Why read literature? This question generally receives two responses, though both are forms of bewilderment. The first is from those who have been reading avidly their whole lives, and for whom this question asks something so intuitive, so fundamental to who they are, that they have no idea how to answer it. They simply say, “Because I like to!” The second blank stare comes from those who have never done much reading, or nothing that was not required of them, and for whom this question has never been satisfactorily answered. The second group, however, has been asking this question their whole lives; the first group may not have ever stopped to ask it.
Andy Crouch, in his work Culture Making, defines “culture” broadly as what we make of the world. That is what literature is, roughly: the attempt of someone to make some sense out of the raw data of human experience and to show, through the most ancient art of storytelling, how we interact with that world as persons in community: emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually. Usually the intention to come to general understandings of human life is mostly in back of the author’s mind; often insight for an author comes in the middle of writing, perhaps when it becomes clear that a character cannot go down a certain path and still remain true to life, which brings with it its own questions about reality.
I am one of those in the first group who finds it difficult to answer, not so much because I don’t know the answer, but because I am stumped by the amount of possible responses. I could talk about how literature teaches us to accept de facto the very givenness of the world. How that we are shown, implicitly, that our own settings have a great deal of power over us, as they do over a character’s life, both in terms of what our cultures may empower, but also in what the cultures may limit or make impossible. If setting were not so powerful, then authors would have no reason to spend so long carefully crafting the perfect worlds for their characters to inhabit.
Literature teaches more than the power of our environment. My former professors of Russian culture, Drs. Brett and Olga Cooke, used to say that we read literature in order to understand ourselves. I really think that is one of the most appropriate answers. Every good book is a mystery; it delves into the great mystery of ourselves, of human nature: individual and corporate, idiosyncratic and shared. Good literature knows, unlike so many of us, that we do not really understand ourselves, much less each other. We have contradictory motives and desires. We have a drive to think about our world and understand it, but we are often happier when we don’t. We are all so different, yet so incredibly the same. We ask, “Who am I? Why did I do that, when I knew that was a stupid thing to do? Why the hell am I here, anyway? Why can I never be who I want to be? Why should I care about other people? Why did he not like me?”
These are the realities literature addresses, and addresses in the most profound way possible: it gets us to live out vicariously another person’s life, and do things we have either never had the circumstances to do, or—for one reason or another, for better and for worse—never chosen to do for ourselves. And then, to live out the consequences.
I am a firm believer in the transformative power and possibility of vicarious experience, of knowing someone, even a character in a well-crafted novel, so well that I begin to understand why they do what they do, that I feel what they feel, that I can taste their experiences. I believe this is possible, not only because I have experienced this, but also because of how I understand both the life of Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.
Christians believe that God acts in our real world, right in the middle of lives; we believe that Jesus Christ, God himself, truly took on our human nature in all of its limitations. The Biblical book of Hebrews teaches that Jesus Christ shares in our “flesh and blood,” that is, in our humanity (2:14, 17), in all ways except our sin (4:15). Indeed, he is able to sympathize (in Greek, literally suffer-with-us) with our weaknesses. In becoming God-incarnate, he took on humanity totally, in all of its limitations, partly in order that we would know that God understands our pain and even suffers with us.
But God went further than this. The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 that God made Jesus Christ, who had no personal experience of sin, to be sin on our behalf. God not only took on our humanity, but literally became sin. There is no greater depth God could go for our sakes, in order to make us “the righteousness of God.” Jesus Christ, while being fully God, tasted our sin so that, by grace, we could “taste and see the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). The very idea that we can be in Christ, one of Paul’s favorite phrases, speaks to the mystery of taking on another’s experience and living another’s life. Paul even wrote to the Corinthians, “I told you before that you are in our hearts so that we die together and live together with you” (2 Cor 7:3, NET).
- Scott Horrell, in his chapter “The Trinity, the Imago Dei, and the Nature of the Local Church” from Connecting for Christ, writes that in the Bible, “we encounter a Father, Son and Holy Spirit each loving the other, giving to the other, honoring the other, glorifying the other—this without confusing the high order of the Godhead, the roles that each divine person has fulfilled from eternity past” (7). The Trinity is by nature, then, self-giving, both internally within the Trinity, and externally, outward to all creation. Horrell suggests that we as humans are created with a capacity to be indwelled by God himself (12). He explains it this way:
“The self-giving nature of each person of the Trinity suggests that Jesus’ teaching on love and self-sacrifice relates to more than our simply being good. It seems to speak to the very nature of the image of God in man…[P]art of our human constitution is that we must give of ourselves in order to fulfill the way we are designed….Thus, in understanding the self-givingness of the triune God, we discover that what Jesus Christ asks of us is what the Holy Trinity exemplifies repeatedly in its own self-revelation. Indeed, in a sense, Jesus asks nothing of us that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not practice a million times over” (14-15).
In our call to Christlikeness and “God-likeness”, which is simultaneously a call to become complete and truly human persons, resides a call to the deep experience of entering lives unlike our own, lives of which we have almost no experience other than the common one of being human, of being limited, of being in need of grace. Of course, this amounts to every life which is not our own—as we have said, literature speaks against the assumption that we automatically understand people by showing us how little we understand ourselves. The complete imperfection and imperfectability of real human lives is unmistakable in good literature; everyone is flawed, and flawed more deeply than they, as we, often realize or admit. From this grows the necessity for transformation of the world, of the individual, and of the society which enables or disables individuals. It shows a need, ultimately, for the grace found in Christ, a grace which leads us into that family life of the Trinity, the most fulfilling relationship of all. This is somewhere, by the grace of God, that literature can help lead us.
Because such vicarious experience is possible, a novel can be said to be a direct invitation to walk in another’s shoes, think another’s thoughts, and live another’s life in a way impossible outside of fiction. We can never enter someone’s mind the way we can in a good book. Crucial for reading, however, is the practice of opening up oneself as the characters are opened to us, to live in each “literary encounter” in the vulnerability which makes such vicarious experience possible. I cannot be closed and invulnerable and read a book—or observe a painting, or speak to a friend—meaningfully. No, unless I open myself up to being transformed, or at least affected by the experience, I won’t really understand it. The Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the existence in which it is acquired,” which is to say how and where you learn something is just as important, if not more important, than what you learn. Fiction provides a setting to learn, but in a way that contextualizes what is learned, helpfully mirroring the contexts of real life. It can even serve as a healthy complement (antidote?) to academic, non-contextualized learning.
Ethics in Action
Literature not only teaches us how to be open, but the experiences we have through that discipline of vulnerability lead us into situations in which we have never been, asking questions of ourselves—and of our faith—which we have never asked before. This is the crux of my argument: literature puts our beliefs—puts us—into action. Literature puts a world and persons in a jar, along with our deepest, usually unknown desires, our most terrible fears, and our greatest weaknesses and shakes them around to see what will happen. Without having to commit murder, we can see, even from inside the mind of a murderer himself, like with Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment, what it is like to commit murder—even murder we get away with.
We all have an ethical code, of course, things we think we would do or would not do given the circumstances. What we often don’t know, is why something is actually good or actually bad. We ask, sometimes explicitly and sometimes simply by the way we act, “Will that bad thing actually hurt me, or someone else? Is it really bad if it doesn’t? Will doing my work diligently for decades ever bring the amount of happiness to myself or to my family as I think it will? What would happen if I left everything I know to live another life? Could I get away with murder? Can one actually care about people, even really bad people? Does anyone feel the way I do? Am I alone?” et cetera.
To grow as Christians, we must put our theology into action, to try it’s soundness in the fires of tremendous joys and sufferings. We must see if our theological “explanations” of reality really hold water. Are our understandings of God and reality simply sentimentality meant to assuage grieving hearts, all the while protecting us from really answering the hard questions, or of really putting ourselves in situations where we must grieve with another person, even as Christ suffers with us? Do we enter people’s lives, or do we speak mystical incantations, platitudes, over them to make them feel better, all while keeping ourselves at arms-length, invulnerable to either real pain or real joy?
The Discipline of Vulnerable Reading
Let me show you how I think about theology when reading literature. Read the beginning of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping behind him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath….An hour later they were on the road…Are you okay? he said. The boy nodded. Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.” Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 3, 5.
I love McCarthy’s writing for its brutal honesty. The brutality of life is simply there, a given, and everyone simply has to do the best they can. When I read The Road, I ask myself repeatedly if my theology—if my supposed faith in God—could really last unchanged while traveling a road that dark, a road which has no end except death itself, in which one finds oneself both living and dying all at once. The characters have no names, heightening the sense of vicarious experience. I awake at the beginning of this novel, with my son beside me. Occasionally, the father holds his gun and contemplates killing his son in order to save him from his daily suffering, or what the boy would endure at the hands of the cannibal groups which wander the road in this post-apocalyptic world. McCarthy repeatedly forces me to contemplate to myself, “Is there such a thing as too much suffering, at which point life becomes truly meaningless? What would I do?” It is an all too easy thing to read the beginning of the book of Job and glance past all the death and suffering he endures. However, when you read a novel such as The Road, the same questions which Job and his compatriots ask become real to you. In reading this piece of fiction, life itself, in an ironic twist, becomes real to you.
It is important to read literature in order both to continually perfect the practice of daily vulnerability and self-opening and to cultivate an empathy and identity with real, messy people and their difficult, real life questions which will shape not only what I think about the world, about God, but how I interact with that world. The discipline of reading literature—and it is, for most of us within our overly busy schedules, a discipline—is at its very heart transformative in the same way that developing a friendship—or knowing God—is transformative, if it is to be anything at all. I can never know when I begin a book, or when I make a new friend, or when I meet with God as he meets me in my life, exactly how I will change. I must make the decision, not once, but every day, in every book as in every moment, to let myself be open to this mystery, this land of unknowing called life…and find life itself.
Perhaps fiction is not so unreal after all.
Garrett is halfway through his ThM at Dallas Theological Seminary. His is someone who is always looking for ways to invite people into an encounter with God in Jesus Christ, through the Bible, literature, art, or simply the world around them. He has been married to his wonderful wife Michelle for almost six whole months! He spends most of his time lost in thought, but he and Michelle enjoy cooking, baking, and bike rides in the sunshine in their new hometown of Dallas.
Read More from Garrett: Disparate Truths