What is religious about literature? Obviously some literature is overtly about religious belief or experience. But is there anything inherent to literature that is also inherent to religion? Does Mormonism aid us in seeing this dimension to literature?
Good literature is more than story telling. A friend of mine once approached me about my choice to study English during my undergraduate studies. Perplexed, he asked, “Why would I read a book when all they do is teach you about how to interact with people? I would rather just go to the source and spend my time building relationships than indulging in fantasy worlds and imaginary people.” Although I fundamentally disagree with my friend, I couldn’t find the words to explain why. The question had a root that perplexed me. What is the true value of literature? Are there elements of literature that build something inside of us like nothing else can? And, finally, is there something spiritual about even secular literature?
Some elements of literature are inherent to religion as well. Socrates once stated, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This principle is consistent within all great literature and theology. Speaking about literature, CS Lewis once said, “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” A good book amplifies our understanding of the world and ourselves instead of merely portraying it. If the latter were the case, my friend would have been right, and living and interacting with others would be enough for us to live a fulfilling, meaningful life. But great literature makes us seek truth in places that unreachable without it. The scriptures likewise admonish us, stating, “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith.” Both great books and the scriptures look beyond the surface of life, to the very marrow of our existence. True happiness is not found in diversions, hobbies, or activities. It is found in true principles that are consistent through all faiths and beliefs.
In this sense, literature penetrates to the core of human existence, even unintentionally at times. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I have often found truths reflected in the secular literature I have studied that amplify and sharpen my understanding of a doctrine or belief. I believe that the Light of Christ shines through all great literature, relating true principles to people who may even claim to not believe in Christ. There are inherent similarities between the purpose of literature and the purpose of religious introspection. But Mormonism adds to the literary experience by providing a scope for truth to be filtered through. Instead of accepting every possible view at face value, Mormonism has helped me to know which ideas to explore further and which to abandon.
But truth is truth no matter the source. And for the exploring minds of the church, that is good news.