What makes a book “good”? Is only overtly Christian literature worthy of filling the Christian mind and attention? And if this is the case, why does it seem like the majority of Christian fiction is unbearably trite and shallow? For many, the difference between the stories admitted into the canon of “literature” and the popular fiction that fills many bookstores and libraries is opaque, a seemingly arbitrary decision by those in the ivory tower of academia. Discerning what to read as a Christian only further complicates the issue. There must be more to a Christian literary poetic than simply the title of “Christian” in the genre. What makes something “good literature” is a quality that goes beyond labels and instead reaches to the heart of what good literature accomplishes and the way that good literature functions to draw readers into a better understanding and acceptance of their relationship to the Creator. Good literature crafts form and content to portray the created order as a reflection and radiance of the Creator.

One hallmark of good literature is that it awakens the mind to encounter what Charles Taylor describes as the “immanent” and “transcendent” frames of existence.[1] Our current era, with its fixation upon the immanent and those things which can be rationalized and explained with facts and certainty, has lost touch with the transcendent frame of existence, with what is beyond explanation and cannot be contained by formulae and rationality. Good literature, in contrast to much of the media produced today (and in any era), possesses the ability to bring the reader face to face with the transcendent. It forces the reader out of a space where everything is explainable and quantifiable, and instead makes space for elements which cannot be fully explained but which must, somehow, truly exist.

Malcolm Guite describes the way that literature brings the transcendent into focus as a “layered” reading of the world.[2] A story constrained to solely the immanent frame would present the world from a singular point of view, in a way that can be “measured and observed.”[3] As will be discussed further in depth later, good literature possesses the quality of metaphor and symbol and a multiplicity of meaning that directly counteracts this tendency. Homer’s Odyssey will not explain the workings of biology in the way that a science textbook may be able to, but the science textbook is so singularly focused on the mechanical operations of nature that it is unable to provide readers with the full view of life that is necessary to understand humanity and its environment. The Odyssey bears the mystery of the world through its representation of human experience woven throughout the tale — the virtues of courage and loyalty and the vices of pride and arrogance played out in the details of the story point to something greater than the world that the characters inhabit.

Reading Homer, or any good literature, requires first a clear understanding of the literal layer of the story, followed by an interpretative understanding that can perceive how an object, character, or event in the story can function on other levels. Further, a clear reading of the text should allow the reader to see and interpret these layers as representations of both the immanent and transcendent frames. Scylla and Charybdis are not just a plot point; they are metaphorical representations of the “rock and a hard place” situation that mankind must encounter regularly, and Odysseus’s response to this situation forces readers to consider not only how it functions in the story, but what it signifies in terms of universal human experience and decision making. This layered aspect of literature points readers to the fact that there is something beyond the surface of reality and allows them to not only plant themselves within the story, but also to bring a transcendent understanding of themselves and their world into view.

Having caused the reader to encounter the presence of the transcendent in the world, the greater capability of good literature is to make space for the reader to embrace both the immanent and transcendent frames as necessary parts of what it means to be human. This encounter with both frames is an essential task of good literature across time, but in our current era this aspect of good literature is particularly noteworthy because the modern view of existence has lost the transcendent frame. Taylor describes this phenomenon as the rise of the “buffered identity,” and it depends upon a universe entirely run by natural, physical laws, one with no space for any conception of supernatural workings within the world. Literature faces the task of forcing its readers to deal with what Flannery O’Connor calls the “mystery”[4] – aspects of the world that do not fit neatly into an immanent, earthy box, which cannot be explained through science or natural law. 

Humanity is designed and intended to live within the balance of these two frames; limiting what it means to be human to the material world does a disservice to the fact that we were created as both spiritual and embodied beings.[5]  Taylor stresses the point that humanity is innately attracted to both the immanent and transcendent — we desire to understand our place within nature and the embodied world, but we simultaneously have a subconscious pull towards the supernature, towards the mysteries of creation.[6] The crux of the issue turns upon whether we are able to acknowledge and accept the transcendent as essential and good or whether we will continue to “see the transcendent as a threat, a dangerous temptation, a distraction, or an obstacle to our greatest good.”[7] The particular danger here is when we operate with a framework that is not only closed to the transcendent, but is unchallenged in this assumption, and this is where good literature plays its important role. Good literature not only brings both frames of existence into view, but in doing so it challenges and exhorts the reader to open the imagination and actively embrace the place of the transcendent within the created order.

The function of story and literature in this process is not to be passed over lightly. James K.A. Smith makes the argument that humanity receives knowledge primarily through storytelling; it is foundational to human understanding of the world, and this fact is rooted in the very narrative of Scripture itself.[8] The arc of creation-fall-redemption-restoration points to the fact that minds and hearts are designed to be enchanted and attracted by story more than by scientific fact and natural law.  A good story serves the function of awakening the whole person to the natural and the supernatural, and to enliven us to be able to see both in our frame of existence.[9]

Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for example, both portrays and performs this function for its readers, as it draws the audience through the tale of the Mariner awakened to the spiritual reality underlying the natural world he has chosen to violate through his murder of the albatross. Guite describes the goal of Coleridge in composing this ballad  “to alert us to the formative reality of invisible qualities and values to counterbalance our obsession with ‘visible’ facts, with the quantifiable, with dead things that can only be weighed and measured.”[10] Only in coming to terms with the transcendent nature of the world around him, and confessing his neglect and disregard for it, is the Mariner able to achieve peace of soul and peace with nature. In narrating this sequence, Coleridge allows readers to consider their own position regarding the world and their interaction with it. To read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and to ignore its exhortation to its audience is to read it wrongly, to miss the point of the story.

While there are many stories that serve to captivate an audience through imaginative plot or compelling characters, what makes for good literature is exactly this element of depth and nuance that must be acknowledged in order to fully respond to the text. This serves as a clear distinction then, between fiction and literature — it must address the whole person and compel that person to experience both the transcendent and the immanent.[11]

Beyond inviting the reader to embrace the existence of the immanent and transcendent frames, good literature ultimately directs the reader to see them in their proper order, to see the immanent as a revelation and reflection of the transcendent. The history of religion swings back and forth from too much emphasis on the immanent at the expense of the transcendent, to, in Platonic fashion, putting so much energy into capturing the transcendent that the experience of the immanent is negated in terms of importance. Bonaventure helpfully describes, however, that humanity can most rightly see the transcendent Lord when it sees him as the source and origin of all that mankind does or creates. The illumination of the world ought to direct humans to follow its rays back to the source and giver of light itself.[12] While this principle is exemplified at its fullest in the incarnation of Christ, in which the invisible was made visible in the flesh of Christ, good literature serves this same purpose of pointing to the transcendent as the source and telos of the immanent.[13] Bonaventure describes this process of tracing illumination back to God as the ultimate source of transcendence. The process requires an anagogical vision in order to see the way in which the arts, such as literature, point first to Scripture, and through Scripture to the Word and author.[14]

O’Connor picks up on this notion of anagogical vision in engagement with medieval writers like Bonaventure, and describes it as providing a view to the “different levels of reality in one image or one situation,”[15] an understanding which aligns well with Guite’s notion of layered imagery and meaning in literature. O’Connor helpfully describes this layering and anagogical vision as something that “indicates where the real heart of the story lies.” She states:

This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.[16]

O’Connor’s explanation is helpful because it establishes a paradigm to help the reader discern the goodness of fiction. As in relaying the double layers of immanence and transcendence, good literature doesn’t simply make obligatory remarks about the presence of God or about human embodiment; instead it works in a way fitting to the genre, characters, and plot to take the reader beyond a literal interpretation of the story to a notion of the “mystery,” the transcendence in which humanity participates. O’Connor’s own work shows her practicing what she preaches.  In her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the character of the grandmother is a hypocritical sinner, yet at the very end of the story, in her encounter with the Misfit, she makes a “gesture” which is an “action of grace.”[17] It is one moment in the story, and yet it is this moment that allows the reader to encounter something beyond the immanent surface of the action and catch a glimpse of the transcendent quality of Grace.

Simply making a neat allegory or moral lesson embedded in the story is not enough; it does not serve to give the reader a truly transcendent and anagogical view of God. The mystery of God is truly a mystery, and therefore will never be fully comprehended by humanity. Any writing that attempts to simplify God’s transcendence will instead diminish it beyond any significance. Good literature therefore does not leave the reader with easy answers or simple solutions; doing so fails to do justice to a natural world imbued with supernatural sustenance.[18] This may be counterintuitive in some Christian realms in particular, where simple answers seem safer; yet ultimately they are not safe but merely sanitized. In removing the mystery of gritty reality encountering absolute holiness, simple stories remove themselves from any real illumination of the divine. They fail to point back to the creator because they do not adequately reflect his mysterious work in creation.

Good literature is uniquely equipped to bring the reader in contact with the mystery, to point the rays of illumination back to God, because it marries form with content in such a way that they complement and balance one another. When form and content are divorced from one another, the story fails and falls apart. Once more, O’Connor offers a helpful directive in this area. She points to the fact that if the story is merely a vehicle for a theme or idea, that is, if it is solely focused on being a delivery of content apart from a form and style that brings the reader into experiential knowledge of the story, it will not be good literature.[19]

When there is an overreliance on content to the neglect of form, the transcendent loses power and force because it is distanced from the details and experience of immanent reality. Longinus, in his essay On Sublimity, writes about content as a source of sublimity in writing, but even more extensively describes the form that the piece must take, giving example after example of structural, grammatical, and stylistic elements that play into developing beauty and sublimity in a piece of literature.[20] Here form finds connection to beauty. Beauty is portrayed through the form of the story, and it is through beauty that the aesthetic nature of humanity, the immanent aspect of the embodied soul, finds expression. The stories that lack in form may communicate something true to their readers, but they will be unable to wholly encompass the immanent human experience as a reflection of the Divine creator who is both above all and in all.

By contrast, if the story is beautiful in form and artfully crafted, but lacks any truth in its content or substance, it will be too involved in the immanence of existence to bring the reader into contact with the transcendent reality of a world created and preserved by God. Lacking in content, it will be unable to “gesture,” as O’Connor states, towards the mystery that lies beyond the natural world. In this regard, some works that the modern era may consider to be “good” do not fully qualify because they fail to express transcendence. They are beautiful and elegant works of human creativity, but their content does not stretch beyond the created order. Good literature provides a fully orbed view of the world by demonstrating that there is something beyond the created order. To do so, good literature must contain authentic content that points the reader to the transcendent nature of reality.[21]

 It is in the wedding of form and content that real goodness may be found, and this is why good literature is only that which skillfully and fully balances both form and content. While form and content may be discussed separately from one another, it is the precise and careful balance of both that good literature is born.[22] When one outweighs the other, or when they fail to cohere together, the inherent goodness of the work is lost, and the story will be unable to draw out transcendence and immanence simultaneously. One or the other will be lost, therefore leaving the reader with an incomplete vision of reality. Scripture itself attests to the need for this union of form and content, not allowing its readers to settle for one without the other. It provides the full breadth and content of human existence, not only of goodness and purity, but the broken and fallen aspects in need of redemption. Yet further, Scripture reminds its readers that the delivery of the content matters — it portrays a diversity of genre and style that uniquely allows the content to shine through most powerfully. In effectively uniting form and content, the transcendence and immanence of the world and the God who made it are fully on display for the readers of God’s Word.

Finally, then, good literature holds the balance of form and content in such a way that it can fully capture what is beautiful, true, and good in creation, and in doing so, it pushes readers to encounter their full humanity as beings within transcendent and immanent frames. Further, good literature propels its readers to consider this fully-orbed self as the truest and best reflection of who they were created to be as the imago Dei. Good literature draws its reader to consider the Creator who is the master of form and content, and who condescended to make transcendence embodied and immanent in order to redeem his people and bring them into full life with him.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 542.

[2] Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope, and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 103-104.

[3] Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry, 104.

[4] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969), 125.

[5] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 32.

[6] Taylor 546-547.

[7] Taylor 549.

[8] James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013)1, 60-161.

[9] Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry, 164; Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 58.

[10] Malcolm Guite, Mariner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 9.

[11] Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste (Oxford University Press, 2000), 110-111.

[12] Bonaventure, Reduction of the Arts to Theology, trans. Zachary Hayes (Franciscan Institute, 1996), 45-47.

[13] Bonaventure 51.

[14] Bonaventure 47, 51-53.

[15] O’Connor 72.

[16] O’Connor 111.

[17] O’Connor 112-113.

[18] Clyde S. Kilby, The Arts and the Christian Imagination, ed. William Dyrness and Keith Call (Paraclete Press, 2016), 244.

[19] O’Connor 96.

[20] D.A. Russell and Michael Winterbotton, eds., Classical Literary Criticism (Oxford University Press, 1989), specifically p. 149, but also pp. 172-187.

[21] Brown 95.

[22] Sir Phillip Sidney, “The Defence of Poesy,” in Sidney’s “The Defence of Poesy” and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism, ed. Gavin Alexander (Penguin Books, 2004), 32.

Stephanie serves on staff at Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C. As a former teacher of both Latin and English literature, she is passionate about the study of language and the power of narrative.

Meet Stephanie