Teaching Literature and Religion in the Labyrinth

Teaching literature can be likened to the adventure of the mythic Greek hero, Theseus, plumbing the intricacies of Daedalus’ labyrinth while keeping a careful hand on his salvation, the thread furtively afforded him by Ariadne, daughter of King Minos. Literature is a labyrinth, an intricate and sometimes dangerous subject where the Minotaur lurks. As such, it is important to approach it with a lifeline—and that lifeline is religion.

For literature teachers in Catholic schools, teaching literature is only a second priority. The first is teaching religion. Literature is a spiritual subject, it is an expression of the soul—and, as such, belongs to the scope and concern of religion. Only the spiritual realm offers the proper perspective of spiritual things. Human beings are spiritual beings; hence, the written imitation of human experience requires that spiritual perspective in order for it to be truly meaningful. Literature, in fact, provides a perfect platform to teach religion because literature is about life—good and evil, virtue and vice, strength and weakness, love and hate, horror and humor—and life, with all its twists and turns, its dead ends and deliverances, is rendered consequential only by religion, which, like the thread of Theseus, can provide a guide through the convolutions of life which literature reflects.

As its Latin root reminds us (educere), education draws out; it leads forth. A good education will lead out of the shadows and into the light, drawing out the truth. It therefore finds its culmination in religion, where the highest truths are revealed and enshrined in Truth Himself. All truth being united to Truth, it is entirely reasonable to integrate religion not just with literature, but with all educational pursuits. Catholic educators should teach not only the Faith specifically, but also how the Faith mingles with and magnifies all being and influences all thinking. Religion is a compass for the adventure of education, and in no subject is it livelier than in literature, when young minds are vicariously experiencing the labyrinth that makes up the human condition and its experiences.

Literature is imagination set to words. As people are made in the image and likeness of the Word who is the image of God, a high place must be given to the imagination and the word as indispensable means to the knowledge and communication of the highest truths. The Catholic Faith lends itself strongly to the contemplation and enjoyment of mystery and intrigue which is the lifeblood of literature. As has been said before, good literature never tells, but shows—and this principle is also true for the cause and foundations of faith.

Bringing religion into literature class does not necessarily involve a set method. It best occurs by a habit of mind and a willingness to allow a conversation to take its natural course into supernatural places. It is more about casual talking than strict technique. The most important thing in preparation and in practice is to allow the story to speak for itself in the context of one’s own experience, education, and faith. Teaching that is not personal is rarely effective, for teachers cannot effectively teach what they do not possess. Teaching involves sharing that experience, that understanding, and that faith—that spiritual side—and the action of fiction is a tremendous vehicle for this.

A revival of literature can affect a revival of the Catholic Faith because literature holds the power to revive wonder. The wisdom of the greatest theologians are of little value to a world that has lost the sense of wonder, and that is precisely where literature comes in. The human race needs to hear good stories to restore the idea of God. A good literature course should focus on finding the Way, the Truth, and the Life in characters and plots, in sentences and paragraphs, in art and accident. This is literature’s highest and most intensely human end.  The storyline in great literature can be the thread of life, as famously expressed by G. K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown: “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

Remember, there is a divinity that shapes our ends, as Hamlet says. Include the wisdom of God when marveling at the wisdom of writers. Never forget every teacher’s duty to lead their students to heaven, to salvation—to offer them their own secret thread like Theseus’ in the maze—and point out the way through, in, around, and out, and do it by the books you enjoy with your students. If you teach anything, teach the art of finding God in everything. If you show anything, show how the Divine hides invisibly in the world to be discovered and delighted in. If you leave your students with anything, leave them with the truth that the mysteries which make life worth living can be lived and loved in the pages of good books and the delight of good stories.

Teaching religion in the context of literature is both natural and essential, for the two are inseparable, as the one deals with experience and the other, existence. Catholic literature teachers, if they are to teach literature to its fullest, must learn how to allow the Faith to be the common thread that weaves its way through a good story, and that leads the way out through the worldly labyrinth into a greater, more-straightforward world.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

Copyright © 2018 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.

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