The First Poem Ever Written: why we should read literature

Dr Naomi Carle

“I still haven’t started the last one you gave me to read!” my husband protested recently as another novel appeared on his bedside table, “I just don’t have much time for fiction.” He’s not alone. Many Christians would love to read more, but they just can’t find the time. Maybe you can relate? With so many things competing for our attention and imaginative engagement, why should Christians make space for reading literature in their busy schedules?

It’s time consuming. It often requires mental effort. It’s solitary. And novels sometimes take me to places I don’t really want to go… Plus I’ve barely got time to read the Bible, let alone fritter away precious minutes on reading fiction or meditating on secular poetry.

God’s good design in reading

There are lots of reasons why we should carve out time for reading beyond the Scriptures and theology, and a growing body of literature urging us on to embrace the challenge!¹

For my money, the most compelling reason is that literature is part of the way God designed us to respond to the goodness of Creation, to deepen human relationships and to express our emotions.

He gave us words to communicate our enjoyment and delight in him, in his world, in the people he’s blessed us with to work alongside. Literature is an act of communication, a conversation between two human hearts. It’s been that way from the very beginning:

This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

She shall be called Woman,

because she was taken out of Man.

(Genesis 2:23)

Poetry is the first recorded interaction between humanity’s first couple. Long before Andrew Marvell wrote to his coy mistress, Catherine Earnshaw described Heathcliff as “my own being” or Shakespeare thought to describe his devotion as “an ever-fixed mark”, Adam delighted in his wife in verse.

His love for Eve is evident in his longing satisfied: “at last” she is here! Interjecting at last between the demonstrative pronoun and its object catches the reader up in his suspense, causing us to echo his relief in the delayed resolution of the line. Adam recognises both her deep similarity with him, “bone of my bones/and flesh of my flesh”, and their glorious distinction from one another.²

Taken out of Man, Woman is external, other, different from him. She is of the same stuff, and so her arrival signals the first possibility for growing intimacy through a relationship based on conversation in a meeting of minds. Until now, Adam could converse with The Creator, but their relationship was far from grounded on equal terms. He saw from his embodied, finite position whereas God sees all things.

Adam’s poetic delight at meeting Eve is the beginning of a life-long discussion, leading one another into greater search and progress for truth, beauty, and love as they articulate their experiences as limited beings.

Humanity’s perspective on the world has doubled. Humanity’s ability to grasp and to understand the complexities of existence has multiplied.

Words of deception

A few short verses later, Eve meets a silver-tongued serpent who hates the idea of language being used to further beautify and enrich human experience. Lies, deception, and the intent to harm enter the realm of language use. Now, we enter a vast human library in the middle of the story of literature after the Fall.

Our experience of reading, writing and engaging in literary debate is complicated by unreliable narrators, deceitful readers, and the pain of navigating the brokenness of life in a suffering world. Yet there is still much to learn and much to wonder at in exploring this altered imaginative landscape.

Adam’s instinct to respond to beauty in creation through poetic expression has not diminished. One of the joys of being alive is to enter the imaginative worlds created by writers gifted by God to tell stories which connect profoundly with our life experience.

In other words, we can know ourselves and one another on a deeper level as we engage with consuming and producing literature.

Deep magic

Responding to the world around us in this way is part of continuing the cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve in the garden. As we produce narratives, enter dialogues and respond poetically to the world and to one another we are bringing order to the seeming chaos of human experience. Where we communicate or capture something true or beautiful, painful or disturbing, we embellish the patterns the Creator embroidered into the cosmos – the archetype of the deep magic that holds Lewis’s Narnian world together.

Christian writers and readers bring a unique perspective to the work, but all people as image-bearers can identify and express aspects of truth, beauty, and love intermingled in creation and the life given to us by a gracious, good God. Evidence of God’s design can’t help but surface in the literary lives of those who have no personal relationship with him. Observing London at dawn from Westminster Bridge, William Wordsworth famously penned the lines:

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

By contrasting the cityscape illuminated by the sun’s first rays with the majesty found in nature, I doubt he was aiming to resonate with the grand metanarrative woven into human history revealed in Scripture. Yet here is a shadowy reverberation of the Bible’s movement from the uncultivated garden, brimming with potential, towards the garden-city, eternally teeming with life and aesthetic splendour. Wordsworth perceives a greater beauty in London’s skyline than he finds in valley, rock or hill, and all illumined by sunlight, a scriptural image for God’s glory.³

If we have eyes to see and hearts to engage, this kind of affirmation of our theological understanding of the world we inhabit is everywhere in what we read. This is because what we read (if we choose carefully) are the best reflections of the most creative human minds on the subject of life, communicated in the best words.

Truths universally acknowledged

Booklovers through the ages have described reading in many evocative ways. Escapists talk of becoming “fireside adventurers”, as the reader is swept off to desert islands, shipwrecks, cities at war, lonely mountain sides or strange planets.

Extroverts revel in walking a mile in another’s moccasins as journeying with different characters nurtures empathy and emotional intelligence.

I remember the pain of reaching the final page of Wives and Daughters to discover Gaskell died before she could finish the novel. It was as if the characters had been wiped out in a devastating natural disaster, their stories unresolved!

Philosophers speak about how reading shapes our perceptions, trains our minds, and changes how we understand reality. The words we read and the characters we carry with us can impact our lives long after we part company.

For all these reasons, literature draws us into a wider cultural conversation and gives us a shared vocabulary to engage with others about their ideas and thinking on subjects which might otherwise remain enigmatic. Like a secular, contemporary Ecclesiastes, fiction, poetry, drama and film give us insights into how other people experience life in the world. Literature exposes tensions and conflict, desires and joys in a way which allows the particular to gesture towards the universal.

The opportunity afforded by literature to grow God’s kingdom therefore can’t be ignored. If it can help us understand the minds and lives of those around us, it can also show us how the truth of the gospel speaks into their hearts very specifically. We would be foolish to ignore that challenge.

So the real question is… what should I read next?


Naomi Carle has a PhD in English Literature, and is part of her local book club in London where she lives. She’s a mum of four, and a student on Crosslands Seminary. 




[1] Tony Reinke, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books; Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: A Hermeneutic of Love; Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well.

[2] Note the contrast to Catherine – she mistakenly collapses Heathcliff’s identity into her own and this over-intense merging of persons causes many problems.

[3] There is more to say here, but the point is that even Britain’s famous nature poet was captivated by the fruitfulness of humanity working together to produce something more from the raw materials of creation.