Students at ECS read. A lot. They memorize phonograms, diagram sentences, and parse verbs–in English and Latin. They begin frolicking with Biscuit and homesteading with the Wilder family before they graduate to plodding with Plato, adventuring with Thucydides, and finally wrestling with a Leviathan.
In light of this reading load–and as a shameless plug for our upcoming Fiction Festival in March–I wanted to tackle (or at least arm-wrestle with) the question: “Why Fiction?”
There are clinical answers: it will help you communicate clearly, construct a work email, or write IKEA instruction manuals so people can actually assemble something resembling a desk instead of a piece of modern art.
Trust me, I am not disparaging clear communication or the use of possessive apostrophes. I would die upon the hills of subject-verb agreement, correct hyphenation, and the Oxford comma–to name but a few.
But may I offer that one of the most influential components of reading is the construction of people? Words mold, alter, edge-chip, buff, and refine. As Christians, this should be no surprise. The Word creates, divides, illuminates, enlivens, sustains, breathes, and communicates. God spoke and the Word created all that we see, and then the Word entered his own dimensioned and constricting materials to quite literally die for walking pillars of dust.
Story has a unique ability to shape our loves in ways few others things do, because it reflects the way the ultimate Author pre-eminently shapes. No child I have met wants to grow up to be pre-Dragon Eustace, Uriah Heep, or Javert. Give them Aragorn, Lucy, or Curdie.
Especially as young children, stories train our virtuous taste buds – they create flavor palates we love or spit out. As children we don’t necessarily know why we hate the White Witch, but we know that anyone who keeps Christmas away must be evil…because deep down we understand that things like life, color, messiness, parties, and even a redeemed Bacchus wandering through the forests of Narnia, are good things. Evil directly opposes those things–stories teach us that those who whitewash the world and create graveyards do it for power and for pride, and we shake our heads and back away, joining with the nymphs instead.
Not only do stories train our taste buds, they expand our palates. Stories pry us out of our own brain-boxes. As Franz Kalfka asserted in a letter to his childhood friend, “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” The tragedy of humanity’s inherent narcissistic prison is that most don’t feel the chains – we are all in desperate need of a light to shine on the bars and an axe to break us out. We want students at ECS to die to themselves while knowing and loving and caring for those around them; literature is a unique tool in this process.
Obviously, the Gospel is the only thing that can truly set a soul free from this dungeon, but literature can act as the match to light the lamp, and for Christians, it can certainly be a guide out of the maze of tunnels and into the fresh air of fellowship and selflessness and freedom.
Jumping into the great texts of Western Literature (and other cultures and times) is one of the only, and primary means, of dislodging our superiority. It fosters true critical thinking. It can humble us and teach us wisdom. Most people can cite the dates for World War II, the main players, and some concepts like Imperialism. Very few know what Hitler read, or what worldview led to the rise of Eugenics. Drill down a bit farther and actually crawl up into someone else’s soul for a moment: what makes a person turn Monster? Spy a golden ring with Gollum and feel the jolt of experimentation with Frankenstein. How does one justify horrendous crimes? Engage with the self-victimhood of Mein Kampf. Who would ever die for a sniveling weasel-child? Romp with Aslan.
This is where the role of literature takes a central role in the life of the reader. In fact, literature may be the primary – and potentially only means in this world–of entering into another person’s mind, albeit fictitious. Where else can you feel the desire of another, or understand his or her motivations, like in a novel? As Scientific American noted in an article in October 2013, a study from the New School for Social Research in New York showed that “literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking.” Interestingly, popular fiction didn’t affect young readers in the same way–it simply took them on an oft frequented emotional ride with familiar-looking people in what the researchers called ‘readerly’ reading–you are simply entertained. Literary Fiction that is ‘writerly’ makes you fill in the gaps and participate–it forces you into different shoes–it enlarges your soul just a bit. This is why we teach some of the those hard, old, boring books at ECS–to foster humility, empathy, and action.
The Holy Spirit, prayer, meditation, and the Word can and must all resuscitate and foster our delight in God, His creation, and His people. They are the source and the bedrock. Yet Literature can aid in the recovery effort, and we must read with wisdom–rejecting that which would mold us grotesquely away from the good while fostering a voracity for vomit. True, ECS does sample some deceptively delicious looking appetizers in the hope that the students around our table learn some dishes are best fed to the dogs.
Ultimately, may ECS teach–and we all read–books that mould sturdy characters while whittling away our own weaknesses, stories that chip away at blinders to move our gaze further up and our steps further in. In this endeavor, please consider joining us for ECS’ third-annual Raggant Fiction Festival Saturday, March 24th. The theme this year will be “Character Development and the Development of Character.”