Amy Julia Becker recommends secular novels to Christians. Among the reasons she gives are these:
The earnest and bleak atheist world-view provided by Camus in The Plague challenges any trite answers we might want to offer to the problem of suffering. The searing portrait of pain and loss that makes up much of the southern and African-American literary canon challenges the role the church has played in passively supporting the evils of slavery and segregation. (Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom all come to mind as books I have read and reread in my struggle to understand the persistent divide between black and white within this nation.)
It’s hard to know which contemporary novels will rise to the top of the literary landscape. Who are the Steinbecks and Fitzgeralds among us? The Chopins and Whartons and Cathers? Whoever they are, many of them are not Christians, and yet these are the perspectives that can teach us about who we are as a culture and how we as Christians can engage our culture through a lens of love.
Good novels—whatever world-view they profess—challenge us to love others better. They disrupt comfortable assumptions about reality. And, to the degree that these books state something true about the world around us, even if that truth is about God’s apparent absence, they also invite us to know God better by loving our neighbor all the more.
If secular novels help us to be human (at least in this period between the advents of Christ, since being a glorified human being will truly be transformational), can’t we say the same thing about secular governments? Don’t secular magistrates, even un-Christian ones, also make us ask big questions about what we share in common with unbelievers, what is government for, and the nature of community in a fallen setting? If governments were only Christian, wouldn’t we wind up with the Puritan’s Massachusetts Bay? The exclusion of non-Puritans from Puritan Boston may foreshadow the sort of separation between the wheat and tares coming at the last day. But it hardly does justice to life in a post-ascension era when the Holy Land is no longer holy and God’s people are strangers and aliens.
And then there are the humanizing effects of secular (read alcoholic) beverages. Of course, in excess they can dehumanize. But in the right proportion they make the heart “glad,” right? And yet, D. L. Mayfield thinks that some Christians may need to give up alcohol out of respect for their neighbors:
We have neighbors who eat raw chicken when they are drunk and get terribly sick; others who suffer from alcohol-related psychosis and bang symphonies on the trees outside our window at all hours of the night. People knock on our door with candy for my daughter, waving and talking to her even though she is asleep in the other room. People break windows, or almost fall out of them. Empty vodka growlers line the living room of one; another almost sets our building on fire when he forgets about the chicken-fried steak smoked to smithereens on his stove. There are people in our building who die because of alcohol—cirrhosis of the liver, asphyxiation from their vomit, slow-sinking suicides everywhere we turn.
And suddenly, alcohol is no longer fun. Instead it is a substance that changes my friends and neighbors, making them unpredictable and unsafe; it leaves me feeling helpless and afraid and vulnerable. It makes me question my faith in God, struggling to find hope for those who are addicted. There are other neighbors here too, people who are in various stages of recovery, and they help me. They drink their coffee black and smoke in the parking lots. They shake their heads and tell me they don’t touch the stuff anymore. They find that every sober day is a gift.
I certainly respect and admire Mayfield’s determination to live among the urban poor. But I would also say that by giving up alcohol — even for social as opposed to moral reasons — she has chosen a less human way to live, like not reading secular novels because the members of your congregation can’t handle them. Reading books by non-Christians, paying honor to secular rulers, and drinking and eating in moderation are activities that Christians share with non-Christians. In other words, being spiritual (as some Christians understand it) is as noted before not a way to be fully human but one that reduces our creatureliness to cardboard cutout proportions. I still don’t see how the transformationalists of whatever variety are comfortable with the goodness of creation if culture (literature, politics, and food) needs to be redeemed before Christians can properly appreciate or engage it.