Sunday, January 13, 2008

Reading Between the Lines, Chapter 4. Fiction: The Art of Story-Telling.

We seem to have a need for stories.

Defending Fiction

The capacity to invent stories is a function of the imagination, a reflection of the image of God in us. Jesus Christ using parables is a defense enough of the legitimacy of writing stories.

Many Christians do not know how to read fiction. Reading words and reading fiction are two different things. Some focus on the "problem" of wasting time on fiction when there are ostensibly "better" things to read. We can spend too much time doing any one thing, granted. Veith writes, "The Scriptural principle of the Sabbath, however, should remind us that God requires us to rest as well as to work. Literature can help us to rest our minds and it can even help us to nourish our spiritual lives."

Is fiction lying? Sir Philip Sydney defends fiction by saying that lying is to affirm that to be true which is in fact false. However, fiction affirms nothing, and therefore never lies. Fiction is not presented as true. The poet is not saying what is or is not, but more what should or should not be. Fiction is related to truth allegorically in its meaning, while nonfiction is related to truth in its facts. Fiction is meant to teach and to delight. Fiction is a good teacher because it gives pleasure.

People are inclined to emulate the models they see in stories, which is another reason stories are good teachers. To teach, you must grasp the student's imagination.


Narrative seeks to relate a series of events. Narratives pulls us into the story by telling the story from a point of view. Narrative requires plot, character, setting, and theme.


Something has to happen in a story. Plot almost always involves a conflict. Veith writes, "Discerning the conflict of a story is the key to understanding its significance." Conflicts come in several types: external and internal. External-only conflicts tend to be somewhat shallow. Internal conflict is often more riveting in the long run. Plots can be animated by thematic elements.


The readers must become involved with the characters to whom the action (plot) applies. Aristotle criticized what he called "spectacle"; all the action in the world, if it happens to characters we don't care about, will fall to the ground.

There are two types of characters: flat and rounded. Flat characters are generally stereotyped, static characters, whereas rounded characters are more interesting and have more going on under the surface.


Setting is rather like a stage on which the action takes place. Literature is a way to enter the world of another, or even of a world that does not exist.

What about the charge of escapism? It is a function that can be used for good or ill. Some people, indeed, can reject the challenges of their own world. However, there is such a thing as taking time off from work for a vacation. Good literature may provide escape, but it also brings us back to earth with a renewed appreciation of the texture of life. As Tolkien put it, escape can be sensible, if you are in a prison. Christians, indeed, are in prison, a prison caused by our own sinful natures and by the world in which we live.


A story will have some point it's trying to make. Points are often something that the reader can expand to apply to different situations that the story does not deal with directly.

One extremely important point Veith makes is that the simple process of presenting an evil (as evil) is NOT the same as condoning it or teaching others to engage in it. Many people, Christians included, tend to fixate on one aspect of a work, without taking the time and labor to interpret the work thematically.

Works by the best writers will tend to accord well with Scripture, even if the authors don't know Christ. Hence Virgil was hailed by the early church as teaching sound morals, though he was a pagan.

Christian Fiction Writers

John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Flannery O'Conner's stories are two examples of good Christian stories, written by writers who water nothing down, and examine the human condition in all its frailty. O'Conner's stories tend to shock, since she was self-consciously attempting to write to an audience that shares none of her assumptions.

Next week: Poetry and Singing.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Reading Between the Lines, Chapter 3. Nonfiction: The Art of Truth-Telling.

Before we get to Chapter 3, I should mention that Chapter 3 is the first of three chapters in the First Part, chapters 1 and 2 being introductory in nature. The first part is called "The Forms of Literature", and Veith has some interesting things to say about the relationship between how we understand various literary forms, and how we understand the Bible.

Veith says that nonfiction is an art form, though this is not widely understood.

Rhetoric and Semantics

Rhetoric is something the Greeks studied, and can be applied or misapplied. That the word has a modern negative connotation is merely an example of that fact. Criteria for selecting facts to report comes from a writer's worldview.

Veith illustrates the difference between the "denotation" of a word and its "connotation." Some words have such powerful connotations that they are called "god-terms" - words that are very commanding. Rhetoric, including use of god-terms and such, is nonetheless religious.

Christians need to cultivate a taste for language, and Veith claims that reading is one of the best means to that end.

Good and Bad Nonfiction

Veith says that readers should pay attention not only to the content, but also to the language, in order fully to understand a work. From the writer's perspective, in describing a difficult subject, it should be the subject matter that is difficult, not the words per se. Instead, what often happens is the reverse: jargon obscuring the meaning.

A Christian Nonfiction Writer

This is C. S. Lewis, of course. Veith quotes from God in the Dock, and from Mere Christianity. The second quote is the famous Lewis choice: liar, lunatic, or Lord. Veith claims that Lewis does not argue people into Christianity so much as simply show them what Christianity is, and that in a very artistic manner.

Nonfiction Today

Veith explains the "new journalism", which is writing "nonfiction novels" - novels about a real life person, and real events, but using fiction techniques. He says that this nonfiction doesn't claim to be unbiased; however, the bias is usually out in the open, as opposed to most journalists who often hide their bias under clever wording.

Annie Dillard and Walter Wangerin

In the previous section, Veith was talking about the intersection of fiction and nonfiction. In this section, he's talking more about the intersection of poetry and nonfiction. He quotes Annie Dillard, from her Holy the Firm, and Walter Wangerin's Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace, to show how they are pushing the bounds of language.

Next chapter: Fiction.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reading Between the Lines, Chapter 2. Vicarious Experience and Vicarious Sin: The Importance of Criticism

As a disclaimer: the reason we haven't published recently is because this chapter is very long. We've had to work on it for three Sundays. And now, onward.

One of the main points Veith is trying to make in this chapter is that reading isn't necessarily better than television simply because it's reading. There are good and bad books, just like there is good and bad television.

What are bad books? I think Veith is trying to say that there are a number of ways a book can be bad, and that readers need to be able to distinguish between them. There is bad content (sexual, violent, or other things that may occur to you), but many books in the most popular genres are bad aesthetically. They are written badly. Now Veith hastens to point out that the problem is NOT the genre, or even the reason for reading (for pleasure). Even the content of certain books that deal with sex or violence may do so in a very moral way (the Bible comes to mind). Veith says that the problem is how bad books are written: badly. The answer to bad books is good books.

He then goes on to explain the current literary dichotomy: either you have the "high culture" (See Ken Myers's All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes for an excellent explanation of this term) books that have ideas but no entertainment, or you have the "pop culture" fare that gives entertainment but no ideas. Veith thinks that Christians might be able to heal this breach.

Imaginative Experience

Reading acts on our imagination. We are always imagining. Engineers, scientists, artists, craftsmen are always imagining. Veith thinks of imagination as a gift from God. He claims that reading requires us to imagine, or we get nothing whatsoever out of it. He is happy when his children are reading less substantial fare just because they get an imaginative workout. The imagination has a moral dimension as well, e.g. to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn.

Reading offers vicarious experience, which are pleasurable because they enable us to "enlarge our being", as C.S. Lewis put it. The vicarious experience can be more pleasurable than a real one. We can learn from second-hand experience, and not just first-hand. Books are not everything, and there are some who never leave them (a problem).

Vicarious Sin

Some experiences are forbidden, such as sin. Sexual sins, dreams of power, etc. are things some people take perverted pleasure from. But what happens in our minds or imaginations has moral significance. See Jesus' words about lusting and anger. We must avoid sinful imaginings. So imagination can be a source of evil as well as good. See the description of mankind before the Flood: all the imaginations of men were only evil all the time.

Bad literature can have an evil effect just as much as good literature can do good. There are therefore some limitations necessary to our reading scope.

Now the subjects of sexuality and violence are definitely not necessarily out-of-bounds. Jesus talks about gouging our eyes, and the Song of Solomon endorses marital love. People are different, and some passages affect some people more than others. Writers should be more careful lest they cause some to sin. To depict sin is not necessarily to advocate sin. This is, I believe, an important point. As G. K. Chesterton said, loosely quoted, "Any book that has nothing bad in it is a bad book." If we read no books that depict sin, we'd have to stop reading the Bible! Another aspect is that profanity and sexual sin are not necessarily the only, or even the worst sins. Often Christians react the most to those sins, but there are many others, such as materialism, cheating, manipulation, the need to have a perfect body, egotism, etc., that may be just as tempting if not more so. We must distinguish good and evil.

He goes on to distinguish between the words obscenity, pornography, vulgarity, and profanity.

Obscenity literally means "that which is off-stage." In ancient Greek drama, the aesthetic drama demanded that violence never be shown on stage. The reason was not prudishness, but a sound aesthetic one. Whenever violence or sex is put on-screen, the audience starts reacting to that instead of to the aesthetic effect. So obscenity is an artistic fault, not just a moral fault (usually). One problem with such writing is that the writer will have to keep getting more and more perverse in order to preserve the "tang" of the forbidden. There's no stopping-place.

Sex is a private thing, and it is a sacred thing. That is why stripteases and such are obscene. Nudity is a private thing, not a wrong thing.

Veith describes pornography for the uncleanness that it is, but makes an additional point: while the women in pornography are debauched and used, the writers of pornography are selling themselves, their imaginations. He says that pornography must always be getting more and more extreme in order to achieve that "tang of evil", and points out that there's not really any good stopping place. Thus, serial killers and the like often describe how they started in pornography.

Next subject is vulgarity, which the author points out is not as extreme as the obscene; it is not even always sinful. Vulgarity is literally "of the common people." It would be something someone in a lower class would say, and someone in an upper class would not. Interestingly, in today's society, it is often the higher classes that have the foulest mouths.

Next is profanity. Profanity is the opposite of sacred, and means, literally, "outside the temple." It violates the holy. Profanity is a violation of the third Commandment. Christians do not have the option of saying, "Those are just words." Words, in the Christian worldview, have meaning and importance. Various curses such as, "God damn you" and the like are things God apparently sees as prayer. Only what is religious risks being profane.

Veith says that the sin of blasphemy is in the writing or speaking, not in the hearing or reading. Though, he is also quick to point out, we should not be desensitized to it. Veith says that as long as we "wince" at it, it's probably not hurting us.

Censorship and Selectivity

Veith does not believe in censorship per se, but is interested in a kind of "free market" censorship, where bad books are not bought. However, he is also set against misguided Christian censorship, where we censor The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for having the word "witch" in the title.

Veith says that we as Christians should support good work. As an aside, Christians often have no idea what this means, and will support the latest half-done, poorly acted Christian movie simply because it's Christian.

Good Books

Some very important things are said here: that the notion of good books is not completely subjective. We must learn and be taught what is good. Veith points out an interesting distinction Mortimer Adler makes: between the enjoyable and the admirable. The enjoyable has to do with the subjective reaction one person has. The admirable refers to qualities inherent in the object itself, independent of the observer. Good taste, as Veith defines it, is tuning our enjoyments to coincide with what is admirable.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Reading Between the Lines, Chapter 1. The Word and the Image: The Importance of Reading

Here Veith is concerned about the difference between word and image. He claims that Christians (and I quite agree with him) will always need to be people of the word (and Word), and they must be readers, because that is the way God most personally revealed Himself to us.

People of the Book

So Christianity insists on the role of language. Language is the medium for a relationship. The Bible is how God speaks to us, and then we speak back to God in prayer. Jesus Christ Himself is the living Word of God. The Holy Spirit always works in tandem with the Word of God, speaking to the souls of men. An oral tradition only will almost always make for errors and difficulties in theology (even in addition to our sinful nature - Adrian). The idea of universal literacy is a direct result of the Reformation plus Gutenberg.

Reading and writing allows us to avoid reinventing the wheel: we can build on the ideas of others. "People of the Book" refers to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Veith claims that "reading has shaped our civilization more than almost any other factor."

Electronically Graven Images

Veith says that the new image-based media is attacking reading, and that the information technologies, ironically, might well subvert the science that made them possible, since science depends on reading. However, even more serious are the doubts that a society divorced from reading will even be able sustain the flowering of biblical faith. He mentions Neil Postman, as above. He then quotes Postman in his book Teaching as a Conserving Activity, in which Postman compares reading with TV watching.

Postman foresees a future in which we have "people who are 'in touch with their feelings,' who are spontaneous and musical, and who live in an existential world of immediate experience but who, at the same time, cannot 'think' in the way we customarily use that word. In other words, people whose state of mind is somewhat analogous to that of a modern-day baboon."

We can see this affecting politics already, in the substitution of "sound-bites" for sustained debate of issues. In religion, the abandonment of propositional thinking rather excludes faith.

Postman claims that every great religious leader has never given people what they wanted, but what they needed. He then claims that TV is not well-suited to giving people what they need, since it's too easy to turn it off.

The Importance of Reading

Veith says that, actually, TV and radio can be effective mediums for communicating the gospel, and therefore that Christians should be involved with them. However, there are difficulties with such media.

Veith distinguishes between illiteracy, the inability to read, and aliteracy, which is choosing not to read even if one knows how. He claims that those who have the influence are the readers, and that therefore, if Christians remain true to their heritage, their influence will be as it once was.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Reading Between the Lines, by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. - Preface

We begin with a criticism, if you like, of Gene Veith's book Reading Between the Lines. When I say criticism, I mean it in its literary sense, not in the pejorative. This is a book review.

Veith's intention, as written in the very first line, is "to help people be better readers." He contends that mere interpretation of literature is not the end-all of reading. Instead, he argues that appreciation and enjoyment must precede interpretation.

He wishes to show us the assumptions and values (that which is "between the lines") of what we read.

In a rather crucial statement, Veith says that in a world of images, Christians must continue to be people of the Word. For a parallel book on this subject, see Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman. One of the more interesting conclusions Postman draws is from the Second Commandment, which says not to worship graven images. Postman is interested in this commandment, because he says that there must be some significance in the medium of communication, if God is concerned enough about it to devote an entire commandment to it. So Veith is concerned about how reading affects the imagination, not just the intellect.

The study of literature, as Veith says, is going to take us into a host of other subjects, because literature, by its very nature, "involves its readers in a wide range of issues, provoking thought in many directions."

He footnotes some books that deal more comprehensively with the relationship between the theoretical issues in literature and the Christianity: Leland Ryken in particular, and Susan Gallagher and Peter Lundin.

Then he moves on to summarize the chapters in the rest of the book. The book is organized into four main parts: 1. Introduction (two chapters). 2. The Forms of Literature. 3. The Modes of Literature. 4. The Traditions of Literature. Each chapter is somewhat self-contained, making it a good reference book.

In the Introduction, we have Ch. 1, dealing with the distinction between the Word and the Image. Also, Ch. 2 is entitled, "Vicarious Experience and Vicarious Sin: The Importance of Criticism."

In Part 2: The Forms of Literature, there are three chapters, one each on nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

In Part 3: The Modes of Literature, there are also three chapters, one each on tragedy and comedy, realism, and fantasy.

In Part 4: The Traditions of Literature, there are four chapters, one each on the Middle Ages and Reformation, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, Modernism and Postmodernism, and the Makers of Literature.

I definitely think that this book will be an important one in the fight against deconstructionism and other silly modern ideas.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Assumptions and Directions

Now that the main purpose of this blog is established, I'd like to outline the general procedure and logical progression I plan to take.

1. The first assumption is that the Bible is the Word of God, inspired, and inerrant in its original languages. It is the truth, the only rule for faith and practice. We may trust it implicitly. If I were asked why I start here, I would say that I can't really start anywhere else. If I were asked how I am so sure that the Bible is the Word of God, I would answer that it is the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, Who seals the truth of the Word to my heart. That's my epistemology, how I know what I know.

Now, this starting-point many people could interpret in different ways. Here are a few:

A. The liberal, or older modern view, which states that "some parts of the Bible are the word of God, and that other parts are the word of man. They believe that they can decide for themselves which part is true and which part is false."1

B. The neo-orthodox view, sometimes called Barthianism, holds "that the whole Bible is the fallible word of man. But they say that when people read these words of man, God somehow uses these words so that through them they receive (in their own minds) the true word of God."2

C. The Reformed view, which holds "that the whole Bible (every single word) is the truth of God. No part is uninspired. And even when the Bible is read by an unbeliever it is still the word of God from cover to cover."3

It is this third view that describes my position.

2. The second assumption, based on the first, comes from the Bible, in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, where it says, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." This says that not only is all Scripture the Word of God, but it is all profitable and useful. So there aren't any unimportant verses.

3. The third assumption has to do with logic. I'm not really intending this blog to be about logic; however, I fully intend to use biblically-based logic everywhere I can. Biblically-based logic is the surest path to truth that exists (note I did NOT say it was the ONLY path to truth!). We ignore it at our peril. I believe that we get logic from the Bible, not the other way around. Logic is an attribute of God, one that He has given to man, to some degree. It's part of what it means to be "in the image of God."

Now those are the assumptions. In what directions do I intend to take this blog? There are several. Firstly, I want to establish the legitimacy of classical exegesis. Secondly, I wish to use this classical exegesis to examine several good texts I think important to the discussion. One such text will most definitely be Reading Between the Lines, by Gene Veith. Another will be An Experiment in Criticism, by C. S. Lewis. Thirdly, I wish to use classical exegesis to examine several bad texts I think important to the discussion. The most important of these will be On Grammatica, by Jacques Derrida. Derrida appears to be the source not only of the idiotic critical theory known as deconstructionism, but also of that ugly movement known as post-modernism. Here I mean ugly in its literal sense. Finally, after understanding the method of deconstructionism, I intend to use it on itself for a little fun. This would be argumentation in the nature of reductio ad absurdam: reduce a system to its logical conclusion, which turns out to be silly. If we make no mistakes in this sort of reasoning, then we will be forced to conclude that the system is inherently flawed somewhere.

That is the idea, ladies and gentlemen!

In Christ.

1 G. I. Williamson, The Shorter Catechism for Study Classes, Vol. 1, pp. 6-7.

2 Ibid., p. 7.

3 Ibid., p. 7.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Launch

So here's the idea. Modern English departments, with few exceptions, have gone off the deep end into silliness and confusion. In my opinion, this is because they have forsaken the gospel. The evidences of this deep-endedness are the following: modern literary criticism, literary theory, deconstructionism, feminist interpretations, ignoring the wishes of the author, etc.

This is in no way an indication that all English professors are so inclined to all foolishness, nor that there are not good and proper methods of exegesis. Incidentally, the former evidences I listed are all examples of eisegesis: reading into the text. We get those two wonderful words, exegesis and eisegesis, from the Greek. "Ex" means "out of", and "eis" means "into". So if you exegete a passage, you first of all must assume that the text has some message to be obtained. You then use various ways of examination to get the message. In contrast, if you eisegete a passage, you read into it whatever you want.

It is my belief that almost all passages are meant to be exegeted. I certainly would not want anyone to read this blog and eisegete it. Such goings-on only confuse the communication process. If I wish to be exegeted and not eisegeted, then the Golden Rule would dictate that I exegete others' works, and not eisegete them.

This blog is an attempt to critique methods of interpretation, literary theory of all kinds, and finally to provide some examples. I have already provided one rather extensive example in my Pride and Prejudice blog. Others will be forthcoming, Lord willing.

I hope you enjoy both the form and content of this blog.

In Christ.