Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Lord of the Flies and the Lord of the Universe: a case for reading secular literature

Imagine you are on a ship, just offshore from an island on fire. Black smoke billows from it and stings your eyes and burns in your nostrils, wreathing the scene in a haze. Orange flame towers above you in the tree tops and runs at you like a freight train as it crackles through more and more of the underbrush. Heat shimmers on your face and makes you want to shrink back. You would be terrified if you were any closer to the island, but from the safety of your ship, the fierce scene mesmerizes you. You are awed at the fire's destructive power; you feel insignificant and hopeless as you watch it burn before you.

Then you see them.

Tiny figures burst out of the forest, just ahead of the flames. They run like it's the fires of hell behind them, and to them, that's exactly what it is. They avoid being roasted alive only by putting a safe distance between them and the fire by fleeing across the sand. They're fleeing right at you, and drawn to their plight, you immediately make to help them. You lower your ship's boat and draw in to shore. You run towards them. You are shocked to notice that they are all boys, somewhere between 6-12 years of age. What is more, they are half naked and filthy. They carry sharpened sticks and have clay and charcoal smeared on their faces like war paint. They look like mini savages.

You assume they've been playing and in their fun set off the fire that is now ravaging the island.

"Fun and games," you say.

You look around at the fire and the destruction, and it suddenly strikes you as tragically comical that these little boys had blundered their way into a life and death situation because of fun. You decide to make light of it, since this is a small, deserted island after all, and no real harm was done. So you grin at the foremost of the tiny savages, the one who had burst out of the forest first, and say, "We saw your smoke. What have you been doing? Having a war or something?"

The filthy boy only nods.

You press your joke further. "Nobody killed, I hope? Any dead bodies?"

The boy's answer, though, is without a hint of mirth. It's dispassionate and yet strained, like the last gasp of an animal of prey that has been hunted and harried to the point of exhaustion, to the point of giving up. Suddenly your grin is gone, and a cold shiver runs up your spine.

"Only two," the boy says. "And they're gone."

Suddenly the horror of it all dawns on you. They aren't play-acting. You stare around at the filthy boys. Now you notice the wild look in their eyes. Now you notice the blood on their spears.

This moment you're caught in, this island you've stepped on to, is a real-life nightmare.

This is the scene you will be immersed in at the ending of William Golding's modern classic Lord of the Flies. I had heard some about the book, of course, and had finally found the time to read it. I approached it skeptically, not at all sure what kind of secular mumbo-jumbo I might be stepping into.

When I began to read Lord of the Flies though, I was instantly captivated by a powerful story, an analogy more profound than most. Golding expertly draws attention to the fatal flaw in every attempt secular humanism has made to set up a Utopia on earth: Mankind, even in it's most innocent age of adolescence, is radically depraved.

Golding's outlook of humanity is intentionally brutal and fatalistic. His classic, published in 1954, serves as a warning in the middle of a century fraught with failed utopias. He clearly illustrates the hopelessness of man's attempts at saving ourselves through government or society. When the protagonist, named Ralph, fails to keep the band of boys stranded on the island from doing the one thing that could have saved them--keeping a signal fire going--you fully emphasize with him and are left to reflect on why so many valiant attempts at good ideals have failed. Why didn't alleviating poverty by equally sharing riches utterly fail, for instance? Why does every government, no matter how strong and how secure in their rules, eventually collapse?

In the book, the boys fear a terrible beast is trapped on the island with them. They hunt for it, knowing that if they can but destroy it there will be lasting peace and safety on their island. The revelation, though, is that this beast--this wicked Lord of the Flies--is inside all of us. When we see the boys throw off all sense of government and morality and fully embrace their true nature, they become as terrible as their worst nightmares about the beast. Ralph, the only boy left at the end to try and bring them back to a sense of societal structure and humanitarianism in trying to keep the signal fire going, is ostracized and then hunted by his increasingly savage peers, as if he were the beast! This final hunt, the ultimate culmination of the boy's depravity, is the final scene of the book.

So why in the world do I recommend reading this secular book? It is, as you can see, quite dark after all. Doesn't it fall outside of the things pure and lovely that we are supposed to dwell on in Philippians 4:8? I would counter that even the Bible has what we would consider some really "dark" narrative that is included for us to dwell on. When we see Joshua and his soldiers wiping out whole cities of Canaanites, we are left to reflect on the seriousness of sin to God and on how far men will run from Him. When David commits adultery and than tries to cover it up with murder, we reflect on even how the man after God's own heart was still tragically vulnerable to sin. These reflections are what is right and pure about a story that clearly isn't so.

In the same way, Lord of the Flies gets the problem of human nature right. It is a surprisingly honest secular work that doesn't have any kind of rose-colored approach to our condition. In a world that has embraced secular humanism (the idea that religion has to be kept private and only "logical" steps to save humanity should be considered), Lord of the Flies clearly demonstrates the futility and dead end of any such attempt at humanism. Though Golding doesn't give Christ as the answer to our terminal condition, he does leave his audience groping for something outside of themselves--a void we can seek to fill with the amazing truth of the Gospel!

The next argument goes somewhere along the lines of "Well, you are either for Christ or against Christ." This is very true, but this doesn't mean we shouldn't seek to engage with the other side. We should understand how unbelievers think; we should be able to discern their gropings for truth and be able to respond with the hope of Christ. And one of the most non-threatening ways to do this is to read their literature. Another great example of this is the Unwind Dystology I recently read through. This dystopian series is written from an unbeliever's perspective and it gets a lot wrong, but it does raise serious questions about topics like abortion, the meaning of life, whether we have a soul or not, and what is right and wrong. The author's wings are seriously clipped by post-modernism (truth is relative to human experience), and he wasted a ton of potential due to this. But it is interesting that even with how hard he tried to support Post-modernism, he did come to the conclusion that there were things right and wrong on a universal basis. For instance, dismembering unwanted, helpless young ones is wrong, no matter what you use to justify it. Sound familiar? 

Now this is of course not a license to go read any secular work you want. There is secular literature that is clearly harmful to us in that it doesn't provide any deeper thoughts other than the exploration of sin. These are books that have no edifying value at all and should of course be avoided! I would place series like Harry Potter (witchcraft, it's main theme, is clearly wrong in the Bible) and The Twilight Saga in the "off-limits" category. I thought of reading the classic 1984, but after reading a synopsis and discovering the reasons the protagonist rebels against the "Big Brother" totalitarian regime, I decided to steer clear of it. I started the Divergent series, because it was supposed to deeply explore human emotions and identities, but I gave it up after the first book, sick of the relativism and Tris's obsessive crush on Four. Instead of raising questions about humanity, Divergent was urging that we are essentially good and need to diverge from oppressive, over-arching stereotypes. The right was vague and the wrong was also vague. It seemed to be just as miserable of a slog through the story for the protagonist herself as it was for me the reader, as she struggled with what was right and wrong but never came up with any more concrete answers other than that she should just accept herself for who she was. So, unlike Lord of the Flies, Divergent pushes us to just accept ourselves as good and further away from the hope of the Gospel, and I believe it is a story that should be avoided.

Basically, we shouldn't read secular literature for entertainment alone, and we shouldn't read it at all if it is going to deliver a message that is clearly anti-gospel. For those secular works that are willing to take an honest approach to the problems of our nature or the flaws in the systems we set up, though, I would encourage a discerning read. The Giver is another excellent example of such a secular work, as it very helpfully explores that question we have in Christian theology about whether we can be human without free will. It's not as simple an issue as "never read secular works", because their are many great insights in secular literature if we are willing to strap on our spiritual armor and approach them with discernment. We should be like discerning miners, sifting through the dirt and casting it aside--but stopping to examine the jewels we find and using them to our advantage and the advantage of others. Let's pursue helpful truths like those found in Lord of the Flies, so that we can use them to build a bridge to our unbelieving friends and share the Gospel!