The New Liturgist on the Gift of a Literary Education

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Emerson, preceding Solnit, describes the aim of a literary education in terms of the expansion of circles. We make advances in self-awareness, grow in our spiritual perception, encounter new truths—our circle of knowledge expands. And each realization, exhilarating for a time, later becomes routine. What set us spinning yesterday, the idea that was the linchpin to a whole new orientation, has been so thoroughly integrated or mulled over, has become so familiar—like a record we’ve been listening to for weeks—that it turns stale. We have reached an outer boundary. We sense within ourselves a space opening for something else. To cling only to what is familiar is, in some ways, to be confined. Growth now lies in extending the circumference of our knowing. We turn to books.

“Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal circle,” Emerson writes—hodiernal meaning one’s present-day experience—“through which a new [circle] may be described.”4

A friend and I meet one night at a place called The Blue Moose, and we talk about books, about writing, and he asks me to list some of America’s great living novelists. My background is nonfiction; I’m not an authority on literary fiction. Still, I rattle off some of the obvious contenders, forgetting many important names.

My friend is a church pastor with an MDiv. He’s a smart guy, wicked smart, with an appetite for study. He’s written a couple books himself, dozens of articles on church and culture. He’s read more theology than I have.

But he hasn’t read any of the writers I mention. In fact, he hasn’t heard of the first five. “This is embarrassing,” my friend says, setting aside his drink to scribble names and titles under the glow of a patio lamp. “I don’t know any of these people.”

He knows Marilynne Robinson for her Pulitzer-prize-winning novel Gilead, an epistle from the Congregationalist minister John Ames to his seven-year-old son. He knows John Irving’s work, especially A Prayer for Owen Meany, in which faith and doubt propel the plot forward like a two-cylinder engine. In short, he knows the names of a couple novelists whose works have made Christian conviction an explicit theme. But most of the great American literary voices have escaped his notice.

On one level, this makes sense to me. When it comes to reading, even the avid among us incline toward a kind of provincialism, surrounding ourselves with books that speak a certain language, while consigning other texts to that ever-widening shelf marked Someday. Our time and attention are finite. No one can read everything. And we pastors have such limited space in our lives for study and reflection that, when given a chance to read, we mostly reach for books on theology or Christian living or leadership. After all, many of us feel we are less equipped than we should be for the immediate tasks at hand. Thus, we have little patience for texts that speak elliptically, that tell a story without telling us what to do with it, that traffic in mysterious symbols and linguistic sleights of hand—especially if we aren’t predisposed to reading such stuff in the first place.

Yet my friend’s question about novelists has me thinking about the books that have affected me most over the last few years, many of which reside not in the Christian Life section at Barnes and Noble but in the sections marked Literature, Biography/Memoir, Essays, Poetry. Non required reading, some would call them. But they are books that have, through their use of character and story, argument and image, done for me what the best art is meant to do—heightened my awareness of human splendor and plight, given me fresh language for what matters, begun conversations between my friends and me that continue after most of the details from those texts have been forgotten.

I think of CE Morgan’s debut novel, All The Living, the way it drives home the cost and beauty of choosing fidelity to a person or a place. I think of when I sat in a restaurant in Syracuse last fall and read the first essay in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, the way his account of attending a Christian rock festival as a nonbeliever had me laughing hard three times in the first ten pages and then tearing up toward the end, when Sullivan recounts, with brilliant transparency, his own years-long struggle with belief.

Books like these have stretched my circle of understanding, addressing me and others I know in ways that are unlike—not better than but different from—many texts that fall within a more strictly religious canon. They are books I wish I hadn’t read before just so I could experience them again for the first time.

At The Blue Moose, I find myself wondering at this education gap that seems so prevalent in the lives of Christian leaders. I wonder, that is, why we who believe in the Incarnation often fail to see immersion in our culture’s great literary texts as a deeply incarnational act. I wonder too what might be gained were we to tip the scales of our reading even just a little, giving more attention to the poets, essayists, and storytellers among us. How might our conversations change, our thinking and praying, if we were to take such writers more seriously? What might we have to offer the parishioners we spend so many hours trying to love—and what might they, taking cues from us, discover when reading for themselves?

To find out, we could read the poets, the essayists, the novelists–not instead of our theologians and church leaders, but alongside of. Simultaneous with. In addition to.  [next page]

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