Faith and Fiction

The relationship between fiction and faith has had its difficult moments. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was abolished by the Catholic Church only fifty years ago, and there were even recent stories of pastors burning Harry Potter books when the series started skyrocketing in popularity. Clearly the people instituting banned books lists and instigating book burnings believe in the capacity for fiction to corrupt. Curiously, in denouncing fiction’s potentially degrading influence, they are also acknowledging its power. Power, often, is made good or evil based on how it is used, and I wondered in which ways the powers of fiction could be used for good, or for building up a faith rather than tearing it down. To clarify my own thoughts, I decided to talk to others, and I enlisted the aid of several students (undergraduate and graduate) to help me explore this relationship between faith-building and literature.

Though much of the criticism of literature is that it can introduce heterodox and heretical ideas to the reader, Finola Prendergast, a senior English major, suggests that reading these “heretical” texts may actually prove beneficial for faith. “When we read a work of literature, we enter into the moral universe the author is proposing with the work, and we accept or deny it. In what we accept and what we deny, we learn more about what we believe to be right.” By reading, we come into contact with a system of morality created by the author, and through the course of journeying through the work of fiction, we learn of its implications and consequences. At the end of the work, we can come closer to our own beliefs and convictions by examining our reaction to the work of fiction.

Specifically, rejecting the work’s moral universe (whether for intellectual or even emotional reasons) would indicate that something about the work was troublesome, problematic, or even nauseating. Pinpointing exactly what was so distasteful can help clarify one’s own faith. Though we may be tempted then to read only works with familiar moral universes to avoid the tension or disgust that may come from encountering a work with an antithetical one, Finola cautioned against this. Though reading authors like Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot were beneficial to her faith, she mentions that reading authors who were not explicitly Christian or even very much anti-Christian helped develop her own thought.

But there is a danger in approaching the work of literature solely as a means to faith building, and Finola implies this. We should enter the moral universe of the author and accept or deny it at the end, rather than entering it with a preconceived notion in the beginning. Megan Eckerle and Tony Domestico, both fifth year graduate students in Yale’s English Department, stressed this point more explicitly. Megan believed that “literature should be a good in and of itself” and that “just because a text is not explicitly in line with what the Catholic Church teaches does not mean there is nothing worthwhile or true or beautiful in it.” Tony agreed: “Literature does not exist for the sake of anything besides literature, though it asks the same types of questions and provokes the same feelings of wonder and estrangement that religion exists to explore.”

It is through approaching literature with an open mind that we can truly experience wonder, and it is this very wonder that makes literature immensely helpful to faith-building. Both Tony and Megan commented on literature’s ability to astonish. Channeling the ideas of Iris Murdoch, Megan mentioned that literature, through its beauty, has the power to decenter oneself¬—the same decentering that is the beginning of love. The work of art becomes what is important, and the self becomes the other. Tony compared this state of wonder at the work of art to the state that is the start of faith. In provoking the same states of love and wonder crucial to faith, literature perhaps can help bring people to faith or help them remember what about it is so remarkable.

Some would go so far to say that reading does not only spark or encourage faith, but is an extension of the act of faith itself. Lucas Kwong, a former Yale English major and a fourth year graduate student in Columbia’s English Department, asserts “the very act of reading, particularly reading fiction, is an act of faith.” By opening a book, one is “giving someone else the benefit of the doubt” and entering into a created world. Lucas warned against reading with suspicion and search for an ideological subtext. Instead, he advocated a hermeneutics of love, which exhorts us to assume an open-mindedness to the lessons a text can teach and a loving demeanor towards the author and other potential readers when critiquing it.

The joy of reading comes from encountering people (whether author or characters) that one would never have met and learning from them. It is through observing the lives of the characters, or ideas put into practice, that literature can provide insight into our own lives and our own faiths. By playing out the lived experience of Christian belief (as well as non-Christian belief), literature highlights the “tensions, ambiguities, and ambivalences” that do come from walking the Christian walk. Pondering these “lived experiences of transcendence” gives us more to work with, and more to learn from in addition to our own lives and the lives of those around us. But to glean all this from literature, we must be charitable. We must approach it with an open mind, putting faith in the work’s ability to teach us something. We must read with a hermeneutics of love.

Though it may at first seem preposterous that all works of literature can carry Truth, it makes sense. Books, as created works of God’s created, are still works of the Lord. And if they carry the image of man, they presumably also carry some traces of God’s image. Sometimes, this Truth may only be revealed through a rejection of the premises of the work’s moral universe or through a heartbreaking encounter with a literary character (my own experience with Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov). It could be through putting the work down and reveling in wonder or shuddering from sublime terror.

It seems, though, we learn best from literature when we approach it without an agenda or ulterior motive. All four people I interviewed stressed approaching literature with an open mind and a willingness to learn from the work or the author or the characters. Whether this means gauging moral universes, becoming awestruck by beauty, or living through the beliefs with individual characters, literature ironically only seems to be able to build up faith when it is appreciated as literature itself, not an explicit means for faith­building.

Stephen is a senior philosophy and English double major in Berkeley.

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