Founded 75 years ago, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the oldest graduate creative writing program in the United States. Over the years the program has helped develop the talent of a host of award-winning authors. A recent Monitor feature explores whether today’s society is still producing authors capable of writing the “great American novel.”
I love to read books that, among other things, shed new light on what freedom means, the nature of sacrifice, selflessness, courage, intelligence. Lifting ideas outside the limitations of the human scene as we know it enables one to look at them in a different light. Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy was well versed in the quality fiction of her day and her nonfiction works are peppered with excerpts from them. She was also well aware of the negative effect some types of fiction could have on spiritual growth. In responding to someone who asked if she felt the study of literature was objectionable for those seeking to advance spiritually, she gave literature a careful nod of approval: “Literature and languages, to a limited extent, are aids to a student of the Bible and of Christian Science” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 64).
Jesus’ parables offer today’s Bible readers lovely vignettes – stories with a spiritual message – that some contemporary authors have used as a basis for their own books. Jesus deftly presents a situation and then zeros in on the spiritual quality or message he wants to convey.
For instance, a woman who loses one of her silver coins doesn’t just give up and say, “Whatever.” Instead, she sweeps the house until she finds it. This is a good lesson in the value of persistence, but there’s more going on than that. Jesus explains that God is equally persistent in redeeming and rejoicing over those who turn back to Him (see Luke 15:8-10). It’s an encouraging message for anyone who may be wondering if the spiritual welcome mat is still out.
Another parable describes humility, a quality essential to redemption. Jesus’ story of a Pharisee and a publican contrasts pride and humility, taking a poke at the “upper religious crust” of Jewish society at that time. The Pharisee goes into the temple and prays to God, explaining that he isn’t like the sinful guys – extortioners, adulterers, and other folks who just don’t get it. He assures God that he is special and is doing all the right things.
Publicans, on the other hand, weren’t thought of very highly, and this particular one Jesus describes goes into the synagogue well aware of his faults, praying humbly, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” The lesson Jesus drew in his parable was stark and possibly startling to his listeners: “Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted” (see Luke 18:9-14).
Each reader of fiction has a choice about what lessons he or she will draw from them. Even a flawed story may have more goodness underneath the surface than is obvious. And a good story may actually turn one’s thought in negative directions. In the end, each of us can choose what we will read, letting God, or the divine Mind, guide us to what will nurture and satisfy.
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