Teaching Literature at a Christian University

For the past twenty-six years I have taught literature at a Christian University that confesses Jesus as Lord, that ascribes to a conservative, orthodox Christian worldview, and that believes that faith and reason must not be held in separate compartments but must be wisely and enthusiastically integrated. Fine sounding words, these, but what do they mean “on the ground?” Do I really teach literature any differently at Houston Baptist University than I would at a secular university, whether public or private, large or small?

The answer is yes, for a number of reasons that I would like to explore briefly.

I would not have become a professor of English if I did not believe that Truth exists, is knowable, and can be communicated. Many in academia today think that truth is only an issue in the sciences, but it is just as vital to the humanities. We study the great books of the western intellectual tradition, not only as a way of learning about the ages in which they were written, but because we believe that the books that make up the canon provide an avenue to higher truths that transcend the time and place that gave them birth. The epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Shakespeare, the novels of Cervantes, Austen, Dickens, and Dostoevsky, and the lyrical poetry of Donne, Herbert, Wordsworth, and Tennyson are not merely literary curios or artifacts from defunct civilizations; they are nexus points, way stations that connect us with timeless, cross-cultural truths.

That does not mean that the literature professor is an infallible guide who can deliver, prophet-like, the hidden meaning behind every great book. But it does mean that he can assure his students that the truth is there and can be approached. If he cannot assure them of that, then he and his students are merely playing with knowledge. If truth really is relative and veers wildly from culture to culture, then there can be no real dialogue between the various civilizations of the past and present. Great books are reduced to material products of their socioeconomic milieu and lose their power to bridge the gap between diverse ages and peoples.

A moment ago I conceded that professors of literature are not prophets who can, without fail, draw out the hidden meaning behind the texts they are teaching—but I need to further qualify this point. To speak as if every great epic or drama or novel or lyrical poem holds a single, esoteric meaning is to misunderstand the nature and role of literature. Though the most enduring works of literature function within a world where standards of goodness, truth, and beauty exist, they do not attempt to offer us a catalogue of ethical commandments or a series of logical proofs or a specific code for living one’s life virtuously. Their approach is far more subtle and multifaceted. Instead of clear-cut answers, they help us to wrestle with those larger questions that we all must, at some point in our lives, address: who am I? why am I here? what is my purpose?

Still, no honest professor can invite his students into that arena unless such things as Meaning and Purpose, Volition and Identity exist and have a reference point beyond the individual self. Apart from that reference point, the academic study of English falls into various forms of deconstruction (where final meaning is perpetually deferred), Freudianism (where our desire to locate a source of purpose in our Creator is dismissed as a form of adolescent wish-fulfillment), Marxism (where we are trapped in a deterministic world in which choice is finally an illusion), and feminism (where the ever-shifting game of identity politics defines us by the social-political-economic-racial-sexual subgroup to which we belong rather than by our essential, God-given nature).

If the literature professor is to escape from these existential pits of despair, then he must be willing to at least entertain a fixed source of meaning that does not alter when it alteration finds. In some ways, this fixed center of meaning does not necessitate a fully Christian worldview. What I have written thus far lies well within the purview, not only of Jews, Muslims, deists, and unitarians, but of Platonist and Aristotelians as well. As long as the professor can confidently rest his reading and teaching of literature upon a single, good Creator, or a set of eternal, transcendent Forms, or an essential, inbuilt telos (purposeful end), then he can approach the great books as vehicles for conveying truth, instilling goodness, and promoting beauty. I encountered a number of professors like this at the secular universities I attended, and they all provided me with excellent guidance as I took my pilgrim’s way through the literary canon.

Why then did I begin this essay by suggesting that my position as a literature professor at an intentionally Christian university has enabled me to teach differently than I would (or could) have in a secular university? There is no denying that the study of literature is strengthened and ennobled by a generically theistic worldview that holds out the possibility of transcendent, cross-cultural meaning. And yet, how much more is that study strengthened and ennobled by a Christian worldview that proudly proclaims that Truth is a Person and that that Person became flesh and dwelt among us.

The founding verse of Houston Baptist University is John 14:6, that wonderful, game-changing verse in which Jesus identifies himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. According to the Christian worldview, Truth is not an abstract idea or even a set of propositions laid down by the Creator. Truth is as much a part of the divine nature as Goodness or Beauty or Life or Love. Truth is real and tangible; it can be known the way we know a parent or a spouse or a friend. Solomon, the wisest of men, often compared Truth to a beautiful woman that one needed to woo and pursue. Truth, like God, is active and vibrant and alive; it is involved in our world, not like the descriptive but inert Laws of Nature, but like the sun that drives the engines of photosynthesis.

But it gets better. That active God-who-is-truth, unwilling to remain on the sidelines and play the part of an armchair general, left the eternal, unchanging realm of heaven to enter into the sad narrative of our messy world and our even messier lives. As amazing as it sounds, God willingly became a character in a divine drama in which he wrote for himself the most painful, most tragic, most humiliating role. This event, what theologians call the Incarnation, does not merely change the meaning of human history, giving it a new direction and a new ending. It changes the meaning of every human story ever written, whether those authors lived before or after his coming, and whether or not they were members of his Chosen People.

When the Second Person of the Trinity entered the world as Jesus Christ, Truth also entered the world in bodily form. And that Truth was conveyed to us, not in terms of a proposition, but in terms of a dramatic historical event. God revealed himself in Christ; he made himself known. But he also narrated himself. The eternal, omnipresent God put himself into a time-and-space bound story; but that story, though limited to first century Palestine, is true in every village and city of today, yesterday, and tomorrow. Indeed, if we ever find a way to live on Mars, it will be just as true on that most foreign of soils.

Every story that the Christian literature professor teaches, no matter how secular or godless that story may appear, is hallowed by the Great Story which God wrote, produced, directed, and starred in. We ourselves are part of that meta-narrative that stretches from Creation to Fall to Redemption to Restoration. Our storytelling capacity did not create this story; rather, it is because we are a part of it that we never tire of composing and telling and retelling stories.

And one thing more. Christianity is, at its core, an incarnational religion. It rests on a miracle that asserts, against all merely human logic, that Jesus Christ was at once a particular human being born of a particular woman and confined to a particular body and the eternal God who is pure spirit and who has never been seen by human eyes. In a manner that parallels this divine paradox, the classics that I am privileged to teach at my Christian university take truths that transcend any one given time or culture and incarnate them in a specific tale about specific people living in a specific time and place.

How sad and frustrated it makes me when I hear secular critics accuse Christian universities of censoring the truth. It is more often the secular universities that do that, for it is they who shut their professors up in a small, well-lit room and expect them to teach the classics in isolation from the wider story of which they are a part. As a professor at a university that acknowledges and celebrates the historical and theological reality of the Incarnation, I am free, joyously free, to invite my students into a dialogue and a wrestling match with the best stories ever written and with the great Author-Actor who gives them their final Meaning and their ultimate Purpose.

Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, Literature: A Student’s Guide, C. S. Lewis: An Apologist for Education, and On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis. These, and his children’s novel, The Dreaming Stone (in which his kids become part of Greek mythology and learn that Christ is the myth made fact), are available on his amazon author page.

About the Author

LOUIS MARKOS, PhD, (Loumarkos.com), Professor  in  English  and  Scholar  in  Residence at Houston  Baptist University, holds the  Robert H.  Ray Chair  in  Humanities;  his books include Apologetics for the 21st Century,  On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, and C. S Lewis: An Apologist for Education.