Why Read Literature at Seminary?
by Hans Decker
I am excited to come to seminary and have the opportunity to study theology for the next four years. Even so, I have promised myself that I will not let my interest in literature subside. Literature is vital because it offers me something that the technical study of theology, as important as it is, cannot give me. Theology is fundamentally the study of God; literature is the mimesis of human experience. Theology provides the framework necessary to evaluate the experiences we learn through literature, but theology does not itself provide those experiences. When Jesus is asked in Luke 10 what we must do to inherit eternal life, he affirms the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Theology seeks to explain the first of these commandments by defining man’s relationship with God. But the lawyer asks Jesus another vital question: “And who is my neighbor?” This is the realm of literature: Jesus answers the question with a story, appealing to the shared human experience of pain, suffering, and grace in order to reveal truth.
Why is it necessary for a Christian to delve into human experience? Because the Gospel is fundamentally relational. It is first about God’s relationship with the individual, and secondly it is about the individual’s relationship with others. If I am able to understand the experiences I share in common with everyone I encounter, then I have a finger on the pulse of the human spirit. At the deepest level, all good literature encounters the questions of what it means to be human. Achilles deals with this question in terms of glory and its inseparable relationship to mortality. Dante approaches it in terms of man’s relationship to God. Elizabeth Bennett sees the question in terms of society and family. Raskolnikov struggles to define the limitations of his humanity in terms of sin, guilt, and grace.
The thing that distinguishes literature from philosophy and even from theology is that it does not present an argument to defend its worldview. When literature argues a point, it ceases to be literature and becomes propaganda. Obviously we might object that good literature is never ambivalent or apathetic. We are not supposed to reach the end of The Iliad and be unsure what conclusions Achilles should have reached about his own mortality and his relationship to the gods. Likewise, Dostoevsky does not intend for his readers to think that if Raskolnikov had just tried a little harder he really could have become the prototypical ubermensch.
So how does literature lead us to these conclusions without presenting arguments? Philosophy and theology both argue in the abstract; literature examines experience and calls on us to reflect on it. Literature does not seek to persuade readers; literature seeks to imitate life. Through this mimesis of human experience, we gain new perspectives on the human struggle to know ourselves. When I read James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, it is unclear to me what Joyce’s own perspective is on Stephen Daedalus’ life choices. Nonetheless, by reading it I am forced to consider both the questions and solutions offered by Stephen at the end of the book. His choices certainly lead to a self-absorbed loneliness. Regardless of whether or not Joyce thinks that Stephen’s life represents the ideal, Stephen’s experience is still true to life. The questions he asks and the answers he offers are important not because they are right but because they are human.
At seminary, I want to study theology to learn about God, and through that study to deepen in my relationship with him. But while I am here, I want to continue to read literature, because through literature I can continue to broaden my understanding of human experience. Through literature I can learn who my neighbor is. Literature is, of course, no substitute for knowing people, just as theology is no substitute for knowing God. But through literature, I can take a step towards learning to love my neighbor as myself as Jesus commands.
Hans Decker is a first-year student in the M.Div. pastoral studies program.
If you would like to join us in considering literary works, come to Writers and Readers on September 24th.