What do books have to do with faith?
(Part II of II)
Editor’s Note: In part one, we looked at what literature is and the magnificent power of poetry. Today, we will examine drama and fiction, and talk about the positive effect that the fine arts can have on our spiritual development. Here is the question we are looking at:
Dear Father John, I notice there is a book club on this site. We don’t need stuff like that to have a relationship with God. What do books, or literature–other than the Bible, the Good Book–have to do with faith anyway? Please help. I am trying to understand.
The Motivating Dynamism of Drama
In drama, the emphasis is on virtue: the power of the human spirit to seek and seize what is good. Good dramas—whether on stage or screen—show protagonists exercising their freedom, sometimes heroically, to avoid and conquer evil in pursuit of authentic happiness. Conflict, whether internal or external, is the core of drama. When sin and evil defeat the hero, we have a tragedy. When the hero overcomes sin and evil, we have a triumph. Both tragedies and triumphs have their place in our journeys.
Literary genius appears in drama through the author’s capacity to include just the right amount and quality of events, conversations, and decisions, such that the audience feels deeply both the attraction of goodness and the threatening or seductive tug of evil. As the drama unfolds, the audience experiences vicariously the struggle of the protagonist. The better the drama, the deeper the identification between the audience and the protagonist, and it is according to the depth of that identification that the tragedy or the triumph will inspire audience members to repent of their own sins and to renew their hope-filled pursuit of what is true, good, and beautiful. Drama, then, can refresh, encourage, reinforce, or rekindle our good desires—an invaluable contribution indeed to our spiritual lives.
The Interior Landscape of Fiction
The unique characteristic of fiction is the interior monologue. The great novels are almost poetic in their descriptions of the world and of human experience. They also involve the dramatic struggle between good and evil. But their specific contribution is opening a window into the human psyche. Tolstoy can spend a dozen pages describing a single moment of psychological experience: the mixed motives, the subconscious influences, the conflicting feelings, the waning or waxing hopes, and the nudging of conscience that are present in a person’s interior at any given moment in life’s journey. Through an author’s description of what is happening inside the human person, readers get to know the characters much more profoundly than in a drama. And when the characters are developed truly, in consonance with our authentic identity as fallen and redeemed spiritual persons, this knowledge enriches us in two important ways:
- First, it helps us reflect on and get to know ourselves better. The great literary authors are like expert psychologists: Their works are a mirror in which we are enabled to see parts of our own interiors that we normally cannot fathom.
- Second, it helps us understand other people and their experiences. We walk in their shoes for a while, and this vicarious experience can, if we let it, empower our efforts to be merciful, forgiving, understanding, compassionate, and supportive toward our neighbors.
Just a Means—Not the Goal
The other fine arts, like music, painting, and sculpture, can have a similar positive effect on our spiritual development, if we have the time and opportunity to learn their language. Of course, the realm of the arts poses spiritual dangers, too: False values can be paraded in attractive disguises; connoisseurship can devolve into snobbery; and entertainment can over-rule edification. But all in all, an intelligent and prudent engagement with humanity’s artistic achievements will be a boost for thinking about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” (Philippians 4:8, RSV).
Editor’s Note: This is another excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s new book “Seeking First the Kingdom” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read on line.
Art: Old book bindings at the Merton College Library, Oxford, England, Tom Murphy VII, 25 August 2005; Modified Comedy and Tragedy Mask Icon, Booyabazooka, 5 July 2006; both CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.