Stories and Wisdom

From my Colson Center article ‘Fiction and the Christian Faith

The type of wisdom we gain from story likewise arises from grappling with the complexities and ambiguities of experience, but in this case experiences we have shared with fictional characters. Good fiction (whether a novel or film) draws you into the paradoxes that underlie the story, so that even when it is finished the story continues to haunt you, forcing you to brood over it. I have in mind some of the stories of Flannery O’Connor right now, which I always read whenever I travel. These stories are filled with haunting moments that work on the reader long after you have put down the book….

Another way to make the same point would be to say that the value of good fiction (whether in a novel or a film) isn’t that it teaches you a lesson, at least not in the straight-forward and didactic sense that we would expect from a fable. This is where so many of the recent “Christian films” miss the point completely. Many of these films take cheap short-cuts and simply spoon-feed a quick lesson to the viewer instead of doing the far more difficult (but ultimately, more rewarding and long-lasting) work of taking us on a journey that the viewer then has to come to terms with for himself. Now to be sure there is always some kind of a lesson or logos in every story, but in a good story it is diffused throughout it rather like a lump of sugar that has dissolved throughout the entire cup of tea.

Christianity and the Playground Mentality

From ‘The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars‘:

Among evangelicals from legalistic backgrounds [we often encounter] the notion that the only objective criteria for making decisions is sin-avoidance. In areas where the category of sin does not apply, the only criteria to influence our decisions is personal subjective choice. There are thus no categories with which to talk meaningfully about the telos of a thing, or the internal logic of nature’s ordering, independent of moral questions about right and wrong.

This type of abstraction from teleology turns creation into a playground for us to do with as we like provided we do not sin, while the criteria for determining what counts as sin is truncated to specific divine commands interpreted independently from the teleological-directedness of how creation is.

Teleology as the Answer to Subjectivism

From ‘Food and Teleology‘:

…there is a whole realm inquiry that is prior to questions of sin, namely questions about what is most fitting according to the nature of a thing. To understand the nature of a thing, we must appreciate what is the end, or telos for which it was created, and then respect that end unless it interferes with the telos of something more important.

One of the reasons why it is hard for Christians to embrace a theology of food is because our nominalist presuppositions rob us of the categories with which to talk meaningfully about the telos of a thing (whether it be an animal or a human being), independent to questions about right and wrong. Thus, the only objective criteria many Christians recognize for making decisions in the area of food is sin-avoidance, and since sin is not a category that applies to food in the New Testament era, it is assumed that the only criteria we should recognize is personal subjective choice.

However, both producers and consumers of food would benefit from a strong dose of realist metaphysics. According to the right ordering of our nature as human beings, is it more fitting to eat stuff that was grown in the ground or produced in a laboratory? According to the right ordering of a cow, is it more fitting for a farmer to feed his cows grass or recycled animal products? According to the right ordering of a chicken, is it more fitting to treat them like bees and cram tens of thousands of them together in a barn?”

Reading Books and Reading People

From ‘Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (3)’:

Developing the habits of mind necessary for reading good literary works reverses the tendency of our digital distractions and cultivates some of the same cognitive muscles we use when empathizing with others. Conversely, cognitive scientists have found that spending too much time on the computer stunts development of the frontal lobes, the part of the brain involved in empathizing and identifying the meaning of other people’s facial expressions.

Aristotle once commented that the mark of an educated man is the ability to entertain a thought even when you personally do not agree with that thought. In my experience I have found that the type of people who can do that—who can put my thoughts in their own words even if they do not personally agree with those thoughts—are often people who appreciate literary fiction and the finer arts. By contrast, those who limit their reading to popular fiction, or to biographies and didactic moralistic novels, tend to be more mentally rigid and to lack the type of cognitive elasticity required for understanding others.

Having noticed this, it came as no surprise when a study was published last month showing that reading literary fiction increases the type of emotional intelligence needed to empathize with others. Summarizing the study’s findings in the New York Times, Pam Belluck reported that the study “found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking. The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”

Interestingly, the same study found that reading shallow popular fiction didn’t yield the same results. This is probably because popular fiction allows the reader to be more passive. Popular fiction doesn’t require us to attend to the emotional nuance and complexity that we meet in literary fiction and—crucially—in real life. It is surely no coincidence that in the English language we speak about being able “to read people.”