This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
The Quran calls Christians and Jews “People of the Book” because of the centrality of written scriptures for their lives. But reading other texts, particularly literary works such as fiction and poetry, can also challenge and deepen Christian faith. Reading can be a spiritual practice, making us more attentive to the movement of God in our life and in the world. It can help us to grow in love for God and for our neighbors. Like scripture study, the attentive prayer of lectio divina, devotional meditation, and theological analysis, reading works of literature can contribute to a flourishing Christian life. Like other spiritual practices, reading involves a common human activity that is directed toward a certain telos and so is shaped in a particular way. For example, people fast for many different reasons: to lose weight, to prepare for a medical exam, because they are too busy to eat, or because they are anorexic, but the religious practice of fasting is directed toward a spiritual end.
Similarly, people read for many different reasons. There is no necessary or absolute connection between reading and spirituality. Nonetheless, reading poetry and fiction can be a fruitful way to grow in Christian faith, hope, and love. Over the centuries, the Christian community has played important roles in creating and preserving books, encouraging the spread of literacy, and developing new literary genres. Literature and faith have frequently intertwined. Qualities important to both—imagination, an intuition of transcendence, the human drive to make contact with others, a sense of abstract moral values, and the unique knowledge conveyed through metaphorical thinking—are all associated with the right hemisphere of the brain.
While it may be tempting to locate the spiritual effects of reading a short story or novel in the moral position that the work implies or even overtly proclaims, the actual process is far more complex. Nathaniel Hawthorne was fond of attaching simple messages to his work. “Be True!” is the stated moral of The Scarlet Letter, but most readers agree that the issues at stake in this complex account of love, faith, evil, confession, community, and self-sacrifice are far more profound.
Why not construct a short, straightforward sermon with such a message rather than a murky, metaphoric, and meticulously crafted novel? Some believe that such literary flourishes merely help the medicine go down. They argue that it would be more efficient to convey moral messages in didactic, straightforward prose, which, after all, would be far less likely to be misunderstood than the ambiguities often present in literary art. This was Plato’s position. He thought poets should be banned from the ideal republic in favor of philosophers, who conveyed truth through argument and logic rather than through flights of fancy, which, according to Plato, were essentially lies.
However, for many years scholars in the humanities have insisted that the imaginative qualities of literature and literary structures—such as gaps, narrative, and metaphor—are capable of shaping the character of the reader in unique ways. Recent scholarship in cognitive psychology and neuro-science confirms such claims: reading literary fiction (as opposed to serious nonfiction and popular fiction) helps people perform better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence. Fiction helps create and inform a person’s capacity to attribute mental states to others and to explain people’s behaviors in terms of their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires. It changes how we view other cultural or ethnic groups more effectively than nonfiction.
Reading literature helps us understand, empathize, and care for our neighbors by affirming both the specific and the universal. In literature we encounter particular complex characters who come alive in the pages of a story. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, Hester and Dimmesdale are both ineluctably themselves—17th-century American Puritans with distinctive personal histories and experiences—and people with whom we share common human struggles, desires, and failings. We are both separated from and connected to them as we read.
Literature forms us because of its ability to help us read others and so wrestle with human dilemmas and challenges that move beyond simple black and white thinking. Reading is capacious; it has multiple potentials. Reading doesn’t merely offer an escape from the world but is a path for Christians to engage with the world in multiple ways as faithful imagers of God. We read literature to encounter and grow in our relationship with God. We read literature to give words and shape to our deepest emotions. We read for comfort and consolation, but we also read to hear the cries of the suffering, to mourn with them, and to take action against oppression and injustice.
When I read Emily Dickinson’s poems, comparing my own experiences to her Jacob-like wrestling with faith and doubt, pondering her exploration of God’s undeniable presence in the beauty of the world and God’s apparent absence in times of extremity, reading helps me to grow in faith. In one of her poems, Dickinson describes the process of mending a tattered faith with an invisible needle; her poetry often serves as that needle for me. The very fact that her poems are so difficult and must be studied slowly and carefully encourages the act of pondering and asking questions.
When I read a murder mystery by Louise Penny, set in the idyllic village of Three Pines, Quebec, I grow in hope. Tall lumbering Chief Inspector Gamache is so wise, kind, and patient in his dealings with human frailties, so willing to give people the opportunity to be their best selves, yet so committed to ferreting out the truth and insisting on justice, that he gives me hope for humanity, as well as personal inspiration. The classic structure of the detective novel, with its eccentric characters, red herrings, rational deductions, evidence gathering, and satisfying final resolution, also gives me hope in its echo of the final reign of peace, justice, and well-being on earth.
These are a few of the many ways to read that often overlap and merge. As we mature in life experience and faith, we can always continue to add new ways of reading to our repertoire of reading as a spiritual practice.