The Bethlehem College Education Series
The Great Books cannot save your soul. Only the Greatest Book (or rather, the Person revealed in the Greatest Book) can do that. Nevertheless, the Great Books still have great value in training us in ways of being human, in showing us who we are as individuals and as groups. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of literature. If, as Calvin said, “true and sound wisdom consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” then great works of literature are of special value in giving us the latter. In reading great works of fiction, we, as it were, hold up a mirror to ourselves so that we might know ourselves more deeply. My own experience in teaching literature for more than a decade has confirmed me in this conviction.
The greatest works of literature endure through the ages because they resonate. They touch something in the human soul, unearthing some remnant of the original goodness that God imparted to us at creation. In the peace and tranquility of the Shire, we hear an echo of Eden, calling us back to the garden from which we were exiled so long ago. In Paradise Lost, we catch a glimpse of the grandeur of our first parents in their native innocence. Milton’s epic has the additional value of sending us back to the Bible, to ask new questions of Scripture so that we might discern whether Milton’s portrait really rings true.
But literature can resonate for other reasons. It can bring into sharp relief some suppressed dimension of our fallen nature, the sin which is invisible to us precisely because it clings so closely. For myself, this has been one of the more valuable reasons to read and re-read great works of fiction. The blinding pride of Faustus, his attempt to create and live in a monstrous and tragic version of the universe, is a warning and rebuke to our own vanity. It raises the question, “Do we know what kind of story we’re in? Do we know what kind of character we are? God help us.” Like the prophet Nathan to David, literature can steal past our natural self-defenses, hold up the mirror and proclaim, “You are the man!” Like Elizabeth Bennet, we can read another person’s account of reality and look up in astonishment as we declare, “Till this moment I never knew myself.”
We teach literature at Bethlehem because it illuminates our social lives. We feel the strain in the complex and tangled web of relationships in The Brothers Karamazov, and we are compelled to ask what makes Alyosha the hero. When W.E.B. Dubois weaves his profound sociological insights into his short story “The Coming of John,” we not only understand the concept of African American double consciousness and the injustice that festered in our history, but we actually feel the color line fall, dividing black from white and crying out for someone to again tear down the wall of hostility. In counseling my students, I find that I frequently use insights gleaned from reading and re-reading Shakespeare to help them understand themselves and the challenges they face. In fact, at a practical level, one of the great values of a liberal arts education lies in furnishing our students with a language of images, characters, and plots through which they can interpret their experience. From Beatrice and Benedick to Gatsby and Daisy, from Othello and Iago to Orual and Psyche—each of these characters and their relationships offer a way for our students to see and know themselves better, and then, with God’s help, to grow in grace and holiness.
But not only does great literature recall our original goodness and accent our present fallenness, it also whispers of redemption and anticipates the world to come. We watch envy die when Grendel falls to Beowulf’s sword. Spenser’s Faerie Queene, with its classic tale of St. George and the dragon, touches the chord of Calvary where another hero disarmed a dragon and will soon crush him under our feet. When Pericles is reunited with his family at the end of Shakespeare’s play, I can’t help but be moved by his words, “No more, you gods. Your present kindness makes my past miseries sports.” His sufferings were great, and the weight of glory they worked for him were even greater. The scene sends us back to Job, to Romans, to 2 Corinthians so that we can be renewed in the hope of resurrection.
The examples could be multiplied. And in each of them, we can see the value of literature in incarnating our experience, in making abstract truth concrete and real to us. This is why, at Bethlehem, we read C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves along with The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces. The latter embody and express in fiction and story the truths that Lewis’s prose identifies, and seeing it in both modes—one appealing to reason and one to imagination—allows for the truth to settle into our souls in a richer and more meaningful way.
And literature does all this while giving us the simple pleasure of reading the fruit of someone else’s imagination. It teaches while delighting, and delights while teaching. No, the Great Books cannot save us; only the Word of God is able to save our souls. But great works can convict us of sin, can awaken us to reality, can stir up our souls to long and ache for our far country. By God’s grace, they can be a means—just like any other of God’s good gifts—of drawing us to himself so that we know him and know ourselves. And not just know ourselves, but become ourselves. As Lewis famously put it,
In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. (An Experiment in Criticism, p. 130).
Joe Rigney, PhD
Assistant Professor of Theology and Literature