In the last installment in this series of book recommendations, I recommended good children’s literature. I now want to recommend some literature that was certainly not written for children, but which takes a child-like imagination and develops it in powerful and learned ways. These are works that perfect the story-teller’s craft. What is more, they communicate the story in the disciplined and delightful rhythms of poetry.
Stories like this are rare. In the Western tradition you might think of the Greek poet Homer or the Latin Virgil. In English, John Milton broke into such celestial ranks with his epic Paradise Lost. But for today’s recommendation, I want to put forward “The Poet,” Dante, and his masterpiece The Comedy.
In a tour-de-force of the imagination, Dante describes himself traveling through three regions of the afterlife—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso–with the great Virgil as his guide through the first two and the beautiful Beatrice as his guide through the last. He skillfully brings the reader along with him on this journey, using such immediate and vivid language that you can feel what he saw.
But Dante’s work is not cheap entertainment. There is profound depth in what he wrote. Dante was well-versed in medieval theology and philosophy. His poetry is more living theology than mere fiction. You might say that Dante is the allegory version of Aquinas. What draws the soul to read and re-read this writing is not flashy turns of phrase or gut wrenching spectacles but what the poet presents as a first-hand encounter with eternal truth. This is truly the kind of work that one can read for a lifetime and still find new insights daily.
Consider the beatific vision with which Dante ends his work (Paradiso, Canto 33, Lines 82ff; translated by Allen Mandelbaum).
O grace abounding, through which I presumed
set my eyes on the Eternal Light
so long that I spent all my sight on it!
In its profundity I saw—ingathered
and bound by love into one single volume—
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered:
substances, accidents, and disposition
as if conjoined—in such a way that what
I tell is only rudimentary.
I think I saw the universal shape
which that knot takes; for, speaking this, I feel
a joy that is more ample. That one moment
brings more forgetfulness to me than twenty-
five centuries have brought to the endeavor
that startled Neptune with the Argo’s shadow!
So was my mind—completely rapt, intent,
steadfast, and motionless—gazing; and it
grew ever more enkindled as it watched.
Whoever sees that Light is soon made such
that it would be impossible for him
to set that Light aside for other sight;
because the good, the object of the will,
is fully gathered in that Light; outside
that Light, what there is perfect is defective.
What little I recall is to be told,
from this point on, in words more weak than those
of one whose infant tongue still bathes at the breast.
And not because more than one simple semblance
was in the Living Light at which I gazed—
for It is always what It was before—
but through my sight, which as I gazed grew stronger,
that sole appearance, even as I altered,
seemed to be changing. In the deep and bright
essence of that exalted Light, three circles
appeared to me; they had three different colors,
but all of them were of the same dimension;
one circle seemed reflected by the second,
as rainbow is by rainbow, and the third
seemed fire breathed equally by those two circles.
How incomplete is speech, how weak, when set
against my thought! And this, to what I saw
is such—to call it little is too much.
Eternal Light, You only dwell within
Yourself, and only You know You; Self-knowing,
Self-known, You love and smile upon Yourself!
That circle—which, begotten so, appeared
in You as light reflected—when my eyes
had watched it with attention for some time,
within itself and colored like itself,
to me seemed painted with our effigy,
so that my sight was set on it completely.
As the geometer intently seeks
to square the circle, but he cannot reach,
through thought on thought, the principle he needs,
so I searched that strange sight: I wished to see
the way in which our human effigy
suited the circle and found place in it—
and my own wings were far too weak for that.
But then my mind was struck by light that flashed
and, with this light, received what it has asked.
Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already—like
a wheel revolving uniformly—by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Anyone who longs to “see his face” (Rev 22:4-5) cannot help but have his soul drawn out by Dante’s description.
But since Dante’s work is an outworking of medieval theology with its flaws as well as its strengths, should conservative Protestant Christians read it? I believe so, for many reasons, not the least of which is simply to understand the mindset of medieval Christians and to understand the flow of Western thought. How can one ignore Dante and claim to understand the Western tradition?
Another reason to read Dante is to engage in what Mortimer Adler called “syntopical reading” – that is, comparative reading. Take, for example, what Dante says about love when the apostle John examines him in the eighth heaven (Paradiso, Canto 26). Compare it with what Augustine writes about love. Compare it with Jonathan Edwards on love. Then go back to the Scriptures on love, and I would almost guarantee that the roots of your soul will grow deeper in love, gaining the strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Eph 3:17-19).
You see, what all of this is doing is training yourself in the fine art of meditation. You are striving to teach your imagination to grasp what is good and true and beautiful. You are pruning your affections so that the life of Christ will flow through them. Even in those instances where you go through the process of understanding and then rejecting what Dante says, you will still find that your capabilities of perception and appropriate response have been enhanced. This will give us greater understanding of ourselves and of how to respond to God as we apply the Scripture to our lives.
There is another reason I would urge conservatives to read Dante, and that is to learn from the masters so that we might produce new works of the imagination that are worthy. We need theology translated, so to speak, into such powerful works of the imagination. The one who rules the symbols moves the culture. I suggest that this is one reason why C. S. Lewis is so popular today among American evangelicals, even, ironically, among those who don’t get his worldview. He has given them a world of the imagination in which truth can live. If we want conservatism to thrive, we have to do the same in story, song, and poetry.