Why Literature Matters by Glenn C. Arbery


What do you want to be when you grow up?  We spend our childhood answering the wrong question.

It’s not what, but who.

When graduating high school senior are making final preparations for their journey to college, among the countless things they think about is their course of study and choice of a major.  Now it’s decision time.

Today the litmus test of almost every considered major is now this: What kind of job will it get me and how much money will I make?

All of this isn’t entirely the fault of aspiring bright minds or hopeful parents.  The cost of college education has sky-rocketed and many hearts, young and old are filled with the dread of debt which verily must be paid.  The education process has become less about questions and more about answers.  After all – who needs to think that hard when Google is in the palm of your hand?

It’s easier to let someone else do your thinking for you. We say, “Don’t bother me with the details, just give me the bottom line”, and our age of fast information shortens our already limited attention span.

It is in this spirit I offer you Glenn C. Arbery’s fine book ‘Why Literature Matters.”

Our understanding of liberal arts goes all the way back to the first century BC, when Marcus Terrentius Varro wrote an encyclopedia, Disciplinarum libri IX (Nine Books of Disciplines); seven of the disciplines he discussed in it became our liberal arts: grammar, dialectic (or logic), rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine and architecture.  Of these, the so-called hard sciences are certainly in the forefront with literature and art lost in the dust of the stampeding herd.

In our age of technology worship, we gravitate to that which can be arithmetically computed wherein hard and predictable answers prevail.  The problem of course, is that life bears little resemblance to that golden ring.  Science, for all its bluster is a poor tutor for life’s real questions.  As H. L. Mencken said “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

In his speech The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson said this

 “Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, – to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns, and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.”

In The American Scholar, Emerson calls us out of the fog, and describes what he calls “Man Thinking”. America was only sixty years old when he spoke those words in 1837, and we were still wrapped up in a parochial European mindset. He challenged his hearers to wake up and live their lives with depth and purpose.

That message has never been more relevant.

Literature is by definition immediately relevant, because it speaks of the human condition.  Ironically, we long for depth in our lives but content ourselves in shallow water. Our entertainment is banal and our conversations increasingly require a smaller and smaller vocabulary. We each have the same twenty-four hours available in every day, but many of them are lived half-heartedly – nothing special.

Apart from the simple, trashy books which constantly drill to our lowest carnal elements, true literature calls to us a host of writerly advisors who push and pull us into moral dilemmas, forcing us to, as Socrates said“know thyself.”  Anaïs Nin said “The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.”  Herein lies first the opportunity and ultimately the catalyst of real growth.

Arbery wrote

“Literature matters because nothing can better approach the form, in this sense, of life in its felt reality, as it is most deeply experienced, with an intelligence that increases in power the more it explores the most unbearable dimensions of joy and suffering.  Without being specifically religious itself, it can give an experience of a common glory that intimates something otherwise unsayable about the nature of the Word through whom all things were made.  It can turn the loss of life and meaning not only into the rediscovery of meaning but into an occasion of promissory joy.”

In his essay “What is Art?” Leo Tolstoy tells the story of the Russian painter Karl Bryullov correcting a student’s sketch. “Why, you only changed it a tiny bit,” the student marveled, “but it is quite a different thing.” Bryullov replied: “Art begins where that ‘tiny bit’ begins.” Tolstoy comments: “That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all life. One may say that true life begins where the ‘tiny bit’ begins, where the infinitesimally small alterations of consciousness take place.” 

To the college students I say – congratulations.  You are standing at the beginning point of self-discovery.  As you embark on this new journey that will commence your development of self-hood, take with you an open, seeking mind.  Fuel it with treasure of the ages and allow literature to inform your journey.

You will never regret it.  Tonight I’m praying for you, and someday you will join me and Gustave Flaubert who wrote in Madame Bovary

What better occupation, really, than to spend the evening at the fireside with a book, with the wind beating on the windows and the lamp burning bright…Haven’t you ever happened to come across in a book some vague notion that you’ve had, some obscure idea that returns from afar and that seems to express completely your most subtle feelings?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Suicide Is Never Right

Rick WilcoxKurt Cobain, who ended his own life at 27 years of age once wrote in his journal “I really haven’t had that exciting of a life. There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life.”

Like Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye, Cobain was aware of his potential but anguished by the despair of a self-oriented worldview.  Unfortunately,  as with many others, death by his own hand became his lasting commentary on his life.

Suicide has been unduly ennobled by literature including historically revisionistic interpretations of the deaths of Socrates, Seneca, Cleopatra, Van Gogh, Virginia Wolfe, Silvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway.  Albert Camus called it the “last great work of art.”  The basis for this position is the premise that individual accountability accrues only to oneself.

In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger wrote:

The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.

Suicide violates the imago Dei, the image of God with which we are created, and that is simply idolatry.  The deeply satisfying sense of fulfillment we seek as human beings is completely realized when we love God with all of our hearts and likewise love our neighbor as ourselves.



Matthew 22:34-40

But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

D I G  D E E P E R


Rick Wilcox

Suicide has been unduly ennobled by literature including historically revisionistic interpretations of the deaths of Socrates, Seneca, Cleopatra, Van Gogh, Virginia Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway.  Albert Camus called it the “last great work of art.”  The basis for this position is an axiology rooted in humanism, and its premise that individual accountability for one’s body accrues only to oneself.  To the humanist, life is individually arbitrary, and therein lies the fundamental basis for a Christian’s opposition to suicide.  The Christian worldview is that suicide fundamentally violates the imago Dei and is, at its core idolatry in that all arguments, however compelling in their pathos ultimately rest on tenets only validated by the good of the individual rather than the glory of God.

As suicide is not expressly forbidden by Scripture, this paper will examine Biblical occurrences where suicide was either committed or considered.  This selection will be representative rather than exhaustive but the exegesis will establish hermeneutic consistency toward general application.  The brevity of this paper will only afford general consideration of the ethical differentiations of the sub-topics of physician assisted suicide, termination of life support, euthanasia, and mental competence but each will be examined for moral relevance to this paper’s fundamental premise. This examination will conclude that the Bible teaches that suicide is an affront to God as it devalues His image in the created person, Christ’s sacrificial death for the lost person and the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of the redeemed person.

The Image of God

Man was created in God’s image, according to His likeness (Gen 1:26).  Nothing else in creation was afforded that unspeakable honor.  The etymology of the imago Dei points to both the concrete and the abstract, and equates “image” and “likeness” as interchangeable. Rather than possessing a list of godly attributes, man’s preeminence in creation reflects his immortal essence.  As the bearer of such, his worth is understood by Scripture to compel our loving God to the point of sacrificing His Son for our redemption (John 3:16).  Any consideration of man’s moral accountability must be based on a foundation of this stewardship in worship and humility.

In her book Total Truth Nancy Pearcey pointed out that the Bible does not begin with the Fall but rather Creation, highlighting man’s value and dignity as God’s image bearer, tasked with functioning as His representative on earth.  God’s acknowledgement of man’s imparted value was reflected by His ordination of capital punishment for murder on the basis of a violation of the imago Dei (Gen 9:6).  Murdering one’s self is murder nonetheless.

In order to understand, at least inasmuch as we can, the significance of the imago Dei in man, we must begin with God and a clear understanding of true reality.  The metaphysics of a Christian worldview is founded on the life giving triune God of Creation.  Genesis describes the Holy Spirit as “breath”, and thereafter our understanding of life is inextricably linked to breath (Gen 1:2).  This breath moved in the body of a humble girl and from God and mankind we received the Word (John 1:1).  Christ was the fullness of God in human form and our example of human life lived in complete harmony with God’s design.  To understand Christ is to understand the fullness of the imago Dei.

Like metaphysics, epistemology is foundational to our quest for sanctification.  The value of life and its accompanying tenets of truth is wholly predicated the goodness of fit between man’s heart and God’s design.  The humanistic devotion to reason may be joined by sophisticated methodology and theory, but it is also critically flawed by sin.  Man’s reasoning, however noble is short of God’s (Isa 55:8) and no altruistic intent can reach a self-achieved and sustained righteousness (Isa 64:6).

The catalysts of suicide may vary but the common thread is the sense that life no longer has value. Absent the understood mandate of animating the gift of God’s image to the betterment of mankind, it is impossible to put suffering in context.  When the disciples questioned Jesus about why a man was born blind Jesus deftly turned the conversation to God saying “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:3-4).  Our proper context of epistemology is that knowledge is itself informed by action which brings glory to God.  Suicide is therefore precluded in absolute.

Biblical Examples

Since Augustine, the church has consistently held suicide to be equivalent to murder.  The Bible itself does not specifically forbid (nor comment) on suicide, but much may be learned from relevant citations.  The Old Testament addresses six cases of suicide and the only suicide in the New Testament is that of Judas.  While the brevity of this paper precludes an extensive exegesis of each, certain contextual conclusions may accurately be drawn.  A superior understanding comes from other circumstances where suicide was considered but either averted or rejected, specifically the Apostle Paul as noted below.

Suicide Committed

In the Old Testament, suicide was committed by Abimelech (Judg 9:54), Saul and his armor bearer (1 Sam 31:4–5), Ahithophel (2 Sam 17:23), Zimri (1 Kgs 16:18) and Sampson (Judg 16:29–30).  David Jones holds the latter case an exception as divinely approved suicide, but the logic is implicit and in no case does Scripture praise the act explicitly as either holy or acceptable.  The Bible presents each death as an act of self rather than that of a martyr who died at another’s hand for the sake of the Kingdom.  Only the suicide of Judas is mentioned in the New Testament and far from being treated as an act of vindication, Jesus said it would have been better if he had never been born (Matt 26:24).  In contrast, both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus and each felt remorse, but only Peter reconciled his transgression with Jesus who affirmed that Peter had truly given his life to be lived for the glory of God (John 21:18) while Judas’ self-absorbed remorse led to his self-absorbed death.

Suicide Considered

The most compelling perspective of suicide in context comes from the Apostle Paul.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledged a desire to leave this world with its troubles.  In a verse frequently quoted, Paul said “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21) and he provided an additional remark in the following verse that “I do not know which to choose” (Phil 1:22).  The Apostle was in constant peril and was, at the time of this writing imprisoned in Rome.  Acknowledging his dire predicament, Paul presented Scripture’s most compelling argument against suicide.  He wrote that it would be individually better (selfishly) for him to die and be with the Lord, but the greater good would be served by his continued life in service to others for Christ’s sake (Phil 1:24).

Whether Paul was actually considering suicide or employing a rhetorical literary device, his point is clear.  Rather than kill himself as a sacrifice to himself, he presented his body as a living sacrifice to the Lord (Rom 12:1).  As Thomas Aquinas wrote in Summa Theologica, “Therefore to bring death upon oneself in order to escape the other afflictions of this life is to adopt a greater evil in order to avoid a lesser.”  Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God will all of our being (Matt 22:37) and suicide is the ultimate and complete abdication of that cardinal accountability.

Suicide breaks the greatest commandment and it also breaks the second.  Jesus said we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:39) and suicide fails in both regards.  Beyond the fact that suicide is not loving oneself (Eph 5:29) it also deprives God of a servant to the world.  As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “your bodies are not your own, you were bought with a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Cor 6:20).  Nancy Pearcey introduced an interesting aspect of our interrelationship to our neighbor by linking the Trinity to the imago Dei that is woven into our collective human race.  As Pearcey has it, the collectivism and individualism which exists as a mystery of the Godhead is also present in mankind.  She says “the Trinity implies that relationships are not created by sheer choice but are built into the very essence of human nature.”  The act of suicide breaks the second greatest commandment more profoundly than can ever be fully understood in our life on earth.

Medical Ethical Considerations

Theologically, the establishment of suicide as a sin is relatively easy given its absolute negative juxtaposition to the living image of God which is the fabric of mankind, but advancements in medical science have challenged suicide’s definition.  Examining circumstantial gradation, at a minimum presses consideration beyond the oversimplification of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.  As Mark Coppenger pointed out, the Achilles’ heel of the Categorical Imperative is that it cannot stand alone.  Christian ethicists including John Kilner and Scott Rae have written extensively on the ethics of end-of-life decisions which must be made by loved ones and the medical community which effectively operationalize an individual’s wishes regarding the medical maintenance of life under terminal circumstances.

The relatively immature field of Christian bioethics seeks to provide pragmatic Scriptural guidance in an increasingly nuanced environment.  Euthanasia, or “mercy killing” is of course not new.  The Christian’s new dilemma has emerged from heroic and scientific life extension capacities which were unavailable even a generation ago. Simply put, absent these measures, life would end.  While one is tempted to parse overt death inducing measures like euthanasia or physician assisted suicide from passive measures like withholding treatment, as Rae points out, there is no morally relevant difference between killing and allowing to die.  The dilemma has drawn no clear consensus, even from conservative Christian leaders.  While Kilner holds any form of suicide or assisted suicide as “unthinkable”, Rae writes that “the sanctity-of-life principle does not require that every patient receive indefinitely the most aggressive treatment available.”


Suicide is a sin.  Like every sin, its commission affects many beyond the sinner.  An individual considering suicide might conclude they are acting alone under rightful control of their own person, and a humanistic worldview would agree.  Unfortunately, the same worldview is pervasive in the City of Man which Augustine described, and each of its foundational tenets stand as an affront to God.  Ironically, the humanist worldview might seem conducive to a strong sense of self-esteem given its egocentric construct, but as Albert Mohler points out, the current generation of children raised by its precepts in education and parental guidance are increasingly less capable of coping with psychological stress.  Mohler, the leader of an educational institution observes that college administrators are seeing increased problems including “binge drinking, self-mutilation, and even suicide.”  Empirical evidence is difficult to obtain, but evidence nonetheless abounds.  In his book The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip, David Littlejohn writes that the fruit of an unfettered lifestyle of self-indulgence is reflected in Nevada’s grim statistics including the highest incidence of cirrhosis of the liver, the highest rate of abortion and teen pregnancies and a suicide rate which is double the national average.

In his book Suicide, sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that the chief factor in suicide causation was a personal disconnection to society which he termed “anomie”.  According to Durkheim, an individual’s enriched participation in society was key to mitigating an increased isolation conducive to suicide.  While Durkheim’s work has contributed to our collective understanding of the power of extended communities of care, it overlooks the greatest factor of human life stability which is none less than the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.  Regardless of extenuating factors, real hopes begins with an understanding that that root of the horrific problem lies in the spiritual realm where mankind faces an adversary, who as Peter has it is “seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8).  The answer can only be truly understood to be the Holy Spirit who is greater (1 John 4:4).  Destroying the body annihilates the temple from which the Holy Spirit may empower the individual through any dire circumstances.

An average of 33,000 suicides occur each year in the United States, making suicide among the top five causes of death.  This paper has focused on the sinful nature of suicide, but unlike other sins, suicide affords no opportunity for repentance and restoration.  It is therefore imperative that the church take an active role in understanding and preventing suicide rather than only teaching theology.  Studies of suicide survivors have shown that while no single factor leads to self-inflicted death, the complex causes can be better understood and mitigated by an extended community of care in which the church is ideally positioned.  Christian counseling is most effective when the client has a foundational positive affiliation with the church which existed prior to their crisis.  Clearly it is the church’s responsibility to provide spiritual and emotional triage but all tactical help pales in comparison to the benefits of an individual’s participation in active church family life.

Death is the inevitable conclusion of the human body.  For the Christian, this is not to be feared but rather gladly anticipated knowing to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8).  Until we die, we are God’s servants, living for His glory, waking every morning knowing we are still on the earth for a reason.  This reason for our existence answers the quest for meaning and the answer may only be found in repentance, the relinquishment of self-worship, and the joy of living under the Lordship of Christ to the glory of God.

The Christian worldview is the theological grid through which every decision of life and death must pass.  The only proper perspective is through the eyes of God who created us in His image and has acted in unspeakable sacrifice to redeem us back to Himself.  Life and death has always been set as a choice before us (Deut 30:15) and it is God’s desire that we should choose life.


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 2nd ed. Viewforth Great Books Series, 2. Los Angeles, CA: Viewforth Press, 2012.

    Augustine. The City of God. Writings of Saint Augustine,, 6, 7, 8. New York,: Fathers of the Church, inc., 1950.
    Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. 1st American ed. New York,: Knopf, 1955.
    Coppenger, Mark T. Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians : Pushing Back against Cultural and Religious Critics. B&H Studies in Christian Ethics. Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2011.
    Durkheim, Emile. Suicide, a Study in Sociology. Glencoe, Ill.,: Free Press, 1951.
    Freedman, David Noel. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 1st ed. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
    Jones, David W., and Daniel R. Heimbach. An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. B & H Studies in Biblical Ethics. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2013.
    Kilner, John Frederic. Why the Church Needs Bioethics : A Guide to Wise Engagement with Life’s Challenges. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011.
    Kilner, John Frederic, C. Christopher Hook, and Diane B. Uustal. Cutting-Edge Bioethics : A Christian Exploration of Technologies and Trends. A Horizon in Bioethics Series Book. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
    Knight, George R. Philosophy & Education : An Introduction in Christian Perspective. 4th ed. Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2006.
    Littlejohn, David. The Real Las Vegas : Life Beyond the Strip. Oxford ; New York: Oxford Unviersity Press, 1999.
    Melick, Richard R. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. The New American Commentary, 32. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1991.
    Mohler, R. Albert. Culture Shift : Engaging Current Issues with Timeless Truth. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Multnomah Books, 2008.
    Oden, Thomas C. Pastoral Counsel. Classical Pastoral Care Series, 3. New York: Crossroad, 1989.
    Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth : Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Study guide ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2005.
    Rae, Scott B. Moral Choices : An Introduction to Ethics. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009.
    United States. Congress. House. Committee on Armed Services. Subcommittee on Military Personnel. The Current Status of Suicide Prevention Programs in the Military : Hearing before the Subcommittee on Military Personnel of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, One Hundred Twelfth Congress, First Session, Hearing Held September 9, 2011. Washington: U.S. G.P.O, 2012.