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Theological education and literature

5 December 2019

The other day Brenton Dickieson asked an interesting question on Twitter:

Hey lit friends: imagine you are teaching an undergrad intro lit course at
a Bible College to sophomore theology students (Christian worldview


1) One essential reading?

2) An outlier–an engaging book that you think would invite students into

I posted it to the Inklings mailing list for discussion, and this morning we also discussed it at our literary coffee klatsch. My first thought for the “essential reading”, and also my final conclusion, was Out of the silent planet by C.S. Lewis, for reasons I will explain later. but quite a lot of different things were suggested by various people.

David Levey suggested books by John Updike, “a celebrated novelist and believing Christian who dealt with matters of sexuality as well as issues of faith. His ‘Rabbit’ series should still be obtainable. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and
Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov would also work well.”

I have never read John Updike, but agree with David about Paton and Dostoevsky.

Several people mentioned Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s progress.

Tony Zbaraschuk suggested “Shakespeare, Measure for Measure (an examination of justice, forgiveness, chastity, and several other core religious issues). Have them read Samuel Johnson’s essay on this play as an example of one type of literary criticism.”

At our literary coffee klatch we discussed various “churchy” novels, like those of Susan Howatch, whose “Starbridge” series probably makes her the 20th-century Anthony Trollope. Others in that genre could include some by Ernest Raymond, Phil Rickman and Elizabeth Webster, which we had discussed at earlier gatherings.

The trouble with most of these is that they are limited to a particular cultural setting. It could be useful to those training as Anglican clergy to read novels about some of the peculiar temptations of some Anglican clergy in the 20th century, but as the period recedes into the past it becomes less relevant. And non-Anglicans could get hung up on denominational differences — we (Baptists/Methodists/Lutherans.Pentecostals/etc) aren’t like that.

Out of the silent planet takes the discussion out of this world, and into neutral territory, as it were. In South Africa we speak of our ideal as “the rainbow nation”, but Lewis transfers it to a rainbow planet in dealing with issues of multiculturral unity and diversity. Anything earthly tends to be too culturally and temporally specific.

I was also reminded of an experience some years ago when I was in an Anglican parish in Durban North. There were two young women in the adult confirmation class who asked lots of questions, so I gave them Out of the silent planet to read.

A few weeks later they came to a Bible study attended mostly by long-standing church members where we were studying the book of Revelation, and the symbolism of the dragon, the sea monster and the land monster in Revelation 12-13. The old Anglicans looked blank and puzzled and frustrated; it made no sense to them at all. But the faces of the two newcomers lit up, and they said, “It’s all in that book we read” and suddenly they were explaining it all to the rest.

So Out of the silent planet is one of the best works of fiction to stimulate theological discussion and so would be my “one essential reading”.

The question of the “outlier” seems to be more open.

David Levey: “For the outlier I’d do the opposite and go for something which questions Christian faith, so as to get students to think. Very readable is Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (the movie was condemned by the Roman Catholic church). Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and her just-released The Testaments would also fall into this category.”

My own suggestion for this would be Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, or perhaps Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe. My discussion question would be, in the case of the former, “How is the Christian gospel good news in such a society?”. And, in the case of the latter, the same question, but also asking whether those who attempted to present the Christian gospel had actually succeeded in doing so — did they present the true Christ, or merely a caricature?



5 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 December 2019 3:42 pm

    Sounds like an interesting read, hope I can still find it. Enjoyed reading this post.

  2. dalejamesnelson permalink
    6 December 2019 4:28 am

    My “outlier” was David Williams’s When the English Fall, which could prompt good discussions about our technology-driven culture contrasted with intentional Christian community as practiced by the Amish.

  3. 13 December 2019 3:07 pm

    Thanks for this, Stephen. It’s a thoughtful discussion that has got my mind moving.

  4. 5 January 2020 5:06 am

    G.K. Chesterton is pretty interesting.


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