Is Literature Still Necessary?

Note: This is the first in a series of posts that will consider the question:

What does literature have to offer (if anything) that no other art form or media (such as video games, social media, movies, TV shows, etc.) can match?

This post will be followed next week by three responses from students at my university—two Honors students and one top English major. We welcome you to join in the discussion of an issue of great interest to many of us in this era of change.  


Can the Needs that Novels Once Met Be Fulfilled in Other Ways? 

By Joseph Bentz 

The purpose of literature is often said to be some sort of “connecting”—with characters, with the mind of the author, with other cultures or time periods, with the world outside the reader.

David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest and other novels, said, “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull…imaginative access to other selves” (qtd. in Smith 255). Novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, wrote that “Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude…in their reach inward, via print, for a way out of loneliness” (88). In the film Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “We read to know we are not alone.” Even though some scholars question whether Lewis ever actually uttered those words, the quote is endlessly repeated anyway because readers resonate with the idea that literature connects them to other selves, other worlds, other minds.

Different Ways to “Connect”

But are novels really the best way to “connect” to the world outside oneself, or will many people increasingly find it easier to meet that need in other forms, such as social media, video games, YouTube videos, and other ways? Does literature offer something those other forms don’t? “Connecting” may be a fundamental purpose of literature, but it is also the central purpose of other forms of expression, including social media such as Facebook and Twitter. In introducing a new Community Pages feature, for instance, Facebook software engineer Alex Li wrote, “Facebook has always been about helping people make connections. We started with helping people connect with their friends, and over time we expanded this model to mirror more of the connections you make in your life—including organizations and interests that may not be people.” Even their famous logo is about connecting, with its map of the world sprinkled with icons of people connected by dotted lines.

People use other technological media, such as online video games, to make a number of different kinds of connections: to connect with other players around the world, to connect with the created characters whose roles they take on, and to connect with the created worlds the game makers have brought to life.

What’s at Stake?

With hundreds of millions of people meeting this human need for “connection” through new technologies, where does that leave literature? Do we really still need it to “know we are not alone”? As a literature professor and author, I and my profession have much at stake in the answers to these questions. If the essence of the literary experience can be matched by the technology of sophisticated video games or social media, then what relevance to do literature courses have for university students?

Are Video Games as Good as Literature?

It’s easy for literature professors to dismiss the significance of popular-culture entertainment technologies such as video games. But as I have studied the work of video game scholars and commentators such as James Paul Gee (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy), Tom Bissell (Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter), and Jane McGonigal (Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World], I have seen that the case for literature’s superiority in “connecting” with the world outside oneself is not as clear-cut as I once believed.

One reason for reading novels, for instance, is that a reader likes to plunge into a rich, sumptuously imagined world that an author has created. The reader finds pleasure in living vicariously for awhile as a character in that world. Can any video game do that better than a novel?

I recently read an article about the creation of the video game, “Star Wars: The Old Republic.” Look at what its creators went through to develop a rich, fully realized world for its players to inhabit: “More than 800 people on four continents have spent six years and nearly $200 million creating it. The story runs 1,600 hours, with hundreds of additional hours still being written. Nearly 1,000 actors have recorded dialogue for 4,000 characters in three languages. The narrative is so huge that writers created a 1,000-page ‘bible’ to keep the details straight….” (Fritz, Pham, A1).

How can any novelist, using only words, compete with that?

My question is not really whether literature will disappear. Clearly it won’t. It survived the creation of new media such as film and television, so some readers will always be there. My question is more precisely, will literature, for vast swaths of people, become increasingly irrelevant, or is there something about it that is irreplaceable? I and my fellow bloggers plan to consider various aspects of that question in the days and weeks ahead.


Works Cited
Franzen, Jonathan. “Why Bother?” How to Be Alone: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002: 55-97. Print.
 Fritz, Ben, and Alex Pham. “Will Star Wars game reshape the online universe?” Los Angeles Times 20 January 2012: A1. Print.
Li, Alex. “Connecting to Everything You Care About.” The Facebook Blog. 19 April 2010.  Web. 6 June 2012.
 Smith, Zadie. “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. 255-297. Print.




“Desperate for Hope” Probes Life’s Most Difficult Questions

Bruce W. Martin’s new book, Desperate for Hope: Hanging on and Finding God During Life’s Hardest Times, is about suffering. It is direct, honest, thought-provoking, and moving. He has done his homework to create a book that analyzes the issue from a Christian perspective with theological rigor, but his tone is not academic or philosophical. It is personal. Throughout the book he refers just as often to his own “perfect storm” of catastrophes as he does to examples from the Bible or from the lives of others. He does not shy away even from the suffering that he brought about in his own life and that of his family. I have read plenty of books on this topic, but I highly recommend this one for its forthright treatment of a difficult issue.

Here are some of the elements of Martin’s own “perfect storm” that hit in 2002: “Out of work, I hadn’t received a paycheck for sixteen of the previous twenty-four months. We had just moved back to Huntsville, Alabama, from Denver, Colorado, after a colossal failure at church-planting. Drowning in a sea of credit card debt, we lived about thirty days from bankruptcy. To top it all off, my wife and I both suffered from near-clinical depression.” Martin’s deepest pain during that period, however, came when his daughter Zoe, whom he and his wife were adopting and whom they had raised for ten months, was taken away from them when Continue reading

“Pieces of Heaven” Is Released!

My publisher, Beacon Hill Press, announced this week that my new book, Pieces of Heaven: Recognizing the Presence of God, is now available. This book has been a major focus of my writing and thinking for the past two years. For those who are interested in knowing what the book is about, I am posting the introductory chapter. More information is available by clicking the “New Releases” or “Books” tabs above and choosing the Pieces of Heaven page. I also wrote a Study Guide for the book that small groups may wish to use. It is available on the Pieces of Heaven page. I hope you enjoy the book. If you do, please consider spreading the word to others and posting a review on Amazon and elsewhere. 

Chapter One

The Thin Place in the Veil

God doesn’t behave the way I wish He would.

Even though I’ve been a Christian for many years, I still have a hard time explaining to someone who is not a believer why I can’t help but be a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s not that I lack the words to describe the doctrine or to tell the story of how God got hold of me. But how do I describe God’s powerful but invisible presence that keeps pulling me toward Him?

It would be easier if God chose to be more visible and obvious about how He inserts Himself into people’s lives. I would love to be able to say, I am a Christian because God appeared above my house in the form of a radiant fireball and summoned me outside. In view of all my neighbors, who recorded the whole thing, He declared (in a booming voice, of course) that Jesus Christ is the way to salvation and that I should follow Him.

When Hollywood portrays God, they often do it in this more readily graspable, visual way. Who comes to mind when you think of a Hollywood-created God? A kindly, cigar-smoking George Burns? The wise and unflappable Morgan Freeman? Or maybe you prefer it when the special effects kick in and you get something like the God of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Do you remember how the presence of God is portrayed in that movie?

The Nazis want the Ark of the Covenant because they think they can use the power of God’s presence in it for their own evil purposes. When they finally get it, they lift up the lid and watch as bright white waves of smoke rise up from the box. The light swirls round and round, dozens of ribbons of it flying high in the air, with awe-inspiring beauty and power. Then majestic columns of fire rise from the Ark and extend high into the air. The Nazis are triumphant.

But then, because God is apparently smart enough to know that these guys are Nazis and therefore bad guys, the whole scene turns ugly for them. The fire forms into huge daggers that stab right through the center of the soldiers’ bodies and kill them.

But that punishment is only for the low-ranking Nazi soldiers. The top Nazis suffer an even worse fate. The heads of the two leaders begin to melt, and they scream in pain. As if that were not gruesome enough, the head of the most villainous, whiny-voiced Nazi leader explodes in blood and gore like a smashed watermelon. Then all the fire and smoke comes together in one gigantic column that shoots high above the island. Finally it collapses back down into the Ark, with a tremendous slam of the lid.

Beautiful. Smoke and fire and melting heads. That may not fit everyone’s concept of God’s presence, but at least it’s something people can see and understand.

In my own life, the Holy Spirit doesn’t work that way. He is not flash and spectacle. He is not a booming voice. Nor is he a crusty but affable old man. He is not anything a Hollywood camera could capture.

He is a loving, abiding Presence. More than anything else, I am a Christian because of God’s powerful, pursuing Spirit. As Romans 8:16 says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” I can also discuss my faith in terms of doctrine and theology and biblical principles, but God’s presence is what keeps me tied to the faith even through crises of doubt, discouragement and my own failures. How can I describe that presence? It’s the most important part of my faith, but it’s also the hardest to talk about and the easiest for skeptics to dismiss.

The idea for this book was sparked by an overheard conversation about the presence of God. It was a simple moment, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. As my friends in the Christian writers group that was meeting in my home were getting ready to leave, I walked into the kitchen to hear one of our members, Lynn, speaking to another member of the group. Lynn was describing a recent worship service she had been part in which the people powerfully sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit. She said it was one of those times when the veil between us and eternity seemed very thin, and almost disappeared. I can still picture the way she held her palms together as she said this, as if she were touching this thin, almost transparent barrier that she was describing.

That thin place in the veil is what this book is about.

God is always with us, I believe, but often the barriers are so thick—because of noise, disbelief, indifference, daily responsibilities, and other distractions—that we often pay little attention to Him. He is easy to ignore. Popular entertainment mocks Him, the political world is wary of Him, much of the intellectual elite denies Him, and a frenzied online social media loses Him in a flurry of trivia. It’s easy to leave God out of our conversations and thoughts—at work, at school, in social settings, and unfortunately sometimes even at church. How can we open our eyes to His presence?

This book will consider “God in the Ordinary” and “God in the Extraordinary.” In the Ordinary, His Spirit is powerfully present in music, in nature, in the intellect, in prayer, and in Scripture. We may find God’s presence in our relationships, not only with those we love, but also in those who cause us problems. In the Extraordinary, He also manifests Himself at rare times in more unusual ways, in powerful revivals, in people’s encounters with angels, or in the moments before death.

I wish reaching the thin places was all in our own power, but it isn’t. As this book will explore, God reveals and conceals His presence in His own timing for His own purposes, as He has always done. The temptation, when God seems distant, is to fill the space with a counterfeit god. You don’t even have to choose one—they will choose you. Many people are worshiping multiple counterfeit gods right now without even knowing it.

I wrote this book because I want to do all I can to strip away the barriers that hide God’s presence. I long to get as close as I can to the thin place in the veil that my friend was describing.

If you long for that too—for a deeper connection with the Holy Spirit—then I ask you to join me in these pages.

Bentz’s Rules for Social Media Quotes

If you have a good quote you want to post on social media, but you’re not sure who said it, you should follow these rules:

1. Attribute the quote to Abraham Lincoln if it has anything to do with politics or government. Ronald Reagan will also do nicely if you’re conservative.

2. Any spiritual quote should be credited to C.S. Lewis unless it has to do with poor people, in which case, trust me, Mother Teresa said it.

3. Quotes about writing may alternate randomly between Anne Lamott and Ernest Hemingway.

4. Any quote containing words like “thou” or “wouldst” may be safely attributed either to Shakespeare or the Bible, your choice.

5. If it doesn’t really matter who said it but you just like the quote because it is particularly clever, please use the name “Joseph Bentz.”

6. As for “context,” not your problem.

I hope this is helpful. As Lincoln himself put it, “If you’re not for the people, you can’t buy the people.”