Fiction, especially science fiction or mystery, is not usually the go-to source of spiritual guidance.
But Alan Jacobs, the Clyde S. Kilby chair of English at Wheaton College, said last night that not only are people doing just this, they are doing so without realizing it during his lecture titled, “Writers Save: How Poets and Novelists Came to Comfort the Faithful and Strengthen Doubters.”
“We want to receive spiritual instruction without admitting it because that turns it into drudgery,” he said.
The lecture, which was sponsored by the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life, featured talks by Jacobs and by Judith Wilt, the Newton College alumnae chair in Western Culture at Boston College. Both discussed the relatively new discovery that literature can provide readers with the religious experiences they cannot find in churches any longer.
“We thought it would be a conversation for seekers of all sorts,” said Erik Owens, associate director of the Boisi Center and coordinator of the event. “There’s room for personal reflection as well as academic discussion on this subject, and we were enthusiastic about getting someone who could bridge what can sometimes be a divide between the groups.”
Jacobs said he realized the impact literature could have on a person’s spiritual life after speaking with his friend Frederick Buechner, an author and theologian, while Buechner was waiting to give a talk at a literature festival in Grand Rapids, Mich. Jacobs was struck by the number of people who approached Buechner to say his books were the reasons they were believers.
“They always said, ‘Your books,’ not ‘you,'” Jacobs said. “People treating [books] as if they have some sort of heft is a pretty new phenomenon.”
He spoke about the experiences of other writers, such as Simone Weil and C.S. Lewis, noting that in each case the author had no intention of having a religious revelation and only realized that they had indeed altered their perspective on religion afterwards.
“This is essential to the experience,” Jacobs said. “If you tell people to take spiritual nourishment, they’ll refuse to take their medicine.” The reason for this, he hypothesized, was that “we want to be delivered on our own terms,” without appearing vulnerable.
Wilt then explained her own experiences with the unlikely genres of science fiction, historical, and mystery novels. “Wherever that novel is set, there is a religious quest going on there,” she said, noting that she finds this to be especially true of science fiction and historical novels, where she tends to see religion and religious values defined in one usually ambiguous way or another.
In addition to stressing the importance of not ultimately seeking a religious experience, both speakers discussed the need for alternative routes to understanding religion. “There’s something more appealing about this side door,” Jacobs said. “You get access to some transcendental experience without hearing any commandments.”
Jacobs touched on the idea that works of modern art, especially paintings by Mark Rothko, hold a similar appeal because “there is no canon or rule to which it is measured.”
During the question and answer, Jacobs and Wilt were asked about which books personally influenced them to consider the connection between spirituality and literature. Jacobs said W. H. Auden’s essays struck him as being the first to “imaginatively engage with the 20th century,” while Wilt cited T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
“I sank into them and still have not come out,” she said.
Owens said that while the Boisi Center does not usually sponsor events like this, choosing instead to focus on trends, movements, and historical events rather than those pertaining to spirituality, the cross section of “a public interest with a potentially wide audience that comes in contact with a scholarly pursuit” interested the Center.