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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: Catholic writers (page 1 of 3)

Plato, Homer, and the Saints in Outer Space

great literature cultivates wisdom and virtueIn The Republic, Plato acknowledges the power of the arts (chiefly music and literature) to shape impressionable young souls. Concerned parents today, worried about the music their children listen and the books they read (if they read at all), may appreciate why Plato has Socrates say, in his discussion of a theoretical “just city” (i.e., just society), that youngsters should not be exposed to dangerous ideas — such as Homer’s depiction of the gods as powerful, spoiled brats. In the modern era, Plato has often been accused of being against art, music, and poetry, but I’ve always thought this a gross distortion to what he is actually saying in The Republic. He acknowledges the immense power of the arts to form — or deform — the soul, and he suggests that those who are destined to be leaders should be taught to be wise. The reason he infamously forbids poets in the just city is that he wanted to present young souls with inspiring images, and he just didn’t find Homer and Hesiod to provide healthy inspiration. The imaginations of the future rulers of the just city should not be infected with the bad examples of the poets’ gods.

Since Plato found the popular literature of his day to be unwholesome for impressionable young people, he made up edifying stories of his own. In fact, each one of Plato’s great philosophical works is itself a made-up story, meant to lead the reader toward the truth. He peopled his stories with figures familiar to himself and his fellow Athenians: Socrates the great truth-seeker, and the men with whom Socrates often associated, each of whom typifies some particular point of view. Anyone who has ever read The Republic with any attention will be unlikely to forget Thrasymachus, the belligerent young man whose idea of justice was something like “might makes right”; Thrasymachus drops out of the discussion of justice pretty early on — he just doesn’t have the patience for it. But Glaukon (modeled on Plato’s own brother) hangs on Socrates’ every word, and follows the discussion closely, asking questions and advancing ideas. Socrates, who is trying to get his young interlocutors to glimpse the true nature of justice, makes up one story after another to illustrate the points he hopes they’ll grasp. Plato’s Socrates never teaches didactically; he always tries to help the others to see the truth in their mind’s eye, using both their intellect and their imagination.

For more than two thousand years, this is what “high” literature took as its task: to illustrate some truth about the human condition or the world which would impress itself on the reader’s imagination, to “form the soul,” to use Plato’s terminology. It is a sad fact that this literary project has largely been abandoned by writers today, even those with “literary” pretensions. Contemporary literature seldom makes any attempt to be edifying. Indeed, most contemporary writers would hotly deny that they have any moral obligation to the reading public, aside from being true to their own “vision.” But a diseased eye cannot have clear vision.

This may be the reason that so many parents and educators who are concerned about presenting young people with edifying stories return to the great classics, written in ages when literature, like art and music, was intended to elevate the soul, to allow it to glimpse heights where the truth dwelt — but to do so using forms familiar from daily life. In such works, the writer has taken great care to find a balance between portraying human nature as it is and showing it as it ought to be and can be.

Homer, Plato, and the Saints among the stars
Great stories of the past should continue
to shape great stories of the future.

This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to become not just a Catholic reader, reading with an eye to truth, but a Catholic writer as well. I believe that the Catholic perspective on life as it is lived and as it ought to be lived is one too seldom glimpsed in books today. Too often reality is portrayed as flat, ugly, and factual, when the Christian knows that it is complex, beautiful, and full of mystery. We need more literature that transcends the superficial facts of life in this world, to hint at truth, beauty, and goodness. For this reason, when I refer to Catholic writers I do not mean simply those who write for a Catholic audience. Instead, I mean those whose work reflects the vision of reality that I’ve just described, but who may not write for a necessarily Catholic audience. Writers who, like Flannery O’Connor, realize that the world has become blind and deaf to the mystery of life and the Creator’s imprint on his Creation.

As many readers of this blog will already know, I’m currently working on what I call a “Catholic science fiction novel.” It is intended to be “Catholic” in both senses: it has characters who are Catholic (one is even a priest) and it illustrates themes that will resonate with Catholic experience: growth in virtue, the redemptive value of suffering, and others. But it is also meant to be Catholic in the broader sense I just mentioned: to present a reality that has depth, in which superficial appearances cover metaphysical depths, in which the natural and the supernatural coexist and correspond. I hope that this vision will imprint itself on the imaginations of my readers.

dystopia word cloud
Many speculative novels
paint a bleak future.

So many futuristic science fiction novels, by Christians and agnostics alike, present a kind of nightmarish future, in which science, technology, and rigid secularism have distorted human life to such an extent that it is barely recognizable, or else an absurdly utopian future in which, by his own efforts, Man has created a paradise without poverty, disease, or even death. My story is very different; it focuses not on technology, but on people, who are not imaginary aliens but ordinary human beings, with ordinary human struggles — which just happen to take place in a distant part of our galaxy, far in our future, and sometimes using technology that we can imagine but will probably never see.

And yet, when I began to think about the shape of my story, I found that it contains remarkable parallels to ancient epics, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid. I was surprised to realize that it also parallels American history, in depicting people escaping a world in which religion is often persecuted to create a new home, in a distant land, where a new society may be built, guided by Christian principles — much as the English Pilgrims did when they came to North America. Biblical echoes can also be found in it. Why? Because my imagination, quite unconsciously, has been shaped by the great stories most familiar to me and has fashioned a tale that bears a familiar resemblance to them.

I’m sure few readers will be conscious of these allusions, any more than I was conscious of them as I began shaping my story, But perhaps my story will make an impression on the imaginations, and the souls, of my readers, similar to the way ancient epics and Holy Scripture have made an impression on my own. I’d like to think so. I’d like to believe that, like Plato, I have created a story that helps my readers glimpse some aspect of truth that had previously eluded them, or that, like Flannery O’Connor, I have drawn vividly enough for the blind to see unsuspected beauty in the ordinary struggles of life.

Contemporary Catholic writers: Mystery & suspense

I was sorting through a bunch of goodies that I picked up last August at the combined Catholic Writers Guild/New Media/Marketing Network conference and thought I would pass them on to you, before I “file” them (you know what that means). Among other things, I nabbed a number of marketing cards for novels written by members of the Catholic Writers Guild, and I thought I would commend these books to your consideration (even though I have not read most of them). A few that don’t get mentioned here will be noted over on my Catholic Science Fiction blog. Today, I thought I would focus on suspense and mystery titles. Here goes:

Unbridled Grace by Michael J. NormanUnbridled Grace: A True Story about the Power of Choice, by Michael J. Norman is not fiction, but fact. The author is a chiropractor from right here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, whose true story sounds like a best-selling thriller. Dr. Norman got dragged into a rats’ nest of intrigue when he unknowingly became involved with a Russian money-laundering ring under investigation by the FBI. The book’s web site describes the story this way:

Unbridled Grace is the true story of how one man rises from the forces of evil through his renewed faith in Christ and takes the reader on a journey to redemption through the bold use of our power of choice for God. Along the way, Michael meets a dynamic Catholic parish priest who gives him the courage to forge a path through this crisis and a hard-working attorney who joins him in this monumental battle. Will their efforts be enough to free the author and
his family from this nightmare? It is at this time that a series of seemingly miraculous occurrences begin and the reader is shown what courage, faith and the power of heartfelt prayer can bring to all of our lives when all else appears hopeless.

Murder in the Vatican by Ann Margaret LewisMurder in The Vatican: The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, by Ann Margaret Lewis, with some charming illustrations by Rikki Niehaus. I am really sorry my book-buying budget is so non-existent these days, because I would really love to read this book. As you can see, the author cashes in on the current popular trend of extending the literary lives of great characters from out-of-copyright books of the past. Who could resist a book in which Sherlock Holmes gets to sleuth for Pope Leo XIII? Here’s the blurb:

Follow the great Sherlock Holmes as he investigates three baffling cases at the “express desire of his Holiness, the Pope.” Stories include “The Death of Cardinal Tosca,” “The Vatican Cameos,” and “The Second Coptic Patriarch.” You’ll encounter baffling crimes, rich, historical settings, and a fateful encounter with Father Brown!  These thrilling tales of murder and intrigue vividly bring to life three of Watson’s “untold tales!”

Cover: Viper by John DesjarlaisViper, by John Desjarlais, sports the tagline, “Who is stronger, the serpent or the virgin?” This the second mystery featuring Latina sleuth, Selena de la Cruz, a former DEA agent turned insurance investigator.

Selena De La Cruz has a problem. Just before All Souls’ Day someone entered the names of nine people in her church’s Book of the Dead, seeking prayers for their souls. The problem? All nine are still alive. Until they start getting murdered . . . one by one . . . in the precise order their names were entered in the Book of the Dead . . . and always right after a local visionary sees a mysterious woman known as The Blue Lady. Is she the Virgin Mary warning the next victim? Lady Death, the Aztec goddess, come to claim another soul? Or someone less mystical, but deadly nonetheless? Selena doesn’t know but had better find out: only a few souls on that list have not yet been murdered, and the last name on it is . . . Selena De La Cruz.

The Soul Reader, by Gerard D. WebsterSoul Reader, by Gerard D. Webster. This novel is a sequel but, according to reader reviews, can be read as a stand-alone tale. (Don’t you love it when you fall in love with a story and then discover there is more where that came from?) Apparently, in the first book, the protagonist lost his eyesight but gained the ability to see into people’s souls (whence the title of this book).

It is a year after his father’s murder when Carrie Hope asks Ward to assist her in writing a book about the North Beach Project, the money-laundering scheme that led to his father’s death. Ward initially turns her down. … But when Carrie decides to pursue the investigation without him, Ward is faced with a difficult choice: he can allow her to go it alone and possibly get killed . . . or he can join her in hopes of being able to protect her. Ward’s uncanny insight might give him an edge-and allow him to see the evil coiled …

Although I haven’t yet read any of these books, they all sound like things I’d enjoy and, judging by the great reviews they get on Amazon, they are intriguing tales that embody Catholic values and themes, so I don’t hesitate to bring them to your attention. If you have read any of them, please leave a comment below and let us know what you think!

©2013 Lisa A. Nicholas

An Odd and most-endearing protagonist

Kindle cover of Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz

Afflicted with a gift most of us would reject, Odd Thomas remains serene and humble.

I’ve been reading Dean Koontz‘s Odd Thomas stories lately, supernatural thrillers with an unusual twist. Generally speaking, I’m not interested in supernatural or paranormal stories, but I like Odd Thomas, the protagonist who sees dead people and bodachs (dark, wispy spirits who sniff out violent death before it occurs), and who can track soon-to-be mass murderers using something he calls psychic magnetism. What I like about Odd is the fact that he is, in many ways, quite an ordinary young fellow, but one with a great sense of responsibility for his fellow man. Although his strange “gift” is obviously a burden to him, he does not complain or whine about it (or about anything else), but regards it as a talent he has been given for the good of others.

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Flannery O’Connor and the Overwhelming Power of Grace

Billboard: Don't make me come down there. God.
In O’Connor’s stories, God sends billboards.

I had a friend who used to say, “Sometimes God gives you a sign, sometimes BILLBOARDS!” Flannery O’Connor is famous for saying that her characters were so colorful (critics like to call them “grotesque”) because you have to draw large pictures for the blind and shout at the deaf: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” I’ll admit that, fascinated as I was with her work when I first began to read it, I was often puzzled as to what was going on. I remember waking up in the dark hours of the night, years after first reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” with a sudden understanding of what the Misfit meant when he said, “She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

For anyone similarly puzzled, my advice is to read “Revelation,” which probably makes clearer than any of her other stories just what Flannery is up to. (See my analysis of the climactic scene here.) If I’d read that one before I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” maybe my sleep wouldn’t have been disturbed at 3 a.m. years later. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps I had to learn something about the nature of Grace before I could get over being blind and deaf to what O’Connor was going on about. The great thing about her stories is that they fascinate even those who haven’t a clue about God or His grace or how it operates in the soul. Such readers will remember her strange characters and puzzle over their behavior, perhaps until one night God bonks them on the head and shouts, “Wake up, dummy!”

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Sunday Snippets: Flannery O’Connor and Catholic Social Teaching.

Wow, Sunday again already? I’ve been busy this week getting my new blog, the Catholic Reading Project, up and running. (Well, that and trying to find an assisted living place for my father.) So my contributions to this blog have been rather meager: a post on a reading method that will help you make sense of all different kinds of written works, and one on some books by and about Flannery O’Connor that I recommend. I’ve got plenty of posts in the development stage, though, and will publish them as soon as I get time. Meanwhile, if you are at all interested in Catholic Social Teaching (and, by golly, you should be!), take a look at the new blog and consider joining us!

And, oh yeah, by request, I’ve added a little more info to my online profile, in case you’re interested. If you’d like to know what some other Catholic bloggers have been doing this week, don’t forget to take a look at Sunday Snippets — A Catholic Carnival.

Sunday Snippets–A Catholic Carnival

Sunday Snippets

Those of you who like reading Catholic blogs of whatever sort should take a look at Sunday Snippets — A Catholic Carnival, on the blog This, That, and the Other Thing, by another Catholic book blogger, RAnn. There you’ll find a round-up of the week’s posts from a variety of Catholic bloggers. I’ve already found a new one I like, TV for Catholics.

This past week I posted On Film Adaptations of Beloved Works of Literature and announced that you can now subscribe to this blog on Kindle, but then I collapsed under a terrific head cold. Unfortunately, when I can’t breathe, I can’t think either, so that was all the writing I did for the week. I’m glad to be breathing pretty freely today and back in the saddle!

More Free Catholic Books, from CatholiCity.com

These days, with the proliferation of ebooks, many of us are figuratively wading through heaps of free books. Twenty years ago, however, when the Mary Foundation and Saint Jude Media began giving away books, people thought they were crazy. Of course, Saint Jude Media was giving away actual, physical books, so there was considerable cost involved: typsetting, printing, binding, shipping and handling. Nonetheless, their books (also CDs) were available for free, although they did ask for a donation. I was heartened to see recently that they are still at it, on their CatholiCity web site.

CatholiCity.com is an apostolate dedicated to feeding the minds and edifying the souls of ordinary Catholics. On the website, there is a wealth of resources that serve this end: a number of talks on the Sacraments and the rosary, which can be ordered on CD, downloaded as podcasts, or listened to online; links to the latest Catholic news and commentary, prayers, devotions, the Baltimore Catechism, the new Catechism in “simplified” form, and lots more. If you are Catholic, or just interested in what the Catholic Church teaches and believes, you should take a look at this web site, and take advantage of the free information available there.

I haven’t yet mentioned my favorite things from Saint Jude Media, three free Catholic novels (paperbacks, not ebooks) by Bud Macfarlane Jr.:

  • Pierced by a Sword, recommended by Michael O’Brien, author of Father Elijah, who says: 

Get ready for a journey of epic proportions–rather, cosmic proportions.
This book is a little treasure, a marvel. This is an adventure, a
comedy, a tragedy, a turbulent odyssey and a peaceful stroll. Most of
all, this is a love story like no other I have ever read. A new kind of
love story.

  • Conceived without Sin, recommended by Thomas W. Case, author of Moonie Buddhist Catholic, who says:

One strange and wonderful thing about Bud Macfarlane’s storytelling is
that his people are so loved by the author that they grab you and hold
you. This novel is plainly a story of love and marriage and friendship
and conversion. Supernatural forces weave in and out, as they must do in
real stories of the faith.

  • House of Gold, recommended by John D. O’Brien, editor of Conceived Without Sin and Father Elijah, who says:
You won’t read a more timeless novel than House of Gold — even
if you are reading it one hundred years after it was first published. It
offers suffering. I know that sounds strange, but you will love the
suffering inside its pages. It’s honest, authentic, gut-wrenching. It’s
real. I believe this is Bud Macfarlane’s best work. It offers the Cross.
Can you take it?

 I read all of these years ago (late 1990s) when they first came out, and enjoyed them all. They have “sold” well (someone is paying for them, because Bud Macfarlane couldn’t have afforded to get more than 700,000 copies into print on his own), and reader reviews on sites like Amazon
and Goodreads are very positive. I’m glad to see that they are available in Kindle editions for just $2.00. I wish I’d known that a couple of weeks ago (it is not mentioned on the CatholicCity.com website), because I recently acquired new copies of the paperbacks. I love having my books in the Amazon cloud, and these are big, fat novels (more than 550 pages each) that take up a lot of space. Still, I know I won’t have any trouble finding friends to pass them on to; I might even recommend them to my book club for our 2013 line-up.

I won’t say too much about these novels now, because it’s been years since I read them and I don’t remember them well, except to say that I enjoyed them. However, I will review them here as I read them. Meanwhile, if you have read them and want to offer your thoughts, please click the comment link below!