Literature has always held an honored seat in my heart.  Thus, I am chagrined when I see the classics of Western culture interspersed with cheap, vulgar titles in mainstream bookstores.  How I long to warn unsuspecting buyers that fiction and literature are non-equivalent things.

True literature may be defined as “the best expression of the best thought.”  Fine expression characterizes any great writer who has refined his voice, style, and literary devices.  A fine thought, on the other hand, is less easy to identify in our tolerant, pluralistic society.  For the Christian, however, the difficulty dissolves.  The best thoughts have been predetermined:

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8).

One can imagine a zealous believer adopting extreme measures where fiction is concerned.  Her reading material may be restricted to pious novels with sugar-coated heroines (not to mention preachy fathers and suitors, both woefully unpracticed in the art of normal conversation).  I suggest that such a course will teach our families and children to loathe books, when they might have learned to enjoy and even seek out the wisdom of the ancient and modern classics.

But, what of the call to purity? my zealous friend asks.  Consider a character such as Edward Rochester in that darling of British Literature, Jane Eyre.  Rochester’s history is dark.  His words are deceptive, his intentions deplorable.  Shall we label this as literature?

Acclaimed Southern writer Flannery O’Connor repeatedly delved into the theme of evil in her short stories and novels.  In a letter from 1956, she wrote: “I don’t think purity is mere innocence. I don’t think babies and idiots possess it. I take it to be something that comes either with experience or with Grace….”  Searching the lives of Abraham and David, or the epistles of the Apostle Paul, we find the true virtue of our faith to be not naïve innocence, but purity.

Stories of redemption are the stories worth telling.  While shabby fiction glorifies evil in all its shameful aspects, literature portrays fallen and restless mankind – without subjecting the reader to sordid details.  Jane Eyre is a praiseworthy tale of the broken made whole.  Jane finds purity through experience, for in refusing an illicit proposal she truly bends her desires to a higher will.  For Edward, purity comes through the grace which floods his life after his own cunning and strength have failed.  May every book we read infuse our lives with such thoughts, and such hope.