“I’m hoping it’ll be like a three-day book club,” said one participant of the continuing education event offered by Mennonite Church Saskatchewan recently.
Seventeen participants representing 12 congregations gathered at First Mennonite Church in Saskatoon to learn about “Faith and literature.” Cindy Wallace, assistant professor of English at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan, and a member of Warman Mennonite Church, led the May 20-22 seminar.
Wallace, who teaches courses on Catholic and post-colonial literature, asked participants to define “Christian literature.” Suggestions included popular fiction marketed by Christian publishers, works containing Christian morals or values, and pieces intended to teach Christian truths. But she suggested that, in order to be termed “literature,” a work must be imaginative and its form should matter as much as its content.
Outlining why Christians should read, Wallace said cognitive scientists have discovered that readers of fiction are more empathetic than non-readers. “Reading helps us understand others,” she said. Reading also challenges people’s notions about God and their place in the universe, she said, adding that they should also read to discover beauty and richness, and for fun, rest and enjoyment.
Not everyone enjoys reading, so how can avid readers share their enjoyment without implying judgment on non-readers? Wallace said she has come to view her own reading life as a sort of “quiet monasticism, rather than zealous evangelicalism.”
Many readers prefer formulaic writing because it is familiar and doesn’t demand as much of them.
Bruce Jantzen, pastor of Laird Mennonite Church, said he enjoys reading westerns, but admitted, “You can read Louis L’Amour and watch TV, carry on a conversation . . . . It doesn’t require as much of you.”
Wallace, however, suggested that Christians should read works that challenge them, make them think and expand their horizons. They should not limit themselves to particular genres, or even to Christian authors. She cited Madeleine L’Engle, who, in her book Walking on Water, writes, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the incarnation.”
How, then, should Christians read? According to Wallace, they should read with attention and humility, being open to receiving the text without preconceived notions. Wallace cited C. S. Lewis, who, in An Experiment in Criticism, wrote, “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender.”
Literature, said Wallace, is representational. It may mirror a person’s life, providing encouragement in one’s faith journey, or it may offer insights into the lives of others. But although it gives insight, she cautioned that literature does not give expertise. There is always more to real life than what one finds in fiction, she said.
Literature can be redemptive. Suffering or sacrifice that brings about goodness characterizes many works of fiction. It can offer readers encouragement, but may also cause them to stumble, as in the “myth of redemptive violence,” she said.
When read with attention, literature can be transformative, according to Wallace. This is especially true of poetry, where a writer hones in on metaphor and sound. “Poetic language,” she said, “can change the way we see the world; it can even change the world itself.”
With a view to exploring how literature can be all of these things, Wallace had participants study several literary works, including poetry, a short story and Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy.
Ray Friesen, co-pastor of Emmaus Mennonite Church, Wymark, said reading and discussing the novel “helped me to think about reading for different reasons.”
The final question participants wrestled with was, “Where do we find time to read?” “We won’t find the time,” Friesen said. Instead, “we make time” for reading.
And Larry Epp, a retired English teacher from Rosthern, quipped, “We’re an odd people who think that reading is necessary for survival.”
--Posted June 4, 2014