Western Classics Exclude Me. But Christ Can Redeem Them

As an Asian American, God’s great story helps me value literature that often leaves me out.

Last year, I began reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. At first, I was swept away by Ishmael’s beautiful descriptions of his passion for the sea. But I grew increasingly uncomfortable in chapter two, when Ishmael accidentally stumbles into a Black, presumably Christian, worship service.

He shockingly describes the gathering as a “great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet” (another name for hell) and the preacher as “a black Angel of Doom.” In the next chapter, we meet the Native American character Queequeg, whose first words are “Who-e debel you? … you no speak-e, dam-me, I kill-e,” before he is promptly labeled as a cannibal.

What do we do with racist passages in classic books like this—especially as readers of color?

As a lifelong lover of books, I heartily applaud that many Christians seem to have a vested interest in preserving and championing classic Western literature.

In On Reading Well and various articles, Karen Swallow Prior writes about how good books can help cultivate our virtues. Similarly, Jessica Hooten Wilson has said that books help us to be holier. They can sharpen our worldview and help us develop empathy. Reading good books can, as Philip Ryken writes, sanctify our imaginations and nourish our love for beauty; it can even help us be more effective teachers, preachers, and leaders.

As a nonwhite Christian, however, I find that most discussions of reading classic Western literature today either fail to acknowledge or only tangentially mention two difficult truths.

First, even if a book is not overtly racist, readers of color must inevitably reckon with the hostility, condescension, and suspicion toward people of other races that permeated the historic …

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