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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Writers Save: How Poets and Novelists Came to Comfort the Faithful and Strengthen the Doubters

Event Recap

On November 16, Wheaton College English Professor Alan Jacobs delivered a lecture on the role that Western poets and novelists have had in shaping the faith of modern American Christians. Virtually absent until the middle of the twentieth century, this phenomenon emerged as individuals left cold by pastors, theologians, and lifeless liturgies sought a different kind of religious experience. While Jacobs regards the phenomenon as a positive thing for the future of Christianity, he notes that local churches need to think in constructive and creative ways about how to ease the transition of individuals who come to worshipping communities as the result of a literary experience.

Jacobs first took notice of the phenomenon during Fredrick Buechner’s visit to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Jacobs was surprised to hear so many of Buechner’s fans tell the author, “I’m a Christian because of your books.” Recognizing this statement of faith as historically uncommon, he began searching for its origin, eventually tracing it to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a writer whose prophetic witness was not contingent on his membership with the Church. The phenomenon evolved throughout the 20th century and flourished in the work of Simone Weil, C.S. Lewis and William Hale White. These and others whose diverse spiritual lives were inspired by literature (and who in turn inspired the spiritual lives of others) demonstrate, Jacobs argued, the modern desire to receive spiritual instruction indirectly (without being told we’re receiving it), and to embrace a religious experience without feeling vulnerable.

In a brief response to Jacob’s lecture, BC English Professor Judith Wilt argued that historical novels, science fiction, and detective stories are three additional genres of literature that sustain faith for many, including herself. Jacobs agreed, noting that these genres have great power because they give the least impression that they’re working on us in any spiritual or religious way. Their engaging conversation was quickly joined by members of the audience, who shared their own stories of spiritual engagement with literature, to the benefit of all.