Just as a Christian approach to literature involves enjoying literary works for their own sake regardless of any functional value, so it also involves surrendering to artworks in a way that causes us to grow into deeper and richer people. To explain what I mean by this, I’d like to draw your attention to a portion of the haunting poem “Remembering Marie” written by the German poet Bertolt Brecht (1898 –1956):
It was a day in that blue month September
Silent beneath the plum trees’ slender shade
I held her there
My love, so pale and silent
As if she were a dream that must not fade
Above us in the shining summer heaven
There was a cloud my eyes dwelled long upon
It was quite white and very high above us
Then I looked up
And found that it had gone
Even in translation, this portion of Brecht’s poem is profound. When the subject looks up and finds that the cloud has vanished, there is a sense of sadness that hits the reader, though it’s hard to explain just why. One is impressed, on a very deep level, by the transience of time and love. “Remembering Marie” moves us if we let it, yet it does not have any immediate functional value for the Christian life. The value that it has is artistic, not pragmatic.
Now certainly if we surrender to these types of works and let them work on us as people, we become richer and deeper men and women, and so there ends up being a certain functional value. But that is not where we start. We start by learning to surrender to the artwork and letting it change us in undefinable ways, as C.S. Lewis argued in An Experiment in Criticism.
When we surrender to works of art – whether a song, poem, film, novel, painting or ballet – and let the artwork stir our imagination, we are often changed in ways that are hard to quantify. Often the experience may be difficult to articulate and may actually lose something if we try to put it into words. This is what I experienced when I watched the foreign language film The Lives of Others(warning: there is at least one inappropriate scene that should be fast-forwarded).
Sometimes we have to simply let ourselves experience a work of art before we try to explain it, to let ourselves surrender to it in a way analogous to our approach to persons. The way to get to know a person is not to begin analyzing him or her, but just to enjoy the relationship, to listen to what the person has to say, to empathize with the person, to allow ourselves to experience life through our friend’s perspective. In doing this, the horizons of our own personhood are expanded. It is the same with literature.
When we approach literary texts like this, we often find that they are laced with paradoxes and evade any straight-forward explanation.