Mon 7 Feb 2011
In my previous post, I attempted to articulate why Christians can and, indeed, should study literature. Fundamental to my argument was the idea that, whenever something good is accomplished on earth, God has been at work in and through the human agents involved in bringing about that good. Just as we thank God for providing food for us through the vocation of farmers or healing through doctors, so too, I said, we ought to thank God for the good to be found in secular literature.
But what I did not discuss in my previous article was what exactly I thought was good about secular literature. It is an easy thing to see how other vocations bring good into the world: as I said earlier, farmers provide food and doctors heal. But what exactly do authors (especially authors of fiction) do that is comparable? What is the good purpose that God works through them?
One might be tempted to say that literature is self-evidently good: that “to read the classics is better than not to read the classics,” as Italo Cavillo puts it in his essay “Why read the classics?”. But while the goodness of literature might seem obvious to some, like Cavillo and myself, the same cannot be said for many Christians throughout the history of the Church.
A case in point is Augustine, whose objections to literature and philosophy I explored briefly in my previous post. For him, secular culture represents one direction of the compass and Christianity its complete opposite. We see the same kind of binary thinking about Christ and culture two centuries earlier in Tertullian’s writings as well. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he scoffs. And again, “What has the Academy to do with the Church?” For Tertullian, the answer was as clear as it was final: nothing at all. That mindset has been inherited by many Christians today: you can have the truth of Christianity or you can have secular culture, but never the twain shall meet.
That assessment would have satisfied many early English Puritans as well. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that John Bunyan includes a defense of fiction at the beginning of his allegorical classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. After all, using fiction (a literary device drawn from secular culture, critics would allege) could obscure Christian doctrine. Fiction was for unimportant, worldly things, the sort of things, in short, which Christians should not waste their time on; what could it have to do with truth, especially the truths of the Christian faith?
Bunyan was facing this sort of criticism before his book ever went to press. Indeed, he tells us directly that some had advised him not to print the book at all. But Bunyan saw such criticisms of fiction as unfounded, and so he takes pains to explain the good that can be brought about through literature. Addressing the reader, he asks,
May I not write in such a stile as this?
In such a method too, and yet not miss
Mine end, thy good? why may it not be done?
Dark Cloud’s bring waters, when the bright bring none.
Just as dark clouds bring much needed rain to the earth, so too Bunyan argues that “some men, by feigning words as dark as mine, / Make truth to spangle, and its rays to shine.” Fiction, he asserts here, can be used to reveal fact. In fact, this is what Bunyan himself is trying to accomplish in his book: “My dark and cloudy words they do but hold,” he writes, “The Truth, as Cabinets inclose the gold.” For Bunyan, fiction has an innate capacity to serve as a vehicle to carry truth.
Of course, Bunyan is here speaking of a specific type of writing which lends itself particularly well to didacticism (namely, allegory), and he is speaking in particular of his own story, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Likewise, when he speaks of truth being made to “spangle” in other literary works, he is undoubtedly referring to Christian texts alone; Bunyan would be less than pleased, no doubt, should he be construed as suggesting that Christians make their search for truth in such books as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Ovid’s Metamophoses.
That all said, we can nevertheless extrapolate Bunyan’s thoughts on Christian allegory to the world of fiction as a whole. One principle good that literature accomplishes is the revelation of truth – not always overtly, perhaps, and infrequently in as didactic a manner as Bunyan would like. But literature, even secular literature, has the capacity to reveal truth. Or rather, we might say that good literature invites the reader to ask of themselves Pilate’s famous question: what is truth?
Allow me to illustrate what I mean when I say literature asks us to consider truth. When we read distopian fiction, we are led to ask whether our society is evolving, as we would no doubt like to think, or whether instead our culture, left to itself, is moving in a far more worrisome direction. Likewise, the presence of extraterrestrial beings in science fiction forces us to consider the question of what it means to be human. And tragedies are forever asking us to consider the problem of evil and the vanity of this world.
Of course, these questions are not asked of the reader in such explicit terms. Instead, literature offers us another way to address these ideas: the opportunity to live, in some small way, the lives of other people. Indeed, at its core, all literature offers what Bunyan attempts to offer his readers in The Pilgrim’s Progress: the opportunity to temporarily be someone else in order to know the self better.
Would’st thou be in a Dream, and yet not sleep?
Wouldest thou in a moment laugh and weep?
Wouldest thou lose thyself, and catch no harm,
And find thyself again without a charm?
Put simply, literature offers readers the opportunity to enter a state of wakeful dreaming, to indeed live another life. And when we live those other lives, when we share the thoughts, emotions, and actions of authors, characters, and narrators, we return to our own lives wiser for the experience. We lose ourselves, in Bunyan’s words, only to find ourselves again.
That opportunity for experientially gained wisdom is, indeed, one of the fundamental goods that God works through literature. And were it the only good (which it is not), it would nevertheless be justification enough for Christians to take literature seriously. When we read, we become another person in order to grow through that other person’s experiences. So let us then, whenever we approach a poem or novel or any other literary work, heed Bunyan’s advice to the reader: “O then come hither / And lay my Book, thy Head, and Heart together.” For as we become part of the text, laying our head and heart together with the book, we briefly become something we are not; and we do so in order that, when we lay the book down, we would be be more than we were ere we began to read.
[This is the second article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]