Every Monday in Books Besides the Bible, Ethan Bartlett considers the value and pleasure of reading for Christians.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading. This started sort of by accident, when I decided to re-read all ten volumes of the Sandman sequence of graphic novels. I did that purposely enough, but what I hadn’t counted on was that Sandman is, for me, the sort of story that, upon finishing, basically renders all other stories lacking. I don’t want to read any other fiction afterward, because no other fiction seems quite as good.

So having tossed a couple of books (which, for all I know, may be fine novels) aside in despair, I retreated in self-defense into other books which, at the time of first reading, seemed like the end-all of fiction: John C. Wright’s Chaos trilogy, Salinger’s Glass family books (of which last week’s Franny and Zooey is one), Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, and a couple of my favorite Shakespeare plays (The Tempest, Hamlet, Richard III).

Gracious, what an idiosyncratic list.

All of these, along with Sandman, are stories I consider masterpieces of one kind or another. But that’s not really why I re-read them. I’m going to admit it: I re-read them seeking emotional fulfillment, seeking that warm, cathartic, exhilarating feeling of having just finished something truly brilliant.

So how does one define a “masterpiece”? Is it an exhilarating story, or is it a technically perfect novel? The answer, of course, is less either/or than it is Yes, and.

In my Literary Criticism class at my (Christian) undergraduate college, a classmate of mine asserted that we shouldn’t “love” any books other than the Bible. It took me a bit to figure out what rang false in this statement. Then I drew a chart: parallel lines connecting “Love for God (who is perfect)” to “Love for people (who are imperfect)”, under which ran “Love the Bible” connected to “Love books besides the Bible.” (Okay, maybe it didn’t contain a reference to my future column title. But it was something like that.)

Of course, the outcome of this line of thinking is going to depend on one’s definition of love. Personally, I find it unhelpful in most circumstances to speak of love as an emotional experience, but love among fallen humans is also not dependent on being technically perfect (if it were—that is, if we had to be perfect—none of us would be loved).

Love, of whatever kind, is essentially dependent on grace. As Christians, we depend on God’s grace for salvation; as humans, we love one another through grace. Beloved books, too, tend to depend heavily on grace.

Examples: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is structurally imperfect—the tone of the opening, the tone of the middle, and the tone of the end don’t match up, and the plot is imperfectly balanced. Yet Hemingway called it “the only American novel.” Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince—book six of the series—is the first of the Harry Potter novels to have a really solid story structure. Yet the public fell in love with the first novel, which is a structural, tonal, and plotting mess. Watchmen is a structurally perfect graphic novel, yet I like Sandman—the first couple of volumes of which are, in terms of structure and story, also a mess—ten thousand times better (approximately).

Even The Lord of the Rings, that touchstone of modern popular literature, is in many ways a mess at least most of the way through The Fellowship of the Ring, not to mention the disjoint between the tone(s) of the trilogy and the tone of its prequel, The Hobbit.

So what is it that buoys up these works against the barbs of over-educated critics everywhere? I submit that it is grace. Grace is a force that works to fill in gaps, taking the imperfect and letting it put on perfection. Each of the disparaged works above—Harry Potter, Huck Finn, Tolkien’s books, and even in an often-dark way Sandman—is in its own manner chock-full of grace.

Of course, to conclude that “a masterpiece is something that is chock-full of grace” might raise, or leave, as many questions as it answers (if, indeed, it answers any). But as I’ve mentioned before, literature is more about questions than  answers, anyway.


  1. Sweet article. Now I need to read some of those books. But here are some more books that make me wriggle with happiness because when I’m reading them I’m reading a great book (with grace):
    –The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge (phenomenal Christian novelist, btw–you gotta get some of her books, Ethan, you’ll love them I think; she’s what I’d like to be in a ton of ways and all of her novels drip with grace)
    — Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (not perfect, but the first and last chapters are so amazing!)
    — Pretty much anything by George MacDonald

    Anyway, I do concur about your opinion of loving books. I loooooove books! Thanks for reminding me of cool things regarding them :)


  2. Hmmm. I concur that structural perfection is not the summum bonum of great reads, and especially with regard to novels (which, I think, are usually forced rather than found to have the dramatic arc proper to, well, drama). I do think highly of the Aristotelian unities, but agree partly with Poe, who argued that a long work cannot exhibit them; especially given the influence of serial publication on the major development of the novel in English in the 19C, I think he has a point. The things we expect from a novel are hard or impossible to get in such packages.

    And yet I think perhaps you are being too quick to call a work “a mess” and treat as imperfections what may well be the perfections of these novels, at least as long as we and the authors share those genre expectations. I would happily agree with you if you pointed out that at least half of The Two Towers and as much as half of The Return of the King is almost unforgivably dilatory and discursive, but I cannot agree that The Fellowship of the King is “a mess” from the beginning. To do so would be to undervalue the “unity of impression” achieved in each several story, a series of impressions which vividly conveys the deepening wonder and terror which translates the hobbits (and the reader) from a landscape of naive civility to the stern and glorious venture past Weathertop (and only from Weathertop on have we begun to experience the Aristotelian “unity of action” which passes from Frodo’s wounding to his healing after the Cracks of Doom). Similarly, while I would agree with you that the massive tone shift *within* The Hobbit is jarring, especially when one having finished re-reads the beginning, I would disagree that the tone shift from Hobbit to Lord of the Rings is a flaw. The Hobbit is one hobbit’s tale, and is to LoTR as one writer’s memoirs of life in Alsace in World War I would be to the same writer’s multi-volume history of World War II–they are produced at vastly different stages, from vastly different points of view, for vastly different purposes, and drawing on vastly different resources.

    Anyway, all that to say that I think you’ve said something stimulating, but fuzzy in a way that I’m uncomfortable with when we talk theology and culture. Your two parallel lines are clearly meant to illustrate analogical thinking, but you have not articulated the analogy–at present, the term “love” appears to be a homonymous pair of words, in your system, and your classmate seems to be right. That is, whatever “love” means with regard to God, and the Bible, it must mean something else–something with a separate integrity–with regard to humans, and other texts. And you seem to suggest that “grace” makes that second thing called “love” possible. Now, I think you intend us to explore the possibility your classmate was wrong, and to think that “grace” unites the senses of “love” that you keep separate, but….

    Sorry, St. Augustine keeps muttering something about a de doctrina in my ear….

    OK, sliding past that buzzing sound, what I think might help is if we ask “whose grace?” and “what kind of grace?” [that is, grace for what end] and possibly even “by what means of grace?” when we use language like this.

    Now, is it possible to “love” with no special grace? in merely concupiscent ways which, severed from charity, are invariably sinful? certainly. Do we require grace to do that? No, in fact, grace draws us into charity with God and other people; therefore merely concupiscent love will cease to be *merely* concupiscent where grace is present, and when grace is lacking it will cease to be properly called love (for all “love” participates in the reality of love only as it draws us into charity).

    On the other hand, is it possible to love God without His grace? Doubly no, right? We require the grace of creation for anything that can be called “love,” and we require the grace of redemption to be drawn into charity with God despite our sinful aversion from Him.

    The role of grace in the analogy of love, then, is not about the messiness of the objects; it is about the messiness of me. I am a mess; God’s grace draws me into charity with Him, by means He has provided and revealed, by steps perfect in their divine character but messy in their me-manifestation thus far. I am a mess; God’s grace makes it possible for me to be drawn closer to Him by the submissive reading of the Scriptures, as well as the other means of grace. This is not what it takes for God to love me–this is what it takes for me to love God.

    The grace to love other people, then, is not a simple parallel or repetition of this analogy. In fact, my loving others who are imperfect involves two gracious movements. One is the gracious movement which draws me into charity with God, and thus converts my love from merely concupiscent to charitable love; this teaches me what “love” for another *is*. The other is the gracious movement which teaches me to regard them as subjects of charity in whom I seek and encourage evidence of conversion (and demur or reprehend any severing from charity, any refusal to cooperate with grace), rather than as objects of concupiscence (who I would evaluate in terms of my desires and demands).

    In this sense, the “love” of books other than the canonical Scriptures is distinct in kind from that other love; and we might also point out that the love of those Scriptures is distinct from the love of God who reveals Himself by them, though the identification of the Word Christ and the Word written be ever so serious and near. Analogous, but clearly distinguishable.

    I went the long way ’round to get here, but I did want to suggest that when I see my love as a manifestation of grace, it is grace with regard to my messiness and incapacity to love what I ought, as I ought; it is only by a second, and derivative motion, grace with regard to my learning to love involving a forgiving and fostering recognition of grace manifested amid the messiness of others.

    There is a simpler, mostly non-theological conception that would have saved us most of this discussion, though. Novels turn on the establishment, not of unity or of verity, but of verisimilitude–they earn the “willing suspension of disbelief” by conspiring with our expectations. Really good novels are those which do so very successfully; they entice us to cooperate in the construction of temporary “realities,” which is the farthest thing from the arbitrary “suspension of disbelief” by which we are forced to admit that Superman might as well reverse time by flying really fast around the globe, if he can do all that other stuff. Rather, by letting the Nazgul chase us past the old farmer’s threats, across the river, through the barrow wight’s den, and into the dizzying world of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, they make us willing to see the likes of Strider as so much more than mere strangers–for good or for evil.

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