Literature as a Form of Resistance

Editor’s Note: It’s late as I’m writing this, so I’ll be brief. I’m back from the EWTN studio where I participated in a discussion Thursday evening with my friends Raymond Arroyo and Fr. Gerald Murray (also a TCT regular) about Raymond’s remarkable interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, the main proponent of a change in Church teaching on Communion for the divorced an remarried. We’ll post a link to the show as soon as it become available, and I hope you’ll watch it because I think the interview alone will have a worldwide impact, because of the inconsistencies and illogic in Kasper’s position that it reveals. Here at TCT, we’re in the midst of our fund drive for our seventh anniversary and I cannot think of a better example of why what we do is important, than this intersection or our daily written work here with things that are shaping the Church this year and beyond. I’ll have more to say to you about that in days to come. In the meantime, if you care about these and the many other issues we engage here at The Catholic Thing, please help us with your own contribution. If real Catholics do not support this kind of work, who will? – Robert Royal

Things are looking pretty bad, all right. And it’s hard to see how they’re going to get better. There are so many causes of our cultural malaise:

The deterioration of family life.

The redefinition of marriage.

Threats to religious freedom.

Schools at every level of education choosing the cave rather than the sunlit air. . .

We’re suffering life in an asparagus bed of secular-progressive ideologies.

But how many people would describe our cultural crisis as a literary one? A crisis of the imagination?

Not many, I suspect. The very idea sounds effete, peripheral, not to say bookish.

Nonetheless, this is the claim being forcefully made by Bishop James D. Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. Bishop Conley’s recent lecture,Ubi Amor, Ibi Oculus: The Role of Beauty in the New Evangelization,” and his article, “Sursum Corda: 10 Suggestions for Rekindling the Literary Imagination” offer a wise and refreshing cultural diagnosis that deserves our attention and reflection.

Bishop Conley understands that putting the focus on literature in our current climate will strike many as counter-intuitive. He admits to being questioned as to whether it is a waste of time, and whether we might be better off devoting our energies to political efforts.

Without denying the importance of politics, the bishop retorts that good public policy is “borne of good minds and hearts,” and it is literature that, most directly, addresses the mind and heart.

Success in the political arena, in other words, is a function, in part, of success in the literary art’s reshaping of character.

Of course, too, Bishop Conley recognizes that any cultural crisis is at bottom a spiritual crisis, a crisis of saints. “All of us who wish to bring forward a renewal of Christian culture in our world should begin on our knees, in prayer,” he writes. “But we must also begin with books in our hands, formed in the great tradition of the classical mind.”

So what exactly does Bishop Conley mean by “literature,” and how exactly does literature work in forming hearts and minds in the truth?

Judging by the range of works he discusses, the bishop takes “literature” pretty broadly, to include works of philosophy and theology. But his concern is not exclusively with such works of abstract argumentation, nor even with spiritual classics. Bishop Conley’s chief focus is on works of the imagination, that is to say, works of fiction, drama, and narrative poetry.

Among the items on his list of suggested reading are Homer’s Odyssey; the works of Dante, Chaucer, and Cervantes; the plays of Shakespeare; the novels of Charles Dickens; The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni (a favorite of Pope Francis); and the products of the English-Catholic Literary Revival, in particular the works of Cardinal Newman, Chesterton, Belloc, Tolkien, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh.

How does our encounter with such works form us? What happens when we “live” in the world of a great work of the literary imagination?

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

Begin with the fact that we human beings, as embodied spirits, engage with reality first of all through the senses. We are made for truth, for the mind’s grasping of the essential being of things. But we cannot get to what something essentially is, not even the essence of God, except by delving into the world of matter.

If you want to know what the essence of marriage is, then you have to go out and literally look at successful marriages. If you want to know the essence of God, then, barring a mystical experience, you have to go out and experience with all five senses the good world he has made.

The imagination is an intriguing faculty in that it helps us bridge sense experience and the mind’s grasp of ideas. A great literary work is a kind of hybrid. It gives us all the sensuous detail our natures crave in wanting to know the world, along with the ideas, the essentials of things, that help us make sense out of the world.

Like a human being, a great literary work is an embodied spirit, an expression of truth wrapped up in images that reflect our concrete world. That is why great literature is a more connatural path to truth for human beings even than philosophy and theology. Those latter disciplines, in a way, lift us out of our existence in the world of chance and change, while literature immerses us in it – though not without a guiding truth to light our way.

We tend to think of literature as “soft” and secondary precisely because we forget that it delivers truth. I think we’re aware of this well enough when we read a novel or go see a play or movie. We have no problem talking about whether a plot or a set of characters is “true” to life and therefore “believable.” But when we are in the midst of our cultural battles this understanding too often drops away. We fall into thinking, if we think about it at all, that literature and the other arts don’t hit hard enough. They don’t argue. They don’t persuade. They don’t convert. How can they help us?

But literature does argue, persuade, convert. How? By giving us pictures of human beings in action, human beings in pursuit of the happiness we all are made for.

In brief, the way in which an author handles these imaginary pursuits of happiness creates an argument about what happiness must be.

And because the arguments are wrapped in images, we, as embodied spirits, in a way fall in love with them, or are repulsed by them.

The formation of good habits of delight and repulsion – that isn’t a bad definition of education, the education in character that Bishop Conley claims can be ours when we develop a passion for great literature.

Which means that, in the times in which we live, a book club might be a more vital institution than a political organization.



Undecided yet about making a contribution? Read this anniversary note from Bob Royal.

Daniel McInerny

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at

  • Dominic

    Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” is mandatory reading on this topic. And Tolkien’s words are true more broadly than just for ‘faerie.’ The child tries to imitate his parent, and God is our loving creator. Is Don Quixote not a loving creation?

    And don’t miss one of Rev. Schall’s favorites, the first (short) section of ‘The Silmarillion’ with a fanciful, musical take on the Creation Story.

  • John Willson

    This is a beautiful essay, one that gets to the heart of our obsession with politics. Tell your wife she is beautiful every day, as one of my former students keeps reminding me, and the rest of things fall into place. Thank you, Daniel.

  • Michael Dowd

    Good literature always provides elevation; our politics mostly degradation.

  • susanna

    Seek the kingdom of God first, tell Him you love Him every day, then the rest falls into place.

  • Grump

    I agree a good book can take one’s mind off the horrors of this world. However, reality eventually ensues after the final chapter.
    I recently saw a psychiatrist and began:
    “Doc, I’m a white, Bible-believing Christian heterosexual pro-life American patriot who believes in the rule of law and a just God. I believe in traditional family values. I believe marriage can only be between one man and one woman. I believe in our Constitution and that no man is above the law. I believe in honesty, loyalty, industry, faith, justice and that God is the center of the universe and not me. I cherish all these things but have no peace. What’s wrong with me?’
    His response: That’s easy. Become a Democrat.

  • Walt

    I can’t find the list. Help.

  • Rich in MN

    Literature may be an effective way of maintaining our own moral paradigm, but I am a little more skeptical about its effectiveness in cultural evangelization. The problem is that our culture has become so compartmentalized in its thinking. For example, it is common to hear about the detrimental effects of smoking — reduced life expectancy, and various other physical and psychological consequences — in explaining why smoking is bad, but try using that same statistical analysis on the healthiness of homosexual activity and you will quickly find out that you are a “homophobe.”
    I recently went with an old friend (who is a totally modern woman) to see Kenneth Branaugh’s “Cinderella.” Afterwards, she thanked me for going with her to see a “girl movie.” I told her that I enjoyed it quite a bit. Furthermore, I found it ironic that she would call it a “girl movie” when it portrayed a worldview that I believed in, but she did not. For her, the stark disconnect between the worldview of “Cinderella” and the one she supports (i.e. the sexual revolution and all of its logical consequences) causes no problems, no “cognitive dissonance,” so to speak.

    I think the foggy modern mind needs a “helping hand” to connect the dots between good literature and good living. One of the reasons I have “advertized” Anthony Esolen’s “Defending Marriage” in comboxes is I think it is such a “helping hand.” It explains the great stories — as well as our own stories which God intends to be “great stories” as well — in the context of a specific (but not narrow) understanding of marriage. Esolen demonstrates that it is our modern, “more inclusive” understanding of marriage that is the narrow-minded, ignorant, ephemeral one. I am thinking about giving a copy of the book to my old friend, but I doubt she would read it. (Or she might start reading it until she got to the first occurrence of the neologism “pseudogamy” and then she would throw the book aside in disgust. Sigh…).

  • Manfred

    While it may bot be “literature”, an essay I would recommend is Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1993 essay titled: Defining Deviancy Down. He was prescient.

  • Fr Kloster

    Bishop Conley is absolutely correct. I am always very wary of a man who is obsessed or even unhealthily attached to and/or preoccupied with politics. It is indeed a very shallow existence that runs begging for approval at every twist and turn. An overly political man is a man who will soon lose his moral moorings.

    The Church has become far too much of a political animal. The more she tacks herself toward things political, the more her faithful lose their sure sense of a captain guided barque.

    • ColdStanding

      “The Church…a political animal.”

      That is no way to talk about our Holy Mother!

      Spare me the fig-leaf “its a figure of speech!”

      We’ve lost the script.

    • Chris in Maryland

      I think you hit the nail on the head Father. Sunday morning TV political talk is the sacred liturgy of the political cattle.

  • ron a.

    Agree with the premise. Only hope the good bishop includes on his list THE master story teller, psychologist, Dostoevsky. And then, from a much different milieu, there is Flannery O’Connor—what a talent!

  • Mack

    Schools do not choose the cave; the electorate chooses that cave because the local electorate votes for the trustees who by law are the governing authority. Did you vote in your last school board election? Did you run for trustee?

  • Daniel Gibbons

    Rich in MN – The problem that you describe is exactly why good literature is so important. The arts (and for modern people I include in this television, movies, etc.) shape people’s emotions by getting beneath and behind their conscious reasoning.

    What logical arguments ‘make sense’ is, for most people, something in the gut more than in the mind. This is why competing claims to have the most obviously ‘reasonable’ argument can co-exist. I’m not saying that one is not *in fact* more reasonable than the other. Just that you will never get someone to acknowledge that unless their emotions and imagination are reasonably well-formed.

    Good imaginative literature plays a very important role in forming us to prepare us to recognize and love the truth when we encounter it. If we don’t take this seriously, even the best catechesis and philosophical argumentation will fall on rocky ground.

    I think Catholics too often fail to understand how crucial popular arts
    like television and music have been for creating the current cultural
    wave. It took *decades* of using the arts to slowly shift people’s emotional
    dispositions, regardless of their conscious beliefs, to get to the point
    where an overt argument for the possibility and goodness of same-sex
    marriage could make sense to most young people.

  • bwc

    Marx knew the importance of the arts in shaping perception – – and Marxists have used this to counter the Christian mindset in modern cultures. Time we took back the culture by recognizing what good
    literature can accomplish.