Enchanted by Story: Literature in Service of Christian Wisdom

by Michael Hughes

The year of our Lord 2020 is underway, and it has already yielded fruit disproportionate to the days gone by at the Davenant House. On Friday, January 3rd and Saturday, January 4th, we hosted the annual Carolinas Regional Convivium. The topic was Literature in the Service of Christian Wisdom. While it would be impossible to capture the fullness of content as well as rich fellowship and discussion we were able to enjoy, what follows will give you a summary and sampling of the feast that was set before us and a hunger to stay tuned as many of these resources become available through our podcast and other means in coming days. Perhaps you’ll be able to join us at the table next time?

Friday afternoon began with a time of introductions to The Davenant Institute, our work at the Davenant House, and our keynote speaker Dr. Donald Williams. Williams shared the importance of literature, particularly Tolkien’s works, in his life’s journey. He went from skeptical young high-school teen unsure of the faith he’d been raised in and what he should major in at college, to becoming a pastor following an MDiv at TEDS, then a Ph.D. in English, and since a professor for over three decades at Toccoa Falls College. When inquiring of where his love for great literature began, he responded along the lines, “Before I can remember, while being read to as a small child.” An apt lead into the topic of how great literature serves Christian wisdom, and particularly to Lynette Hughes’ talk later in the evening on Literature for Children: Beholding the Transcendent

As is our custom at Davenant House events, we punctuate our days with delicious food and drink together and prayers and praise to God. Pastor Craig Beaton led us in evening prayer following dinner and morning and midday prayer on Saturday along with hymns chosen to reflect the season we were in, the 12 days of Christmas. Harmony of voices and the praises of God’s people filled the room at Davenant House as we sang Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent, Joy to the World, and O Come All Ye Faithful.

Local Davenant Institute board member and Regional Convivium organizer, Mark Olivero, gave a potent first talk introducing our theme, entitled Tolkien’s Tower by the Sea: Wisdom in Valuing Literary Works for Their Own Sake. He argued that literature must be approached first for the way that it “pulls us away from ourselves” and helps us to view the transcendent, thereby changing us. He illustrated this by sharing a parable Tolkien had written in his essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, which describes a tower that a man had built using stones recycled from an old hall. Upon arriving at this tower, his friends and relations speculate about why he had built such a thing. Trying to understand its significance, they push it over, pick through the rubble searching for runes, and dig underneath it, never coming to the realization that if they had taken the time to climb it in the first place as was intended they would have been able to “look out upon the sea.” Weaving Tolkien’s allegory throughout his presentation, Olivero describes what Gandalf explains to Saruman: “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” 

In Literature for Children: Beholding the Transcendent, Lynette Hughes presented a convincing case that, contrary to popular belief in our society, it matters deeply what our children are reading, not simply that they are. If the end of reading is Christian wisdom and virtue, only the greatest of literature will serve that end. What that doesn’t mean is that we cannot read pagan literature or things that are not explicitly “Christian” in nature – much to the contrary. Hughes quotes Augustine, “A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities and deploring and avoiding those who ‘though they knew God did not glorify him as God…” (From On Christian Teaching, Book II, sec. 71-72). Hughes also presents a firm case against moralizing literature and against analytical analysis at too young an age. Historically rooted and deeply insightful, Hughes concludes her work by quoting the British educator Charlotte Mason, “A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 52). 

Our time of fellowship following talks Friday evening included the added treat of hearing Dr. Donald Williams give a dramatized reading of the first few chapters of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was a delight and greatly amusing, complete with British accents and varied voices! Saturday morning, following a delightful breakfast and Morning Prayer, Dr. Williams presented a very powerful keynote address, Literature in the Service of Christian Wisdom: Some Lewisian Perspectives. Williams pointed out first where wisdom comes from: “Scripture, life experience, and suffering, in the hands of the Holy Spirit.” He then discussed how “Lewis helps us recognize at least three ways in which literature indirectly can serve the Holy Spirit in teaching us Christian wisdom: It gives us vicarious experience, it provides a cure for chronological snobbery, and it facilitates the integration of reason and experience.” Through literature, we can experience things (to a degree) that we as finite beings will never be able to experience in real life, but through these vicarious experiences we are able to learn and glean from the lessons as they apply to things we really do experience in our lives. Literature helps us to experience events and culture from the past so that, as Williams puts it, “we do not become victims of our own chronological myopia.” In regard to the integration of reason and experience, he argues that this happens through imagination, “If we are to have the wisdom to discern the right, the gumption to choose it, and the ability to do it, it is very helpful first to be able to imagine it.” In other words, literature can embody truth in characters, circumstances, and experiences in a way that helps us imagine what it would look like for us to then live it out. Williams concludes, “…literature can be a John the Baptist preparing the way for a wisdom that can only come by the grace of God.”

Bringing some of this full circle, I (Davenant House Director, Michael Hughes) illustrated how the proper application of Christian wisdom from literature speaks powerfully into the current cultural moment in my presentation, Help Unlooked For: Wisdom from Middle Earth as a Shadow Grows. To address the recent exponential increase in America of what are widely described as “deaths of despair” (those caused by alcohol, drug overdose, and suicide), I sought to get “upstream” of what ails our society rather than simply blaming bad circumstances. Cultural rejection of God’s authority (including the rejection of God’s design for humans and their relationships), providence, and sovereignty are behind much of the hopelessness and lack of purpose found in our world. I explored the theme of providence as embodied in Middle Earth, a theme found throughout Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Trust in providence brings hope that ultimately good has won as Sam recognizes in the heart of Mordor: “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” (The Return of the King, p. 211). A root cause upstream of despair in our society is theological in nature, and I proposed retrieval of this as an antidote: “As difficult and hopeless as the path ahead may feel, when our hope is in God’s providence and sovereignty, hope is never lost.”

In Paradoxical God, Paradoxical Faith: Simple Truth in the Midst of Complexity in John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets’, Haley Schvaneveldt explores the way in which critical scholarship surrounding Donne’s works has tended to oversimplify and dissect them, removing the life-giving balm provided by contemplation of the truths embodied. She states, “Although Donne is famous for his use of paradox, the critical conversation surrounding his Holy Sonnets has consistently explained away the contradictions within the poems at the expense of the truth that they reveal.” In her work, Schvaneveldt illustrates this point through several examples of paradox such as assurance of salvation alongside the fear of reprobation. Some have pointed to this as either evidence of Donne’s actual reprobation or as evidence that he was essentially faking the fear when he really had assurance. Schvaneveldt asserts, “It is reasonable that Donne be saved and find in himself a mixture of confidence and real anxiety concerning his status.” Addressing paradoxical relationships between confident joy and fearful desperation in the face of death, the paradoxical relation between God’s transcendence and imminence, and feminist accusations of Donne depicting “divine rape,” Schvaneveldt poignantly demonstrates how “Critics’ fixation on the human definitions of Donne’s terminology has caused them to miss the glorious insight Donne’s paradoxes give.”

In the last of the paper presentations, At Mountains of Wisdom or Madness: Fear of the Divine in Scripture and in H. P. Lovecraft, Shep Shepherd provided a clear contrast between the fear of the Lord as prescribed by Scripture and the “cosmic dread” embodied in works such as those of Lovecraft. With the current widespread materialism, a perspective such as Lovecraft’s is attractive. Shepherd states, “Lovecraft’s fiction in a way presents existential cosmic dread to the reader precisely so that they may work through it to a kind of enlightened indifference.” This begs the question, Shepherd points out, “…whether Lovecraft’s current popularity has any kind of special relationship to the forms of cultural despair we see today…” The outworking of this dread and despair out of lack of purpose produces societal ills and untold damage to individuals in its dehumanizing effects. In contrast from the Scriptures, Shepherd asserts, “Holy fear may be regarded as a habitus of grace given to man in Christ and the Spirit. As such, fear is a continual consciousness of God’s presence and priority, structuring our thoughts and actions accordingly in such a way as to cultivate wisdom.” Against the dark backdrop of the work of Lovecraft, fear of the Lord is shown as good and beautiful by God’s design. Shepherd summarizes, “The fear of the Lord is not a non-rational fear of the numinous Other (Rudolf Otto), nor a pre-rational disposition forming the basis for dialectical theology (Daniel Castello) but a comprehensive human response to God’s communicative holiness, involving all human faculties and impelling obedient action.” May it be so.

Our time together wrapped up with some friends of The Davenant Institute sharing a bit about their work and a parting gift for attendees, a pint glass with The Davenant Institute logo on it! We also announced the theme for next year’s Carolina’s Regional Convivium, Wise Men and Fools: Biography in the Service of Christian Wisdom. So begin planning those paper proposal submissions and stay tuned for the Call to Papers in the late summer! 

In closing, much ground was covered in a mere twenty-four hour period as we explored ways literature serves Christian wisdom. I will leave you with the words of Stratford Caldecott from Beauty in the Word: “To be enchanted by story is to be granted a deeper insight into reality” (p. 53).

Register for our 2020 National Convivium