Wed 16 Feb 2011
I had originally intended to post today the next article in my recent series on Christianity and literature. Today’s was supposed to be about the good of beauty in literature (as opposed to the good of experiential wisdom which I discussed in the previous post). But a friend of mine leveled some criticism at my previous article, and so I think it a good idea to deal with it now. There, I suggested that one of the principle purposes of literature is that it provides us the opportunity to “enter into” the thoughts and experiences of authors and their characters (which I shall collectively call “the Experience” henceforth). My friend Karl countered: “Vicarious literary experience for its own sake seems to me rather dangerous; even experience is accountable to the lordship of Christ and the church, which is his body.” (To see the comment in length, visit the post here and scroll to the third comment ).
Let me be clear that I similarly believe “vicarious literary experience for its own sake” to be dangerous. I certainly never intended to suggest that this is what Christians should enter into literature hoping to gain – though I must admit that, rereading my own post on Bunyan, I can certainly see how one could draw that conclusion from my words. I fear that, focused as I was with demonstrating how literature acts on the reader (ie, by drawing them into the Experience), I failed to indicate what I believed to be the proper response of the reader to that Experience.
I hint at that proper response in the first article of this Christianity and Literature series. There, when I suggest that we ought to read literature because God can work good through the vocation of human writers, I include the caveat that we must not “do so indiscriminately,” quoting St. Paul’s advice that we “test everything; hold fast what is good.” It is clear to me now that I should have expanded upon this in the article on Experience. What literature does is draw the reader into the Experience; what the reader must do in the midst of that Experience is Judge it to see whether it be good.
The Experience, as I attempted to demonstrate in my previous post, refers to a text’s “capacity to reveal truth.” In other words, the purpose of the Experience in texts is the bestowal of wisdom – or rather, the reader has the opportunity to access wisdom and knowledge s/he might otherwise not encounter by means of the Experience. But if we say that Experience is an attempt to reveal truth, we must further acknowledge that those truth claims may fail to correspond to reality.
Sometimes literary Experience is crafted in such a way as to be deliberately false. An obvious example occurs in the character of the “unreliable narrator,” to borrow Wayne C. Booth’s words. Consider Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Throughout the tale, Gulliver informs of us his opinions on his adventures. But we as his audience need not (and indeed, should not) agree with all of his conclusions. While not always wholly in error, he certainly diverges from Swift’s own explicit opinions on a number of things. Swift no more wishes us to despise humanity, as Gulliver does at the end of the tale, than than he wants us to eat babies (as Swift’s narrator in “A Modest Proposal” suggests). These characters and narrators are unreliable, and we are not expected to trust them. Indeed, Swift presents us with false Experiences in these instances precisely so that we might disagree with them – and so gain wisdom through the Experience by rejecting the Experience.
While we are occasionally expected to reject an Experience at the author’s own (unstated) request, we must also sometimes reject Experiences against the author’s (unstated) wishes. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials take the reader on a quest to overthrow God. And while Pullman earnestly desires that the reader take the Experience to heart and use it to shape his or her own life, Christians must of course reject such “wisdom”. It is error, and must be recognized as such. And yet, we must admit that even in calling it error, we learn to articulate more clearly what we believe. While we as Christians are not limited to negative theology, we can nevertheless use it when the occasion serves: by saying what truth is not, we can come to understand more clearly what truth is. By rejecting one Experience, we may learn more truly what Life should be.
So then, when Christians enter literary Experience, they must not do so as blind men willing to be led by the blind. They must hold up every word, every thought, every action to critical scrutiny to see whether it be true or not. But regardless of whether they find the Experience in question to be true or or false, there remains the opportunity to gain wisdom through it – be it through accepting the Experience as edifying or rejecting it as destructive. Or, as is more likely the case, recognizing elements of both in the text. Indeed, we would all do well to remember my friend Karl’s word on the subject:
“I personally do not have the luxury of approaching literature from an objective, God-like stance; I read literature because I need it in the thick of things, just as I need other humans, and I will hopefully treat it no better or worse than I would treat others (for it is the voice of others) – with the knowledge that it contains the potential to reveal the image of God, but also the knowledge that sin has corrupted it and that it is not above deserving blunt words of reproach at times.”
[This is the third 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.]