What’s the Value in Reading Secular Classics? – L. Ryken

litclassicsAs we continue working our way slowly through Leland Ryken’s recent book, A Christian Guide to the Classics (Crossway, 2015), we are up chapter 9, where he treats “secular classics” (pp.80-90).

After defining what he means by “secular” (“a non-Christian work that does not explicitly endorse a Christian view of reality”, p.80), and distinguishing various types of literature that fall into this category, Ryken seeks to answer the question, “Why should Christians read secular classics?” And he begins with this point:

“One of the values that secular classics offer us is implicit in my labels the literature of common humanity and the literature of clarification. The subject of literature is human experience. Literature overwhelmingly ‘delivers the goods’ in putting us in touch with bedrock human experience. Flannery O’Conner said that the writer ‘should never be ashamed of staring’ at life (Mystery and Manners). The same is true of readers. One of the functions of authors is ‘to stare, to look at the created world, and to lure the rest of us into a similar act of contemplation’ (Nathan A. Scott, Modern Literature and the Religious Frontier). As we stare at human experience, we come to understand it. Literature gives us knowledge in the form of right seeing, and this applies to secular literature too.”

But to that Ryken adds this value:

“Christian and secular classics both give us this form of knowledge, but the clarifying power of literature (its focus on human experience) assumes a larger proportion of the take-away value when we read secular literature. We do not have our souls nurtured in the same way that we do when we read Christian literature, so truthfulness to human experience and clarification of life loom larger as the things that occupy us.”

And finally, the author adds this point concerning the value of reading non-Christian works of literature:

“…Reading secular literature can help us form a bond with the human race, and sometimes this is even truer when we read the literature of unbelief. Literature highlights the human condition to which the Christian faith speaks. Often we feel this more strongly when we know that we are being addressed by an unbelieving author who gives testimony to a viewpoint of experience that we do not know directly.”

GuidetoClassics-LRykenWhat do you think of Ryken’s answer to that question? Is there value in reading secular literature? If so, how should the Christian read them in a distinctively Christian way?

Next time we will consider Ryken’s points about “how not to read a secular classic” and “how to read a secular classic.” His points will certainly help us further answer the question concerning whether we should read secular literature.