Reading, Writing, Preferences, Priorities, and Acts 1:8

Brian H. Gill's 'Island Flight.' (2015)

I enjoy reading. Some folks don’t.

I have no idea what fraction of readers boast of their bookish practices.

Or how many non-readers argue that reading is a waste of time. Apart, perhaps, from their occasional dip into a how-2 article.

Since there’s little tumult and shouting on the reader/non-reader front, it’s probably not among today’s major issues.

On the other hand, I’m not likely to read impassioned warnings that readers threaten the very fabric of society. Not likely to read: think about it.

Preferences

Brian H. Gill's 'A Stranger Rode Into Town One Day.' (2015)Then there are the picky readers: those who only read poetry, or never read westerns, or shun all but practical texts. Like those how-2 articles I mentioned.

A recent online discussion involved an author who had been advised to stop writing by a doctor.

A doctor who never wasted time by reading novels. And who told the author to do something worthwhile. “Worthwhile” defined as becoming a doctor.

The discussion was in a writer’s group, so the doctor’s sage advice met no support.

Certainly not from me. I might have supported the doctor’s argument, if the author had been living in a garret and living on scraps filched from a fast food joint’s dumpster.

But this writer had a day job that probably paid more than I’ve ever earned.

Or maybe not, since I live in a rural Minnesota town. There’s income measured in absolute dollars, and there’s income measured against living costs.

I don’t enjoy the advantages of living among folks who regard solid gold diamond tipped swizzle sticks as Christmas stocking stuffers.

But I don’t have their traffic jams, smog, and that’s another topic.

At any rate, the discussion regarding relative merits of ignoring novels and accepting creativity reminded me that it’s been five months since I talked about truth, writing and being human.

To Denounce, or Not to Denounce, That is the Question

George Bellow's 'Preaching' or 'Billy Sunday.' 'Billy Sunday giving another rip-roaring performance.' (May 1915)
(From George Bellows, via Metropolitan Magazine/Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Billy Sunday, evangelizing folks something fierce. (1915))

It’s been decades since someone told me that fiction and Christianity don’t mix.

Even then, my earnest friend only denounced a particular genre: science fiction.

He had a point.

Science fiction, at least in that era, often assumed that we have dominion over this world. Which, from my friend’s viewpoint, wasn’t “Biblical.” And that’s yet another topic.

We had our discussion back in the 1970s. Maybe denouncing fiction for religious reasons is currently out of vogue. On the other hand, maybe not.

Either way, I’ve been looking for what the Church says about storytelling and related matters, and found this:

“…by writings, by theatrical productions of every kind, by romantic fiction, by amorous and frivolous novels, by cinematographs portraying in vivid scene, in addresses broadcast by radio telephony….”
(“Casti Connubii,” 45, Pope Pius XI (December 31, 1932))

Taking that snippet out of an 18,350-word encyclical and using it as ‘proof’ that the Church is against “…writings…of every kind…” is an option. But not a reasonable one.

For one thing, Pius XI’s “Casti Connubii” is about marriage and a cultural SNAFU not unlike what we’re experiencing today.

For another, if my goal was finding religious authority for banning stories, then I’d have to ignore the rest of the encyclical. Which strikes me as a bad idea.

Besides, I figure that if fiction really was bad, the USCCB wouldn’t have accepted works of fiction for their 2019-20 Creating on the Margins Contest.

Thinking About Movies

Lobby card for Cahn and Siodmak's 'Creature with the Atom Brain.' (1955)In 1996 the Pontifical Council for Social Communications published “100 Years of Cinema,” and in 2006 Pope Benedict XVI talked about “Pope Luciani, God’s Smile,” a film about Pope John Paul I.

“100 Years of Cinema” starts with guidelines for evaluating films from cognitive, psychological and sociological viewpoints. It doesn’t praise all movies, but it doesn’t condemn the medium either.

Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks were mostly a ‘thank you’ for “this pleasant opportunity,” a screening of RAI Fiction’s “Pope Luciani, God’s Smile.”1

Theatrical release posters for 'The Prodigal' (1955) and 'Samson and Delilah' (1949).Finally, if I was going to denounce movies, then I’d likely focus on ‘Bible films’ like “The Prodigal” and “Samson and Delilah.” Maybe.

But the market for films featuring soap opera plots and characters spouting Biblese seems to have tanked. Can’t say I’m disappointed. And that’s yet again another topic.

Attitudes

Albrecht Dürer's 'Melancholia I,.' (1514) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.What I’ve found — more accurately, what I haven’t found — in Catholic resources suggests that writing and reading stories is okay. Usually.

I also figure that telling stories involves principles which apply to everything we do.

So I wouldn’t write a ‘realistic’ tale in which everyone stinks, the world is awful and we’re all gonna die — but that it doesn’t matter because life has no purpose.

Relevance hasn’t been relevant for decades and stark realism may be currently démodé. But fashionable melancholy, under one label or another, has been in the tool kit of wannabe-profound folks for centuries.

“…the student of eighteenth-century melancholy is faced with a problem: for much of the period, melancholy was frothily fashionable, a condition that often seemed less of an illness and more of a blessing for the budding poet, wilting lady wishing to show off her latest nightdress, or anyone who desired to seem in the slightest bit sensitive or clever….”
(“Melancholy Experience in Literature of the Long Eighteenth Century,” Fashionable Melancholy, Abstract, Clark Lawlor (2011) via Springer Link)

I think inspiring depression is a bad idea partly because I’ve lived with depression for decades and don’t see it as “fashionable.” At all.2

But mainly because peddling doom and gloom strikes me as a bad idea.

I’d better explain that.

Making Sense

'The Past - You are Here - Eternity' timeline.There are a (very) few actions which are basically bad, no matter what. Genocide, for example, and a few other options that aren’t quite as counter-cultural. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2313, 23512359)

For the most part, though, whether my actions are good or bad depend on three factors: the object I choose, my intention, and my circumstances. (Catechism, 17501756)

Another rule of thumb for go/no-go decisions is what our Lord said is top priority: loving God, loving my neighbor and seeing everyone as my neighbor. Everyone. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

If we were living in an era where society’s self-described best and brightest produced paeans of praise for Progress, or proclaimed that this is the best of all possible worlds3 — then maybe I’d see a point in countering unthinking optimism with somewhat-stark “realism.”

But we don’t.

So I’ll stay off today’s doom and gloom bandwagons. And keep saying that this world is good: and has room for improvement.

Reasons for Reading and Writing

Brian H. Gill's 'Grotesque Souvenir.' (2015)

Given that writing fiction isn’t inherently evil, why would I even consider writing a story? Or reading one, for that matter?

For starters, because it’s fun. Granted, writing is also work of a sort. But I enjoy doing it: non-fiction or fiction.

That, again, may take explaining.

Photo of Carry A. Nation with a hatchet. (ca. 1900)Basically, ‘blessed are the miserable, because they shall spread misery’ is not a Beatitude.

Enjoying life’s pleasures, within reason, is a good idea. (Catechism, 1809)

“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and provide themselves with good things from their toil. Even this, I saw, is from the hand of God.
“For who can eat or drink apart from God?”
(Ecclesiastes 2:2425)

So I won’t writhe in shame and anguish because I enjoy reading Agatha Christie mysteries.

If I made reading mysteries my top priority, that’d be a problem.

First place is for God. Nothing and nobody else belongs there. (Catechism, 20842089, 21122113)

I figure the same goes for writing. Making it my highest goal — doesn’t make sense.

One more point, and I’m done for this week.

‘Normal-Person’ Stuff

J. Leech's 'Marley's Ghost' illustration, 'A Christmas Carol,' Charles Dickens. (1843)Just before he left, our Lord gave us standing orders. (Matthew 28:1820; Acts 1:8; Catechism, 1276)

Part of our job is sharing the best news humanity’s ever had with anyone who’ll listen.

Two millennia later, those orders haven’t changed. Our options for carrying them out have, as we’ve developed new technology. And that’s still another topic.

Thinking that stories like “A Christmas Carol” reminds folks about Jesus and living as if God matters — makes sense. To me, at any rate.

But I strongly suspect that writing less-obviously ‘Christian’ stories — and non-fiction — can be part of what some folks call the Great Commission. And be more effective than the ham-handed Bible-thumping I’ve occasionally encountered.

That’s because it’s what one of my daughters called doing ‘normal person’ stuff.4 Which, for me, includes writing:


1 Popes and movies:

2 Fashionable melancholy, glamorous gloominess and all that:

3 Leibniz and accepting reality:

4 “…let them share in cultural and social life by the various undertakings and enterprises of human living…” — doing ‘normal person’ stuff:

  • Ad Gentes,” Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church, 11
    Second Vatican Council (December 7, 1965)

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Reading, Writing, Preferences, Priorities, and Acts 1:8

  1. I’m reminded of when my lessons about the history of the short story in university (and a pretty secular one at that) included the parable as part of the short story’s roots. God’s always way ahead of us even with that sort of stuff, alright.

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