Good Books: Nothing New Under the Sun
Have you ever used the phrase, “there is nothing new under the sun”? It’s one of those Bible truisms that we think or say without much effort. It comes from Ecclesiastes 1:4 and 9: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever…. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
The whole passage in Ecclesiastes is full of observations about our natural world. First, generations live and die (v.4); the sun rises and sets (v.5); the winds blow ‘round and ‘round (v.7); the streams flow to the sea without ceasing; this monotony is tiring (v. 8). Finally, the claim, “there is nothing new under the sun!”
In literature, this seemingly commonplace wisdom often comes from the Bible. Even if some observation has been known across the ages, it probably became popularized through Biblical literature. Take for example, the saying: “Red sky at night sailor’s delight; red sky at morning sailor take warning” (Matthew 16:3). This seemingly insignificant weather tidbit has probably been known for as long as men have been navigating the seas. Yet, because of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention – the movable-type printing press – combined with his desire to spread the Gospel, the Bible was the book where most people read that fact. Gutenberg’s invention contributed enormously to the rapid development in both science and art, through the mass production of the Bible.
These circumstances are evidence of God’s presence on Earth. A Biblical narrative permeates our cultural norms because it presents the world as it really is. Even simple, humorous examples illustrate that real world sublimity belongs to God. For example, we can all imagine the results stemming from the “blind leading the blind” (Matthew 15:14, Luke 6:39). We all know the results gained by the “sweat of one’s brow” (Genesis 3:19 KJV), and we have known the unique wisdom that comes “out of the mouths of babes” (Psalm 8:2).
Next time you read a novel, look for these small instances of Biblical wisdom. Acknowledge God’s wisdom as being the ultimate source of all that is good, true and beautiful, and enjoy letting your mind dwell on these things (Philippians 4:8).
In general, books give us unique perspectives because each author lived during a unique period in history, and each author wrote about a set of circumstances that are bound by the technology, politics and knowledge of their time. Great books however, deal with eternal things. Great books deal with the turmoil of relationships – relationships with family, friends, strangers and even God himself.
Since we view the world through modern eyes, older books help stimulate our minds. It is much easier to get drawn away from our habitual prejudices when the circumstances of the scene have been altered. Good books allow us to encounter wonderful word pictures, character dilemmas, and their resulting tragedies and victories. These features get painted into stories that can transform us if we understand that Scripture is the base material that is supporting the author’s narrative.
For instance, look at Jane Austen’s choices for book titles: Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. These books tell us about love, romance, marriage and other institutional differences from Austen’s era – some that may seem quaint to us. Yet these books remain popular because their themes are eternal: honor, respect, goodness, truth and honesty versus pride, prejudices or insensibilities.
Austen’s ideas (and those of every good author) transcend geography, location, time and place. It is the eternal nature of these ideas that make these books worth reading. These transcendent principles give each of us, in our humanness, our unique being. This in turn provides a provocative Christian-cultural force that is biblically sound and exerts itself in our own respective circumstances.
In an editorial entitled, The Word of God and the City of Man, Peter Leithart makes a case for the Bible “creating a certain kind of person.” In a direct reference to Jane Austen, he writes,
“Austen did not discover from an inductive Bible study that God wanted her to write novels a certain way. She grew up in the home of an Anglican pastor, where she heard Scripture read, performed daily prayers, participated in the weekly liturgy from the Bible-saturated Book of Common Prayer. Her writing is ‘biblical’ because Bible pumped in her veins. She couldn’t have written in any other way.”
This is the nature of a good author. He or she writes literature that allows God’s everlasting truth to be seen within the temporal nature of the human experience. Charles Dickens sublimely states, “[these principles] have been the truth since the foundations of the universe were laid, and they will be the truth until the foundations of the universe are shaken by the Builder.”
What is a book you’ve read lately that encouraged you to find eternal truths in an old story?
For ideas of some great books to read, check out the previous posts in the Good Books series.
 Peter Leithart, The Word of God and the City of Man, (Cardus, 2012); accessed 3/09/2013; http://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/3685/editorial-the-word-of-god-and-the-city-of-man/
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, (Project Gutenberg, 1997, [Etext #883]) p.357