Christian Books and Christian Reading: Part Two

Ernest Hemingway’s prize winning 1953 novella The Old Man and the Sea opens on Santiago, an ancient fisherman, who is mired in an epic streak of bad luck. He has not caught a fish in many days – so many, in fact, that he is near starvation and has been shunned as cursed by the other fisherman in the small village where he lives and works. The novel tells the story of his last voyage, in which he travels farther out into the Sea than anyone has ever dared, and catches the greatest fish in history. As a master fisherman, Santiago draws on his expert knowledge and long experience to hook the giant fish, who then drags the tiny boat out into the heart of the Sea.

A long and weary struggle ensues, during which both fish and fisherman reach the limits of their endurance. When Santiago finally reels the exhausted fish to the boat days later, he finds that it is too big to bring on board, and he must lash it to the gunwales for the long journey home. 

Before he can reach the safety of the village, however, the boat is beset by sharks, who strip the fish to the bone, leaving nothing but a skeleton. Though Santiago’s skill and endurance have enabled him to best the fish and have brought him to the brink of salvation, he is finally undone by a cruel twist of fate – or, you might say, by a universe that does not care to reward qualities such as skill and endurance. He arrives on shore empty-handed, and calmly accepts his defeat as the story ends.

A Dark Story

Teachers and students alike often thoroughly enjoy The Old Man and the Sea. It is beautifully written – a fine example of Hemingway’s spare, direct style – and its main character deserves the iconic status he has enjoyed since the book’s publication. At the same time, parents interested in reading this novel “from a Christian perspective” will have trouble divining Christian themes in its pages. 

The reason for this, of course, is that it was not intended to communicate Christian themes. As a matter of fact, Hemingway makes some rather direct assaults on Christianity in The Old Man and the Sea, leaving little doubt about his animosity towards God and religion. A close reading of the novel reveals that its themes spring from nihilism, a philosophy based on the atheistic assumption that there is no purpose or significance to life.

As I suggested in Part One of this post, trying to make a story like this reflect Christian themes is the exact opposite of reading like a Christian, because it involves telling a lie about the author and his work. It is therefore tantamount to breaking the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

Why Read It?

But if we don’t reinterpret Hemingway so that his book teaches Christian lessons, aren’t we just letting a godless atheist have the last word? What’s the point of teaching this book to our students if we can’t manipulate it to fit our Christian worldview? Why should Christians even bother reading it?

C. S. Lewis offers a profound answer to this question in a single sentence of his classic Experiment in Criticism:

 My own eyes are not enough for me: I would see through those of others. (Lewis 140)

Lewis realized that anyone who has never read widely is liable to become a prisoner of narrow and weakly held opinions, because his experience is limited by his own time and place. The one who participates in great literature, on the other hand, encounters the opinions of a host of other thinkers. He can see the consequences of their ideas without having to adopt their philosophies himself. In the process of comparing his assumptions with those of others, his own worldview gains strength and clarity. In short, he has an opportunity for a real education in philosophy, all from the comfort of home.

But Isn’t That Dangerous?

Some parents worry that exposure to non-Christian philosophies in literature, especially if they are not reinterpreted along Christian lines, may threaten the fragile faith of our students.

This is an understandable concern, but consider that the godless philosophies we encounter in our reading do not make us godless, any more than the homelessness we encounter in books makes us homeless. If I know how to read closely and interact properly with the stories I read, then reading The Old Man and the Sea will not make me a nihilist any more than reading Huckleberry Finn will make me an irreligious vagabond.

What it will do, however, is give me a deep understanding of the problem of nihilism and the tragic results of denying the existence and revelation of God. The Old Man and the Sea can give me insight into the unanswered questions of the nihilist that all the “Christian” stories in the world can’t give. In fact, there is no better way to understand nihilism than to read a book that springs from nihilist assumptions – not a book by someone trying to debunk nihilism or a book where nihilist philosophy is the subject, but a book where nihilism is the unspoken worldview of the author. Hemingway was no expert on Christian principles, but he knew nihilism inside and out. While it would be foolish for us to look to him for guidance on the one, his books can teach us worlds about the other.

But why would we even want to understand nihilism in this way?  Perhaps it is not dangerous, but is it desirable?  Do we even want our students to do it?

Compassion for the Lost

Ernest Hemingway was not the last nihilist. He was only the most eloquent. He spoke for thousands upon thousands of people who have lost their way and denied God, many of whom live today and interact regularly with us, and with our students. In books like The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway beautifully explained the source of the pain and despair that plague our neighbors – better, perhaps, than they can explain it themselves.

This is the other profound implication of Lewis’ statement above: in allowing us to see the world through the eyes of others, literature broadens our understanding and so enables us to have compassion for a lost world. Examining an author’s book to understand the source and implications of his worldview always enables us to relate more effectively to those who share that worldview. When we are “quick to hear and slow to speak” in our reading, we can demonstrate those qualities in our relationships as well. In the end, when we really read like Christians, we are able to communicate the love of God more effectively to our neighbors.