Take and Read: Finding Spirituality in Fiction
by Melissa Tidwell
In her brilliant novel Room (later made into an award-winning film) Emma Donoghue puts readers inside a world we never wanted to imagine. The room of the title is a place of captivity and terror for a young woman who was kidnapped as a teenager and held over a period of years. She bears a child in the bleak space he calls Room and tries to raise him to have an imagination and a sense of hope even though he has never gone outside or seen another human except for his mother and her captor. Eventually the mother decides she has to come up with an escape plan and to do that she has to convince her son that there is a world beyond Room. This at first is not welcome information. He cries and protests. Room is everything he has; everything he knows.
It is possible to read this story as a metaphor for our spiritual lives. We come into the world with only a dim knowledge of how we got here and what lies beyond the enclosure of ego, self-interest, and our captivity to the status quo. In order to take part in the rich beauty of the world, we have to first take in the shattering knowledge that we are not the center of the universe, and that it will require courage of the highest order to step outside and challenge the limitations we have had imposed on us, or imposed on ourselves.
One great way to gain a sense of what is possible outside our Room is the art of reading spiritually. Spiritual reading gives us information about how others see the world, what God might have been intending in creating the world, and how we can play a part in God’s great design. This kind of reading also goes beyond information to be a source of formation, providing us with the tools we will need to build our faith, hope, and love.
Some of the great devotional classics give a sturdy footing for an exploration of life beyond our Room. The simple wonder that can be found in the daily rhythms of live are celebrated in Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God, while a more mystical and dream-sourced path can be taken in the writings of Teresa of Avila (who was something of a captive herself— as a nun with no theological training she had to filter her visions through a series of self-deprecating asides that helped her stay off the radar of the church hierarchy).
But the traditional sources of what we see as spiritual can also be a set of limitations, a room where only certain ideas are seen as lofty enough to be considered spiritual. Reading fiction is a great way to allow ourselves to hear the voices of those we might not meet inside our church or on our block. Fiction invites us to open our minds and hearts to people who become real in our presence, who take on life and meaning for us, who draw us into awareness and create the possibility that we might choose to act in our lives in a new way because of what we have learned.
In the last few months I have read novels that took me inside the world of comic-con conventions, the broken hearts of a family who had lost a child and the broken heart of the neighbor who had accidentally caused that loss, an art historian tracing the path of an ancient manuscript through centuries of oppression and war, a family of Midwestern apple growers, and a time-travelling substitute teacher. Each character has opened me in some way to the larger understanding of what it means to be human; to be made in the image of God, and to struggle with pain, discover purpose, take wrong turns, find redemption, and make peace with our story.
One of the truest marks I have learned for gauging a book’s lasting value is that little twinge of regret I feel near the end of a novel, the sadness over not being able to continue to spend time with these folks I have learned to love. A great way to extend the pleasure of a book is to talk it over with some others who value books and the sharing of worlds. Scarritt Bennett’s book club might be a great way to try out that spiritual practice. We meet on the second Monday of the month at 7pm in the parlor of Scarritt Hall. The book for November is: “A Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins. Come and join us.
Melissa Tidwell has written about spirituality, music, metaphor, and zombies. She is the former editor of Alive Now magazine, and the author of Embodied Light: Advent Reflections on Incarnation. She contributed to the Companions in Christ small group formation series and has also written for Weavings magazine. In 2013, Melissa returned to seminary to finish a degree begun 20 years before, and is now seeking a pastoral call in the Presbyterian Church. She is a resident campus assistant at Scarritt Bennett Center where she contributes to chapel services.