A friend of mine, Karen Swallow Prior, who is a professor of English at Liberty University, argues that it can and that great literature did just that for her. She tells her story in a delightful memoir called Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me.
“God uses the things of this earth to teach us and shape us,” Prior explains in her first chapter. “…I thought my love of books was taking me away from God, but as it turns out, books were the backwoods path back to God, bramble-filled and broken, yes, but full of truth and wonder.” What Prior discovered through her voracious reading was a God who loved a bookish young girl enough to meet her right where she was, and to use the things she loved to win her over.
From the time she was very young, books were Prior’s refuge and guide. She’s not saying that all the books that she read were good or moral; some of them contained outright “falsehood.” But the way to counter those books was by reading “more and more books,” in order to be exposed to “competing ideas and examples” and to learn to discern the truth. Prior quotes John Milton, that “conservative, Puritan Christian,” who wrote in 1644, “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
Encouraged by her parents, Prior learned to search for and discover great truths in great books. From Jane Eyre, she learned about self-respect, the power of language, and the importance of staying true to who God made you to be. From Great Expectations she learned about integrity, selfless love, and grace. From the satire of Jonathan Swift, she came to understand a few things about perspective and human fallibility.
Prior takes us through these and other books like a well-informed travel guide showing us a landscape she loves. And her story is a valuable reminder of what literature can do for a child’s moral and spiritual development.
Prior frankly admits that there were slips and stumbles along the way. She drifted away from her faith as an adolescent, and behaved in ways that she knew were wrong. But books were always there and—though she didn’t realize it at the time—God was always there to help her find her way back to the right path. When youth group lost its appeal to her, when church teachings grew dim in her mind, great books were still reminding her of what was true and good and right.
“I admit that my relationship with God has been more intellectual than emotional,” Prior tells us. “…To respond emotionally to God directly is more than I can bear. So God in his goodness has bestowed the gift of literature. Literature is like the cleft of a rock that God has taken me to, a place from which I can experience as much of the glory of God as I can endure. Great literature allows me, like Moses, to see the back of God.”
At BreakPoint we have a passion for helping kids learn to love books, for just the reasons Prior describes. I invite you to our Youth Reads page at BreakPoint.org to learn more. And please pick up a copy of “Booked.” We Christians tend to neglect our great literary heritage, when in fact it’s one of the most important guides and resources we have. There’s no one better equipped than Karen Swallow Prior to help us learn to love and appreciate it.
Further Reading and Information
Booked: Learning to Love God's Gift of Literature - Next Steps
Does great literature help young people learn to think? We believe it can. But good guidance sure helps. Check out BreakPoint’s excellent “Youth Reads” section. We also encourage you and the young people in your life to subscribe to the FREE bi-weekly Youth Reads newsletter. And as John mentioned, Karen Swallow Prior’s Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is well worth reading.