What is a properly Christian understanding of literature?
A finicky question to ask, at first glance. The benefit of literature to the soul is obvious, surely–our sermons are replete with illustrations taken from great novels (all too often Jean Valjean and those candlesticks).
But watch out: answering the question in this way is a classic move made in the dialogues of Plato by the sophists–those itinerant polymaths in ancient Greece who sure sounded wise, but became somewhat evasive when you tried to get them to really define the important terms which they invoked so freely. When asked a fundamental question (say, “what is beauty?”, the question discussed in Plato’s Greater Hippias), rather than seek to answer principally, the sophist gestures at some apparently obvious examples (“a beautiful girl–that’s what beauty is!”), and attempts to embarrass his questioner for even asking, before moving on in a shower of laughter and applause without having actually answered the question. Providing a Christian account of literature requires more than simply pointing to Christian uses of literature.
A few stronger answers often rear their heads: “empathy” is perhaps the most in vogue at the moment. Yet the promise of fiction-induced empathy is often illusory, as Augustine well knew, who, in the Confessions, saw the perversity of weeping over the wanderings of Aeneas whilst lacking contrition over the wanderings of his own soul. To modernize: cosying into the relationships of The Office while failing to maintain your own once-close friendships in your mid-30s is perilous to your very soul. And yet this is how our entertainment saturated age goes: our stories frame reality to such an extent that they become our reality, for there is no greater framework of meaning in which to place them, in no small part because our real life bonds of fellowship have dissolved. The world becomes navigable only by shared literary references, and we come to navigate it only alongside those who get said references: every reaction is a GIF, every politician is Voldemort, the point of movies is memes and the point of memes is twaddle. If fiction’s chief benefit is empathy, we should be the most empathetic epoch in history–but open up your Twitter feed and see if that’s the case. Of course, in some ways we are. Joe Rigney has spoken convincingly of empathy as a besetting sin of our time, overriding Christian concerns for truth and other such stones in the shoe. And yet, powerful as our intemperate empathy can be, it is highly selective. Not all are deemed worthy of it.
Earlier this year, The Davenant Press published a new edition of Serious Comedy by Patrick Downey–a masterful overview of tragic and comic writing in the Western tradition. All cultures, Downey says, “live out of their stories,” and the stories out of which we live (following Aristotle) are tragedies, since they are a sufficiently serious thing on which to build a life–and therefore cannot afford to be mocked. By contrast, Plato, although a masterful writer, saw writing as basically playful–life is the serious thing, not literature. And yet, paradoxically, Plato knew we could never escape the need for myths and stories, which appear time and time again at some of the most important moments of his dialogues.
Downey posits that it is only in light of Scripture–serious enough to build a life on, yet comic enough to promise us that life in everlasting measure–that all other writing can be set in its proper place. Christians know that The Author has entered the story, and told us in his own words how it will end. We know that no human writing, then, lays hold of the whole of Reality, and so none of it demands to be taken with deadly seriousness. And yet we know that there is a Reality to be grasped, and so we may recognize a writer’s apprehension of the part even if he misses the whole. Any properly Christian account of literature must surely begin here: the attempted grasp of reality.
By accident rather than design, this Fall 2022 issue of Ad Fontes has taken a literary focus: Hannah Hubin introduces us to an overlooked influence shared by our greatest modern Christian writers; Phillip J. Donnelly considers how Reformed Christians might beneficially read Dante; Andrew Messmer illuminates how different eras of church history correspond to different literary genres. This autumn marks the centenary of T.S. Eliot’s masterwork The Waste Land, and so we have given both an essay (from Colin Chan Redemer) and a review (from myself) over to this poem, penned by one of the greatest poets–and greatest Christian poets–in history. We also have reviews of the collected plays of Archbishop Rowan Williams, and a new translation of Baudelaire, alongside a varied selection of original poetry from James Matthew Wilson, Oliver Brauning, and Tom C. Huntley.
These essays, reviews, and poetry are no concerted effort to answer my opening question. Yet each perhaps evidences what we’ve begun to tease out here: that man cannot help but reach out to grasp reality–and, more often than not, that grasping ends up becoming what we call literature.