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Reading as a Spiritual Practice: Historical Fiction

September 25, 2013

I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was 11 years old. I had seen the movie on TV with my mom one night and wanted to know more of the story. So, my mom got me the book. I devoured it! I loved the sweeping descriptions of ball gowns and afternoons of courting. I loved the fierce love between a woman and her home. I didn’t realize that I was swallowing a fictional view of the old South. It wasn’t until I was in high school and encountered Uncle Tom’s Cabin that I saw how deep the fairy tale of Gone with the Wind dove past reality. I wonder sometimes if Uncle Tom’s Cabin would have had such a profound effect on me if I hadn’t loved Gone with the Wind so fiercely?

Good historical fiction gives us access to a world that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. And it does it through the most powerful means possible–story. While I am bad at remembering the dates and locations of the battles of the Civil War, I remember that Sherman burned Atlanta because Margret Mitchell’s description of Scarlett fleeing the fire is imbedded in my brain.

The two books I wanted to bring to you in our examination of reading historical fiction as spiritual practice actually occurred in similar time settings. And they tell similar stories. Why bring both? They highlighted for me a need to tell these kinds of stories. These stories have been a quiet part of Christianity’s history. They have been the background, the unusual, the suspect. But I need these stories. I need to know that they happened. I need to know that they are part of the tapestry of history that I walk in community with. I need to know these things because these stories are in my DNA. They shape me, predict my reactions, and show me how the larger community could respond. More on them tomorrow…

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 26, 2013 3:03 am

    I just spent my Wednesday at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles as a combination medieval historian/theologian/art historian with a dear [Protestant Christian] friend who had no previous experience with Western European Christian religious iconography and illuminated manuscripts looking at this exhibit:

    http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/canterbury/

    and this one:

    http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/saints/

    I grew up Roman Catholic, have spent my life studying history, am aiming at life as an historical theologian, and had a grandmother who was an art teacher (who worked in a museum with a collection similar to the Getty’s for most of my life). Illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, devotional art, lives of the saints? This is what I spend every available opportunity pouring over as a museum rat.

    My friend had no clue.

    The original “historical fiction” of Western Christianity is told in its devotional art. Mary, Jesus, Bible stories, the details of the lives of the saints? The rough details of these stories were conveyed — for centuries — in devotional art, but conveyed in very “modern” ways that were malliable to cultural interpretation — Jesus? Mary? The characters in the Bible? It’s only a modern idea of the last few hundred years to try to make them less than the Everymen they are in devotional art by placing them squarely in “traditional” dress and settings contemporary to their actual historical place and time — most often the characters and stories are placed as an overlay to a modern (to period) setting. Sometimes details of a story or the way a story is portrayed changes over time for what is popular…how something like — say, the Annunciation or Crucifixion or Pentecost — is portrayed. Where Mary Magdelene is placed at the Crucifixion has changed over time, the presence and representation of various persons of the trinity in depictions of the Annunciation has changed over time, whether or not Mary Mother of Jesus was present at Pentecost (and where she was placed and how) have changed over time. Lives and stories of the saints — the vision and ecstacy of St. Francis of Assisi for example — also are often and variously depicted.

    No artist was “there” at the scene of these things, and their iconic portrayal is a visual equivalent of historical fiction. It’s pretty cool. And psalters and books of hours? Devotional texts that formed an amazing hodge-podge of stories and psalms and illuminations. It’s pretty cool when you start thinking about it. Devotional art…tells a story.

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