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?
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.