The question is a simple one: If you’re a Christian, should you be reading non-Christian books?
This is a common inquiry for H. Collin Messer, chair of the Department of English, and it’s a paradox of teaching at a place like Grove City College. The students want to connect their Christian faith with western tradition and with their intellectual life, Messer said in a recent interview with Word FM’s The Ride Home with John and Kathy.
“We love the great books,” Messer said. “But, don’t forget, most of the people who wrote these great books were themselves deeply aware that they didn’t live in an echo chamber. Their life was intentioned with the common life around them, of their neighbors. We always want to try to push our students not just to inhabit a space where they never feel displaced. I’m always saying ‘I want to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’”
The first step is determining whether time is even well-spent by simply digging into a good book – be it a 20th century work by Joyce or Faulkner or a classic, older tome written by Shakespeare or Virgil.
“There’s a lot to be learned, I think, by books that have endured the test of time,” Messer said. “Just because something is old doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily good, and just because something is new doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be suspicious of it. But I do think there are old books and ancient books, many or all of them written by people in God’s image, by the way, and therefore bearing this great gift that He bestows upon us to be creative, to carry out this cultivation, this task, this creation mandate.”
The classics serve as both a foundation for Messer’s focus and as a waypoint on his students’ literary journey. An English literature major, Messer graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. in 1991. He earned a master’s degree in English literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1994 and followed that with a doctorate in English literature from UNC in 2000. His Ph.D. specialized in 20th-Century American literature and the literature of the American south.
A professor of English at Grove City College since 2006, Messer feels fortunate that his students are generally self-selected and come in ready and willing to dive into good – and oftentimes difficult – books.
“Some (students) come with favorites that are more contemporary and I’m playing catch up with them, with somebody like David Foster Wallace or somebody like that who I have not read enough of,” Messer said. “But they come in and they’re saying, ‘Hey Dr. Messer, you’ve got to read this.’ Then we’ll take turns. I tell them ‘OK, you read Faulkner, and I’ll read Wallace.’”
That give and take with students is one of the reasons Messer was named the 2015 Omicron Delta Kappa (ODK) Professor of the Year.
“The message that good books deliver is not always a message that is palatable to suburban Americans like me,” Messer said.
Often that message is the result of bad news and features a protagonist who is in distress or a predicament and has been exiled. They are pilgrims traveling on a path in an attempt to emerge from their greater misfortune. Messer said it’s a common motif of Western literature and most great novels.
As a scholar of 20th century American literature, Messer is well-versed in the underlying theme that life is challenging. Perhaps no author better exemplified that refrain as well as Ernest Hemingway. Noted for his efficiently clean and pointed prose, Hemingway’s characters also had a “voracious spiritual hunger,” which Messer points out to his students.
“His characters are searchers. They are aware. They have a deep restlessness. And, sadly, they are often unconsoled,” Messer said. “But, they are aware there’s a lot of things being offered to them in 20th century culture that are not satisfying them. And he’s diagnosing that spiritual hunger in a profound way.”
Messer also notes that Hemingway may not offer a clear cure, but he is willing to tell us that the bad news is, simply, bad.
“I think naming that alienation, that’s so much a part of the human predicament, is a great task of a writer... How else would you want to get the news that life is hard?” Messer said.
As readers we are able to come to that realization by identifying with a protagonist who may be struggling or is alienated, and in turn, that can help us with our own circumstance. A favorite of Messer is southern novelist and National Book Award winner Walker Percy, who specializes in pointing out afflictions but then ends up in a place of accountability and obligation. Percy is up front in talking about a Christian understanding of our problem and the cure for that problem, according to Messer.
“Percy thinks if you name the alienation it actually can make the reader feel better,” Messer said. “If you think about a guy on a train commuting into work who feels bad and doesn’t know why, and then think about that guy reading a book about someone who feels bad and doesn’t know why, then all of a sudden that commuter feels better. He’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, somebody understands.’ There is a solidarity there. Percy, what he does, he’s very subtle and he’s really worried about using a bunch of Christian language that people will feel like is canceled out. But in his novels like ‘The Moviegoer’ or ‘The Last Gentleman’ he begins to show these pilgrims, these characters who are trying to figure it out. They often end up in a place of responsibility and commitment. They’re still shaky, they still need to keep encountering God.”
Messer is currently working on a book-length study of Percy, tracing Augustinian influences and echoes in Percy’s work with particular interest in the existentialism of both writers. Along with his leadership position within the Department of English, Messer has also served as faculty adviser to The Quad since its founding in 2008. The student-led publication is a journal of critical and creative thought encompassing a broad range of works such as scholarly essays and book reviews, travelogues, poetry, short stories, and non-fiction narratives written by Grove City College students, professors, and alumni.