Posted October 8, 2010
Being Stretched by Great Writers
by Ron Rolheiser
British writer, A.S. Byatt, is perhaps the foremost novelist in the English language today. She will, no doubt, one day be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
Her newest novel, The Children's Book, like all her novels, is dense, challenging, and not easy to read. And it is a difficult read not just because it is long (over 600 pages) and generously mixes history, art, architecture, politics, economics, oppression, ideology, mythology, love, sex, abuse, and family life, but also because it unsettles a settled mind. Life, as she lays it out, doesn't move along clear, easily defined moral lines. Any easy concept of history, morality, family, or sex, will unravel as you read her. Byatt, like all great writers, unsettles and stretches the mind.
And what's to be said about this unsettling? Is it healthy? If we are Christians with clearly defined beliefs about life, morality, sexuality, and family, is it healthy to expose ourselves to this kind of unsettling? Shouldn't we be reading things that bolster our faith and morals? Why walk deliberately into an intellectual and moral lion's den?
Because, I believe, the lion's den holds a partial key to mature faith and morality.
A mature faith is a tested faith and any set of moral principles worthy of our genuflection must not shy away from life's real complexities. It is important that we be given solid roots and nurturing in the tenets of our faith and moral principles; but to come to maturity, we must also be stretched and made to walk through desert places which, especially at first, can seem chaotic, unsettling, and threatening. Paradoxically there is a nurturing in the unsettling. If our minds and hearts are open, we can find in those unsettling spaces some rich and important things that will widen and enrich us both in our humanity and in our faith and morals.
Here is how Byatt herself describes this in The Children's Book: Philip Warren, one of her characters, an aspiring young artist, has lived a very sheltered life and lacks even a basic education. Taken to Paris by some rich patrons, he finds himself, a raw uneducated youth, inside the Rodin Pavilion, staring at the works of this great master. What he sees blows apart his world, but he senses something else too:
Vast forms of sculpted flesh and muscles loomed. Delicate frozen female faces emerged from rough stone, or retrieved into it. Everywhere was appalling energy - writhing, striving, pursuing, fleeing, clasping, howling, staring. Philip's first instinct was to turn and run. This was too much. It was so strong that it would destroy him - how could he make little trellis-men and modest jars, in the face of this skilled whirlwind of making? And yet the contrary impulse was there, too. This was so good, the only response to it was to make something. He thought with his fingers and eyes together. He needed desperately to run his hands over haunches and lips, toes and strands of carved hair, so as to feel out how they had been done.
There is a lesson here, I believe: We must be careful of what we let into our lives. Sometimes energy can be so powerful that it destroys us, or eats away at our faith and morals. A healthy soul keeps us glued together and too much exposure to the wild can cause it to unravel. But the reverse is just as true: We cannot safeguard our faith and morals by shutting ourselves off safely in a room that cuts us off from thought and art, a room within which great artists and secular writers are seen as threats.
Studying philosophy as a seminarian, I had two kinds of professors: One kind told me that, as seminarians, we were to read great minds like Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Durkheim, and Marx only so that we could disprove them. The second kind gave a different advice: "Take for granted that because these are great minds they have something to teach you, something that will much help you, even inside your faith. Be careful, but be open!"
Caution, but openness, is indeed the key: All kingdoms need to be protected. To believe otherwise is to be na´ve. There are dangers in simply opening ourselves naively and indiscriminately to everything and anything that is colorful, full of energy, or bursting with life. Sometimes its sheer power can overwhelm us. In Western society today it is not for lack of exposure to energy that we have a problem. To the contrary, too often today people lack for something they can hang on to morally and religiously.
But sometimes in our church circles, the opposite is true. We are too fearful of energy, especially as it finds expression in art and literature. Goethe once wrote: The dangers of life are many, and safety is one of those dangers. It can be unsettling to read books like A.S. Byatt's, The Children's Book, but perhaps, long range in our lives, it will be more unsettling if we do not.