Should Christians read pagan literature? The question is a fair one, considering that more than one place in Scripture expects the believer to renew his mind and do everything he does to the glory of God. It’s hard to see how Buffy the Vampire Slayer might be considered mind-renewing. It may be even more difficult to place The DaVinci Code in a category anywhere close to “devotional.”
Yet I’m wondering if we might be asking the wrong question when we ask whether we can read pagan literature. The question can we—as though we really hope we get permission to do something that might be bad but we really want to do it anyway because everyone else is doing it—sets us up for a yes-or-no, up-or-down decision. But maybe the answer is not yes-or-no. Maybe there is a better question for us to ask regarding pagan literature: How are Christians to read non-Christian literature? There are two reasons that asking how is better than asking if we can.
First, in a very real sense, there is no way to avoid reading pagan literature, if one reads at all. Think about the non-Christian writing that makes up our daily lives: Billboards, advertisements, newspapers, owner’s manuals, textbooks, school reading assignments, and terms of agreement (you do read those, right?). As Paul told the Corinthians, we would have to go out of the world to avoid contact with unbelievers. There is no way to avoid some pagan literature.
So, second, asking how are we to read pagan literature makes better sense because it focuses the responsibility on the individual Christian to practice discernment, rather than pretending there is some inherent righteousness which makes the abstaining Christian superior to the Homer-reading one. Asking how means the Christian takes seriously the task of renewing his mind and doing only what can be done to the glory of God.
When it comes to asking how to read pagan literature, perhaps no Christian has explained the dynamic better than Peter Leithart. His two books—The Brightest Heaven of Invention and Heroes of the City of Man—are practically guidebooks, complete with “walk-along-beside-me-and-hold-my-hand-while-I-show-you-how-to-do-this” instructions. Leithart makes two simply profound statements beneficial for all who wrestle with this important question.
- 1. Leithart acknowledges that there is no imperative for Christians to read non-Christian literature. As he puts it,
Christians have no more moral duty to read and study Greek and Roman literature than ancient Israelites had a duty to study the myths of Baal and Asteroth [sic]. Nor should Christian schools or homeschoolers think that they can have a good Christian education only if the ‘classics’ are prominent in the curriculum. The goal of Christian education is to train a child to be faithful in serving God and His kingdom in a calling, and certainly this goal can be achieved by a student who never cracked the cover of a Homeric epic.
And he continues,
Given the appalling ignorance of the Bible among evangelical Christians today, mastering Scripture must be an overwhelming priority in all Christian education. If one must choose between studying Leviticus and Livy, Habakkuk or Homer, Acts or Aeschylus, the decision is, to my mind, perfectly evident, and the point holds even if the non-biblical literature were Christian. The genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1-9 are vastly more important to study than Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, or Dickens….
And we could add Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games. How are Christians to read pagan literature? The Christian imperative is first to understand all that Jesus has commanded. The Christian who has not yet mastered Scripture does not need to ask the question “can I read pagan literature.” Instead, he or she would need to ask, “How can I read pagan literature…when I am still so ignorant of what I claim is most important?” The how question, in this case, answers itself.
- 2. Leithart explains the how question another way. “Assuming a student has a strong grounding in Scripture, there may be good reasons for taking up a study of other literature… Daniel and his three friends learned the language and literature of the Chaldeans (Dan. 1:4).”
Likewise, Paul quoted pagan poets to make theological points which called unbelievers to repentance. Leithart offers a number of biblical examples, then concludes,
God, in short, calls us to war against the idols…. With ideas and literature, the confrontation between the Bible and paganism will be more intense, but with great care and wisdom, we can plunder even pagan literature and make it work for us. As Proverbs says, the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous (Prov 13:22).
Asking the how question concerning non-Christian literature puts the perspective back on redemption. How can this literature glorify God? There is a way, but it takes hard work, wisdom, and great care. Those unwilling to engage in the difficult work of redeeming fallen literature—those wishing only the entertainment value of paganism—have not yet learned how to read pagan literature.
But I think Leithart is right, there is a way to read pagan literature to the glory of God. We just have to learn how. How do you think Christians can read pagan literature to the glory of God?