Reading the Vision: In Search of a Reason to Run
An artist once gave me an original drawing—a prophet, with perceptive dark eyes that challenge me whenever I glance his way. In the lower left corner, Bruce inscribed words from Habakkuk 2:2: “Write the vision on tables, so he who reads it may run.” It struck me deeply as a writer, articulating as it does my intuitively felt understanding of the purpose of my craft, but it also reminds me of why I read: to find that vision on the “tables” of others, to discover how truth and hope might be formed in my own life, might grow into wisdom to inform the words I use, not only in my writing, but in my conversation, my classroom discussions, even my prayers. Annie Dillard reminds us in The Writing Life that we read because we seek the mystery of meaning:
Why are we reading if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? […] Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?
We read, in other words, seeking the eternal vision that tells us life has purpose, that vision that wise writers offer us in order that we may run, inspired to live this journey with passionate commitment to something greater than our mere selves.
I was read to from infancy, and have read voraciously since. Because my parents were themselves readers and wise, they allowed me a good deal of freedom—but always kept the best in front of me. My own shelves, a whole wall Daddy built into my room, held Alcott and Beatrix Potter, Heidi and Black Beauty, Twain and Jack London, multitudes of fantasy and science fiction. On the family room shelves, along with history and biography, I first encountered many of the classics: Dickens and Dumas, Hugo and Conan Doyle, Kipling, Verne, Carroll … . Today hundreds of books line our walls; when my longsuffering husband built a wall of shelves in my new study, I filled most of them within months. From Kempis to Merton, from Hopkins to Cairns, from Dostoevsky to Koontz, they hold their places because they offer me truth about the human condition and how we may live well in a fallen world.
Many of these are expository—books on education, spiritual growth and theology, history, and so on. They are important and I love them; we need facts and analysis, theory, doctrine, philosophy. But my favorites have always been the ones that show, the literature: fiction, poetry, memoir, the familiar essay. These, as one of my students aptly described it, “put flesh on theory,” making us want to emulate virtue and flee vice. They do this because we ourselves are in a story, and we want that story to have meaning. The stories we read show us ways we can choose to live our own characters day by day; as John Gardner puts it in On Moral Fiction, “True art […] establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns.”
We can be told, and believe, that righteousness is its own reward—but when we watch the courage of Atticus Finch or the integrity of Galahad or the compassion of Jean Valjean, we see why we would want to live righteous lives. We can be told, and believe, that it is better to enter heaven with one eye or one hand than hell intact,—but when we watch the mad arrogance of Kurtz or the monomania of Shylock or the power-hungry cruelty of Saruman, we see why we want to avoid living for false ideals. And we can be told that good and evil are mixed within us all, that the image of God is never entirely lost no matter how marred and distorted—but when we watch Raskolnikov still and always being drawn to the voice of his conscience, when we watch Lear play the fool and find redemption through the love he shares with Cordelia, when we watch Julia Flyte choose God over Charles Ryder despite her deepest human longings—we see ourselves, writ large or writ small but either way ourselves, and we see our need for mercy and our need to give mercy to others.
I write here of moral art, of course, of literature that is true to human nature. Gardner defines art as true “when it has a clear positive moral effect, presenting valid models for imitation, eternal verities worth keeping in mind, and a benevolent vision of the possible which can inspire and incite human beings toward virtue, toward life affirmation as opposed to destruction or indifference.” Immoral art exists, of course, art that is propaganda or ear-tickling lies or falsehoods about the benefits of vice, and we must learn to be discerning enough not to allow the aesthetic excellence of immoral works to draw us into affirming their worldview. But to avoid art generally because some is not edifying is counter-productive at best; for it is art that opens the door to truth, beauty, and goodness in ways no sermon or treatise—however necessary and accurate—ever can. A business major in my Introduction to Literature course one semester expressed this: “I thought I would just endure this class,” he admitted candidly. “I’ve never believed literature could have any relevance or importance to me. But I’m beginning to see that it shows us how people have tried to answer the most important questions—who are we and how should we live? Even with my worldview classes, I’d never have really understood some of those answers without these stories.”
This is why true literature has endured throughout history: it shows us honestly the reality of the world’s brokenness but also what it means to live the virtues that can make us better people, that can help us know how to alleviate some of the world’s inescapable suffering and offer comfort and wisdom within it.
In fact, the beauty of the Scriptures themselves teaches us the importance of literature; they are not dry-as-dust treatises on dull and burdensome obedience: they are a story—our story, the story—containing narratives both factual and fictional, poetry, allegory, song; even the doctrine is mostly contained within letters addressed to specific people with specific needs in living their own stories. The Scriptures thus move and delight us, their eloquence makes us laugh, cry, feel compassion, know conviction of sin, and experience righteous anger; they kindle our desire to know, within the circumstances of this fallen world, the One who has given them to us. Think of Abraham and Isaac, the martyrdom of Stephen, the music and poetry of the psalms, the woman and her lost coin … and, arching over all, the Creation, the Fall, the Redemption.
We could, surely, live on the Scriptures alone and never plumb their depths. But God has also graced us with artists who tell us the human story in new ways for every generation, so that we may see, across centuries and cultures, the same truths: we are fallen, and we need redemption. Even literature which stops short of revealing the ultimate Source of that redemption—by ignorance or by design—causes us to consider our condition and long for something to transcend the daily frustrations and failures and sufferings.
Unfortunately, in today’s evangelical world where I’ve spent much of my adult life, there often tends to be a suspicion of art generally. Just as Cromwell banned the theatre in England, some Christians today fear that art is inherently immoral, and that its pursuit, by artist or audience, is gravely dangerous for the soul. Art is indeed dangerous, but there are different kinds of danger and we do well to discern which is to be avoided and which to be embraced. Sadly, some evangelicals do not make this distinction. When they accept art at all, it is only for a utilitarian purpose—to teach the gospel—and not for the sake of beauty or a genuine, complex exploration of the human condition.
Of course the church should have its art that directly celebrates the wonder of the gospel; consider the great hymns, the lovely iconic art of stained glass, the paintings of Michaelango, the allegories of Bunyan and Dante. But our current church art too often tends toward me-centered superficiality, toward poorly-crafted propaganda instead of profound vision. Too many praise songs celebrate the singer instead of the Savior; too much art is what I can only call “modern cute”; too many stories are shallow moralistic tales. As a writer, I especially grieve for the loss of wisdom when we reject the reading of true poetry and fiction.
Of course some art does endorse falsehood. Art that sanctions nihilism, that fosters cynicism, that entices us to call evil good—whether promiscuity or gluttony, hatred of authority or mockery of religion, degradation of ordinary goodness—this art ought to be condemned. Unfortunately too many Christians who rightly fear such art have colluded, as artists and consumers, in creating a supposedly “safe” art that is more concerned with avoiding obvious outward sins (such as sex before marriage) than with exploring the reality of the human condition. This has led inevitably to the huge numbers of mendacious works lining Christian bookstore shelves, either putting a veneer of spirituality on the world’s values or giving merely a surface appearance of orthodox behavior without Truth or Beauty. I find it appalling that those who would never try to read Dante or Donne, Milton or Dostoevsky, Woiwode or Berry, Cairns or Hopkins, fatten themselves on such works.
Take, for example, the “Christian inspirational” novels which so many young women indulge in: Harlequins without the pre-marital sex whose “bad boy” characters, from the moment of dramatic conversion by way of the “good girl’s” witness, never again doubt or fall to temptation. These novels offer the dangerous and foolhardy message that “love” is enough, that God will honor our disobedience to the clear precepts of His Word, that conversion to Christianity means instant sanctification in which faith will always immediately overcome sorrow or suffering without real struggle. A steady dose of such lies is sure to make us discontent with our lives and the imperfect people who will always surround us.
Another danger of these and most other modern “Christian” novels—such as the wildly popular apocalyptic and spiritual warfare genres—is the almost universally poor craftsmanship. Filling our minds with poorly written drivel—even when it isn’t theologically suspect, as much of it is—makes them rebel against the thoughtful work needed to love the complex style and content of great literature. I weary every semester at the this-is-so-hard meme of so many students about anything with long sentences or unfamiliar vocabulary, much less figurative language or meanings to be gained by inference. By 18 they should have had plenty of practice at reading good poetry and fiction as well as complex nonfiction; instead, they have been trapped in simplistic, solipsistic habits, both by a lack of training and practice and by a constant indulgence in shallow visual media that requires little thought. It is the propagandistic, poorly crafted works most accessible to such readers that offer the lies and wasted time we should fear, not those works of true literature that seriously explore the human condition in all its agony and glory.
But even when Christians do not condone indulgence in such works and do not fear some inherent immorality in art, there is still often a sense that spending much time with even the best of it is wasteful, and very likely demonstrates an unhealthy desire to escape reality. Should we not keep ourselves firmly grounded in the “real world”?
I think I may have believed this for a time, and sometimes felt my constant reading to be a guilty pleasure. Certainly I was looking for relief from pain—so much around me: a detested war my adored older brother fought in; racial tension and even riots on my own school grounds; assassinations—Bobby Kennedy’s just days after I’d braved crowds terrifying to a claustrophobic in order to shake his hand; the violent deaths—a car wreck and a murder—of two young men I had worshipped from afar; and a growing intense realization of my own imperfections and inadequacies, my own hurtful and impatient nature, with no seeming way to change, to really be the “good girl” that everyone seemed to consider me. Good books helped to keep me alive in the midst of it all.
But the books I loved had pain in them too; they were not idealized utopias or superficial lies about perfected human nature—and I realized at some point that I was not really seeking in them a different world but a way to live well in this one; even my beloved fantasy and science fiction was really about human nature. I didn’t fully understand then what had made this world the suffering place it is, but I knew that it wasn’t meant to be this way, and that there had to be ways to make it at least a little better, to mitigate some of the pain, to be the kind of person who didn’t add to it more than one could help.
This is what the artist does: he creates his vision of what should be so that we will see it, share it, be moved by it to act in certain ways. Through the delight the medium brings us, he moves us beyond our tendency to remain centered on our mundane concerns and the daily round of survival toward vision and a desire to live better in the world. Sir Phillip Sidney, in his 1583 “Defense of Poesy,” argues that history can be less effective than poetry (all art) in teaching virtue, because it is constrained by facts, and the world too often rewards vice and punishes virtue; the poet is free to show us the ideal. He also argues that philosophy (or doctrine) can fail to teach as effectively as story because its abstract and esoteric methods will too often fail to move the reader to action. The philosopher (theologian) can show us the way, but it takes the poet to offer the same truths “with words set in [such] delightful proportion” that lazy men, and even “hard-hearted and evil men,” will willingly listen and thus “see the form of goodness [and love it] ere themselves be aware, as if they took a medicine of cherries.” Because the poet shows virtue “in her best colors,” readers wish to love and follow her; because the poet shows evil men receiving the justice due them, readers wish to avoid their fate by avoiding their flawed choices. Therefore, since poetry more readily moves us than history and philosophy, “ink and paper cannot be to a more profitable purpose employed.”
A young black man from inner-city Cincinnati one day asked if I would help him understand a poem he’d chosen to write about, Langston Hughes’ “Harlem.” His classmates were busied with other in-class work, so we made ourselves at home on the hallway floor. As we worked through the various images of “a dream deferred”—drying like a raisin, festering like a sore, stinking like rotting meat, crusting over, sagging, exploding—he gave me his own stories of how people he knew had allowed their deferred dreams to do all those things to them: become old and dry with despair, develop embittered souls, turn to drugs or crime, even commit suicide. He kept saying, “That’s just what it’s like; that’s what happened to my friends; this is so true.” And he wrote about his own dreams and his deep desire not to die—literally or figuratively—entrapped in a ghetto of self-created limitations.
More than two centuries after Sidney, Percy Bysshe Shelley makes many of the same arguments in his own “Defence of Poetry,” and explains how the imagination aids us in one of our most valuable tasks as human beings—developing empathy for others: “The great secret of morals is love,” he writes; “[a] man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination […] . Poetry strengthens [imagination …] in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.”
One way of developing empathy is through our own experience, of course, but we cannot—and would not want anyone to—experience every kind of sin and sorrow in order to understand how others think and feel. In the Christian college where I teach, I observe a not uncommon tendency for our young people to be overly harsh in their judgment of certain unrighteous choices that seem to them obvious—why, they wonder, would anyone become addicted to drugs, say, or kill an unborn child? To counter this, one of the stories I often teach is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which a young woman traveling Europe with an older man during the economic boom of the 1920s finds herself pregnant and strongly pressured to have an abortion. My students want to read the story hopefully and are often horrified at being led to the nearly inescapable conclusion that she is going to give in to that pressure. But as they attend to the details of the story—the girl’s circumstances, her natural desires for security and love, the man’s inexorable manipulative play on those desires, her inability to put a name to her intuitive sense that the choice is wrong—they begin to put themselves into her place and feel what she must feel, feel why she would choose the abortion, and thus their compassion is awakened; the discussion often turns then to how this compassion can help them to act in genuine love for those caught in hopelessness.
Every piece of true literature holds this potential to wake us. Once a student was touched by Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s short story “Matryona’s Home,” in which the narrator speaks harshly to his landlady hours before she dies in a train wreck. He is dismayed that he has no opportunity to apologize or to show her his deep appreciation. My student wrote that as she reviewed this story for our exam, she was reminded of a broken friendship—and was compelled to set it right before another hour passed, not daring to risk the inevitable regret of continuing to ignore the sin that had created a wedge between her and her friend. She knew the doctrines, that she was called by God to reconciliation, to ask and give forgiveness—but it was story that made her need for obedience real to her, that moved her to act on what she knew.
Dorothy Sayers, in Thrones, Dominations, has Harriet Vane express to Lord Peter doubts about the value of her work, suggesting that the writing of popular detective novels is perhaps terribly frivolous in light of great literature such as Crime and Punishment, as well as the solving of real-life crimes. Lord Peter replies, “You seem not to appreciate the importance of your special form. […] Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a world in which wrongs are righted, and villains are betrayed by clues that they did not know they were leaving. A world in which murderers are caught and hanged, and innocent victims are avenged, and future murders are deterred.”
When Harriet protests that such a world is “just a vision,” not the way life is, Lord Peter reminds her that sometimes justice does prevail, and tells her that such an idealistic vision can carry great value: “Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true. Of course, people read them for fun, for diversion. […] But underneath they feed a hunger for justice […]. [Y]ou show them by stealth the orderly world in which we should all try to be living.”
Sayers writes truth here: even in an age of increasing relativism and nihilism, the books and movies that often garner the most fans are ones that do indeed offer a vision of a world in which true values—justice, sacrifice, redemption, compassion—are shown to be at least possible despite the chaos and brokenness that surround us.
James Baldwin, in his 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues,” gives us a compelling picture of the role of art in helping us realize the possibility of hope and beauty in the midst of a broken and suffering world. It is about Sonny, a jazz musician, and his older brother, the story’s narrator, who live in Harlem in the 1950s. The brothers have been effectively estranged since their mother’s death, and the story follows their tentative, anxious move toward reconciliation after Sonny’s arrest and treatment for heroin addiction. But at its deepest level it is about suffering—how we respond to it and the salutary role that art can play in that response if we will let it.
Sonny has tried to escape suffering by losing himself in drugs—not in his music, as some first misread the story. His music acknowledges and plays forth suffering—it is the blues, after all—but he has been unable to find a way not to be overwhelmed by that suffering. So he has turned to the heroin that has surrounded him since childhood. He tries to explain to his brother that desire for escape, at the same time acknowledging that, despite its ability to make the user feel in control and powerful, heroin also made him able to terribly hurt both himself and others.
The narrator tells Sonny that of course there’s suffering, it’s inevitable, but why not “just take it”? Sonny rightly points out that this stoicism is only another form of escape—and we have seen its results. The narrator is a schoolteacher, a husband and father who meets his obligations and lives a decent life by any account. Yet his stoicism toward suffering, his refusal to feel it and react to it, has made him feel hopeless about his students ever creating better lives, and he can be condescending and even callous toward those who do not live as he does. Besides his angry rejection of Sonny, for example, he snaps harshly at an addict who knows Sonny, “Don’t tell me your sad story […] .” He “just takes” suffering until his daughter Gracie dies of polio—and then he finally reaches out to Sonny because “my suffering made his real.” Experience, the worst a parent can know, gains his attention, but he needs more, and he and Sonny are both ready now to understand a better response.
And a better response is available, one that is not a futile attempt at escape and which is made possible by art. The artist can take the material the world offers—the darkness and the light—and create from it a stay against despair. He incorporates into his own life all of life, and he gives it back in his art, “as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever.” He tells us the tale of history, of human nature: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”
As the narrator listens to Sonny trying to find his way into and through suffering in his music, he is himself finally moved to a new and clearer understanding of the suffering of his parents; he at last faces and is enabled to release the suppressed grief over his daughter’s death. It is “only a moment”: suffering will not end because of its expression in art, yet the music has shown him that neither is suffering the end of life. There is more, the music reminds him; there is the possibility of transcendence, of delight, of beauty. The cup of trembling may glow above Sonny’s head as he plays—lost now in the vision—but we know that the cup will someday be drained and destroyed.
Baldwin offers us a tale freighted with darkness—addiction, death, abuse, oppression, hopelessness—and yet shot through with light—a beautifully complex tune whistled through a harsh and chaotic schoolyard, a smile revealing youthful beauty still alive beneath an abused exterior, forgiveness, reconciliation. But we must listen; the tale must be heard, the narrator says, not just told. Only if we hear the tale will we realize with the artist that “deep water and drowning are not the same thing.” We must attend, risk immersing ourselves in this way of knowledge and wisdom. The stories can only work in us if we let them fully in.
One afternoon my youngest was reading Tolkien when I asked him a question about his schoolwork for the day. After a moment, he looked up and stared blankly in my general direction, blinking away confusion. Then he remarked, “I couldn’t figure out where I was. It felt like I was really right there in Moria, watching Gandalf fall into the chasm . …” I felt a pang of remorse for dragging him awake, because I know exactly what he had just experienced. Curled up with a library book in a chair or sofa on the quiet screened-in porch of the first home I remember, I learned to answer my own mother with appropriate sounds without ever registering her actual words. Later, I would stare at her annoyed countenance in bewilderment: “You never told me to do that … .”
The final lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” uses the sea as an archetypal image of the imagination, an image that perfectly captures a reader’s bewilderment at those moments:
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed in seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
Any well-written book does this to me: I am drawn into its reality until my immediate physical surroundings seem strange and alien when I’m forced back into them, drowning in a world less real to me than that of the imagination.
Indeed, the books I have lost myself in, from the Hardy Boys to King Lear, remind me that this world—with its suffering and chaos and seeming absurdity—is not in fact the “real” world; it is only a broken image, filled with shadows, of a glory we can’t grasp except intuitively, through the imagination. The world I wake up to, feel myself drowning in every day, is not the world we were created for; we were created for Eden, for perfect harmonious communion with God and man and responsible, creative dominion over nature. My immersion in literature, then, has never been escapism; it has been and remains a seeking for an ideal which does exist, which somewhere in the deepest recesses of our souls we know exists, if we could only find our way.
Certainly such immersion is dangerous. Yet is not all that’s best in life dangerous?
George MacDonald’s Phantastes is a parable of this longing, this seeking for the ideal. The narrator, Anodos, has spent his youth longing to find and enter the land of Faery: that place where the tales we hear are the stuff of life itself. On coming of age, he mysteriously receives his wish.
It is a dangerous journey, indeed. Anodos is pursued by a demonic spirit which desires to crush out his life, but, far worse, in his willful disregard for the wisdom of others, he looses his shadow self, which haunts him at every turn with evil, selfish actions, causing him to harm many of those he meets. Faery, too, is east of Eden. But he also finds unexpected help and wisdom, he is forgiven, and he is given good deeds to do in order to learn that courage is made of self-sacrifice and humility, a lesson which comes at great cost—cost to his comfort, his reputation, and at last his very life. Then, upon awaking back into his ordinary life, he realizes that he has been shown how to live sacrificially, to die to self each day, in a world fraught with danger and evil yet shot through with hope and beauty as well—and it is up to him to choose the righteous path.
Yes, the immersion—the loss—of the self in literature carries great danger, just as the loss of the self in the Scriptures, in the love of God, in service to one’s neighbor, all carry great danger. These things challenge our self-centeredness and our complacency, challenge us to become vulnerable to pain, including the pain of failure, as we begin to see ourselves as we are and seek to learn how we may sacrifice our comfort and well-being for the sake of others. Yet, are these not risks worth the taking—to catch even a glimpse of the ideal, to live even a moment that vision playing ever on the edges of heart and soul, knowing that what we see here—our supposed “reality”—cannot possibly be all there is, or, God help us, the best there is.
It’s summer, time for some reading I just want to do, and I’ve finally found Charles Williams’ novel The Greater Trumps, one I’ve been wanting to revisit since I was drawn to Christ in college. It rivets me, draws me in, and I lose myself to the story and especially to the character of Sybil, the calm center of difficult and even chaotic circumstances. I have grown a little beyond her niece, Nancy, who has yet to understand that love requires sacrifice, but I do not yet see myself in Sybil, much as I long to. She does not fret when her niece and nephew unkindly tease her and their uncle (Sybil’s brother); she does not succumb to irritation at her brother’s fussy attempts to control his world (including her); she can speak and act with quiet authority when the world surrounds her with confusing and impossible events and images—a madwoman seeking an Egyptian god whom she thinks is her son, live Tarot figures swirling dangerously through an unnatural blizzard, an old Gypsy fortuneteller helplessly mired in despair … and her calm love through it all opens the doors to love, as well as courage and hope and compassion, for those around her.
Seeking her secret, on my second, slower read I am open to hear the narrator’s definition of responsibility: “that burden which is only given in order to be relinquished, that task put into the hands of man in order that his own choice may render it back to its creator, that yoke which, once wholly lifted and put on, is immediately no longer to be worn.” Here, I see, is the reason Sybil is as she is: she has lifted and relinquished the yoke of responsibility and thus lives in “the freedom of a love” that is single-minded—focused on only One being, who Himself loves those around her through her, rather than she trying to love them through her own human efforts.
I know all this; it’s in the Scriptures and I’ve read and heard it how many times. But Williams has made it real through Sybil, and I know in a new and compelling way that it’s possible to live in wisdom. Once again I have found the vision written on tables, and have been challenged to discover how to live it out; once again I long to be what I was created to be.