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Is It Possible to Fall in Love with God through Fiction?
Interview with Jessica Hooten Wilson on the role of literature and books in the Christian life
This Weekend Edition of Ecstatic is by Sara Kyoungah White
Jessica Hooten Wilson is the inaugural Seaver College Scholar of Liberal Arts at Pepperdine University and the author of several books, most recently Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as Spiritual Practice.
Ecstatic spoke with Jessica about the truth, goodness, and beauty found in great books, why literature has a unique and eternal role to play in the life of the Christian, and what we can do with troubling bits of classic literature. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sara Kyoungah White: In your book and elsewhere, you talk about how a great book is one that points to goodness, truth, and beauty. What do you mean by each of these words?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: I do think people need to make sure to define their words because you don’t want truth, goodness, and beauty to be a catch-all. So, I’m talking about a truth that is asymptotic, that we are trying to get towards. That’s a phrase that David Lyle Jeffrey uses to describe truth in the sense that it’s always beyond us, always mysterious, can’t be claimed by an ideological side, and cannot be manipulated or exploited. It’s something that we are constantly trying to learn about, and always seems to be higher than we could imagine. It involves reason and revelation, and it matches reality. So I mean this much larger category for what truth is.
I would say goodness and beauty parallel that, right? What kind of goodness cannot be taken by a camp or a tribe, and used against another side—something that every single one of us is falling short of, and always trying to reach towards?
The same goes for beauty. I love talking about beauty in the sense of the transcendental, because it's something that all of us recognize. When Notre Dame Cathedral burned down and the whole world started sending their money that direction, it was a clear indication that there are things that are beautiful, that kind of encapsulate the transcendental beauty, and show what beauty could be—and we do recognize it when we see it, and we all long for it.
So truth, goodness, and beauty for me are those higher ends, those higher goals.
SKW: As you were talking, it reminded me of a verse in the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:11, where it says God has placed eternity in our hearts. Would you say it’s related to this—that these things echo the eternal?
JHW: Yes, absolutely. When C.S. Lewis talks about it, he’s talking about the sehnsucht, the longing for something that is beyond; the eternal. It is bigger than what we can understand here and now. But we see glimmers of it here.
SKW: When it comes to literature in particular, how would you define what is good, true, and beautiful? Because sometimes it’s not, right? You talk a lot about Flannery O’Connor, for example, and a lot of her stories are considered macabre or grotesque. Yet there is beauty and truth and goodness there.
JHW: Flannery O’Connor is a great example, because she says that when she talks about rot—the darkness or the grit of something—she’s not doing so because she loves the rot. She quotes another writer, Wyndham Lewis, and says you don’t talk about rot because you love rot. You talk about rot because you worry about what it’s doing to the hill, and you love the hill. You love the bigger thing that is being destroyed by the thing you're writing about.
She is peering into the darkness because she loves the light. She's writing about the human penchant for evil because she loves the human ability to be good. I think that's a different way of understanding violence or nihilism or darkness. Is it pointing to something that's higher or beyond itself, or is it actually trying to draw you downward?
SKW: That’s really good. Another thing that caught my attention when I was reading your latest work was the phrase “people of the book.” You use this to describe Christians. But I’ve also heard it used to describe Jews and Muslims. What do you mean when you say Christians are people of the book? And how should this relate to what you call our “spiritual reading” of all other books?
JHW: I’d say all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. So this is a way of understanding the category of “people of the book.” Christians are people of the book, but yes, so are Jews and Muslims. When I talk about people of the book, I’m talking about a people in which their omnipotent God revealed himself through a revelation of the word.
For example, when you look at a lot of other religions, they don’t call themselves people of the book, because you don’t necessarily have to have the book to get the religion right. But for the Christian faith, you have to have the book. Christ is the book—he is the Logos, the central Word. Everything about the Christian religion is reliant upon the Word in a way that is not the same as other religions. Christians believe in the Logos incarnate.
This provides a spiritual level of reading that’s not there in the other two Abrahamic faiths. There are mystical offshoots like Jewish Kabbalah. But it’s not incarnational. That’s one of the things that provides this spiritual way of reading, when words are two things in one.
SKW: So you’re saying that as Christians, we can read not just the Bible in a “spiritual” way, but all other books?
JHW: Yes, I expound on this more in my book, but the short answer is that all words are both the sign and the signified (to borrow language from Walker Percy). Words have a twofold reality. Materialists, empiricists, etc. would disagree with all of this. But Christians who believe in the incarnation recognize the potential in words and things for a twofold nature. It’s more medieval than modern, but I don’t find it less true.
SKW: Could you also say that we can do this with other mediums, like watching good movies or creating and enjoying art? Help me understand a bit more why books in particular have a special role to play in the life of the Christian. What is the unique power of literature and the written word?
JHW: Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt’s Redeeming Vision talks about a similar thing in terms of image. I think that you can see both image and word at play in Genesis, because God speaks everything into creation. There is some primacy given to language, but also God images himself in us particularly. There's a way of viewing images spiritually that can move us towards contemplation as well. I don't think there's a solo role for literature, but I do think that it's probably one of the greatest ways to access to the divine.
The reason is that we do get to have that multiplicity of meaning in language that not all images go towards, especially when you get into something like film. There are movies like Tree of Life, which is trying to be a novel on screen, and in that sense it does give you the access that a novel does in slowing you down, to kind of inviting you to meditate and move toward contemplation. But at the same time, most movies are not like that. Most films instead are trying to produce a certain emotional or cognitive reaction. They’re trying to do something to the reader. It’s less about the writer trying to figure things out through the experience of writing, which great novels do really well, and ask questions, and so forth. I feel like there’s something that happens in film that is less consistent, where the observer or the watcher becomes less of a witness and less of a participant.
When you read, your voice becomes the voice of the author as you read the text. For example, if I read Notes from the Underground, and it says, “I'm a sick man. I'm a wicked man,” the minute I read that sentence, I become that in reading those words. There's something participatory that is demanded of you from literature that is more passive when it comes to a medium like film. I do think we have to walk through the various mediums and think philosophically about what it is they're capable of. And then we also need to ask, what is their default mode, or what do they most often do to readers or observers?
SKW: That’s a good question to consider. Let’s go back to what you said about our voice becoming the voice of the author. I think sometimes embodying the voice of the author in a work of literature can be troubling for the reader. For example, in my recent article for Christianity Today, I wrote about my own wrestling with racism in classic Western literature, like in the opening chapters of Moby Dick. I’m curious to know your thoughts on this. What would you say to a Christian reader of color—maybe a student in your class—who feels uncomfortable when they come across a racist passage in classic literature?
JHW: I loved your piece by the way. And this has been a big opening up of my world over the last several years, because I went to a Great Books program at Pepperdine, which is fantastic and it's always growing and changing. When I was there twenty-something years ago, it really was just a lot of white men, and that's what we read. One of the things I've been doing over the last five or six years is really impressing upon people that a dead white male tradition is just not a holistic tradition. That's not the accurate picture. A lot of our great books tradition needs to be expanded and reconsidered.
Most of what I've been doing is saying things like, okay, this looks like a Western source. Now let's look at the Middle Eastern source that came before it that this Western writer drew from. For example, Thoreau is amazing. Let's look at Thoreau, and then let's look at how he was also drawing from some of these Eastern texts to come up with his philosophy. Or let's look at Dante’s conversation with Julian of Norwich, because they're writing roughly around the same time, and they have different ways of understanding God as well as similar ways. And how are those both coming out of the medieval tradition?
So I’m trying to show students that this is the full story, that the Spirit was always at work. Even if, when we look at great tradition, and we're trying to pass things down, we only have certain representational lenses that have been handed down in America specifically for such a long time—that that's not the way things have to be. That's not the way things should be. And if we opened it up, suddenly, it becomes a really exciting playground of lots of different ideas that are true, good, and beautiful, that we can share and see ourselves in and find that we're all belonging in.
SKW: Thank you, that’s such important work you’re doing. Lastly, in your book, I love the part where you say, “Give me ten minutes with the most hesitant of Christian readers, and I will invite them to fall in love with God through fiction.” We’ve got 1 minute. Let’s hear your invitation.
JHW: My way of softening even the hardest heart of a Christian opposed to literature would be to invite them to read aloud with me the best works of literature and walk through their meaning. It’s something I show versus tell, but I’ve never had someone leave a conversation with me with a book in hand and say, “Meh.”
Sara Kyoungah White
Essayist & Poet
Sara Kyoungah White is an essayist, poet, and editor. Connect with her at sarakyoungah.com. Thoughts on Jessica’s interview? Leave a like and share in the comments!