Reading and the Spiritual Imagination

By H.S. Cross

Picture a Venn diagram of writers, classicists, and Christians. Here Faith and Literature conversations happen. One conversation that has echoed across the past 10 years asks, Where have all the Christian writers gone? It tends to focus heavily on Flannery O’Connor and hold new literature in suspicion. Our culture has lost its religion, it says, and consequently literature has gone to seed.

While there is some truth in this perspective, it is incoherent to hold to it while also trying to create literature that considers matters of faith. Giving in to the pessimism behind it belies a lack of historical perspective and, essentially, a lack of faith in the living God moving through the world yesterday, today, and always.

A second conversation is undertaken in Richard Harries’s Haunted by Christ. Harries is a former Bishop of Oxford and a British literary commentator who has written prolifically across his long career. This book considers notable writers since Dostoevsky whose work has sometimes or often touched on themes of faith.

Its title is evocative, but it reads like the script of a BBC series taking a gentle leaf through some writers Harries loves. If you would like a chatty survey, Harries will provide it, but be prepared for lots of plot summary and the kind of extemporaneous quoting you might expect from a thespian reminiscing from his dressing room.

Be prepared also to field a lot of personal opinion spun as authority. Harries’s insights are not earth-shattering, and to the extent that he’s arguing anything, he seems to be against a shallow 20th-century understanding of these writers and for an appreciation of their spiritual engagement. In his chapters on Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, he praises both poets for their “cheekiness” and “boldness” in railing against God; but his take, rather than make the poets seem edgy, instead betrays a tired view of faith, one in which tumultuous honesty toward God is somehow novel and transgressive.

Why not simply place Hopkins and Dickinson in the tradition of the psalms and discuss how they responded with before-their-time modern forms? Why is wrestling with existence and suffering necessarily a “struggle with faith”?

This conversation is familiar yet stale — because it is apologetic toward the culture, and because it assumes a position of atheism or agnosticism on the part of the educated reader. What it does not assume is a hunger, even or especially inchoate, for something deeper, realer, more surprising, and more eternal than the chaff and noise of contemporary letters.

A third conversation is what Harries’s subtitle promises but does not quite deliver: a discussion of writers and characters who frankly contend with religion. Nick Ripatrazone’s Longing for an Absent God enters this conversation. Ripatrazone’s focus is American Catholic fiction, whether its authors are sincere, ambivalent, or lapsed.

Ripatrazone steps straight into Where have the great Catholic writers gone? He answers: They are here. He wants to explore what it means to be a Catholic literary writer, what Catholic fiction is, and what it offers American letters that is unique. He argues that “Catholic storytelling, like the Catholic Mass, is a mixture of performance and symbolism — and the confidence that derives from a liturgy that finds God in all things.”

In his journey from O’Connor to Phil Klay, he explores “the meaningful literary differences between lapsed and practicing Catholic writers.” He believes that writing can be Catholic by virtue of an author’s Catholicism, a belief rooted in the acknowledgment that Catholicism is both a faith and a culture — indeed, a worldview — and once a person has been born or received into it, there’s no escaping it.

Regardless of Ripatrazone’s roping off of Catholicism as a unique literary perspective, his project offers a survey of 20th- and 21st-century novelists such as Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and others whose Catholic faith shapes their storytelling, their aesthetic, and the longings within their work. The non-Catholic reader might be forgiven for wondering why Catholics’ favorite subject seems so often to be Catholicism, but Ripatrazone draws extensively from his subjects’ fiction and expository writing to ground his argument in the thoughts of the authors; thus his project succeeds at its stated aims.

A fourth conversation seeks to reclaim classic literature for the Christian of today, particularly for the serious Christian who may believe that fiction is spiritually frivolous or a waste of time. B&H Publishing has released new editions of classic novels (Heart of Darkness, Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, The Scarlet Letter, Tess of the d’Urbervilles) edited and introduced byKaren Swallow Prior, research professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Prior writes prolifically about English literature and Christianity, and her popular podcast Jane and Jesus geeks out with guests from different backgrounds and professions discussing the characters in Pride and Prejudice, their personal and moral challenges, and what Austen’s novels can reveal about life and the pursuit of virtue.

The books in this series are beautifully designed and invite readers to tackle the classics and discover how spiritual reflection and literary enjoyment can go hand in hand. Prior’s introductions provide basic background and interpretive framing. There are some helpful footnotes, and the chapter queries are academically grounded without being abstruse. If you want to read these novels and feel as though you are auditing Prior’s literature course, these editions deliver.

Also reclaiming literature for the spiritually serious is Jessica Hooten Wilson’s The Scandal of Holiness. Wilson’s chapters comprise one side of a conversation about reading consciously as a Christian. She identifies themes and lenses pertinent to the novels, which might be overlooked on first reading, and explores how the stories can shape our imaginations and thereby make us better people, more equipped for life with God.

Her introduction outlines thinking about the spiritual function of imagination through C.S. Lewis and others, and argues that if we are not cultivating our imaginations actively with good literature, then they are being cultivated passively by a degrading, idolatrous culture. In the body of the book, Wilson covers a variety of 20th-century novels grouped into themes that represent different approaches to sanctification.

“The Communion of Saints” treats Lewis’s That Hideous Strength and the consequences of choosing communities based on untruth or on holiness. “Liberating Prophets” follows Wilson’s musings on the urge to develop a “prophetic imagination” (to speak against wrong in the world) through the novels of Julia Alvarez and Zora Neale Hurston.

Each chapter contains personal and autobiographical reflection by Wilson, a discussion of one or more novels, and Wilson’s philosophical or theological musings on a particular aspect of imagination. It would have been helpful to have chapter subtitles announcing the novels to be discussed, but in Wilson’s analysis, the novels are secondary to a broader meditation on sanctification.

Wilson, and Lauren Winner in the foreword, frame this discussion in part for Christians who consider fiction inferior to theology or those who are wary of exposing themselves to the unedifying strains of modern culture. Wilson’s project has merit in that it turns over some novels worth reading and suggests ways that engaging with them might in fact enhance the development of a reader’s spiritual and human experience. Does she reflect on the artistic genius and unique accomplishments of these works? Not so much. Hers is essentially a self-improvement mission.

What are art and fiction for? Lewis, quoted in Wilson’s introduction, describes his childhood attraction to the imaginative world of literature: “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless” (Surprised by Joy).

Most everyone knows the experience of being enchanted by a novel and wanting to go inside the book or to be one of the characters. If a novel is worth its name, if it is genuinely inspired in the theological sense, then a reader will also find something alive in the story, something that escapes the novelist’s control, the reader’s control, the critic’s control, indeed a trace of Creator Spiritus.

While reading to develop spiritual imagination is a worthy goal, it’s important not to let it resemble a vitamin regimen. Want to work on your sensitivity to creation and invigorate your calling to care for it? Here is Walter Wangerin’s Book of the Dun Cow in context with Tolkien and others. Want to wrestle with sin and become a saint? Here is Kristen Lavransdatter, about which Wilson is not wrong, even if her meditations somewhat defang what an epic literary masterpiece can do to you if you let it.

Which leads us to a fifth conversation, one particularly suited to the consideration of living authors: How do literary writers present, explore, and dramatize — to an audience they must assume is less religiously educated and formed than previous generations — the movements of God? How can literature re-enchant a culture starving for art that engages language in the service of beauty, truth, and humaneness?

Perhaps you love to read. Perhaps you wish you read as avidly as you once did. Perhaps you have a book group or you’re thinking of forming one. What questions go to the heart of the matter? Is something important going on between the artist and our Creator and Redeemer, through the medium of literary art, with the mediation of the Holy Spirit? And does that thing have any bearing on readers, people of faith, lovers of literature — in short, on you?

H.S. Cross is a novelist (Grievous, 2019; Wilberforce, 2015), nonfiction writer, and English tutor of middle and high school students. She lives in Savannah.


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