Call us at BreakPoint and we'll send you an essay from Invitation to the Classics. Better yet, read the book itself. It may whet your appetite for other good books, which in turn may whet your appetite for the Good Book.


Chuck Colson


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