An article on the reading of literature by Christians A (that is, the reading by Christians of literature) is odd in that there are certainly no reasons for reading literature peculiar to a Christian’s case. Furthermore, the thing that Christians see to be supremely important about life does not attach itself to culture.
If there are reasons why any human being ought to trouble himself with literature (and by literature I mean humane letters—serious poetry, drama, fiction, essay—and not philosophy, panegyric, tracts, journalism, and rubbish), they apply neither more nor less to a Christian than to anyone else. A Christian is, first of all, a human being. This sounds like heterodoxy at first, perhaps, in that we incline to feel that the call of God to us is away from human existence to a spiritual realm where we will be free of these old evil selves. But that is exactly the point: redemption is the redemption of human nature. It is not God’s will to make us seraphim, or rainbows, or titans. It is men he seeks. Human beings. Beings who will exhibit what he had in mind to begin with—this particular kind of creature, neither angelic nor animal, this excellent thing whose glory would be to choose to love him, and to serve him under the special mode of flesh and blood. Indeed, his supreme unveiling of himself was under that mode. And there is to be no shuffling off of these dragging bodies in the end. The biblical description of the Last Things is of a resurrection—a reunion of flesh and spirit (form and content) from that grotesquery we call death, that obscene disjuncture of flesh and spirit that spoils God’s creature man, and into whose bailiwick the Son of Man ventured, and whose spoliation he spoiled. So that a Christian is wrong to suppose that grace calls him away from human existence. It is precisely to authentic human existence (the kind announced and embodied in Jesus Christ) that he is called, so that he may embody for men and angels the special glory of his species. He is called away from evil, not human existence. It is evil—disobedience, pride, greed, gluttony, perfidy, cynicism, cowardice, niggardliness, and so on—that wrecks human nature, and God calls men to return to the glory first seen in one Adam, then lost, then restored by another Adam.
A Christian, then, is a human being, subject to all the laws (physical, political, moral, psychological) of that species, so that what is good for any man (vitamins, protection, fidelity, calmness) is good for him. The reading of serious literature is good for a man; hence it is good for a Christian.
This raises the other point mentioned in the opening paragraph—that the thing Christians see to be supremely important about life does not attach itself to culture (I mean culture in the humanistic, not the anthropological, sense—a man’s intellectual cultivation, not his tribe). That is, a Christian sees the great and only issue in human life, to be man’s movement toward the perfection of love—what St. Paul called being sanctified, or transformed into the image of Christ. This is the only thing that really matters finally, so that a Christian sees every single thing in life—success, pain, fame, loss, education—as secondary to that. Why, then, it will be asked, are you talking as though literature were something important for a Christian? We’ve got our hands full with this business of sanctification and serving the Lord. We’ve no time for cultchah. We’re people of one Book, and it’s a book that contains all we need to know about life. Don’t siphon us off to primrose byways of poetry and novels. Nobody ever needed that sort of thing to make him holy. You’re not suggesting, are you, that an educated man has a better chance to be holy than an uneducated man? Whom did Jesus call? The philosophers? You have a rather sticky wicket to defend.
It is sticky indeed. These objections are convincing, and there is truth in them—namely, that it is, in the end, irrelevant whether a man is a scholar or a sailor. The City of God will be populated by men who, whatever else they happened to be doing on earth, learned the way of caritas. The credentials asked at the gate will not be books written, kingdoms conquered, or research accomplished. They will be obedience, purity, humility, faith, love. The shepherd, the duke, the housemaid, the tycoon, and the professor will stand, unshod, side by side, clad either in soiled rags or in the one garment of righteousness.
Why then, an article in CHRISTIANITY TODAY crying up the merits of literature? Haven’t you just destroyed your own case? Isn’t it, in fact, irrelevant and maybe even dangerous?
No connection, it seems to me, can be established between culture and holiness. The following comments do not tend toward that idea. Certain rewards come to the man who will read serious literature. If those rewards commend themselves to the Christian’s imagination, good. They are certainly no less applicable to him than to any other man, and they may, like any other equipment (muscle, money, brains), be brought to the service of either altar, God’s or Satan’s.
In the first place we need to be clear about the nature of literature. Literature addresses the imagination, which is the faculty in us that enables us to organize the random tumble of experience into some sort of form and hence to manage it and savor it. Imagination is the source of all ritual. We shake hands, or set the table for breakfast, or lower our voices in a museum, or stand up for a woman: these are ritual formalizings of experience. Imagination is the image-making capacity in us, so that we speak of feeling like a wrung-out dishrag, or of a man’s brow as looking like a thundercloud, or of the Kingdom of Heaven as being like a man planting seeds. And imagination is what makes art possible, because art is the transfiguration of the abstracts of experience (perception, emotion, ideas, and so on) into special forms (marble, melody, words), the idea being, not only that it is legitimate to handle human experience in this way, but, oddly, that in this way something emerges about human experience that is hidden from all the discursive analysis in the world.
There is a sense in which the imagination works in an opposite direction from the analytic faculty in us: it tends always toward concretion (the image), while analysis tends toward abstraction (the dismantling of the thing in question—blood, granite, neurosis). A Christian, of course, would see this tendency as enormously appropriate in a universe whose tendency is also toward concretion. The original creative energy, the Word, uttered itself in rock and soil and water, not in equations. And again, the ultimate utterance of that Word was in the shape of a man. Even the book given by that Word was not mainly expository and analytic but narrative and poetic and parabolic. Indeed, one suspects that the whole post-Baconian methodology (the sort of thing that leads us to think we are saying something more true about the solar system when we speak of gravity and centrifugal force than when we speak of Atlas holding the earth on his shoulders) may be leading us, ironically, away from the way things are. For its tendency is toward depersonalization and abstraction, whereas the Christian understands the original creative energy as moving always toward personhood and concretion.
In any case, literature addresses this imagination in us. It hails us with vivid cases in point of otherwise blurred and cluttered experience. Homer’s heroic handling of jealousy, rage, bravery, cynicism, love, and endurance in the figures of Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Paris, Ulysses; Dante’s cosmic geography of hell, purgatory, and paradise—what modern categories would reduce to abstractions like alienation, discipline, bliss; Shakespeare’s probing of overweening pride in Macbeth, or of jealousy in Othello; Milton’s shaping of the human experience of evil and loss into the Paradise Lost. These are familiar to us. We read them in school. And perhaps we remember a stirring in us, or a brief glimpse of something that arrested us, or even a tidal wave of new awareness of what was at stake in human existence.
The world is full of such works of the imagination, all of them trying to see and utter and shape the human experience. There is Boethius’s lovely De Consolatione, in which philosophy as a lady visits the discouraged man in his prison (Boethius was, in fact, thrown into prison). There are the dark and simple and noble Anglo-Saxon poems, from the huge Beowulf to the winsome Dream of the Rood (spoken by the Cross about its own experience of Christ’s crucifixion), to the sad Deor’s Lament (about the passing of everything dear), to the fragmentary Battle of Maldon. The Middle Ages are full of magnificent dreams and allegories, giving us powerful images of beauty and sin: The Pearl, about a man who lost his little girl and found her in paradise; The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman, one of the most overpowering allegorical descriptions of society, evil, virtue, and nearly everything else, written in the fourteenth century about that century but true in every point about our own. The sixteenth century produced the greatest drama our language knows (Shakespeare and his contemporaries), as well as unsurpassed lyric beauty in the work of Spenser, Sidney, and again Shakespeare. For someone who is looking for specifically Christian experience in his literature, the seventeenth century is the pot of gold. Virtually every major poet was Christian, and made it his entire poetic business to shape his religious experience into verse: Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan, and of course Milton. There were some naughty “cavalier poets” whose amorous verse is really very good, too.
The list could go on, of course, but it would be just that—a list—and would do little good. The point is that our language is full of works of the imagination, each of them uttering something of the human experience of life, each of them throwing some light onto experience, each giving some shape to it all. And for the man who will give himself to the austere luxury of reading it, there is that high guerdon of art, the heightening of consciousness.
By participating in the noble fictions of the human imagination, we enlarge our capacity to apprehend experience. There comes a sense both of the oneness of human experience and of its individuality. The figures of myth and fiction—Ulysses, Beowulf, Roland, Don Quixote—are not cards in a computer, but their experience is a paradigm of all human experience. As a man becomes familiar with the follies, sins, and troubles of the great characters in fiction and drama—Tom Jones, Henry V, Jane Austen’s Emma, George Eliot’s Dorothea, Hardy’s Tess, James’s Isabel, Tolstoy’s Anna—he realizes that here are profound probings by noble minds of the ambiguities of human experience, and his own appreciation of these ambiguities is sharpened.
Along with this heightened consciousness of human experience there comes an awareness of what was at stake in redemption. Minds that have been schooled in humane letters have been those that have often spoken eloquently to us of God: St. Paul, Sir Thomas More, Erasmus, Melanchthon, Pascal, Newman, Mauriac, T. S. Eliot, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis. There is in them none of the stridence or flatulence that often marks the biblical exposition of men who have brought only their own myopia to the Word of God. (The point here is not that the Holy Ghost does not at his pleasure pick out someone whom scholars would call an ignoramus and through his mouth bring to nothing the wisdom of men. He does. But his freedom to do this has led altogether too many ignoramuses to assume that divine mantle and bleat their foolishness abroad in the name of the Lord; it will not do.)
The reading of serious literature, then, may increase our sense of participating in the human thing. It may enrich our sympathies, sharpen our focus, broaden our awareness, mellow our minds, and ennoble our vision. And it may energize that faculty in us by which we apprehend the world as image (which it is), the imagination.
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