To children, the world is charged with magic. One thing means another: Rain looks like tears, so rain means God is sad, and thunder is the angels knocking down bowling pins. It is simple for a child to believe that a very pretty lady must be very good, darkness means monsters, and something bad happened because of a bad word uttered in secret. Growing up means ditching this metaphorical imagination, facing the reality of cause and effect—it rains because of boring scientific facts, there are no monsters in the darkness, and swearing can’t kill your dog. An adult who believes in magic, who pairs physical reality with something else, we call superstitious, or whimsical, or crazy.
That scraping away of the mystical, while useful to modern science, can prove disastrous for literature, given that metaphor is the stuff of art. Makers of metaphor imagine two unlike things as somehow linked, and compare them in order to provoke a shock of recognition in the audience. They help us see familiar realities in fresh ways. But if rain is “only” a certain kind of precipitation, nothing more, then we end up short-circuiting imagination’s work; we may even lose a God who cries.
This has been rough on religious literature—particularly for Protestants. Many evangelicals (especially non-charismatic, Bible-studying, rarely-hand-raising evangelicals like me) have worked hard to strip religious practice of anything smacking of superstition. In this environment, when art explores faith, it tends to be either relentlessly didactic (here is a story that will show you how to live) or built on clear, obvious analogies.
Catholics, in their persistent veneration of the mystical (culminating in the belief in Christ’s ...1
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