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The Importance of Poetry and Fiction for Theologically Encountering Injustice

I don’t read a lot of fiction these days.  I watch a lot of fiction…shows, movies–they require so little energy and attention most of the time.  The passive stance, the motionless eyes, the over-amplified dramatics of sexuality and violence and far-too-easily-resolved conflicts numb the senses after hours of television immersion.  And, some days, for the sake of sanity, that’s an immersion I welcome.  But rarely does it satisfy.

There’s something very concrete about the work of a lone fiction writer.  Something to which television, with its multifaceted cast of hundreds of workers can never compare.  I have always loved this aspect of the world: the story, that is.  And I have always appreciated it best in the form of a novel, read in the recesses of the mind, characters afloat in the life of the imagination.  Rain against the windowpanes.

Theology does not always stir me.

Many moons ago I pursued a graduate degree in English literature while I was serving out my ROTC-owed time in the military.  Your taxes put to good use, I say!  Some days I would show up to my Shakespeare seminar in full work camouflage, attempting to straggle the line between oppressor, rebel, and seeker of wisdom.  I think I landed on the oppressor side too often, my white maleness and military-buzzed head just too much to overcome.

The Composition of Poetry seminar was my favorite.  I remember just being thankful for having an excuse to read poetry.  God forbid someone reads poetry in public.  It’s for a class, I could say, and people would immediately understand.  They might wonder about the whole non-engineering graduate school ordeal in the first place, but referring to a required reading list always put people at ease.  One needn’t feel threatened by someone being forced reading of poetry.

When I was released from the Air Force, I pursued teaching and full-time ministry before I arrived at my current adventures in theology.  The poetics and the poetry were always close at hand.  I still try to keep the volumes where I can see them so I don’t forget my roots: Dante, Eliot, Yeats, Neruda.  So many more.  They started to slip away a bit during my master’s degree in theology, but with so many future pastors surrounding me, I felt safe.  Good pastors are often the best poets: jumbled, compassionate, oblique, frustrated, prayerful, and deeply connected to reality.  Good ministry always rhymes.

Dante: Definitely Good Poetry

A PhD program in theology is another matter.  The pastors went on to pastor; only the crazy ones were left to study for another 3 or 4 or 7 years.  The theology I read now is less poetic, more philosophical. Often more pretentious…but it’s expected, you know. Someone has to break new ground.  Now, I’m sure the best professors are also good poets, but so many of them are more like great editors.  Editors are a beautiful thing in the world, but only rarely are they poets.  Teachers in general are often poetic, but I find teaching more like acting than writing–an endless drama where the students are the beatnik audience who must be lured into the script you’re performing.

One year into my doctoral work, and I find myself in desperate need of poetry and fiction.  Too much non-fiction; too much politics; too much language study with no love of language and words; too much theology with so few pastors; too much reality filtered only by news media and commentary. Religious discussions transformed into politics, tragedy transformed into news.  The Sandy Hook massacre–like so many before it–is a tragic disgrace to our political system and way of life in America, yet it remained in the headlines for how long?  How long until Trayvon Martin is just another sad historical marker in the struggle against racism and injustice, both within and without the legal system?

God help me, I need some good fiction.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Copyright 1982 Alice Walker, Published by Harcourt.Enter Alice Walker and The Color Purple.  I saw an ad recently that our local civic theater is performing the musical version of the book in the Fall, and something within me said i need to read this.  Perhaps it was the long-time realization of all those books I didn’t get to read in my all-male Catholic high school.  Mostly, I think, it was simply the need for a truly great book to give me hope in this sometimes arid desert of academic writing.

I was not disappointed. The Color Purple reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, perhaps my favorite novel of all time. The Color Purple, like Márquez’s Solitude, is the story of finding life within oppression, finding acceptance within pain, finding hope within love, and finding love in the most unexpected places. Departing from Marquez, however, Walker’s tale matures with the protagonists and with the reader, bringing us the possibility of a life where all can be overcome in time and in patience–prison sentences, domestic abuse, betrayal, infidelity, rape–these need not define the rest of our lives.

Fiction like the The Color Purple may not fix the broken laws of this republic, but it certainly transforms me into more of that person I wish to be.  Most definitely a better Christian and theologian.  There is always something powerfully transformative in standing in the shoes of the other for a while.  For a straight, white, married, child-having male like myself, there are few further others than Walker’s protagonist, an abused black woman in the late 19th century deep American south.  I could write all day and night of the theological aspects of white privilege and the importance of realizing the latent racism and xenophobia at work in 21st century suburbia, yet I feel that one read of Walker’s text could give you more insight than hundreds of pages otherwise.

If only I could convince you….

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Here’s to summer reading and renewed inspiration.  Here’s to taking a break from commentaries and op-eds for a while.  Here’s to letting the storytellers renew a message a hope in the realization that the world has not just recently become one in need of redemption.

Thy Kingdom Come.

 

About John Slattery

John is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology and History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame.

Discussion

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Poetry and Fiction for Theologically Encountering Injustice

  1. Thank you for the well-composed, contemplative post. I agree, fiction has a certain concision in presenting messages that formal essays do not reach. A teacher of my once said, “Poetry describes in 1 page what a theological essay describes in 10.”

    Posted by cducey2013 | August 19, 2013, 6:36 pm
    • You’re very welcome! Sometimes I think many a theological tangle could be unraveled if people allowed mystery to echo poetry instead of forcing it into a descriptive encyclopedic entry.

      Posted by John Slattery | August 20, 2013, 7:25 pm
  2. I love theology but even Jesus taught using stories. They are so rare, but I love a great novel that sticks with me years down the road because it taught me truths that I needed to hear. We need more of them!

    Posted by Joshua J McNeal | September 2, 2013, 11:04 am

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