Therapeutic, part 1

On my about this blog page, I say the following, “While I am not sure that I have a good analysis of what exactly I mean by therapeutic, a major sense of what I think about is that the book stretches me in important and beneficial ways.” So I want to use this post to try and flesh that out a little bit and kick this series off.

I became a Christian my junior year of high school. Once senior year came around, I was in a British literature class and we had to write a paper. I was interested in theology and even I knew the prominence of C.S. Lewis, so I decided that I would write on the theology of C.S. Lewis, with reference to his nonfiction pieces and his shorter fiction. I am not sure I want to try and find that paper and read what I thought and how I wrote, but I did find the process beneficial because I thoroughly enjoyed a lot of Lewis’ stuff.

There’s a debate among Lewis lovers about what his best work is. Some say it is The Chronicles of Narnia. Others point to Mere Christianity. Still others like The Problem of Pain or A Grief Observed. I understand those suggestions: they make a ton of sense. As for me, my favorite nonfiction piece of his is probably The Weight of Glory. But as to his best work, where “best” means “has affected me most deeply,” it is hands down The Great Divorce.

Of course, I can already hear the heresy hunters lighting their torches and sharpening their pitchforks (do people sharpen pitchforks? I have no idea.). So let me just quote why I love The Great Divorce and what all of this has to do with the books being therapeutic.

“Then some readjustment of the mind or some focusing of my eyes took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were as they always had been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps. It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison. Moved by a sudden thought, I bent down and tried to pluck a daisy which was growing at my feet. The stalk wouldn’t break. I tried to twist it, but it wouldn’t twist. I tugged till the sweat stood out on my forehead and I had lost most of the skin off my hands. The little flower was hard, not like wood or even like iron, but like diamond. There was a leaf-a young tender beech leaf, lying in the grass beside it. I tried to pick the leaf up: my heart almost cracked with the effort, and I believe I did just raise it. But I had to let it go at once; it was heavier than a sack of coal. As I stood, recovering my breath with great gasps and looking down at the daisy, I noticed that I could see the grass not only between my feet but through them. I also was a phantom. Who will give me words to express the terror of that discovery? ‘Golly!’ thought I. ‘I’m in for it this time.’

“…Walking proved difficult. The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock, and I suffered pains like those of the mermaid in Hans Andersen. A bird ran across in front of me and I envied it. It belonged to that country and was as real as the grass. It could bend the stalks and spatter itself with the dew.”

I don’t know what I mean when I refer to books as therapeutic, or maybe I do know but I am not sure how to put it into my own words. Like the most important stuff in life, I can only point and tell a story and see if it clicks for the other person too. It’s that brief moment when you are quoting a passage or telling a story or gesturing in some way that is not wholly propositional and you can see it in the other person’s eyes that it clicked and now makes sense. It’s moments like those when we are pulled out of our incessant solipsism where we secretly think everybody is less real than us and we realize that thing in front of me’s experience is just as vivid and real as mine, but I digress.

This Lewis passage encapsulates what I mean by a book being therapeutic. Something about the book makes me feel less real. It clearly isn’t the pages nor the ink nor the way the person turns a phrase (although it is sometimes this), but it is the content and the way they are speaking into my life that does the work. Like the character in the passage quoted the grass becomes as hard as diamonds and the leaf is too heavy for me to move. I realize that I am not fully real, I am not fully developed, I am not fully human, I am not fully something, and the book stretches me.

While reading through Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament, he was expounding the work of various Christian ethicists in order to evaluate the models they use and his attention turns to Stanley Hauerwas. One of the quotes was as provocative as it was poignant, so I will quote it here (p. 255):

“Most North American Christians assume they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to every child when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked….Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own.”

Of course, our natural reaction is to balk at such an absurd viewpoint. And rightly so in one sense because we recognize that reading the Bible can be transformative and so reading the text is one of the ways that people become less possessed of corrupt habits and more infused with holy habits.

Yet Hauerwas is onto something. He recognizes that our virtues determine our readings and without the right virtues our readings will be corrupt. And I bring up Hauerwas to say this: his point here is similar to how I feel towards books that are therapeutic. The book is too pure for me and I am of a sinful people. The text is too virtuous for me and I am a man of low estate. The author is too other for me and my soul is not real enough to take it in.

But that’s the beauty of these books, in reading them we become transformed, if we do not corrupt the book too much. If for a brief moment we can open ourselves up to horizons that are beyond ours, to feelings that are deeper than ours, to ways of seeing the world that are foreign to ours, and to people who are more real than us, then maybe we can be like that too. Not all at once, but it’s a step in the right direction. The grass is still hard, but no longer like diamonds; the leaf is still heavy, but it is no longer a sack of coal; the bird is still more real, but maybe one day I can fly with it too.

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