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“The Blessings and the Curses”

By September 25, 2013 One Comment

One of my fondest childhood memories is the weekly bringing home of an enormous stack of books from the library and heaping it next to the yellow easy chair (don’t judge: it was the ‘70s) in my bedroom.  The progress of my reading was easily charted as the mound of books was shifted from one side of the chair to the other—only to be carted back to the library and returned for a whole new stack.

What I don’t remember is my parents ever restricting what I wanted to check out, though they were incredibly committed Christians.  I read widely, never afraid that God was too small to go with me into whatever bookish land I traveled.  As I look back, I realize what an incredible gift that was. 

September 22-28 is Banned Book Week. The week was established over thirty years ago because books—in schools, libraries, and bookstores—were being increasingly contested, and the organizers wanted to call attention to issues of censorship.

Of course, we know that these challenges are often from people of faith.  If we are people of the Book, we have not always been the people of the books. 

But how do we think responsibly about troubling literature?  Providentially, my senior seminar has been examining the possibility of a Christian approach to literature this week.  Monday, we looked at the perspective of Flannery O’Connor.  In her marvelous 1957 essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” O’Connor provides some important correctives to the way that faithful people often respond to literature: 

If the average Catholic reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be something of a Manichean. By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliche and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment, usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence; and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite.

We lost our innocence in the fall of our first parents, and our return to it is through the redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purposes, disconnects it from its meaning in life and makes it simply an experience for its own sake.

O’Connor’s notion here that sentimentality and pornography are equally distorted readings is an important one, especially in a Christian culture that often only sees the “obscene” as objectionable.  Instead, O’Connor argues that both are equally unfit representations because they are not grounded in the world in all its complexity.  Christians should be as worried about the sentimental (and the bad theology that undergirds it) as they are about the more obvious problems of the obscene.

For O’Connor, good reading, then, requires good readers:

It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself. Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.

 What I find most encouraging about O’Connor’s essay is her conviction that our robust engagement with fiction—with stories which offer “an honest fictional representation of life”—is a result of strong faith, not evidence of a weak one. 

It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life, and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the sense of the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost. Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions.

And this is not just O’Connor’s idea.  I love this little passage in Joshua 8:34-35 for the paradigm of reading it provides us:

34 Afterward, Joshua read all the words of the law—the blessings and the curses—just as it is written in the Book of the Law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the foreigners who lived among them.

May the same be said of us: that we read fully and deeply—all the words.  The blessings and the curses alike. 

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

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