The Spiritual Power of the Novel

One of my greatest triumphs of my college social life was convincing five of my guy friends to watch the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice. They assumed it was just another “chick-flick” and that Jane Austen was an author for emotional women. After five enjoyable hours of film, they were all of the opinion that every man should strive to imitate Mr. Darcy. His example of virtue and honor seemed so worth emulating that he was often discussed more than saints on our conservative Catholic college campus. He was relatable, because he visibly struggled with certain vices, particularly pride. Yet he strove to overcome his weaknesses, especially when they were pointed out to him by the woman he loved. She instilled a desire to become the best person that he could possibly be—to be a holy, good person.

Mr. Darcy is what Aristotle would call the magnanimous man, a man who is great, honorable, and truly possesses all the virtues. Several of these friends went on to read all of Jane Austen’s novels, recognizing her merit as a great virtue ethicist, showing us both the good effects of virtuous living and the consequences of living viciously. Good literature, as Jessica Hooten Wilson explains in The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints, provides salutary lessons for seekers of virtue and holiness. Literature gives us companions on the journey of life. 

You Are What You Read

Wilson begins The Scandal of Holiness by defending the place of literature in the life of a person seeking holiness. She writes specifically to a Christian audience encouraging her readers not to dismiss literature as purely recreational. Christian readers may also have concerns about the potential for fictional stories to lead them away from the life of holiness, and this could be prudent. One need only look at the novel Madame Bovary to see how an indulgent reading of misleading novels can ruin a person’s life. But even Christ used stories to teach his followers how to live a moral life, and the Holy Scriptures relate the lives of both sinful and holy people. As Wilson argues, reading the right novel can help one to grow in holiness. She goes along with the words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). 

She reminds us that C.S. Lewis “said of books–if you’re not reading good ones, you’re reading bad ones.” We are all developing our view of the world in some way, whether from reading books, watching movies, streaming shows, or listening to music or podcasts. The ideas we read and listen to stay with us for days. They come up in our dinner conversations and discussions on social media. They change us, for better or for worse. Part of the Christian life is living intentionally. If we want to become better people we have to read, watch, and listen to things that draw us towards perfection.

Twentieth-century German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, who is most known for his anti-Nazi writings and personalist ethics, wrote about the “morally conscious” person, a person who is “awake” to the world and the call that it places on us. He wrote about the “value” of each good thing and how it demanded a response from us. The value might be as simple as the beauty of a wildflower, or as serious as the life of a child. It might demand our reverence, as when we perceive the presence of God. When we are holy, we recognize these values and respond to them.

Hildebrand writes in his book The Art of Living, “The responsible man must be completely inspired by the world of values and their demands; he must reverently harken to that which is objectively right, good, and beautiful; he must be inwardly free to follow always and everywhere the call of values.” In choosing to live a Christian life, one chooses to live as a morally conscious person. To be morally conscious, Christians have to be intentional in how we spend our time and occupy our imagination. The novels we read have the potential to awaken within us a greater sense of the world of values. They give us a chance to respond to values in situations we might never encounter in our actual lives, making us more morally conscious and expanding our moral imagination.  

One of my goals for my children’s intellectual formation has been to form their imagination with great works of literature. . . . I want them to appreciate good books so that they have no taste for lower forms of fiction.

Wilson’s chapter divisions show her understanding of the world of values, and the necessity of being intentional in what we choose to read. Each one focuses on a topic of significance to the spiritual life: the call to holiness, the importance of community, the importance of caring for the earth, examples of living out vocations, the centrality of prayer, how one should suffer, and finally the reality of death. She picks one or two novels to guide her reader through each topic, and offers other reading suggestions at the end of each chapter. (There are some spoilers as to the outcome of each novel that she explains in detail, so much so that it might be worthwhile to read the novels she picks for each chapter before reading the chapter.) 

She chooses novels from the twentieth century from among Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and agnostic authors. The focus on modern novels may open some new writers to audiences that are already familiar with older works. In each chapter, she shows how the books she has chosen have the potential to lead a reader to be formed in a different way towards holiness. 

Forming the Imagination

When I was a child there were countless public service billboards and commercials encouraging kids to get outside. In that spirit, my mother was always encouraging me to get outside and stop reading so much. As a parent, I have taken a different approach, introducing my children to good children’s literature, and sometimes reading children’s classics with them for the first time. One of my goals for my children’s intellectual formation has been to form their imagination with great works of literature. Beyond the moral formation itself, I want them to appreciate good books so that they have no taste for lower forms of fiction.

What I do for my kids, I have tried to do for myself as an adult. I have been guided, both for my children and myself, by John Senior’s list of “One Thousand Great Books” in the appendix of his book The Death of Christian Culture. He lists books by age, beginning with “nursery” and continuing up through young adult books that should be read before one proceeds to the great books. I have also used the book Before Austen Comes Aesop by Cheri Blomquist. The Babysitter’s Club and Star Wars books I read in my youth certainly didn’t foster growth in virtue for me, as the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang or The Chronicles of Narnia have done for my children. Many of the books I have read as an adult are recommended by Wilson in The Scandal of Holiness. Wilson explains the importance of forming our imagination with good books: 

Our imagination includes more than cognition; to imagine means to know in our affections, memories, habits, desires, attitudes. We participate in our world based on how we see ourselves situated within it, what it is, how it functions, how it began, to what end we have been called, and so forth.

Reading literature forms how we think about and encounter the world. As we go through our lives, we draw with our memory on what we have read or watched. For example, my family has a habit of quoting lines of movies or of books we have read together when we encounter relevant situations. We might quote lines from Marx brother movies, Beatrix Potter, or even Shakespeare, which we spent a school year memorizing together. In doing this we have created a family “vocabulary” that insulates us from the cultural decay of our society. By drawing on great literature, both old and new, we create a pocket of moral culture within our home and in our community of like-minded friends.

Wilson argues that God can use our imaginations and the books we read to draw us closer to him and to teach us about holiness. She explains that “Our imagination becomes the realm where God meets us first and shows us more than tells us who he is and to what life we have been called.” 

Models of Holiness

My philosopher husband and I are both great lovers of literature. In fact, he was one of the friends whom I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Certain characters, even beyond Jane Austen, have come alive for us in our imaginations and conversations. We talk fondly of Walker Percy’s Dr. Thomas More. Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder of Brideshead Revisited are like old friends. We even think of old Dean Moriarty from On the Road. These people are not per se great models of holiness, but they show us what it looks like to struggle as a human person in the world, while seeking the meaning of our existence.

Christians are meant to look for models in the lives of holy people who came before us. This idea is in Scripture itself when the Apostles in their preaching look back on Biblical history, and it is part of the tradition of the Catholic Church and that of other Christians. Hagiography has its place, but there are other benefits to getting to know a gritty, struggling character in a novel. Wilson points out that we need the examples of other people, be they real human persons or characters in literature, to pursue holiness.

We cannot concoct holiness on our own, decide what it looks like without examples, or try to become holy without other people. The goal is to be remade into God’s likeness, and we do so by imitating models of holiness. When we read stories of holiness, we live vicariously through those stories, then we body them forth in our reality. The models become part of our imagination, our way of seeing how to live a holy life. For me, when I try to imagine how to be holy, I have a cloud of witnesses—from Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima, to Walker Percy’s Father Smith, to Willa Cather’s Archbishop Latour, to Toni Morrison’s Baby Suggs.

Sometimes the life of a saint makes the attainment of holiness seem impossible. There have been certain saints whose hagiographies I have had to set aside for a time because I was not spiritually ready to comprehend their path to holiness. But imperfect characters in literature make the pursuit of holiness seem more possible. Wilson explains how the imperfect character is important as a model for us:

You’ll notice in the novels that I have chosen to explore that these characters are not perfect; they are not goody-goodies, and their stories are not hagiographies. Rather, these figures exhibit the reality of our common sinfulness as they chase after holiness with greater and lesser diligence.

We can all find someone to relate to in Wilson’s recommended books. We can find someone who challenges us. We can expand our imaginations to experience things that are foreign to us, that we might never choose because of our life circumstances. In entering into the imperfections of characters in literature, we encounter the messiness of the world in a way that expands our minds and hearts, enabling us to better understand our modern world. And as Wilson explains in The Scandal of Holiness we can let the novels marinate in our imaginations, teaching us how to pursue holiness.