(first in series)

The topic of faith and literature has been on my mind for a couple of weeks because I have been planning my adult education course on the Catholic novel which will take place this coming fall. Each year the course runs on four Monday evenings in the fall and four Monday evenings in the spring. Since the first session, more than 20 years ago, some students and I have read or re-read over 150 Catholic novels. Each session I give one of the lectures and the other three are given by three “guest lecturers” whom I invite. Reading or re-reading Catholic novels has been a real blessing for me. Some of the books have challenged my conscience, all of them have afforded me an opportunity to expand and deepen my Catholic outlook on reality.

Reflecting on the impact that good literature can have on readers I came across an essay by Russell Kirk on what he calls the moral imagination. The essay can be found in
Literature and Belief Vol. 1 (1981), 37-49; also published in Reclaiming Patrimony (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 1982) 45-58. If I had any doubts about the importance of reading good literature, the essay dispelled those doubts.

It also raised new questions for me as I continue to urge students, both at St. John’s University and in adult education courses, not only to read but to read what can have a profound effect on them. Kirk writes the following:

“The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth. The moral imagination was the gift and the obsession of Plato and Virgil and Dante. Drawn from centuries of human consciousness, the concepts of the moral imagination…are expressed afresh from age to age.”

Kirk contrasts the moral imagination with the diabolic imagination, which he characterizes as delighting in the perverse and subhuman:

“This ‘diabolic imagination’ dominates most popular fiction today; and on television and in the theaters, too, the diabolic imagination struts and postures. The other night I lodged at a fashionable new hotel. One could tune the room’s television set to certain movies, for an extra five dollars. After ten o’clock, all the films offered were nastily pornographic. But even the ‘early’ films, before ten, without exception, were products of the diabolic imagination, in that they pandered to the lust for violence, destruction, cruelty, and sensational disorder. Apparently it never occurred to the managers of this fashionable hotel that any of their affluent patrons, of whatever age and whichever sex, might desire decent films….

“What then is the end, object, or purpose of humane letters? Why, the expression of the moral imagination; or, to put this truth in a more familiar phrase, the end of great books is ethical – to teach us what it means to be genuinely human.”

I don’t think Kirk was encouraging authors to preach or proselytize, but I believe he thought great books present important insights into human nature, that this is partly what makes them great. They are also great because their authors are skilled writers who are able to express their insights beautifully. A diet of great books has to influence a reader just as a diet of pornographic books will influence a reader. Reading great books can expand our vision, may deepen our understanding of others and even our understanding of ourselves.

Years ago a priest friend thought I spent too much of my time with discussion groups. I would hazard a guess that in my more than 50 years as a priest I have met with more than 40 discussion groups. My priest friend thought discussion groups were not important because the members did not do anything but talk to one another. I disagreed with him years ago and am even more certain today of the value of discussion groups if the groups are discussing important topics. Talking seriously about what is important with people who take the discussions seriously has to have an impact on members of the group.

To use Kirk’s term, reading and talking about important topics can develop and deepen the moral imagination. If the talk becomes deep, then the participants are sharing what they take to be wisdom. Except for love, there is nothing more important to share. If the talk is challenging, who can predict how people in a discussion group will be influenced? The presence of the Holy Spirit can cause conversion.

Kirk’s view of the moral imagination and of the profound influence that reading can have on people, for well or ill, encourages me to examine my own reading habits and also to promote good reading among others.