Believing Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Reading and Writing Literature from a Perspective of Faith

Editor’s note: Prof. Czer was asked to explore the question, what makes writing “Christian”? She answered from the perspective of her specialty, literature. The reader is invited to reflect on how her insights might apply to the similar question, what makes a movie, TV show, or other media production “Christian”?

by Prof. Ramona Czer

I need the poem to enchant me, to shock me awake, to shift my waking consciousness and open the world to me, to open me up to the world—to the word—in a new way.  I am pried open.  The spiritual desire for poetry can be overwhelming, so much do I need it to experience and name my own perilous depths and vast spaces, my own well-being.

Edward Hirsch, from How to Read a Poem

How is a Christian reader or writer elementally different from a non-Christian one?  When I became changed through faith in Christ’s redemption, my set of core beliefs changed, which now directly influences how I think, daydream, work, play, create etc. Remember when Alice told the White Queen, “One can’t believe impossible things,” the Queen answered, in a huff, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice….  When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day.  Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”?  That’s just what we Christian do everyday of our lives—believe six impossible things before breakfast.

We believe…

  1. thatthe all-powerful God of the Universe created me and all people in his own image,
  2. thathe loves me, wants a personal relationship with me, and when I exercise the free will he gave me and turn my back on him, he still loves me and all people, so much in fact that he offered us a way out of the dark abyss of our sin,
  3. thathe came to earth as man and as God, divinity clothed in human flesh, a living, breathing, feeling, hurting person just like me, just like all of us,
  4. thathe died on a cross, though sinless, to atone for my sins, and the sins of everyone,
  5. thathe rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven to prepare a place for me, and all believers, forever with him,
  6. thathe lives within me and all believers everyday, working in me his righteousness, making me his “new creation”—the God of the Universe is the Lord of my body and life!  Amazing!

Because of these beliefs, I can’t think like the world does any longer—the things of God are no longer foolishness to me, and I get the “big picture” in brand new way.  I have what Amy Grant called in one of her early songs “our  Father’s eyes.”  This means that artful creations are different for me too, both those read and experienced and those I create myself.  But I don’t need art to complete or define me, I don’t try to gain fame or notoriety with my art, and I will not allow myself to celebrate or create works that try to drive others to despair, violence, or doubt.

And here are the kinds of questions I ask about an artwork just because I’m a Christian:

  1. How might I find new ways to delight in God’s amazing creation through this work?
  2. How does this work show people struggling with sin or searching for answers to their deepest spiritual needs?
  3. What can I learn from this work about my own sinful tendencies?  Has my conscience been pricked in a new way?  Is God whispering anything to my heart through this story today?
  4. Can I learn anything about the world-views of others from this work, how to live among them with love and honor, how to adjust to their foibles, how to brave confrontations with them about injustices, how to be as sly as a fox and yet as innocent as a dove when speaking or living my beliefs?
  5. Can I get any insights into the ways in which humans are fascinated by and use the story and truth of Christ’s redemption subtly and overtly in their works?  Can I see other religious symbols and motifs being used in ways that are revealing?  How may God work through a work that reveals truths about him, even if it never meant to do that?
  6.  What can I learn from this work about how to speak of spiritual matters more subtly with those who are hungry to confront and understand the bigger issues of life?

As a literature teacher, one of my goals is to help student readers discover ways to make spiritual connections with quality literary works, and eventually to create works themselves that embody everything they are, inside and out.  In other words I strive to use our beliefs and values rather than shuffling them off to the side while we discuss works “objectively,” and yet I also strive to scrupulously avoid didactic, sentimental, or moralistic mindsets. What a delicate balance that is!   The Wonderland of Reading from a Christian Perspective of Literature is full of quagmires—dangerous ground.  How do we wind our way safely?   It’s tempting to just not try, to stick to the safe, high ground and run essentially secular classrooms, allowing obviously religious motifs and content to come up now and then, when appropriate, but rarely encouraging anything more.  You see, it’s just too complex to both encourage “spirited,” spiritual discussions and then, when students go too far, to have to rein in fanatical symbol-making, doctrinal witch-hunts, or author faith judgments. Do I want my classroom to become a training ground for open-minded, deep thinkers or a boot-camp for narrow-minded reactionaries? Surely those aren’t my ONLY choices!

Literature forces us to confront our most basic natures through the fears, desires, failings, and whatnot in the lives of others we wear the skin of for awhile.  This teaches us subtly with every book.  We learn to be compassionate, to see things from various angles people who are nonreaders can’t do nearly as easily and comfortably.  I understand the southern belle mentality AND the freed-slave mentality from reading Gone with the Wind, just as I do Huck and Joe from Huckleberry Finn.  Literature doesn’t do this by teaching us though.  It uses much more friendly means, softer means that remind me of how the Gospel works on our hearts rather than how the Law bludgeons our minds:  it says, come along, stay with us awhile, play sing dance hurt die with us, notice what we notice, what we care about, change a bit because you are us and we are you, and then we’ll say goodbye, and hope you had a nice time.  Do authors hope for more?  Oh, yeah.  Hope to change minds, change lives even. But they don’t insist and browbeat.  Not the best of them. Sometimes they don’t even know WHAT they hope happens, and maybe that’s the best literature of all.  At the very least, they hope to make us look bravely at the truth.  Truth.  Scary thing that.

People who brave the gales of literature battering their souls and minds are truth seekers, adventurers not too much unlike Bilbo, Frodo, and all the other unsung, bumbling heroes of history and myth.  They don’t set out to become wise and brave as they dive in, but the fact that they keep at the task, brave the things happening inside and outside of them, and allow DISCOMFORT to be their fellow-traveler, they come out changed, irrevocably. Frodo and Bilbo didn’t want those changes, fought against them, but because of all that discomfort (the kind a huge long difficult but great piece of literature makes us feel on a small scale) they emerge, even if they had died en route, chiseled and newly sculpted into someone still humble but able to be bowed down to, respected, both by elves and kings.  We also become in possession of a host of practical understandings for everyday life much more quickly than we could if we had to live those lives we follow in fiction and poetry and excellent nonfiction.  We can learn from Jane Eyre how to remain true to ourselves and flee from the easy sensual relationship with a man too weak yet to be an equal and so help him become eventually (for us, or perhaps for someone else) our equal and our soulmate.  We can learn from Jane Austen how NOT to propose to young women, like Darcy has to learn the hard way.  We can learn about depression and suicide and drug use without having to live in a psych ward or shoot up.  We can learn what it is to be hated or persecuted without living in Sudan or Israel. We learn empathy, humility, and courage by feeling and acting vicariously with and against the characters in works of fiction.  They may not be true but they help us formulate our own truths to live by.  Every day in a literature classroom can be an adventure in spiritual growth.

Questions to Grapple With about Overtly Christian Writing

How would you respond to the notion that Christian fiction belongs in the church library, not in the public library?

If some react negatively to “Christian fiction” as a label, what would you use instead? Discuss the assets and liabilities of “inspirational,” “religious,” and “spiritual.”

How easy would it be to identify and classify books as “Christian” fiction? How would you do it?

Is Christian fiction just for Christians?  How might such labeling be a barrier to potential readers who are not yet Christian?

How didactic or preachy is Christian fiction?  In what ways might didacticism decrease the quality of the story? Does not all genre fiction promote values of some kind?

Who decides if a work can be thought of as spiritual or Christian?  Would it be possible to develop guidelines for determining this or would such guidelines be detrimental or inhibiting in any way?

Are there any downsides of controlling art in specific ways? How much should the sensibilities of readers be considered when creating (or publishing) literary works?

Finally, we get to write things, like this poem I wrote in a journal several years ago, not intending to write anything faith-based, just following the vivid image that’d appeared in my mind.  Yet, lo and behold, who I am in Christ intruded.

The Writer

A scarred desk
floating down to rest in a desert—
who sits there, slumped, despondent?
Who can’t see the glittering beauty,
the small mammals poised to delight,
hiding behind rocks?
Who can’t feel the warmth
because he’s dying?
Not in health, but spirit.
The bush never blazes for him,
the sea never parts.
Egyptians beat Israelites daily,
so say the papers,
and still he sits unseeing,
sure that he’s useless for God,
never dreaming of small deeds done well,
of staffs made into magic with a word.
He writes his column
and the words writhe,
but he’s blinded to their life,
never sees in this graphite column
God has placed between his fingers
a snake to wow the wizards,
and proof that someone else
will do the work.

From “Christianity and Literature” by C. S. Lewis, 1939, in Religion and Modern Literature:  Essays in Theory and Criticism, edited by G. B. Tennyson and Edward E. Ericson, Jr. 

Whatever it (a work of art) chooses to do would have to be done by the means common to all literature; it could succeed or fail only by the same excellences and the same faults as all literature; and its literary success or failure would never be the same thing as its obedience or disobedience to Christian principles.

An author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.

A Christian and an unbelieving poet may both be equally original in the sense that they neglect the example of their poetic forbears and draw on resources peculiar to themselves, but with this difference.  The unbeliever may take his temperament and experience, just as they happen to stand, and consider them worth communicating simply because they are facts, or worse still, because they are his.  To the Christian his own temperament and experience, as mere fact and as merely his, are of no value or importance whatsoever:  he will deal with them, if at all, only because they are the medium through which, or the position from which, something universally profitable appeared to him,

From “Novelist and Believer” by Flannery O’Connor, first given as an address at Sweetbriar college in Virginia on March 1963.  Published in Religion and Modern Literature, 1969.

The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.  This in no way hinders his perception of evil but rather sharpens it, for only when the natural world is seen as good does evil become intelligible as a destructive force and as a necessary result of our freedom.

The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character.  Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not.

From “The Relation of Theology to Literary Criticism” by Roy W. Battenhouse, originally from Journal of Bible and Religion, XIII 1945, now published in Religion and Modern Literature.

Poetry must continually deal with the follies, sins, imperfections and hardships which characterize experience in the present world.  Bad poetry occurs, however, when these flaws and imperfections are not rightly seen and correctly assessed.

Christian revelation will not endow him with poetic talent when by nature he has none, nor will it give him good eyes when by nature he has poor ones, but it will offer him the important benefit of “full light.” And if it is true that the light with which an artist sees inclines to affect the justness of his observations, the presence of full light cannot but clarify the issues of proportion and order.