Thursday, August 11, 2011

Story and Virtue: Or, Why You Should Watch Good Movies and Get Completely Lost In Good Books Without Feeling Guilty

I just finished reading After You Believe this morning. Wright finishes his book with the question that has been looming over the entire book: “Yes, Tom, I understand that I’m supposed to develop these virtues of ‘faith, hope, and love.’ But, you see, I think that’s another thing that’s very easy to say, much more difficult to practice. So, how do you think we do this?” Wright’s answer lies first of all in the presupposition that moral effort is not contradictory to grace, a matter of ‘legalism’ or ‘hypocritical putting on.’ To try to be virtuous is not saying that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps (what does that mean, by the way?). That kind of mindset rests on the wrong presupposition that ‘whatever God does we don’t do, and vice versa. Life (thank God!) is more complicated than that” (258). So, Wright proposes intense moral effort in implementing the ‘virtuous circle’ of “scripture, stories, examples, community and practices” in order to form those hard-won habits of virtue.

Nevertheless, while I would love to expound on each one of these, I would like to focus on one area in particular—the area of stories.”

(Sidenote: I just looked down and there was a yellow spider crawling on my shirt. If the rest of this post seems a bit jumpy, he (i.e. the spider) is the culprit).

I’ve thought for a while now that loving stories is something more than a fun escape or hobby. Wright confirmed this more for me. While of course, his particular focus is in the area of biblical stories, he also addresses the reality that we are ‘storied creatures’ (264). We are swept away by the tension and resolution in stories because we identify. We yearn for resolution, for completion. As we experience stories, we automatically discern between characters. We see their development, we see how their actions unfold, and we can learn from that. Wright also states:

“All of this is true, of course, of any human being in any tradition. But within the Christian tradition there is special reason to pay attention to stories. Many of the great writers in the world have been deeply formed by the Jewish and/or Christian tradition, and their thoughtful words can help us to reflect on that tradition more deeply. But Christians believe that all human life is itself a gift of God and, however much it may be distorted, a reflection of God. Thus even stories written by writers who are explicitly atheist—indeed, writers whose words were intended to mock or dismiss God—have a strange knack of making crucial points about what is means to be human, about the importance of love and justice and beauty. Living within the world of stories increases—if we let it—the capacity for discernment.” (265)

In my opinion, it even goes beyond “the capacity for discernment.” I think that stories—whether it be reading good literature or watching good movies—have a fundamentally humanizing element in that they take the focus off of ourselves and allow us to get into the mind and story of another. It gives us a practical way to practice, as Atticus Finch implored, the ability to step into another person’s shoes. In short, literature helps us to love our neighbor as ourselves. I found this quote on a blog a couple of months ago and I think it expresses this reality precisely:

"Literature is "useful" because it wakes us up from the sleepwalk of self-involvement—of plans, anxieties, resentments, habits, the fog that clings to our eyes as we stumble through the day, stumble through our lives—and shows us the world, shows us ourselves, shows us life and experience and the reality of other people, and forces us to think about them all. The pleasure of serious literature is not escape or fantasy, it is this very shiver of consciousness, this troubling exhilaration. Reading is thinking and feeling, both at once and both together, simultaneous and identical.” (William Deresiewicz,

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