Sunday 7 April 2013

The Place of Fiction and the Moral Imagination

Recently I've been re-reading a few books I first read years ago, one of them being, 'Children of a Greater God' by Terry W. Glaspey which was written in 1995.

The book speaks about awakening your child's moral imagination, creating a clear understanding in their hearts and minds of the beauty and importance of moral living, and imparting the ability to perceive the truth in literature, the arts, and the natural world.

'Moral imagination is the ability to think clearly and creatively in the realm of moral values, especially when faced with a situation where rules do not suffice.'

He looks at virtues and the place of habits, the importance of the arts and instilling the art of reading - things that many of us have thought about, believe to be important and have already begun to put into practice - but he gives compelling reasons why these things are important. A common occurrence in families, especially with highschool age children, is that the 'optional extras' eg. the study of art, poetry, and music, gives way under the weight of the 'more necessary or expedient' subjects or time constraints. This book helps to give a vision for their inclusion and their appreciation.

The dangers of theological ignorance, the marks of a Christian mind and suggestions for building a Christian worldview are other areas he covers in this book. The book is very readable and practical and a good introduction to this area.

Now to some other authors:

An article I read last week, Why Christians Should Read Fiction led me to look into another article in which Russell Kirk wrote about the 'expression of the moral imagination.' The writing is quite scholarly and some of it was lost on me but it reminded me of the book above and I thought about some of the fiction I've read and how it contributed to my understanding of human nature.

'.... the end of great books is ethical—to teach us what it means to be genuinely human......
Until very recent years, men took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness—that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things.'   

I've just finished reading Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, a stark, bitter novel written in 1911 and barely a hundred pages in length. Ethan, a young man in an unhappy relationship with a sickly, suspicious wife, dreams of a new life with his wife's cousin who has been living with them. When their desires are thwarted and they have to part, the two of them take a course of action which condemns all three to a wretched and pitiful existence together.

Ethan Frome really did have a tragic life that he sort of fell into in many ways. Throughout the story I found myself sympathising with his situation, wishing for him to find a way out of his misery and to have an opportunity to start afresh. I understood his behaviour was morally wrong and why, but it wasn't until the tragic consequences of his actions were culminated that I felt a moral awakening.

In contrast to Ethan Frome the situation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre revealed a very different response to circumstances which were just as painful although somewhat different. Jane finds love, appreciation and happiness for the first time in her difficult life and is about to be married. Standing at the altar with Mr. Rochester, the man she loves, their wedding is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a third party who reveals that Rochester is already married, albeit to a mad woman. Jane resolves to tear herself away and as Rochester passionately pleads with her and her emotions battle for supremacy she declares:

‘I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad- as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?’

Contrasting these two stories, the emotions they evoke and the ultimate resolution of their individual moral dilemmas revealed to me the power of fiction to help awaken the moral imagination. To have a moral foundation already in place is only the beginning. We need to know that this foundation is going to be solid in times when our emotions are trying to lead us, and the power of a story can help us look at life from different aspects, not in just black and white. As author Flannery O'Connor stated, 'A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way.'

 'If a public will not have the moral imagination, I have been saying, then it will fall first to the idyllic imagination; and presently into the diabolic imagination—this last becoming a state of narcosis, figuratively and literally.'  (Russell Kirk)



Silvia said...

It looks very good, I will add it to my list this year,.

And the article... I love the connections that come to us while reading good books.

Silvia said...

I am reading the book now, and it is fascinating. Did you see it is dedicated, among others, to the Andreola couple?

Thanks for the recommendation, it is becoming one of my favorite books of the year.

Carol said...

Yes, I did see that Silvia. I bought it when it was first published in 1995 and I've been surprised it isn't particularly well known. Has some good reading suggestions also. Glad you're enjoying it.

Silvia said...

And you know I have this one from the same author waiting at the library?

Great books of the Christian tradition /

I think it will have even more titles.

So many of the ones in this book are in the AO, and in pencil, the previous owner noted by each title if they were Sonlight, or mentioned too in the Honey for a Child's Heart, or in the Books Well Loved by Children (this I do not know if it is another list, but that is what she had noted). Many books were two or three of these categories, and on top, AO books too.

Thanks for writing reviews. I like reading from those with the same *vision*, (wink).

Silvia said...

Sorry, that should say,

And you know, "comma", I have this one from the same author waiting at the library? Sigh. Fast typing.