The New Liturgist on the Gift of a Literary Education

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Since to read literature is to verge into strange territory, of course discernment is important too. What edifies some may be offensive or indigestible to others, and a novel by Philip Roth—or a book like The Instructions, by Adam Levin, discussed below—is plainly not for everyone.

Worth mentioning, however, is a point made by others before me: that it makes sense to give the same scrutiny to a work that touts itself Christian as to a work of so-called secular literature. And what doesn’t make sense is to set a novel aside because of the story’s language or violence or sexual content, and then to read uncritically an author who confesses Christian faith but whose writing possesses—and encourages in the reader—a kind of smugness, or veiled narcissism, or other attitudes similarly toxic to spiritual health.

Yes, discernment matters, but I’m also talking about something beyond discernment-as-moral-acid-test. As with reading Scripture, to be addressed by a piece of literature, we must cultivate an imaginative discernment as well, an instinct for making playful and significant connections between a text and our own experience. We must learn to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open for the way a passage reveals to us something true about ourselves or someone else, the way it invites a fresh perspective.

Has something like this happened to you? I read a novel once in which the protagonist mentions a full moon over Cincinnati. At the moment I read that particular passage, I was on a plane flying over Cincinnati, and outside my window there was a full moon, and in the dim fluorescence of the cabin, I had a sense of being signaled by something more than coincidence, a sense that I was reading a good book for that time in my life, and that, on that plane headed east, I was in the presence of a Presence.

Epiphanies often arrive via uncanny phrases or lines of dialogue, passing details, a character’s being undone or remade in a manner that reminds us of something important.

Take The Instructions, Adam Levin’s recent novel about a maladjusted, Jewish, middle-school boy in Chicago named Gurion Maccabee who thinks he may be the Messiah. After a thousand pages of rising action that begins with three kids waterboarding one another in the shallow end of a swimming pool, and after the novel has built into a prophetic manifesto involving Gurion’s personal and family mythologies, flights of biblical midrash, diatribes on subjects such as friendship and loyalty, and a record of adolescent rebellions and vandalisms and violent actions against school officials and other students, the reader is braced for an event of almost apocalyptic intensity, an event that finally occurs.

But before the dramatic climax, Gurion and a handful of his soldier/scholars gather on the bleachers in the school gymnasium to smoke cigarettes. Gurion, whose verbosity is unequaled throughout the novel, has been pushed to the brink of despair. The scene marks one of the only times in the book when he is silent, as he allows his old friend Vincie Portite to talk him through the ritual. “Keep your eyes sleepy,” says Vincie, knowing Gurion is close to a breakdown. “Keep your eyes sleepy while you reach in my pocket—not that one, the other one. That one. Good. That’s our friend’s lighter.”5

The lighter’s owner is Benji Nakamook, the kid who instigates the waterboarding at the beginning of the book and has since died a violent death. Vincie and Gurion remember their deceased friend and pass the lighter down the bleachers as Vincie talks to keep the chaos at bay. “Now we can talk, let’s talk, can we talk? I’ll start us off. This is how I’ll start: It’s the middle of the schoolday. We’re smoking in the bleachers.”

Vincie says that to smoke in the bleachers, that shared communion, is good. “Anyone who says different isn’t really a human.”

And the scene’s unexpectedness, and the tenderness with which Vincie handles Gurion, and the solidarity of all those kids passing a lighter among them, unified in their grief and defiance, opens a space inside me, the reader, unlike the space that opens when I read a newspaper or a Bible commentary by N.T. Wright, unlike other spaces reserved for anything else but story. And this story is great—true to its own vision, beautifully complicated, unpredictable, wise. This story is great, and the space created by this scene is, for me, a holy space. The scene makes no reference to God, nor does it speak directly to any of my own immediate dilemmas. But this passage does something equally significant, which is that it turns words and ideas, like sorrow, like adolescent angst, into flesh—into middleschool kids, delinquent and holy as they come. And, in so doing, it recalls a part of me that has long been buried.

The scene in the bleachers interprets me, one might say, even as I interpret it. I’m a kid again, for a few minutes, at least. I’m a middleschool kid with divorced parents who is plenty sad and plenty defiant and who wants nothing more than to be cool, a player on the winning team. I rebel because I’m angry, or because I want to be respected, want to fit in. Because I’m bored. Because I do many things without reason, or for reasons I can’t fully understand.

Then I’m in high school—a school day in spring, early afternoon—pulling on a chain-link gate that leads to the school’s outdoor track, sneaking through the opening with my friend Hayes during a study hall or passing period. We stand against a fence in the tall brown grass and keep a lookout for teachers and pass a can of cheap beer between us, not in spite of the fact that it’s against the rules but because it’s against the rules, and because rules are everywhere, and they make us claustrophobic—and because to drink with a friend in the middle of the school day, that shared communion, is good, we think, no matter what the adults say.

Reading The Instructions, I wake up to a world I’d forgotten. I am visited for the first time in years by the knowledge that to be a kid in middle school or high school is often to feel trapped behind enemy lines with few, if any, allies, and to spend one’s best energies merely trying to survive. Adolescence, I remember, was a time when the world made many of us into the survivors we still are, the survivors turned pastors now doing our best to make our lives as well as the lives of everyone around us about something more meaningful than survival.  [next page]

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