“When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue,” novelist Christopher Morley said, “you sell him a whole new life.” During the past 50 years, more books have been sold than in any other time in history. So what type of life—-or, as Abraham Kuyper would say, world-and-life view—-are we buying?
As a partial answer to that question, we’ve asked several Christian thinkers to examine the worldviews presented in the top 10 most-read books. Over the next several weeks we’ll present articles on each of the titles. Louis Markos, a professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, provides our introduction to the series.
Every year, I am afforded the unique privilege of conducting a new class of honors students through the great books of Greece and Rome. I begin, of course, with the Iliad and Odyssey, two books that I never get tired of teaching. Introducing my eager freshmen to the central conflicts of Homer’s timeless epics, I explain that every great work of literature presents its readers with a microcosm, a little world that runs by its own rules.
Those rules (like culture itself) help define for the characters what should be valued and what should be be shunned. They define the virtues that bring success and the vices that bring destruction, the choices that lead to honor and those that lead to shame. They set the parameters for asking and answering the “big” questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?
As readers, we cannot fully understand a novel—-or even some non-fiction books—-until we understand those rules and the microcosm that underlies them. Indeed, what often attracts readers to a novel is precisely the structure of its microcosm: or, to switch from a more literary to a more philosophical term, its worldview.
From Middle-Earth to Gnosticism
Oddly, many modern readers are not only drawn to books that reflect their own personal worldview, but also to those that present them with a radically different worldview. On the one hand, they want to see the values they hold dear acted out on a fictional stage, partly so that they may study, and be challenged by, the decisions made by the hero. On the other hand, they want to explore realities that stand outside their normal experience and thus carry with them a sense of danger that is strangely appealing.
Thus, Christian readers are drawn to The Lord of the Rings because they encounter within its pages a world that affirms Judeo-Christian concepts of good and evil, virtue and vice. And yet, at the same time, Tolkien’s epic fantasy has attracted tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of atheist and agnostic readers intrigued by a world that privileges many of the things they reject: absolute standards of right and wrong; hierarchy and kingship; the reality of a supernatural realm that impinges upon the natural; the existence of a higher purpose that chooses us rather than us choosing it.
In sharp contrast, readers who have, for whatever reason, distanced themselves from traditional Christianity find the more gnostic worldview of The Da Vinci Code to be appealing. They feel liberated by its conspiratorial view of the institutional church, and its contention that the church hijacked a simpler, more humane form of Christianity. And yet, at the same time, otherwise orthodox Christians feel drawn to it as well—-and not just for the purpose of refuting its heretical claims. As non-Christians embrace its Gnosticism, Christians embrace its riddles and heroic pursuit for hidden truths.
Just as the atheist readers of Tolkien’s epic find in themselves a hunger for medieval hierarchy that they would never admit to, so the Christian readers of Dan Brown’s novel find in themselves a hunger for a kind of mystery and adventure that they find lacking in their local churches. Both sense within themselves a hollow spot they hope will be filled through a wrestling with a different worldview. The former yearn for hope, courage, and self-sacrifice, all of which they cannot find in their worldview; the latter yearn for magic, symbols, and an exalted kind of femininity, all of which they sense to be absent in their worldview.
Teen Magicians and Vampires
In many ways, this very dual hunger—-for a courage founded in supernatural realities and for a mysticism that shatters boundaries—-has helped make the Harry Potter books into a publishing phenomenon. Materialist readers, who would normally reject magic as something that breaks the fixed laws of nature, will allow themselves to embrace it (to give it what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief”) because it does not impose upon them—-or at least does not appear to impose upon them—-a transcendent, Judeo-Christian moral system. Christian readers, who would normally reject magic as something satanic, will allow themselves to offer a similar embrace precisely because Rowling situates her story within traditional parameters of good and evil.
The Twilight saga also plays upon this dual hunger, but adds into the mix a touch of the forbidden. In a way, both the committed materialist-atheist and the committed Christian (like the teenager!) feel marginalized in our society, and so can identify with Stephanie Meyer’s vampires. Both will surely reject the microcosm of the Twilight books, and yet both wonder what it would be like to dwell within it.
A similar touch of the forbidden clings to Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, but it is far less likely to conjure a sense of guilt or uneasiness in the reader. There is space within the worldview of the novel for the atheist, the Christian, and the New Ager. The proverbial wisdom of The Alchemist can be fitted into a number of different worldviews, while also stretching them in a bracing way. Better yet, readers can feel empowered to seek after truth in a manner that comes perilously close to being self-absorbed and self-serving, but that is saved from crude egocentrism by its mysticism and longing for something higher.
The same, surprisingly, can be said for Gone with the Wind. Though Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel takes place in a far more “realistic” setting, it also allows readers to project themselves into two rather amoral characters (Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara) who do things that simultaneously shock and intrigue the reader and that would appear utterly narcissistic if not for the wider context of the Civil War. Yes, we can say that we are more like the traditional, honorable, straight-laced Ashley and Melanie, but part of us is nevertheless drawn to the bad boy and girl who pursue their agendas whatever the cost. Because Rhett and Scarlet never act in a way that is outright evil, readers are empowered to test out what it would feel like to be them and to make the kind of decisions they do—-decisions that don’t completely overthrow the “rules” of Mitchell’s world but that bend and manipulate them.
Capitalism, Communism, and the Holocaust
I sense that the postmodern world will increasingly demand flexible microcosms and worldviews we can manipulate. Still, some will always want to see the world clearly for what it is—-even if that world lacks freedom. Nonfiction like Mao Tse-Tung’s Little Red Book presents us with an iron-clad world that can be broken into systematic categories and classes. His quotations promise to make sense of everything in the world, including how we fit into it.
Mao’s totalitarian world, which leaves no room for individual happiness or intrinsic worth, is similar to that the reader faces in The Diary of Anne Frank. And yet here, the reader is exhorted and empowered to find his own voice in the midst of a world that crushes all such uniqueness. The worldview that undergirds Mao’s quotations cannot be simply dismissed or wished away, but it can be resisted and, at least internally and spiritually, overcome. Young Anne Frank cannot grow rich or even to prevent herself from being killed by simply thinking herself successful and free, but she nevertheless gains true freedom and happiness that transcends the totalitarian microcosm into which she has been cast. And the reader who enters vicariously both into Anne’s world and into her heart and mind can experience similar triumph.
So was it for the ancient Greeks who entered vicariously into the internal and external journeys of Achilles and Odysseus, and so shall it continue to be for all readers who attend to the microcosms and worldviews of the books they so eagerly devour.