All theology is an attempt to speak less inadequately about the encounter with the Holy Mystery at the core of human experience. To speak less inadequately is to render some intelligibility to faith in this encounter, to show that there is some meaning, some rational structure (however hidden, however ineffable) that we can discern in creation, if only in a fleeting glance. One of the foundational ways human beings have come to articulate this encounter is through story. To ask about the relationship of theology to story is also to engage the foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition: the belief in the biblical story of God’s interaction with creation.
The books here can be helpful as we seek to understand the part story plays in religious faith and allow us to ask, (to paraphrase from Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words), “What sort of truth can be told only be growing beyond strictly explanatory language and incorporating, too, narrative into our language?” These texts encourage us in this question by bringing us, as Williams observes,“to a point where to go on speaking at all requires a shift of expectation, away from the assumption that there will be a point of descriptive close, some expression of formulation that is definitively adequate to what is in view.”
These books are by no means exhaustive, but are a sampling of books on the theme of the limits of theology and the encounter with God (taken, in fact, from a syllabus for my “Religion and Literature” course in the Fall of 2015) . Check them out for narratives that lead us up to the limit of theology and beyond it, this moment when we might say: “I cannot theologize any more. Let me tell you a story.”
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: Lewis invites his readers to Glome, a kingdom in a profoundly different imaginative world than is Narnia. This story of dark and ancient gods is a re-telling of the myth of Eros and Psyche, where the princess is faced with the all-consuming nature of divine love and led to ask whether or not human begins can begin to have hope in the gods being just.
Ron Hanson, Mariette in Ecstasy: A young postulant to a contemplative women’s religious order has begun to experience ecstatic visions and stigmata. Or has she? Her presence is destabilizing the community’s silence as the women have to discern whether or not to trust Mariette’s witness. An excellent book for discussing the ambiguity of mysticism and the question of our expectations about how God might reveal Godself to us.
Tony Kushner, Angels in America: The story of several gay men and their strained faith in a saving God is contextualized by the rise of AIDS and the indifference of mainstream politics in the 1980s. In reading this play, we are invited to consider how religion can function as a system of exclusion, and how seriously we believe that God reaches out to the most marginalized and vulnerable in society.
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow: In sum: Jesuits in space. In the not-
so-distant future, an inhabited planet is discovered and the Society of Jesus immediately decides to send a mission team to meet “God’s other children.” We learn on page one that not everything goes according to plan, and we are forced to consider questions of the relationship of human suffering and the will of God.
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A beautiful, peaceful, challenging book on
the appearance of grace and the possibility of forgiveness. The book review in the New York Times puts it best: “Gradually, Robinson’s novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details….In ordinary, secular fiction, a writer who ‘takes things down to essentials’ is reducing language to increase the amount of secular meaning (or sometimes, alas, to decrease it). When Robinson reduces her language, it’s because secular meaning has exhausted itself and is being renovated by religious meaning.”
Poetry Bonus: Mary Karr, Sinners Welcome: Poetry can discipline us in a “monastic” style of reading, teaching us to ruminate over each work to release its full flavor. Karr does this with a strikingly embodied language that is as humorous as it is accessible.
Andrew Staron is an assistant professor of theology at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia