When I was thirteen, two lines in a novel changed my life.
Thirteen is a tough age. It’s a time of feeling awkward and ugly, unsure of the world and everything in it. It’s hard enough to make sense of the world, let alone make sense of yourself.
Leaving the house to go to school each morning often felt like going off to the wars. Every advance to maturity that I made was a hard-fought battle, facing down foes real or imagined, like making my way through a thick fog with no roadmap.
On top of the usual adolescent angst, my life was made turbulent by a hypercritical atheist father who resented my embrace of Christianity.
Thankfully, thirteen was a long time ago.
How did I make it though, I sometimes wonder.
A big part was my faith, the sure knowledge of the Rock I could stand upon, no matter how stormy life became. Fights with friends and arguments with my father all were bearable when I clung to the love of Christ.
There were moments of light, found sometimes in the pages of Scripture or a joke shared over pizza with a friend. Or the bracing chill of cold air on my face on the ice skating rink. Or the endless marathon games of Spades played late on Saturday nights.
But one day stands out vividly as the day some of the fog lifted.
Some years earlier I had bought a book at a garage sale. It was called Hope of Earth, a novel written in the forties. At the age of nine, I didn’t find it interesting. I couldn’t relate to the newly married heroine. And there was some talk of God I just didn’t get.
At thirteen, I gave it another try.
It changed my life.
Two lines still stand out.
You can’t please a man who is not pleased with himself.
Nothing you can say can change the truth.
The first gave me an insight into my father like a laser cutting through steel. In an instant I understood why nothing I did was ever good enough, or ever would be.
He wasn’t pleased with himself. So nothing would ever please him.
Like a rock rolling off my soul, I was free from feeling I had to live up to what my father demanded.
The second line gave me a way to respond when my father, harnessing all his scientific knowledge, attempted to prove to me that religion is a farce and only stupid people would believe in God.
I might not have an answer for him, but nothing he could say could change the truth.
Those two lines, added to my faith, provided a touchstone as I navigated the next several years, and beyond. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had not stumbled on them. Would I have spent years trying to please someone who couldn’t be pleased? Would my faith have crumbled under my father’s attacks?
(Possibly not: my stubbornness might have seen me through. But that’s a topic for another post.)
Those two lines show the power of literature, the power that fiction can play in our lives.
Which leads me to ponder other reasons that Christian art, especially literature, matters.
My own example shows how literature holds a mirror up to us, and shows up ourselves and others in ways we hadn’t seen before. We gain a new perspective, a new understanding of ourselves and others.
This new perspective can also teach us much.
Without naming them as such, Christian literature can show worth of Christian values like honesty, self-sacrifice or faithfulness. Or it can show the cost of ignoring these.
Literature can also explore the unintended consequences of well-meaning actions, such as when in the name of “love” or “family” people pursue morally questionable paths.
Taken further, literature can play out scenarios where characters commit actions that look good on the surface, but in fact have evil consequences. Or the reverse: the actions appear evil on the surface, but when seen from another point of view, aren’t. Or at least they are understandable and call for compassion, not scorn.
In our so very divided world, fiction can become a more neutral ground to explore ideas and their consequences. We can live vicariously through the characters we read about, following them as they make choice we’d be too afraid to make, groaning in their failures, cheering their victories.
Just as the beauty of a painting can touch our souls, the images we create with our words can help us, for a moment, encounter some of what we’ve lost in our busyness, materialism and the distractions of social media and other amusements.
Those word pictures, then, can be used to dig up the rocks from the hard soil of hearts hardened in our postmodern world, readying them to receive the living water that quenches thirst for all eternity.