Why Read? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Tuesday, 31 August 2010 08:04

For Christians, the question at a certain level answers itself.  We read because we are people of the book, the people of Moses, David, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Matthew, Paul, and John.  We read because in reading we encounter the God who is Word.  Christians extend this argument easily to “edifying” reading.  If we must read the Bible, then we also, it seems, have all good reason to read theology, church history, lives of the saints, devotional guides, Bunyan, always Bunyan.  No one raises a protest when a Christian sits down with a serious tome (and, frankly, are tomes ever frivolous?).

It’s sometimes a different story when the question “Why read?” means “Why should we read poetry, or fiction, or drama, or screenplays?” Ask that question, and you may get, at best, a blank stare, and at worst a harangue on the dangers of imagination.  The more orthodox your interlocutor, the more likely you’ll get the harangue rather than the stare.

Few Christians are self-conscious Platonists, but we are often instinctive Platonists, suspicious of imagination, fearful that fiction will distract them from the serious business of Christian living, worried about getting caught up in fictions that are no more than images of images.  With so many things to pray for, so many unbelievers to evangelize, so much of the Bible still obscure and almost unintelligible – how can a Christian justify spending time with the likes of Dickens and Dostoevsky, not to mention Nabakov or Updike?

My defense of reading here and in a second essay is this: We read fiction and poetry for “pictures” and to make new “friends.”

One of the perennial debates at our family dinner table revolves around the classic scholastic question, “Is Mickey Mouse real?”  I have debated this question with my children for years.  The youngest of them think they know the answer: “Of course not, Daddy,” they say with a scoff.  I have always argued strenuously in the affirmative, and as my children have grown they have come to see the wisdom of my position and bowed to the weighty conclusiveness of my arguments.

At times, I approach the question by asking whether the children think that “Mickey” is his real name or a stage name, or what Mickey does on his weekends, or whether he grimly smokes cigarettes and listens to the blues while drinking whiskey and bitterly remembering the glory days (Ahh, Steamboat Willie!) in dusky bars on lonely Saturday nights.

Those whimsies distract from the real force of the question, which is trickier than it might appear.  When I ask “Is Mickey Mouse real?” I am not asking whether he is a real mouse, or whether he has an existence separate from the cartoons in which he appears, whether he had a sad childhood.  I’m asking whether he has the sort of reality appropriate to a cartoon character.  I’m asking whether or not Mickey has an objectively real presence in the world of entertainment, cartoons, movies, lunch boxes, and Disney Store stuffed animals.  To that question, the answer is obviously Yes.  Mickey is as real as it gets.  Fictional characters and fictional events have the same sort of objective reality as Mickey Mouse, and they can have substantial effects on what we mistakenly think of as the “real world.”

We cannot know for sure whether or not Achilles ever existed, but even if he did, the influence of Achilles has been entirely the influence of the fictional Achilles.  That influence has been huge.  It was the fictional Achilles who inspired Alexander the Great.  Alexander believed he was actually descended from Achilles through his mother (and from Herakles through his father’s family), yet all his information about Achilles came from Homer’s epic, and he grew up dreaming of accomplishing deeds and winning fame like the great Homeric hero.

One of Alexander’s boyhood teachers called Alexander “Achilles.”  He saw his early crusade against Persia as a second Trojan war.  On the way east, he stopped at Ilium to offer sacrifices at the supposed tombs of Achilles and Ajax, while he and his bosom friend Hephaestion laid wreaths on the purported tombs of Achilles and his bosom friend Patroclus.   Curtius Rufus, a first-century Roman historian, wrote that after Alexander conquered Gaza, he dragged the city’s ruler around the city as Achilles had done with the body of Hector: “straps were drawn through his ankles while he was yet alive, and horses dragged him tied to the chariot around the city, while the king gloried that he was imitating Achilles, whose descendant he claimed to be.”  One of Alexander’s modern biographers, Peter Green, calls Achilles “Alexander’s hero.”

Abraham Lincoln credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with causing the Civil War, not because people mistook Uncle Tom’s Cabin for journalism but because they believed Stowe’s fictionalization of slavery got to the truth of the institution.  On the other hand, Mark Twain – playfully, but with the serious edge of all playfulness – once blamed Walter Scott for the Civil War, suggesting that Scott’s stories of medieval chivalry filled Southern heads with ridiculous notions of honor and the glory of combat.  Dickens did much to create the image we have of a home as a “haven in a heartless world,” his Christmas stories have given many pictures of what the holidays should look like, and his attacks on industrialism and the factory system had an enormous effect on real-life attitudes and probably on government policies.  How many people are sad at Christmas because their Christmas is not sufficiently Dickensian?

Parables often have a very specific picture-forming function.  The Bible’s parables are often stories designed to unsettle and overturn the way that the hearer pictures himself, and also to offer an alternative self-image for the hearer.  The Pharisees who complained about Jesus’ table companions did not think of themselves as surly older brothers.  But that’s the picture of them in the “Prodigal Son” parable (Luke 15).

Fictional characters, fictional events, fictional places implant pictures in our heads, or present pictures to our eyes and ears.  Fictions can paint pictures of worlds that attract us, and if the attraction is strong enough those pictures evoke a desire to realize that world.  They might also plant pictures of worlds that repel us, and evoke a response of “Never.”

To be Continued . . .

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