Tom Wolfe is one of America’s greatest literary stylists and observers of culture. Yet, his writing is full of profanity and overt sexuality. How is a Christian to think about such a writer, and how could one justify reading and recommending his work to another believer? In the novels of Tom Wolfe we have an excellent example of how Christians can learn from and appreciate “secular” writing. What follows is not a book review, but several observations on why a Christian might find Wolfe (with particular focus on his novels A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons) enjoyable and helpful, but also some warnings using Philippians 4:8 as a guide.
1) Tom Wolfe is able to discern truth in American culture. He does not glamorize, he does not gloss over and he does not minimize. In A Man in Full Wolfe details the lives of two men, one a wealthy, middle-aged Atlanta real estate developer and the other a young laborer who seek to discover what it means to be a man in the modern world. The realities of sin, lust, selfishness and greed are evident in each of these men, yet neither are beyond redemption. In I Am Charlotte Simmons Wolfe explores the life of an innocent and intelligent young woman as she enters a modern University. The depiction of college life is stark. Drinking to excess, the “hook-up” culture, the degradation of language and the devaluing of life are rife. However, these realities are never glorified or glamorized. Reading about the effects of alcohol on these students lives would make one never want to take a sip of booze. The disgust, the sadness and depression and the shear humiliation and emptiness that fills Charlotte after the graphic depiction of the loss of her virginity is stunning and forms a stark contrast to the biblical concept of sexuality within a loving and self-sacrificing marriage covenant. Wolfe deals with American culture, so he deals with a world spinning out of control through the loss of morals in a very Romans 1 kind of way, and he portrays it truthfully. Paul exhorts people to spend time on TRUE things…too often secular media glamorizes sex, drunkenness and debauchery while the Christian media ignores it leaving only the secular myth as the prevailing “truth” even for Christians. Wolfe describes the utter depravity of sin.
2) Wolfe is a superb writer. He isn’t the best storyteller in the fast paced neatly tied up endings kind of way, but he takes characters and wrings the life and emotion and motives out of them. He explores every aspect of them in a way you rarely see in modern novels. These are people in the fullest sense of the word with complexity and depth. The writing is compelling and interesting, yet you always understand that Wolfe is saying something. Paul exhorts people to spend time on things that are EXCELLENT, and the writing of Wolfe is an excellent place for Christians to learn what good writing is.
3) Wolfe explores the transcendent. Especially in A Man in Full, but also making an appearance in I Am Charlotte Simmons is the idea of the transcendent. Personified in both novels by the work of classic Greek philosophy and the god Zeus. Sure, people are not transformed by Jesus (which is the only place where lasting and real transformation come from), but they do need something outside of themselves in order to change, which is a refreshing change in modern culture. For the men in A Man in Full it is the Stoics and Zeus, for JoJo Johansen it is the philosophy of Aristotle and the moral purity of Charlotte Simmons. In either case, redemption and change are needed and cannot be accomplished without outside forces.
4) Still, Wolfe is not for every Christian and is certainly not necessary for anyone. I would not recommend any of Wolfe’s writing to children, his work is most definitely for adults. If Christians are not used to reading literature, this likely isn’t the place to start. Paul does encourage Christians to spend their time on things that are commendable and pure, which doesn’t apply to much of the action in these books. However, they can be enjoyable and even profitable for mature Christians with a solid foundation in the Bible and a good grasp and appreciation for quality fiction. Good fiction, and this certainly applies to Wolfe, ironically has the ability to show you, and make you feel and understand, TRUTH even more than non-fiction does. If my son was about to enter college, I could see myself reading and discussing I Am Charlotte Simmons with him. In fact, it could be extremely helpful and eye-opening for the parents of a college aged student.
Tom Wolfe, as far as I know, is not a Christian, and his books are certainly not written from a Christian perspective. However, there is a great deal of goodness, beauty and truth contained in his writing that a Christian could enjoy with discernment.