How Literature Can Aid Your Worship
Josh Starkey is director of music and worship at Grace Brethren Church in Simi Valley, CA. He also teaches 11th grade English at Grace Brethren High School. He and his wife, Jenny, have two children with one on the way and enjoy coffee, good books, and the ocean. Josh blogs regularly at myborrowedwords.wordpress.
It’s no accident or coincidence that God gives us His spoken Word in the form of a book. God chose to reveal Himself to us through words, and written words at that. For this reason, words are important, and books are important, much more than we often give them credit for.
Think about it: God spoke the universe into existence (He didn’t “throw” matter into the universe or “pull” the dry land from the waters; God tells us that He “spoke” it all into being). God speaks, and things exist. God’s Son, the image of the invisible God, is also called God’s Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1,14). And God completes His revelation of Himself to His created people by giving us the Bible – a book. The written word isn’t simply an accessory to our lives but is something God intentionally and gloriously built into the universe because it is part of who He is. And for this reason, as God’s image bearers, we’re affected by words in profound ways and on very deep levels. When humans speak or write, we imitate our Creator in an intimate way; when we speak or write, it really means something, whether for good or for evil.
My argument, then, is that reading literature can play a significant part in you and I fulfilling our roles as worshipers of God. In addition to Scripture, reading the right kinds of stories can help shape us from the inside out. Though never substitutes for Scripture, stories can shape our desires and our character to desire God and fulfill our roles in His ultimate, spoken Story.
Philip Sidney wrote in his Apology for Poetry (pub. 1595) that the poet (Sidney’s term for a writer of fiction) does something in imaginative literature that, say, a historian or philosopher can’t do. Sidney said the poet has the ability to create worlds that make us see what our world should be like and how the people in it should act. Fiction can make us love good and abhor evil by actually putting our imaginations into situations where good and evil are visible and, dare I say, real.
In keeping with Sidney’s argument, reading Scripture first and the right kinds of literature second can shape us as readers and as worshipers of God. Stories can stir our affections in very beneficial ways. Here are a few:
1. Experiencing a redeemed world.
Scripture reveals aspects of the coming redemption of creation, but it’s often difficult to imagine what a redeemed world will actually be like. And sometimes it’s even harder to really desire that world, partly because we become too accustomed and numb to the descriptions of heaven we read in Scripture.
But stories can help stir up our imaginations so we really feel, with fuller affection, passages like Romans 8:19-23, which says we, along with creation, eagerly await the redemption of all things from sin’s decay.
J.R.R. Tolkien really had an ability to imagine what a redeemed world might be like. He created a fictional world in The Lord of the Rings that’s brim-full with stuff that resembles our own world. As we read, Tolkien’s world becomes our own, and we really feel the things that happen there. Take, for instance, his description of the eternal, heavenly qualities of the forest of Lothlorien:
“[I]n Lorien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world. Evil had been seen and heard there, sorrow had been known [...] but on the land of Lorien no shadow lay.”
“Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain.”
This passage describes things that make sense and fit in Middle-earth. But The Lord of the Rings also makes us experience what a redeemed version of our world might be like. It gives us a stirring example of how it might actually feel to be in a real, physical world of trees, streams, and colors where no sin or “shadow” falls. However imperfectly, Tolkien’s stories can really help shape us into people who desire these things to come true in our own world. And when we desire God and the fulfillment of His promises with full affection, we’re worshiping.
2. Experiencing the return of our Savior.
C.S. Lewis also delves into the themes of redemption and experiencing the reality of a Redeemer. In The Great Divorce, Lewis sends his protagonist/narrator on a bus ride to heaven. The bus passengers get a chance to experience heaven in an “already-but-not-yet” sense as it’s awaiting the final return of Christ and His redemption of all things. The world of heaven resembles our own but is much more solid and real and thereby dangerous and painful for the ghostly passengers. The redeemed souls of people that inhabit the place are imposing, noble, and gloriously good. The whole place is so good that it’s frightening for the bus travelers.
At the end of the story, the narrator is caught in heaven when Christ appears in all His light and glory, and we experience some of the rejoicing of creation in that final redemptive moment. We also experience the narrator’s terror at being caught in judgment, unconverted. He says,
“All the time there had been bird noises, trillings, chatterings, and the like; but now suddenly the full chorus was poured from every branch [...] above all this ten thousand tongues of men and woodland angels and the wood itself sang. ‘It comes, it comes!’ they sang. ‘Sleepers awake! It comes, it comes, it comes.’ One dreadful glance over my shoulder I essayed [...] the rim of the sunrise that shoots Time dead with golden arrows and puts to flight all phantasmal shapes.”
Again in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien helps us experience the return of a good king to his rightful throne. Christians should be those who “love the Lord’s appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8), and sometimes stories can help cultivate a longing for our true Savior and King to come back for His people. Tolkien says in The Return of the King, after Sauron is defeated,
“But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him. And then Faramir cried: ‘Behold the King!’”
This passage has clear ties to 1 John 3:2 and the transformation of Christ’s people when they finally behold Him at His return. John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” We do behold Christ by faith as He is revealed in Scripture, but when He appears and we see Him in His glory, simply beholding the King will be transforming for us. Reading stories like Tolkien’s can help us feel a fraction of what 1 John 3:2 will actually be like. Then hopefully we can return to reading God’s Word with our emotions renewed to feel and worship as we read.
3. Longing for redemption and the end of suffering.
Christian or no, the writers of good literature grapple with the hardships of human experience in their stories and with their characters. You won’t find a clear reference to God in every story – Scripture says that unregenerate people suppress the truth of God and are blind to Him on varying levels. But unbelievers aren’t blind to the sufferings and tragedies of a fallen world. Even stories where God has been removed often still portray suffering with intensely tragic beauty and can make us long for the redeemed world God promises to His people. A few standout authors who have a knack for stirring a reader’s affections with suffering are Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Frazier, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Dickens.
Dickens writes a very memorable passage in A Tale of Two Cities that paints the horrors of sinful man at his worst. In his classic novel about the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, this passage occurs during the scene of the storming of the Bastille:
“The sea of black and threatening waters, and of destructive upheavings of wave against wave, whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown. The remorseless sea of turbulently swaying shapes, voices of vengeance, and faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them.”
This “sea of black and threatening waters” is the multitude of suffering men and women storming the French prison. Dickens brings to life an extreme case of the effects of sin in our fallen world with both vivid description and poetic artistry. Reading this scene, we see and feel what we might become if God left us to our own sinful bent or gave us over to ultimate despair or sinful anger in the midst of suffering. And really feeling the weight of our sin, we have the opportunity to worship as we cry out to God for redemption from it. We have the opportunity to turn in hope to God’s promises to free us from sin once and for all.
So there you have it: 3 ways among many in which good literature can help shape our desires and fuel our worship of Christ.
In a culture and age where we become distracted so easily, stories can raise our affections up to the heights for the things we should be caring deeply about: Christ our King, the redemption of our sinful world, and final freedom from our sinful human condition. Find out who writes the best stories, read them often, and feel them deeply. I hope the few examples above encourage you to do this.