I have long had an obsession with books. Since middle school, at least, I have loved to sit by a shelf and examine the titles, to arrange them, to examine their cover art, to read the summaries and flip through their contents. It has long been my custom upon entering someone’s home for the first time (and indeed upon subsequent visits), to examine the bookshelves. I must admit that I often make judgments based on what I find there, and I am on occasion quite excited by the volumes I discover.
Like many an inveterate bibliomaniac, I have brought home stray books from little free libraries or garage sales that I have no business placing upon my shelf for the simple reason that I will not read them (a massive, eroding paperback outline of the Civil War comes to mind). I even know that I will not read many of these books, and yet I cannot keep my grubby fingers off of them. I have bought and sold books without ever having read the first page. This is a vice, certainly, but I console myself with the idea that it is in some part justified by an equally passionate thirst for reading itself and the vague, completely unfounded notion that I am preserving these books for others in my life who may want them.
This thirst began in elementary school, when I obsessively read my way through all of the available books of the Eragon series (I have never read the last installment, which was released after I was past the age to enjoy it). Prior to this discovery, most of my reading had come from bedtime stories, which were much as one might expect—fairy tales, The Hobbit, various fantasy works (most memorably, if not for particularly good reasons, The Sword of Shannara). Once I had outgrown being read to at bedtime, my parents paid me to read. The price was set at $15 per 1,000 pages, or something of that magnitude. This tactic speaks to my parents’ earnest, but perhaps misguided, desire to force me to acquire a degree of culture. It worked to some extent, although I was less than honest in reporting my progress, and I was quite adept at convincing myself that I had read more than I had. It did, however, keep me reading, and the habit was formed as much from taste as greed.
After my discovery of the pleasure of reading, which must have been around the third grade, I read largely whatever presented itself to my interests. Few titles are salient in my memory, although a few vague images of a number of fantasy books float to mind (almost all of which involved dragons of some sort) as well as The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m afraid that I lacked any guidance or clear notion of “the classics.” My family consists of moderately educated (and some quite educated) people, but they failed to instill in me a sense of the grand cultural traditions that were within my grasp, a failure which is likely due more to my own rebelliousness and wild nature than to any fault of theirs. Indeed, we had many of the classics in leather-bound editions within the home, but I rarely if ever picked these up. School was an even worse place to be initiated into the treasures of literature. I went to public school in a very small town where the vast majority of our reading was drawn from textbooks taught by remarkably uninspiring educators (with notable exceptions). Nevertheless, my reading did occasionally drift into the higher spheres, and I vividly remember reading The Three Musketeers, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Peter Pan. Of course, I also remember reading the Twilight series (of my own will; no blaming public school for this one), and so my taste could not have been as refined as I would have liked.
After stumbling my way into high school, my life began to change quickly. Drugs entered the scene, and the mental capacities that I should have been developing were instead dulled. Despite this, my interests in literature continued, however attenuated. I discovered Thomas Pynchon and fell in love with Gravity’s Rainbow, which for a long time afterwards I declared to be my favorite book. I also developed a bit of an obsession with Russia. I listened to Russian music, studied the language, and read a good degree of Dostoevsky. An equally (if not more) delinquent friend of mine and I had a mutual love of Notes from Underground, which we both related to immensely. We felt, I suppose, completely adrift, with no clear compass to guide us in any of our decisions, constantly caught between contradictions that we could not resolve. I once came upon this friend laying under a table in the art room, shaking his fist and yelling “Liiiiizzzzaaa!” A few teachers had an influence on me during this time, and I read such books as My Antonia and A Hundred Years of Solitude in class. One teacher even let me read Infinite Jest, which I consumed in marathon intervals, in lieu of a structured final project.
After high school, however, the shimmering pull of intoxication and the college social scene drew me away from such pursuits, and I was lost in a sea of smoke, plastic cups, and largely meaningless relationships passing in and out beneath the palms of sweltering Hawaiian nights. For two years, my extracurricular reading died away almost completely. My mind filled up with cobwebs, and I floundered from the Pacific Ocean to the shores of the Columbia River, sopping wet and completely at a loss. I knew something was wrong, that I had wandered off the path into the woods, and I was determined to find my way back again. Unfortunately, I had no clue how to do this, and I began merely to wander in a new direction in the vast reaches of that Dantean forest. My reading picked up again, and I even had a brief foray as an English major (which, to my continued regret, I never completed). I had my first real introduction to Shakespeare and a number of other wonderful writers at this time, including T.S. Elliot, James Joyce, and Iris Murdoch. This was hardly a solution, however, as the continued intake of drugs and the existential dread hovering over my countenance evidenced. I was also reading a great amount of occult and new age literature, and my trajectory took on an increasingly “spiritual” bent. I felt I was pushing towards something, but I had no inkling of what it might be.
And then came the great turning point of my life, the boundary by which my entire existence is and shall forever be defined: the encounter—almost entirely unexpected—with Christ. It came as a vast deluge, a storm of lightning shattering me from head to toe, washing away all my volumes of Carl Jung and Aleister Crowley. In the deepest recesses of every vision, the most intimate core of my demon-haunted being, I saw him, standing as a burning silhouette. I felt as if I had been picked up from the desert and placed in the center of a vast empire, the crowds thronging around me, and a voice thundering that I must begin my work. What could I do? One does not ignore the voice of God, at least if one has any wish to avoid whale bellies (and I had spent more than my fair share of time at the bottom of a pit).
This first conversion experience had a decidedly literary character. It’s a difficult thing to describe effectively, as the power of the sight is lost in prose. Nevertheless, I feel it is worth relating. While reading the Old Testament, I saw in a flash a series of patterns akin to a very detailed and very large connect-the-dot drawing. There were a number of these patterns, and they all intertwined and overlapped each other. I understood what they were: the stories of the Old Testament and every possible pattern of human life, which in that moment were inseparable. They were the hieroglyphics of reality, the stories of being, and they were becoming denser and denser and more and more complex, until they suddenly synchronized. They shifted so as to form a complete image, an undifferentiated whole, the culmination of a plot, of every plot. At that moment, a figure burned through the center of the image—Christ sitting upon a throne, an open book in his left hand, and his right hand held aloft in blessing.
Well, I fell flat on my face and didn’t rise for hours. I understood the message perfectly clearly. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Christ was the center of all things, the source and subject of every story, the Truth, the Way. You can imagine the changes such an event makes in one’s life, and this event was not the last of its kind; it was followed by any number of similar experiences, none of which were quite as spectacular but many of which felt just as powerful. I knew at last what I had been seeking and what had been attracting me like a great lodestone island pulling upon the nails of a ship. I had arrived at that mystery, and the real work was just beginning. I moved back in with my parents, re-entered school, and started upon the Christian path that God appeared to be dragging me along with all haste. (“Dragging” is the correct word, by the way. It was not that I was entirely unwilling so much as reluctant, but even if I hadn’t shown any reluctance, I doubt that I could ever have kept up with the pace had I not been seized by the hair and pulled along regardless of any protests, which is still in many ways an accurate characterization of my relationship with our Lord and Savior.)
This radical transformation born of Christ’s jack-in-the-boxing his way into my life forced me to re-evaluate absolutely everything about myself and the world, including my relationship to literature. It was a new flowering of my reading life and a vast expansion in the nourishment I received from it. Besides literature, being a Christian jump-started a nascent but largely undeveloped fascination with philosophy, a love of languages ancient and modern, and a deep intellectual hunger that had long gone unsatisfied. All of these spheres suddenly took on a new meaning. What I had previously believed to be their floor fell away, and their depths looked back at me with the visage of the night sky. I drank it with gusto: French, Plato, the Church Fathers, Sir Walter Scott, all found their way into my draught. This hunger and imbibition have not ceased; in fact, it has only continued to grow, and it is often in such pursuits that I feel closest to Christ.
I have been struck by the change in my attitudes toward stories, in particular. In the past, the books I read largely influenced me by their technical beauty, the novelty or salience of their events, the genius of their inner workings. A book like Gravity’s Rainbow grabbed me forcefully because of its knottiness, its baroque, flowering prose, its insanely wrought plot. Yet such a book does not leave one bursting with the inspirations of virtue or any profound sense that the Spirit wafts from its pages. It is a melancholy work, in which the traditions and coherence of the era before the falling of the atomic bomb have been torn apart and drift like so much flotsam. It is often coarse, even obscene. Yet this was completely opaque to me for the simple reason that I did not care; my heart was coarse and so coarseness felt natural to me. I thought little of virtue or moral goodness or characters to be imitated. Perhaps this was a concern for me as a child, but I have no memory of it being so, and I suspect that it was marginal at most. This is not to say that my pre-Christian reading had no value or that books of this nature have none, only that at the time, my tastes seemed to have been primarily for novelty. If a concern for beauty or depth was present, it was confused, groping. Certainly, figures such as Dostoevsky spoke to me because they pierced the veil of flat secularity that so many of us grew up in, suggesting a world in which life mattered and great truths were available to be discovered.
Because I had no clear understanding of what these truths might be, however, and because any concrete notion of the good escaped me, the piercing of this veil led primarily to what I would have considered at the time a kind of heroic despair. I felt, as many around me felt, that it was better to dive full bore into the dark recognition of a monstrous reality than attempt to live on the surface, passing one’s time in illusion. If the universe one inhabits is a mere accident of particles or even a system made of morally ambiguous spiritual entities, there is little through which the light may shine. I felt this darkness tangibly, and much of the literature that attracted me in high school and college was of the kind to reveal the full horror of such a worldview. My later interest in the occult was, on the one hand, a search for spiritual meaning, and, on the other, an attempt to gain some mastery over the chaos of the world around me. When I became a Christian, however, the despair I had (largely unknowingly) embraced was shattered, and the light seeped in.
Since then, my taste has shifted radically, although I still feel it is in the process of being baptized. Whereas before I was primarily attracted by novelty and technical artistry (the latter of which, at least, is still very important to me), I now find myself concerned with a book’s spiritual vision. I have been repeatedly enthralled by the mythopoeic, often allegorical, stories of George MacDonald, to take an example. Prior to becoming a Christian, I suspect that his wandering, dream-like novels would have been imagistically interesting to me, but that their often-clunky writing and deeply Christian themes would have bored me.
Besides allowing me to commune with new literature, my conversion has caused writers that I previously loved to change radically beneath the world’s new coloring. Where I once espoused the brilliance of Milan Kundera, I now shrug, acknowledging his accomplishments but feeling no discomfort in our parting ways. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, now burns effervescent with the mad brilliance of his Christian pen in a way completely unknown to me previously. Some of this is due to my having learned more of philosophy and Dostoevsky’s thinking, but much of it comes from the overlapping of worldviews, the recognition of the source from which his pain and insight spring. At least, I have trouble imagining a non-Christian being as disturbed by Ivan Karamazov’s arguments for God’s injustice or as moved by the loving imperatives of Father Zossima, which shine as the humble response to Ivan’s painful questions.
Indeed, such beauty of character affects me much more deeply now than it ever has. Literature has become an arena for revealing the beauty of souls as much as the beauty of language or speculation. The work of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson have built lasting edifices within my heart not only because of the writing, the plots, and the ideas, but because of the glory of the characters. The sacrifice of Sydney Carton and the upright stubbornness of Captain Smollett continue to breathe life into my cowardly nature, and I clearly feel God speaking to me through the strength (and weakness) of such characters. They stand as pillars in my mind, revealing the great complexities of humanity and the virtues that open the way to a higher illumination.
In many respects, then, I feel I am now, in my twenties, living through my boyhood. The time that should have been spent in admiration of the great figures of history and the great stories of humanity was largely wasted in dissipation and despair. I had given myself up to nihilism and did not even know it. Faced with a bland and disenchanted world, I chose self-destruction and chaos, which finally gave way to hedonism and deadening confusion. It was only with Christ’s entrance that the world began to be light as it had been in my earliest years. And yet it is brighter, and the streams from which I drink now fill me with more than I had ever before received. And one of the deepest of these streams is the vast web of stories that shine with the brilliance of God’s splendor, filling us with the resources we need to follow the path he has laid before us. If literature helped bring me to the edge of despair where disillusionment with comfort and secularity become so great that God could reach me, it now carries me forward as a Christian, pointing on to higher things.
This is remarkable, Benjamin. Strangely mirrors my own life experience at several points.
Have you noticed that often the sort of deconversion catalyst in mainline liberal seminarian types is Jung and the Jungian stream of writers like Hillman, Moore (Thomas and Robert), recently Rohr, etc?
I could name at least ten people I know who went into pastoral ministry and came out talking a lot about depth psychology, archetypal Dream interpretation and mystical poetry. All wrapped up in a neatly “acceptable” form for the modern progressive ethos of our time.