Years ago, while I was contemplating what made certain movies great and others not-so-great, my thinking went like this: good stories need to have a message—they have to teach the viewer something. But they’ve also got to be entertaining, because if the story isn’t interesting then nobody will care about the message.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was articulating the age-old purpose of literature as expressed by Horace in the Latin phrase “utili et dulce,” which means “useful and sweet.” The “useful” bit is the teaching aspect and the “sweet” bit is the part that entertains.
This two-fold purpose is almost everywhere one looks, so in this article I’m going to use the word “literature” to mean “a story told in an artistic way.” Notice that this definition of literature does not demand any definite form—it can be fiction, non-fiction, a poem, a movie, etc. Not an ordinary definition, and not one I typically use, but it may be helpful for this discussion.
Instructing and Entertaining
Why should literature be both instructive and entertaining? To find out, let’s not trust to the word of an ancient Greek alone. Leland Ryken, Professor of English at Wheaton College, points out that an even older source than Horace expounded this viewpoint: The Bible. Ecclesiastes 12:10 says:
The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly (NASB).
The first part of this passage “delightful words” corresponds with the “delighting” bit, while “words of truth” corresponds to the “teaching” bit. So we see that even the Preacher sought to write what was both true and beautiful!
This is an important connection for writers to make, and I have found both in my own experience and through observation that emphasizing one side of this balance too heavily is very easy to do. Teach too hard and a Christian work of fiction becomes little more than a jazzed-up sermon. Tell a story that entertains exclusively and the reader may experience thrills but ultimately find the story forgettable.
However, I believe that in particular the “delighting” aspect of literature is neglected in Christian writing (although lately I haven’t noticed it as much. Perhaps we’re improving?). I used to be this way: I would come up with a good moral that I wanted my story to have, and then I developed a story that reflected that moral. I focused entirely on the teaching component of literature and completely ignored the entertaining part. The results were contrived, lifeless characters who did things not because certain actions were part of their character but because that’s the way it had to be for me to get my message across. Needless to say, this is not an effective (or affective!) way to write.
Much more could be said (and has been said) on this topic, but the essence is still this: the purpose of literature is both to instruct and entertain. They’re like the two wings of an eagle, and both must function together for the eagle to soar.
There are other reasons why writers should embrace the two-fold purpose of literature, and to gain a fuller picture I would recommend reading The Christian Imagination. It is a collection of essays (most, but not all, of them very thought-provoking—that’s the problem with collections) by Christian writers about reading and writing that fueled the ideas in this post, particularly the essay entitled “’Words of Delight’: A Hedonistic Defense of Literature,” by Leland Ryken.