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Posts Tagged ‘Faith and literature’

In my previous post, I took Matthew Walther to task for his incredibly poor attempt to show why Game of Thrones is bad for our souls. To be clear, I do not take issue with his not liking the show or with his thinking it is spiritually dangerous. I know good Catholics, well-educated in the faith who watch the show, and I know good Catholics, well-educated in the faith who think the show immoral. The goodness or evilness of any show or book with widespread mass appeal is certainly a question worth pursuing. Additionally, the point of my response was not to defend Game of Thrones; it was to show that Mr. Walther had utterly failed in his attempt to identify the show as obscene and, therefore, as bad for us. If someone wants to argue for the show’s obscenity, please do, but do so intelligently.

Normally, I ignore such poorly reasoned diatribes. This one, however, kept gnawing at me. Yes, it disturbs me that someone who writes something so thoughtless and devoid of Catholic life apparently has some degree of influence on the thought and attitudes of many Catholics. (I saw the article because a former peer with a master in theology thought it was fit to share on social media. I have since learned that Mr. Walther also writes for the Catholic Herald and the National Catholic Register). However, this disturbance doesn’t explain the reason for my reaction being so visceral. It was personal. His words cut to my heart. His words were an implicit attack on something fundamental to my faith: the mystery of the human and Divine, and the encounter of the two. Literature was a key factor in my truly opening up to this mystery, but literature only became so in the light of Catholic faith. And it was Catholic authors such as G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor who revealed this to me. When Mr. Walther attacked Faerie and the grotesque in literature, he attacked a key factor in my life of faith. My previous response was superficial. It was a sufficient response because Mr. Walther’s own piece was superficial, no depth was required to answer him. However, the problems his piece implicitly raised concerning a proper understanding of faith and literature merit their own attention. In this post, I aim to provide a starting point for consideration.

Mr. Walther takes issue with the fantasy genre and the grotesque (which he immediately labels as obscene). He bemoans the lack of realism in much literature and film today, and considers dramas that deal with “morals, manners, marriage, and money” to be the stuff of emotionally mature adults, over and against the “nerd” created dramas of dragons, monsters, and magic. Such an attitude takes life out of art and strangles faith.

In her essay, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor speaks of the drive within our society that stories be realistic. The literary critics of her time meant the stories should accurately depict what is typical, the ordinary day-to-day life. Readers should be able to identify with the protagonist from their own ordinary experiences. The literati also said that stories should have social impulses, speaking to our times with its own particular social and psychological questions. There is a place for this. To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman are examples of wonderful literature that meet the critics’ criteria. Flannery O’Connor, however, is not that type of writer. She states that she is often accused of not giving an accurate depiction of life in Georgia. The reason, of course, is that she is not trying to, at least not on the surface of the matter. She depicts a deeper realism in her writing – a realism that is perennial, which goes beyond the mere psychological and particular social conditions of the time. Her realism is the divine penetration of humanity. It is exactly at this point that the grotesque enters into Flannery’s writing. (See my previous post for examples of this). We are fallen and we live in a fallen world. There is a darkness that has entered our hearts and the world. How else is the penetration of the Divine into this darkened world and our darkened hearts to be depicted other than as the quiet whisper that in its omnipotence works through our sin, not despite it? Flannery O’Connor’s stories are the literary illustration of John 1:5, a testament of hope.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor: Story-teller of Divine Hope

(Click HERE for a reading of the complete essay by Ms. O’Connor, herself).

This use of the grotesque in literature is not limited to a specific genre. For instance, it can be used in fantasy, that genre to which Game of Thrones belongs and on which Mr. Walther appears to look down. While the grotesque is capable of fostering an encounter with the Divine, the fantasy genre is capable of unfurling the magic of creation before us. A wonder of the mystery of creation is as important as a proper understanding of the encounter of the human and Divine for a right faith. And this must be an actuality of the heart for right faith to be rightly lived. J.R.R. Tolkien had a breathtaking awareness of the unfathomable depths and richness of creation, and he says much concerning the connection of fairy-stories (of which fantasy is a type) to the mystery of creation in his essay, “On Fairy-stories”. This rather long essay has a plenitude of rich fertile material. There is much in it that relates to a few things Mr. Walther tossed in the air. However, as I stated in my previous post, it is not for us to juggle that for which he is not willing to take responsibility. As tempting as it is to dive into the sea of wonder found in Tolkien’s essay, we must abbreviate our examination of the connection between fantasy and creation.

Often times people think of elves and other such folk as supernatural. This is wrong. In contrast to fairies, it is man who is supernatural; fairies are “far more natural than he. Such is their doom.” And in a fallen world doom it is. The dwindling of Faerie, the diminishing of elves and other such creatures belonging to the fairy realm, is not unusual in fantasy. This is the way in The Lord of the Rings and Hell Boy for example. Their dwindling always corresponds with the increasing of man. In this we see the evidence that Faerie is far more natural than man and man is far more supernatural because in this we see the truth revealed by God in the early chapters of Genesis. After the Fall, man continued to increase and multiply, and progressively became more corrupt and ruined God’s creation in the building and spreading of cities. As we move further from God so to do we move further from creation; as we rebel against our Creator, also do we rebel against the stuff from which we were formed. But this is not natural to us. Despite all we do the inclination of our hearts our primal desire is for communion with God and with all living things in Him. Fantasy assists in achieving the satisfaction of this primal desire by drawing us back to nature, to a world more real than the “real world”. How?

Fantasy is that form of art that expresses the “notions of ‘unreality’” (those imagined things not of our world) with “the inner consistency of reality.” When this is done successfully it has an “arresting strangeness.” The arresting strangeness is fantasy’s advantage and disadvantage. It is disadvantageous because people do not like being arrested. They do not like to be jolted from their stupor and monotony, whether it is the monotony of the same thing every day or the monotony of finding a new thing every day. But it is precisely the arresting strangeness of fantasy that brings us out of our world and brings us into the real world. Indeed, this jolt allows us to escape. Escape is not desertion. It is not a coward’s run from Walther’s tried and true “morals, manners, marriage, and money.” No! It is a recovery of that which was lost, an amazement at that which has been familiar, and this results in conversion, of which, Evelyn Waugh said “is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-glass World, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.” This recovery of a true sense of the natural wonder of God’s creation, this stepping out of a Looking-glass World enables us to see the beauty of the world. It also enables us to truly see the ugliness that we have done to it. Fantasy may very well be an escape, but only to open one’s eyes. Articulating this is difficult, so I will simply share my own experience:

There is a factory just south of my alma mater. I do not know what kind of factory, but being in steel country I always assumed it was that. It is quite large and quite ugly. The darkness of night does not hide it for it has many lights throughout, and there is a tall narrow tower at the top of which burns a flame. There was a clear view of it from my dormitory and the residents called the factory “Mordor” and the flame, of course, was the “Eye of Sauron”. The names, however, fall short for the place is in actuality a good deal uglier than Mordor and the flame less interesting and potent than the Eye of Sauron.

I would not have recognized the degree of ugliness if not for the fantasy that came from Tolkien’s mind and his act of “subcreation.” Without him and his work, I would have merely accepted the factory with mild disinterest. That the names fall short, draws our attention to another truth of fantasy: It cannot be more beautiful or more ugly than the world in which we live, but the otherness of it gives us the eyes to see our world. It does this because it is a story that images the Story.

This last point brings us back to the grotesque. The Story, which is the history of the world and its salvation, is quite gruesome, filled with much that is obscene, and quite disheartening. Then there is the unexpected joyous turn. Yet how difficult it is to see that joyous turn today when we are tossed and thrown in the storm of human degradation. It is no accident that the wanderer of the Fairy realm and the grotesque story-teller of Divine Hope were also able to say:

Tolkien on Eurcharist

O'Connor on Eucharist

Amen.

 

 

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