Leland Ryken’s Four Principles for Reading Literature

Posted by: Leland Ryken

My purpose in the following remarks, is to demonstrate how a Christian can read literature to best effect. Two valid approaches to this objective exist. If I were talking to students in my classes, I would adopt a prescriptive approach and provide guidelines for reading Christianly. For this blog however, I have left my prescriptions behind and will instead simply describe how I conduct my travels through the realms of gold (John Keats’ metaphor for reading literature). I have phrased my points as four principles for reading.

Principle #1. Expect the Best 

I try to read a work of literature expecting the best from it; of course, such an expectation presupposes that I have chosen a work that merits my initial vote of confidence. One of the benefits of teaching literature as a daily profession are that I mainly read and reread works that the world at large agrees are of notable merit, if not Christian in orientation. When I take an excursion into uncharted waters, I select my reading on the basis of what I have picked up as I hear people talk about at work. 

Having made an informed selection, I do not initially want to put on my guard as I read, or what literary scholars call “reading with a hermeneutic of suspicion.” As much as possible, I want to relax and enjoy an experience of enlightened leisure. Note that I have said that my initial experience is an assumption of being edified and enlightened. 

I have actually just endorsed a view of reading literature that is especially associated with C. S. Lewis. In his lone book of literary theory (An Experiment in Criticism), Lewis famously wrote that “the first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive.” I believe this readiness to receive what a work offers is something we owe to an author.

Principle #2. Be Aware

I read with an awareness of the threefold task that a literary author performs for us. An author’s first task is to observe life accurately and hold it up for the reader’s contemplation. The subject of literature is human experience, and must be rendered so concretely that we relive it in our imagination. The result of such contemplation should be that we are able to see life more accurately. We might even call it knowledge in the form of right seeing. It is a kind of knowledge worth having.

Secondly, an author must offer an interpretation of the experiences presented in a work of literature. The ideas embedded in literature need to formulated and weighed, about which I will say more in a moment. This interpretation can be formulated as “ideas about life,” and constitutes the ideational aspect of literature. In regard to both the presentation of life and the interpretation of it, literature and the other arts are a chief means by which the human race grapples with reality and seeks to understand it. As a Christian reader, I value that grappling. It produces a great deal of insight. As an extension of that, we could say that literature and the arts are the human race’s testimony to its own experience.

A third function of literature is to provide the materials and occasion for enlightened leisure. Leisure, in the ordinary sense of being something that God commands and calls us to do, is just as much a Christian calling as work is. I am fond of the statement of a Christian leisure theorist who claims that “leisure is the growing time for the human spirit.” For me, reading literature has been growing time for my human spirit.

Principle #3. Read on a Continuum

 I read literature with an awareness that every work of literature can be plotted somewhere on the continuum which I am about to describe. On one end of the continuum (which I arbitrary picture as being the left end), we find literature of Christian affirmation. We can plainly see it portrays a Christian view of life. On the other end of the continuum is literature that is anti-Christian in what it offers for approval.

In the middle is what I call the literature of clarification and common experience. It does not make explicit Christian assertions but is compatible with Christianity and may have been written by Christian. It is easy for a Christian reader to assimilate it in a Christian way, though that may belong to what I as a Christian reader do with the work rather than something intended by the author.

In my mind, the usefulness of this continuum is that it serves as a roadmap. I know what I am dealing with in regard to a specific work of literature, and this enables me to respond appropriately.

Principle #4. Evaluate 

Finally, I weigh the truth claims of the literature that I read. If C. S. Lewis is the go-to person on the topic of reading literature with an open mind, his counterpart, emphasizing  the need to avoid being lulled into acquiescence with unchristian input, is T. S. Eliot. Eliot theorized that “literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint. . . . What I believe to be incumbent upon all Christians is the duty of maintaining certain standards and criteria of criticism over and above those applied by the rest of the world.”

Eliot envisions a two-stage process of reading and making sense of literature. The first stage is Lewis’ method of receiving what a work stands to offer. The second is to move from listening to responding and replying. The formula that runs through my mind at this second phase of assimilation is one that John Milton stated when talking about objectionable literature. Milton claimed that we should read such literature “warily and with good antidote.” Warily means cautiously and with our guards up. With good antidote means that we are prepared to disagree with an author’s viewpoint and correct it with a Christian viewpoint.


These principles have given me confidence as a reader of literature—preventing me from prematurely foreclosing on something that might edify or entertain me, while also ensuring I have not abandoned my intellectual and moral convictions in the process.

Share this post