Why Read Fiction? (And How?)

On an email list I am a part of, someone recently raised a series of questions about Christian literary criticism—essentially, how can we be good readers but at the same time critical readers?  or do we have to be critical readers to count as good readers?  Must we theologize about books in order to be good Christian readers, or can we simply enjoy them for what they are?  In response, I offered a brief account of the phenomenon of fiction, and what we should be looking for when we read it; a friend suggested I adapt these thoughts for sharing here.  (Almost everything I say here about fiction, I should add, could equally apply to film.)

First, I tried to address the worry of how one can can give oneself over to the fictional world as a Christian.  If the author might try to lure you in unacceptable and immoral directions, you must maintain detachment, allegiance to your Christian commitments.  On the other hand, such detachment—filtering everything you read through your worldview categories—can get in the way of actually hearing what it is the author is trying to say.  I wonder if this is indeed altogether a unique problem of fiction, as many people often imply, or rather a feature of all good reading.  My recent reflections on “intellectual empathy” (see Matthew Lee Anderson’s original articulation of the concept here, and my follow-up remarks here) lead me to think the latter.  To read any author fairly and justly, sometimes we need to be able to enter mentally into the universe that he is working from, to imaginatively adopt his starting points and see from that standpoint why he values what he values.  There is always a certain detachment in this, since we are not really leaving behind our commitments, but precisely because we are so confidently grounded in them, we can imaginatively bracket them out for a moment, knowing that they’re not going anywhere.  But although the intellect can perhaps abstract in this way, the will cannot.  I cannot, for the sake of argument, make myself temporarily love a position I take to be falsehood. Read More


Vermigli on the Natural Duty of Magistrates to Promote Religion

From his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

It is also shown here that the magistrate’s main duty (for when Aristotle mentions the political faculty, he is speaking of him) is to produce good citizens.  It is doubtless important for him to enrich his subjects, to extend the limits of empire, and to fortify the city with defenses and ramparts; but the magistrate’s main job is to produce good citizens.  Those who hold the reins of government should think nothing that contributes to this irrelevant to their duty.  They will not, as some do, regard the pure and chaste observation of religion as beyond their purview.  This being so, the best view is that a very close connection between the magistrate and the ministers of the church is beneficial for states. (Peter Martyr Library Edition, p. 227)

We should now add to this that it ought to be a magistrate’s concern that his people behave virtuously and that their prime virtue be piety.  So it will be a good magistrate’s responsibility to do everything possible to see that pure and sincere religion prevails in his territory.  Those who do not do this do not keep the true way of governing a state.  It is easy to understand how the application of virtue follows from a design to make the citizens good, since the virtues are the causes of goodness. . . .

We see here very clearly which virtues are excluded from this consideration, namely, those of the body.  These are commonly said to be four in number—health, shape, clarity of the senses, and strength. . . . Only those located in the soul are to be treated. . . .

Since the soul is the subject of the virtues, he must find out some things about it before discussing its accidents.  Aristotle confirms this procedure with a comparison: a doctor acts in exactly the same way, for he studies the nature of the body and the ey before turning his hand to cure them. . . . For medical science is considered far inferior to political science; if therefore the doctor is not ignorant of the limbs he is about to treat and heal, it will be much more important for the politician to learn about the soul in which the virtues are located.  This comparison between doctor and politician is quite apposite and appropriate.  For just as the former heals the body, the latter seeks to care for the soul with good customs.  It is almost as if we were saying that the two principal parts of man are to be governed and restored by a twofold faculty: the soul is entrusted to the statesman and the body to the doctor.  Before everything, the doctor wants to know what is proper to each part of the body in its own particular nature, then he observes what thing contrary to its nature is brought on by disease; once he has understood this, he looks for remedies that will bring those parts of the body back to the proper state of their nature. (pp. 266-67)

It is striking in particular how in this latter passage, by appearing to say that the politician’s task is chiefly concerned with the good of the soul, rather than with the body, Vermigli almost perfectly inverts the consensus of modern liberal politics (in both its right-wing and left-wing forms).