As Christians, we are called to share our faith, to invite others to know and love Our Lord Jesus Christ, and to become part of his Body, the Church. How can literature—stories, poetry, drama, song—assist us in this vital work of evangelization, catechesis, and discipleship?
It is challenging to share the Gospel in a culture that dismisses the faith as irrelevant, condemns it as harmful and irrational, or sidelines it as nothing more than personal opinion. Today, many people are resistant to even the most basic claims of Christianity, unwilling to consider it as a real possibility. Many others are only nominally Christian, identifying themselves as having faith but neither understanding nor abiding by the teaching of the Church.
There is no silver bullet, no magic wand that we can wave to solve the problem, nor should we expect that to be the case: people are complex, and so is culture. We are formed by countless influences over the course of our lives, and the culture we live in is made up of many elements—some positive, some negative; many of them contradictory; varying from place to place. In order to share the faith in this strange new world that we live in, we must attend to both evangelization and formation in a holistic way: attending to the whole person, and heeding the needs and questions of each individual. Our efforts must include pastoral care, personal witness, and education; we must attend to intellectual, spiritual, emotional, relational, and physical needs. The volume The New Apologetics—to which I contributed a chapter on “Imaginative Apologetics”—provides an excellent overview of the varied approaches that help us to reach people today.
Literature is of particular value in helping us to invest our Christian concepts with real substance. Too often, for people today, the words we use to talk about the faith are just empty jargon, often misunderstood and easy to disregard. But when words like grace, forgiveness, sin, resurrection, and so on have real meaning for people, the questions “Could this be true?” and “How does this affect the way I live my life?” become significant.
One particular example from my own experience stands out. Years ago, when I was teaching at a secular community college in Southern California, I used Shakespeare’s play Macbeth in my literature and composition classes. In class, we discussed how Macbeth, a brave man who was respected and honored by his King, yielded to the temptation of ambition and became caught in a downward spiral of continued violence, leading to his own destruction.
This rather dark and weird play allowed me to discuss issues of sin, temptation, and virtue with an audience of largely unchurched young people, in a context where it would not have been appropriate (or useful) for me to be explicitly Christian in my presentation of these ideas. After our last discussion, the students handed in their homework and filed out of the classroom. As I sorted through the papers, I noticed a post-it note stuck to the back of the stack, which read: “Dr. O: last night I was out with some friends and I was tempted to do something I shouldn’t do. But I thought of Macbeth, and I didn’t do it.”
I never knew who wrote the note, or what the situation had been, only that there was a student in my class who, at least on one occasion, recognized and resisted sin because of the imaginative engagement with it in literature that we had in class. It might seem a small matter, from a certain perspective, but in reality, the movement of a soul away from sin (however small the step) and toward the good (however dimly perceived) is profoundly important.
Stories provide a way to get past barriers of hostility and faulty assumptions, and in particular, the distance provided by old stories creates a valuable comfort zone, a sense of safety in considering ideas that, if true, have the alarming potential to change everything in one’s life.
The very strangeness of the world of Beowulf or Odysseus or King Arthur makes it easier to discuss their actions and attitudes in terms of virtue and vice, objective good and evil. People who are ready to mock or dismiss Christian ideas if these are presented directly are often willing to lower their barriers of hostility and consider where their assumptions might be faulty, if we go about it indirectly and gently through the discussion of stories that are fascinating in their own right. That’s why teaching literature and creative writing are central to my own work in Christian apologetics and evangelization.
The meaning-making power of literature is particularly important for catechesis and discipleship, especially for our young people. We cannot take for granted, for instance, that those who are preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation have any real grasp of the faith—even when they have parents who are regular Mass-goers.
In my experience, middle-school and high-school students often have only the most superficial understanding of the meaning of words like prayer or sin. If prayer means just asking God for what you want, and prayer is only ‘answered’ if you get exactly what you ask for, what happens when a young person prays earnestly that his beloved grandmother recover from illness—and she dies? A situation like this is often precisely the point at which a young person walks away from the faith. Similarly, if sin is just an abstract negative label for various activities (mostly sexual, and which the wider culture warmly endorses), there is no meaningful barrier for a person to slip into sin and into a habitual disregard for the teachings of the Church.
Literature can help the truths of the faith to be more vibrantly assimilated by the imagination, more fully grasped by the intellect, and more completely assimilated by the emotions—all of which, in turn, helps build a solid foundation for the action of the will.
Leading with beauty means starting with the basic fact that human beings are drawn toward what is beautiful. It attracts us, compels our attention, and if we stay attentive to it, we can be drawn further in. Where does this beauty come from, why does it move me, how can I find more of it? These are questions that lead us toward God and, especially with the help of an evangelist or a catechist, can help us to know and love him more.
Leading with beauty can take many forms. My own focus is on literature, while also seeking to make connections with the visual arts whenever possible. Stories, poetry, song, and drama, whether written down or passed along by the spoken word, have been a meaningful part of human existence for as long as we have recorded history. And, ancient as it is, literature is as vibrant today as it has ever been—bursting out into new forms and media, and still thriving in the ‘old-school’ forms of printed books.
And that is why, in writing Tales of Faith: A Guide to Sharing the Gospel through Literature, I focused on ancient and medieval literature—precisely because this literature, of very great age, allows us to focus much more clearly on the essential questions of the human experience, and to see these issues with fresh eyes. It’s my hope that this guide will foster fruitful discussions that allow us to meet people where they are, and help them move closer to knowing Christ, or to knowing and loving him more fully and deeply.
This article is adapted from the first chapter of Tales of Faith: A Guide to Sharing the Gospel through Literature (Word on Fire Institute: 2022).