How Literature can Show us What Matters Most
Literature… the subject in school that a large majority of students come to dread. The class where we are quizzed on what outfit a minor character was wearing during some insignificant event in the story, or on what character said some random and yet supposedly impactful quote. When I sit through my literature classes, it’s always so tempting to think about how pointless these stories are. How is this going to help students pursue careers that have nothing to do with literature?
These are the times when I need to remind myself that I’m not in school entirely just to get into my dream job, but also to simply grow in understanding. If I only ever learned about things that would get me a job, I would without a doubt have a sad, fruitless life. Wisdom is so much more important than knowledge about earthly things. So what can we gain from reading literature? What can we learn from stories that will actually impact our lives?
Our Lives are like Stories
Like any book, our own lives consist of characters and main events, all divided into chapters. We don’t know what the next chapter will look like, or even what characters around us will have the most influence in our lives. Often, it’s the people we never thought of that make a difference in our personal growth. There are so many different directions that our “plot” can take, and usually, we have no control over which direction it goes.
Literature shows us what matters most in our lives. Every story has an end, and an author can use that to emphasize virtues we should put into practice. For example, in the Odyssey, a major theme is the importance of home. Odysseus took twenty years of fighting gruesome monsters and resisting temptations in order to get home to his family. Despite his talent for not only fighting but also for speaking well, he had to rely on others to get home — relying on the gifts of great kings to even the supernatural work of the gods. This teaches us to value our own family — they were put in our life for a reason and we shouldn’t take that for granted. Also, the Odyssey teaches us that we need to rely on others to get us where we need to be — we can’t get anywhere if we rely solely on ourselves.
Modern literature gives valuable lessons, too. A favorite of mine is The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. As sad as this series gets (no worries, I won’t give any spoilers), we learn to find hope in even the most dire situations. One ordinary girl raised in the most destitute district gave an entire civilization hope to rebel against the unjust Capital. Although she, along with the other districts, was terrified of the Capital’s intolerable violence, she knew that freedom was worth any consequences she might face. The Hunger Games forces us to ask ourselves how important freedom is to us, and what we’re willing to sacrifice for it.
Literature Points us to Christ
In the Comparative Religions class that I’m in now, my teacher had us read Epic, by John Eldredge. From this book, I learned how the fact that our lives are like stories can point us to Christ.
Odysseus fought for 20 years to get home — we, through the grace of God, need to fight even longer against an even greater enemy, our sin, for an entire lifetime to reach our Home in Heaven. But thankfully, our hope is not in a girl from district 12, but in a Man who was crucified on a tree. Despite our tendency to feel like we are the main character of the story of humanity, it truly is Jesus Christ — He accomplished all the work that we need to be saved. He defeated the villain in the story not by a grand battle like in Lord of the Rings, or by an intense one-on-one fight like Beowulf’s fight against Grendel. Instead, He defeated the villain by dying on a cross. Even now, He is at the right hand of the Father, interceding on our behalf. He is still guiding us and will continue to guide us all the way to glory.
Just as an author writes the chapters of his or her book, so God has written our story. And not just ours, but the entire story of mankind. He is the Author — He knows exactly what the next chapter holds, and we can be comforted by the fact that He will be with us through it all. We can humbly rely upon Him for all things, knowing that nothing can happen apart from His will — so if He is for us, who can be against us?