- The Wounded Angel: Fiction and the Religious Imagination by Paul Lakeland
Paul Lakeland has written four books on Vatican II, and his new book takes up the council’s teaching that while the church has much to teach the world, it has much to learn from the world; divine grace is to be found everywhere – including secular literary fiction. As a teaching theologian, Lakeland has often employed novels in his undergraduate classes at Fairfield University and finds that imaginative narratives speak to readers across the spectrum – from “Nones” to the devout: “To the person of faith, fiction supports the love of the world as it is and contradicts the simplistic separation of the sacred and profane. To the [End Page 99] searcher or the agnostic, fiction teases with intimations of a beyond that may be either unnerving or intriguing but cannot be ignored” (ix–x). His study builds upon his experience in the classroom, as well as wide and deep reading in theology and literary theory. Integrating these, he argues that fiction can “bring the reader into an interpretive space where he or she is creatively engaged with transcendence, by whatever name” (x).
Part One provides a helpful historical overview of the ways in which faith, and its relationship to the imagination, has been understood. Lakeland moves confidently from Aquinas to Ockham, with their complementary understandings of our capacity to know God; through Coleridge and the Romantics, who saw imagination as the highest human attribute; and on to twentieth-century theologians like Rousselot, who saw in faith an act of loving, interpersonal trust, rather than a notional assent to propositional truth, and Bonhoeffer, who saw our encounter with Christ embodied in “a purely human commitment to overcoming human suffering” (34).
Throughout, Lakeland persuasively demonstrates that the acts of faith and reading “have much in common structurally and have much to contribute to one another substantively” (xii). For example, both faithful Christian and attentive reader employ the imagination when apprehending and articulating what Henry James (and Aquinas!) called “the matter”: that sense of ultimate mystery, that loving “sense of the whole” (66, and elsewhere) that can give form to one’s life. The title of the book refers not only to Hugo Simberg’s haunting painting (which graces the cover, and which Lakeland interprets), but serves as a metaphor for our contemporary, blighted capacity to be attentive – be it to liturgy or literature. Thus, our imaginative, sacramental capacity to apprehend the whole within the particular is in need of renewal. Fiction offers one means of such renewal.
In Part Two, Lakeland offers readings of a series of novels, each of which engages the religious imagination in surprising ways. For example, in Camus’s The Plague, the unbelieving Dr. Rieux “seems very close to [embodying] Bonhoeffer’s statement that ‘it is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life’” (92). And yet, for Bonhoeffer, as for Lakeland, Christ presents the kenotic form to which the fully human life conforms. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf presents “a tremendous vision of the whole of what there is,” “a world in which the person of faith can find a home” (126). And Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Café “presents a secular version of the communion of saints” (191), and exemplifies the way fiction enriches faith through its “orientation to complexity and ambiguity, to a metaphorical structure that resists dichotomies, still [End Page 100] more dogmatic utterances” (190). Lakeland believes that “all serious fiction is susceptible of theological exegesis” (152). Unlike others, he does not bemoan the contemporary decline of the Catholic novel, yet also offers fine reading of some of the classics in that tradition, including Greene’s Power and the Glory, Endo’s Silence, and O’Connor’s Wise Blood.
Lakeland’s book will enhance any reader’s appreciation of the connections between faith and fiction. In some ways, his work extends the explorations of the literary imagination offered by William F. Lynch, SJ, who wrote some of...