Fiction as a Sacred Text

I’m a great lover of books, and especially fiction. I’ve been in a particularly good run of interesting and thoughtful books lately, so, I was excited to see this week’s sacred practice come up on the schedule: to treat a piece of fiction as a sacred text.

Background

Like most people, I was first exposed to the power of story as a small child, as I absorbed fairy tales, folk tales, Disney movies, and Bible stories. My first reflective exposure to the idea of the power of stories came in my favorite class at seminary, Narrative Theology. This discipline picks up on the work of Narrative Psychology and its focus on the power of stories to shape how we think and live.

I have seen this idea nowhere taken up with as great enthusiasm and thought than in the wonderful podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, in which the hosts do a close reading of the Harry Potter books and explore the spiritual themes therein. It is this podcast that led me to add treating fiction as sacred text to my list of practices to explore.

As the producers of the podcast describe their approach, it is about reading the books: “not just as novels, but as instructive and inspirational texts that will teach us about our own lives.” They go on to say: 

[R]eading fiction doesn’t help us escape the world, it helps us live in it.

On this podcast, we ask: What if we read the books we love as if they were sacred texts?

Each week, we explore a central theme through which to explore the characters and context, always grounding ourselves in the text. We’ll engage in traditional forms of sacred reading to unearth the hidden gifts within even the most mundane sentences.

What is it?

In its simplest form, it is to approach a piece of fiction as though it were a sacred text within your community. The producers of the podcast that inspired this practice list three main elements of this that I think are helpful:

  1. Trusting the Text: This means assuming the text has something true to say to us and that there is value in spending time with it.
  2. Rigor and Ritual: This is the sense that part of what makes a text sacred is the time and effort put into engaging with it.
  3. Reading it in Community: This is the idea that our engagement with the text will be more fruitful when done with others. (Note: I was not able to bring in this aspect of the practice; I have no doubt that my engagement with it would be far deeper if I had been reading it in community.)

With this in mind, approach the text as you would your sacred texts, with prayer, care, and deliberation. I chose to follow the form of lectio divina Ι explored in Week 2 of this project:

  1. Take a few seconds to calm your heart and mind. Say a short prayer to open your heart up to what God might be telling you.
  2. Slowly read your passage, keeping an eye out for any phrase that jumps out to you.
  3. With that phrase in mind, slowly re-read the passage.
  4. Slowly meditate on the phrase with respect to each of the four questions:What is literally happening here? (Literal)
    1. How does this connect to bigger themes of salvation? (Allegorical)
    2. How does this relate to our life? (Insight or Moral)
    3. What is this reading calling me to do? (Vocational)

My Week

While there are many novels that have profoundly shaped how I look at the world, for the practice this week, I felt returning to one of these texts would be ‘too easy’ and so I resisted the temptation to turn to one of these favorites. Instead, I revisited All the Light We Cannot See, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Anthony Doerr, which I read last week. Every morning, I found a paragraph to focus on as my text. While I wasn’t sure what to expect from the practice, I was really moved by what it turned up.

Reflection

I love the way a good book can transport me to another world, or open my eyes to circumstances of others. A good piece of fiction also has the ability transform, in a more subtle yet insidious way than non-fiction can. This is probably why most of world’s sacred texts are filled with stories instead of philosophical maxims. (Even great philosophers, such as Plato, expressed their philosophy in stories.) Some novels, like The Brothers Karamazov or Astonishing the Gods, have shaped me and my faith and worldview just as profoundly as any theological treatise.

But this week’s practice forced me to look at narrative in a different way: not in its life-changing broad strokes and narrative arcs, but in the meaning that can be found in the smallest details of a well-crafted story. I often get caught up in a good story and read quickly, but I know that this can cause me to miss some of the vibrancy that can be found in a single metaphor, choice of words, or juxtaposition of ideas. So I like how this practice invited me to revisit the text in a slow, deliberate, and close reading. And what treasures I found. A line about the cost of a gift made me reflect on the generosity involved in both giving and receiving. A line about people fleeing Paris caused me to reflect on identity and attachment, and what we bring with us and what we leave behind. A line about the passing of time made me think about change and recognizing a ‘new normal.’ And so on. And in these reflections on small fragments of text, I was blessed this week.

Now it could be asked how this is a sacred practice and not just an assignment from English class. And that’s fair a fair question. But I think we underestimate the potential for the sacred in our lives. One ancient prayer, which you’ll likely recognize since I quote it so often, refers to the Holy Spirit as “everywhere present and filling all things.” And I think this sense of the Spirit of God being poured out in and all over everything in abundance is the most powerful contribution my time spent in the Eastern Orthodox Church has made to my worldview. When it comes to grace — when it comes to wisdom, to faith, hope and love, to goodness, truth, and beauty and all of the Energies of God — we don’t live in an atmosphere of scarcity. We can find something of God anywhere we look, even where we least expect it. As fantasy writer Mary Stewart put into the mouth of her version of the wizard Merlin, “If [the Sun] is reflected in a dirty puddle, he is still the sun. There is no where I will not look, to find him” (The Crystal Cave).

Yet at the same time, there is also truth in the old Persian proverb, “Look in the sky for the moon, not in the pond.” I think there’s room for both approaches: being open and able to see God’s presence and truth in everything and refusing to silo our spiritual life, while also having the discernment to know where we might most reliably find them. For those of us in a faith tradition, we already have our capital-S Stories, the stories that define our corporate identity and values. And so we would differentiate between the sacred texts in which we might deepen our experience of God in and through the world and the Sacred Texts which form the basis of our traditions. The difference, though, is one of authority, rather than of kind.

To wrap things up here, it will come as no surprise that I loved this practice. Not only did it provide good food for thought for me this week and cause me to reflect on some deeply spiritual ideas and problems, but it also provided me with a new tool through which I can encounter and enjoy the stories I love more deeply. For that, I am very grateful.

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