Faith & Literature

We concluded our series on faith and art by considering the intersection between literature and mission. Here are a few ideas to reflect upon:

We considered the idea that, in reading good literature, we train ourselves to connect more deeply with one another.

Author George Saunders says that “the best stories are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us.”

The claim that literature makes us more present to one another may seem strange. After all, reading is usually a solitary exercise. However, its end is not indefinite solitude. I love the way Christian Wiman says it in his book of essays entitled My Bright Abyss:

“Solitude is an integral part of any vital spiritual life, but spiritual experience that is solely solitary inevitably leads to despair. This is how you ascertain the truth of spiritual experience: it propels you back toward the world and toward other people, and not simply deeper within yourself.”

During our gathering, we sang the song “It Is Well with My Soul.” I was struck that the line, “My sin, not in part, but the whole, / Is nailed to the cross”  occurs in the present tense and not the past tense. The line reminded me of the rule I have learned to abide by when speaking and writing about literature:

Because literary works are assumed to exist an eternal present, always use present tense when writing about writers as they express themselves in their work.

So, for example, saying “Huck and Jim built a raft and traveled down the river,” is not the best way to say things in the world of the literary work, which goes on existing. Instead, whenever you crack open Twain, there are Huck and Jim, floating down the Mississippi and reminding each other that “there warn’t no home like a raft, after all.”

The result plays of this rule also plays out on Easter Sunday, when the community gathers to proclaim, in the present perfect tense, “Christ is risen” as opposed to “Christ rose.” Both of these statements are true. Indeed, Christians accept that the historical Jesus rose from the dead. But the present perfect tense describes an action that started in the past and continues in the present. Resurrection, then, not only happened, but also happens!

Literature is participatory. If you’ve ever been engrossed in a worthwhile story, you know just how true this can be. Something similar—and somehow more real—occurs in our reading of and thinking about the Bible. N.T. Wright puts it this way:

“Biblical theology is narrative theology. And one of the things about narrative theology is that when you learn to read the Bible, it’s like watching a great play and you begin by thinking that you’re sitting there in the audience just watching this play. And then toward the end of the drama, suddenly, the actors start coming out into the audience and saying, ‘Um, actually you’ve got a part here. Will you come and join in here?’ And the audience find themselves, to their terror, to be a part of the same narrative. That’s how the gospel works.”

Literature and mission overlap when we, as the Christian community, see ourselves not as passive observers, but as participants in the story.

If the Christian community is functioning properly, we are operating on the margins where the good art is, helping to create space for and to name the longing that exists in every human heart, crowded, as ours so often are, with shrines to unknown gods.

Church and art meet there, on the outskirts, where the act of naming occurs. Literature functions best when it gropes around, sometimes in the dark, for truth, and finds it in unexpected places. In the same way, we engage with literature most effectively when we allow it to draw us out of ourselves rather than toward increasing isolation. We engage with literature most effectively when we become open to finding Christ where we wouldn’t have thought to look.