Forming Adults in Faith Through Fiction

The National Directory for Catechesis and Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us: A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation in the United States both name the following three goals of adult faith formation:

  1. to “invite and enable ongoing conversion to Jesus in holiness of life,”

  2. to “promote and support active membership in the Christian community,” and

  3. to “call and prepare adults to act as disciples in mission to the world.”[1]

Offering a model of lifelong growth in faith, adult faith formation is the principal form of catechesis in the Church and the model upon which all other catechetical efforts are to be based.[2] Thus, adult faith formation can be summarized as a ministry of connection, fostering an adult’s relationship to Christ, to the Church, and to a missionary vocation in the world. This vision of three-fold connectedness stands in stark contrast to the reality of many adult Catholics today.

Pew’s 2008 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” revealed that one-third of self-identified adult Catholics believe in an impersonal God; this statistic reflects a startling disconnect between these adults’ beliefs and the central Christian mystery of the Incarnation.[3] Many adult Catholics also experience a physical disconnect from the Church, as only thirty percent of people who were raised Catholic still practice their Catholic faith.[4] Additionally, for many adult Catholics, faith remains an isolated part of life which is only marginally relevant to their operative beliefs, attitude, and choices.[5]

In light of this reality of profound disconnection for many adult Catholics, ministers involved in adult faith formation must ask how their work can advance the Church’s mission of fostering deep connection. Adult faith formation ministers have many tools available to them, from the sacred liturgy to the works of mercy to parish potlucks. In this essay, I suggest that narrative, the power of story itself, is an essential tool in adult faith formation.[6] Specifically, I argue how adult faith formation can tap into the power of story through engaging those narratives born of and refined by artistic excellence in works of literature.

To consider the question of how reading literature can enrich the work of adult faith formation, I will first share a personal experience I had while reading which became a significant moment in my life of faith. I will then draw on insights from the academic fields of religion and literature and narrative theology to ask what is the power of story, and how might this be relevant to faith formation. I will then turn to the National Directory for Catechesis and Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us to review the objectives of adult faith formation and see how engagement with works of literature could meet these catechetical goals. Finally, I will explore a number of practical examples of how literature can be a part of faith formation before concluding with implications of this project for narrative engagement in ministry and further steps to consider for anyone interested in implementing literature in the work of adult faith formation.

A Significant Experience Reading The Brothers Karamazov

I read The Brothers Karamazov for the first time when I was studying abroad in Santiago, Chile in 2004. I distinctly remember the moment in which I read the following passage, which describes a pivotal conversation between Alyosha and Ivan:
“Why have you been looking at me in expectation for the last three months? To ask me ‘what do you believe or don’t you believe at all?’ That’s what your eyes have been meaning for these three months, haven’t they?”

“Perhaps so,” smiled Alyosha. “You are not laughing at me, now, Ivan?”

“Me laughing! I don’t want to wound my little brother who has been watching me with such expectation for three months. . . . But what have Russian boys been doing up till now, some of them, I mean? . . . [They talk of] the eternal questions, of the existence of God and immortality. And those who do not believe in God talk of socialism or anarchism, of the transformation of all humanity on a new pattern, so that it all comes to the same, they’re the same questions turned inside out. . . . Isn’t it so?”

“Yes, for real Russians the questions of God’s existence and of immortality, or, as you say, the same questions turned inside out, come first and foremost, of course, and so they should,” said Alyosha, still watching his brother with the same gentle and inquiring smile.

“Well, Alyosha, it’s sometimes very unwise to be a Russian at all, but anything stupider than the way Russian boys spend their time one can hardly imagine. But there’s one Russian boy called Alyosha I am awfully fond of.”

“How nice you put that in!” Alyosha laughed suddenly.

“Well, tell me where to begin, give your orders. The existence of God, eh?”[7]

This conversation between the two brothers leads up to the famous chapter containing Ivan’s poem, “The Grand Inquisitor.” Reading this prelude to that exquisite exploration of the problem of evil, I found myself captivated by the affection between Alyosha and Ivan. One a devout and virtuous novice, one a tortured agnostic, the two brothers proceed through Ivan’s consideration of how a good God can allow evil, in particular the torture and death of innocent children. Far from an abstract philosophical discourse on theodicy, their conversation takes place solidly within the brothers’ existential reality: whether Ivan does indeed believe, and how belief and non-belief factor in to the two brothers’ regard for each other.

[caption id="attachment_4907" align="alignleft" width="341"] Photo: Scott W. Vincent; CC-BY-2.0.[/caption]

I read this passage while riding a bus to school. Compelled by the beauty of this narrative, I became totally engrossed in this moment in the Russian tavern. Though the brothers’ conversation became the most real and immediate thing to me at that moment, this experience did not take me out of “reality.” Rather, something about their story connected me to the depth of my own life, questions, and relationships. Alyosha and Ivan’s pursuit of eternal questions about God, evil, and suffering resonated with my need not only to ask these questions, but also to seek answers that emerged out of a similar depth of the brothers’ existential search, and reading this passage allowed me to proceed in that search along with the characters. Reading this also put me in touch with conversations I was having with a friend who also struggled with belief in light of the evil in the world. Witnessing the depth of Alyosha and Ivan’s exchange challenged me to deepen my relationship with my friend in order to be as honest and open as the brothers were; it also revealed the communal nature of this search for essential meaning and pointed to the strength found in asking these questions in the context of relationship. This experience of reading was a moment of profound connection with the Karamazovs which opened up deeper connection with my friend, with myself, and with God. As I read, I nearly missed my bus exit, and I considered riding to the end of the bus line and back just so my reading, and that deep sense of connection I was experiencing, would not be interrupted.

Something about their story connected me to the depth of my own life, questions, and relationships.

My experience while reading The Brothers Karamazov had a lasting impact on me, tapping a depth that I continue to return to and reflect upon and changing how I understand myself, literature, and even God. Yet one could ask, was this simply a random significant experience? Or was there something particular about the act of reading that made possible this experience of transformation, and transformation in faith? Is there something inherent to the form of narrative found in literature that provides prime opportunities for such profound encounters with self, God, and others? It is this last question that we will seek to answer by turning to the fields of religion and literature and narrative theology.

The Power of Story

What is the power of story, and what is its possible significance for the life of faith? The academic field of religion and literature, and the related field of narrative theology, both study the intersection of narrative and faith and thus provide possible answers to this question. The first of these, religion and literature, is a creative, dynamic field that has yet to be fully defined. Though religion and literature is interdisciplinary, scholars in the field—including Graham Ward of Cambridge, Peter Hawkins of Yale, and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams—do not agree on the nature of the relationship between religion and literature. As a result, as Larry Bouchard notes, scholars approach religion and literature from a variety of diverse yet equally valid perspectives.[8]

The pluralism within the field of religion and literature corresponds neatly to the diversity within twentieth century Christian systematic theology. Within this variety of perspectives, there also exist several differing yet equally valid ways of assessing the theological value of religion and literature as a field, as well as the theological value of literature as a possible source of or support to faith.

On one end of the theological spectrum, theologians such as Paul Tillich and Karl Rahner appreciate religion and literature because of literature’s exploration of depth experience. With Paul Tillich’s notion of faith as “ultimate concern,” and Rahner’s theology of grace working through the deepest existential longings of the human person, literature serves as a locus for theology through its consideration of essential human questions, which Tillich and Rahner identify as questions of faith.[9]

On the other end of the spectrum, post-liberal theologians such as George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, and Robert Barron do not uphold literature as a place to explore religious questions in non-religious terms—indeed, their concern for language would insist that language definitively forms meaning—but they point to literature as a way to understand the dynamics of narrative and its value for theology. Also known as narrative theology, post-liberal theology attends to the intelligibility of God’s activity in the world through story: beginning with creation, and reaching its climax with the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the events of his life, Death, and Resurrection, God has made God-self known through a sequence of events linked together in the narrative of salvation history. This story of God’s work in the world—a story that continues today—serves as the macro-framework in which all other narratives play a part. In this spirit, Hauerwas and Barron turn to literature to show how the one story of God in Christ plays out in new contexts.[10]

Whether a person may find herself compelled by Rahner and Tillich or Lindbeck and Hauerwas—whether she may understand literature as a possible locus of theology or as a story through which the story of God’s love in Christ can be glimpse and experienced—she can assert confidently that literature offers a potent opportunity for engagement and growth in faith. At this point, we can ask, what is this potency of literature? What is the power of story that makes it compelling, persuasive, important? Insights from the fields of religion and literature, as well as narrative theology, point to four aspects of the power of story.

1. Stories form our basic patterns of meaning-making.

Though many people primarily associate stories with entertainment and enjoyment, Graham Ward of Cambridge asserts that stories compel us because they are the form that we use to make meaning. If we turn to psychoanalysis as well as neuroscience, Ward argues, we find that the human brain organizes sensory data by employing patterns that make the data understandable; that is to say, the way we organize all the myriad information we receive follows essentially the same form as a story.[11] Stories appeal to us, therefore, because they use the form of understanding that we employ unconsciously; as Ward states, “narratives are the primordial ways in which we make sense of the world we live in.”[12]

2. Reading stories involves “poetic faith” which allows for the reader’s emotional engagement with and appropriation of the narrative.

Graham Ward again offers this insight, as he distinguishes “poetic faith” from the “ordinary believing” that is a part of basic epistemology. Here he draws on Wittgenstein: in human knowing there is always a degree of assenting to tenets that are not directly perceptible.[13] In order to engage a story, a reader takes a step beyond “ordinary believing” and exercises “poetic faith” by consenting to accept over time, through the duration of the tale, the circumstances and persons of the narrative as presented by the story’s author. This assent by the reader, which Ward right calls an “entrustment,” allows the reader to access emotionally that which the story describes, such that the reader gains not only an understanding of the story, but an experience of it. Indeed, poetic faith indicates that successful engagement of a story requires affective participation on the part of the reader.

3. Stories provide access to otherwise abstract insights through engagement with particulars.

Though any good story will provide opportunity for reflection on abstract concepts—for example, the virtue of courage or the problem of evil—it will allow this reflection through consideration of concrete examples: particular characters who experience specific events which occur in a particular time and place. Theologian and literary theorist William F. Lynch argues that while many people see human finiteness as inhibiting consideration of pure concepts, literature at its best helps us to see that we can only come to know the eternal, the lasting, and the transcendent by going “through the finite, the limited, the definite.”[14] Stories operate out of this logic by inviting engagement with particulars, and this concrete consideration makes reflection on universal truth a possibility.

4. Stories bear witness to the dynamic nature of our character and the relational reality of human persons.

All stories hinge upon the actions performed by characters and the resulting effects of those actions on all characters involved. By narrating the motion through events, stories bear witness to the power of individuals’ effects on each other. Through this, stories challenge the commonly held fallacies of self-reliance and self-determination, showing the communal nature of the human person, who continues to grow into who he or she is through relationship with others. Stories also bear witness to human relationality through their inherently social form; they are told in order to be heard, and are written in order to be read and received. Emerging from the social human nature that seeks to share itself, stories are likewise received socially as readers open themselves up to interaction with what the author has chosen to share.

Stories resonate with us because they speak to essential aspects of who we are as human persons.

Through these four qualities, we see that stories resonate with us because they speak to essential aspects of who we are as human persons: we seek meaning, we understand emotionally as well as intellectually, we approach the infinite through the finite, and we exist in dynamic relation with others. Alasdair MacIntyre names this human connaturality with stories, observing that human beings are essentially “story-telling animal[s].”[15] MacIntyre’s assertion, like many true statements, can sound deceptively obvious: almost any person would readily agree that stories have some kind of particular appeal to human beings. The claim that we are story-telling animals, however, speaks to more than human beings’ attraction or enjoyment of story. It speaks to our need for stories, born out of the reality of who we are as meaning-seeking, emotional, intellectual, desirous, communal, and ultimately mysterious human persons. Contrary to popular opinion, stories do not provide a more attractive or persuasive medium for communicating something that could also be articulated didactically. Rather, stories can say something uniquely powerful that can only be expressed through narrative precisely because of our connaturality with the form of story.[16]

Engaging Literature in the Ministry of Adult Faith Formation

As we noted earlier, the major goals of adult faith formation can be summarized as promoting connection in the life of the adult Catholic: connection to Christ, to the Christian community, and to the world. Again, I emphasize that the engagement with narrative that I propose must be used in conjunction with, and not in place of, other primary forms of faith formation such as participation in the liturgy, personal prayer, and active service to others, particularly the poor.[17] Yet, in light of our exploration of story we can ask, how could engagement with a literary text contribute uniquely and substantially to each of the goals of adult faith formation? To make this question more concrete, I will engage the book that was significant to me—The Brothers Karamazov—and see how reading this text could promote connection to Christ, to the Christian community, and to the world.[18]

The first goal of adult faith formation as named by the U.S. Bishops is to “invite and enable ongoing conversion to Jesus in holiness of life.”[19] For Catholics, conversion is a lifelong process. Following the initial conversion which takes place in the sacrament of Baptism, the faithful continue to be called to turn away from sin and toward the Lord in an ongoing conversion which is, as the Catechism states, “the uninterrupted task for the whole Church” (CCC §§1427–28). In line with this focus on ongoing conversion, the U.S. Bishops state that “a living faith is a searching faith” which “leads to deepening conversion,” and as such, “adults need to question, probe, and critically reflect on the meaning of God’s revelation in their unique lives in order to grow closer to God.”[20]

Reading great literature such as The Brothers Karamazov can facilitate that searching, living faith by joining those who have sought to make meaning of most profound parts of human existence. Engaging Ivan’s questions in “The Grand Inquisitor” and standing at Zossima’s bedside with Alyosha during “Notes on the Life of the Elder Zossima” can be prime opportunities for exploring essential human questions fruitfully. Both Karl Rahner and St. John Paul II name the faith value of exploring these questions through the contemplation of art: Rahner states that in reading great poetry, a person

is more exposed to the happy danger of meeting God, than the narrow-minded Philistine who always skirts cautiously the chasms of existence, to stay on the superficial level where one is never faced with doubts—nor with God.[21]

St. John Paul II writes in his Letter to Artists that
every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world [and] . . . is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning. (§6)

These theologians affirm that reading a text such as The Brothers Karamazov can nurture a searching faith that takes seriously the essential human questions raised in great literature, and thus facilitate adults’ ongoing conversion to Christ.

The second goal of adult faith formation is to “promote and support active membership in the Christian community.”[22] For this goal, reading works of literature that have emerged from within the Christian community can be particularly edifying in several ways. Reading texts born of the Christian tradition can establish a significant bond between the believers who read in a modern context and the authors who reflect on their Christian faith in their own distinct place and time. The Christian who reads The Brothers Karamazov today thus engages in conversation with Dostoyevsky and his characters about their experience of faith in nineteenth-century Russia. Beginning this kind of conversation with texts from the Christian community allows for the possibility of edification: a reader may receive inspiration reading of Alyosha’s resurgence of faith after temptation to despair at Zossima’s funeral. This literary conversation, like all good conversations, also opens the possibility of challenge, such as Dostoyevsky’s critiques of the Roman Catholic Church’s institutionalization of Christ. The experience of reading thus builds community between a reader and another member of the Body of Christ through engagement with the author’s literary creation.[23]

The experience of reading thus builds community between a reader and another member of the Body of Christ through engagement with the author’s literary creation.

Reading literature affords another opportunity in building community through providing a reference point for communal reflection. In this, book clubs are prime examples of an avenue for such communal reflection. Gathering to discuss a book such as The Brothers Karamazov provides an opportunity to pursue communally those same questions explored above: those that are essentially human and that emerge out of the core of who we are. Discussing Ivan’s profound theodicy grants the opportunity not only for intellectual enrichment through consideration of the various perspectives of others who have read the text, but also for spiritual enrichment by showing that all those who ask these questions are part of a larger community. While participating in these conversations on significant questions, book club participants also share a part of themselves through their reflections on the text, which in turn creates familiarity, vulnerability, and—in healthy discussions—trust among the members of the group. As believers grow in relationship with each other through book clubs, this community can help deepen their awareness of and participation in the greater Christian community as well.[24]

The third goal of adult faith formation is to “call and prepare adults to act as disciples in mission to the world.”[25] Just as this goal includes both an internal and external focus—the call and preparation within the Church as well as the external witness to the world—so too can reading literature offer both internal and external value to this apostolic activity. Internally, the very act of viewing and promoting engagement with literature as a part of Christian formation demonstrates a profound fact: God cares about and is present to the manifold aspects of our lives, such that “even all the hairs on [our heads] are counted” (Mt 10:30). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated that coming to believe in God’s love expresses “the fundamental decision of [the Christian] life,” which is, as St. John asserts, “[coming] to know and to believe in the love God has for us” (Deus Caritas Est, §1; cf. 1 Jn 4:16). For the laity who are called to live out their baptismal priesthood in the secular realm, this journey of coming to know God’s love includes seeking God’s presence in places where God is not readily identified or named, such as the workplace, the baseball field, and the grocery store (cf. CCC §940). Through their diakonia to the world, lay persons in a special way take up St. Ignatius of Loyola’s call to “find God in all things.” Finding God in works of literature—both those texts that emerge from a perspective of faith, and those that do not—can help cultivate the essential practice of seeking God’s presence and movements in all areas of life.

In addition to this internal value, reading literature as a part of faith formation also offers external witness value to the world. Just as God’s love for us grounds the Christian life, so too does God’s love for all people ground the Good News that all believers are called to proclaim.[26] Members of the Church are called to participate in God’s love for humankind such that, as the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World famously stated, “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the [people] of this age . . . [become] the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et Spes, §1). This participation in God’s love for humankind and appreciation of all that is essentially human—including literary works that speak to the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of human persons—grounds the Church’s mission of evangelization.[27] By reading great literature as part of faith formation, adults therefore bear witness to the Church’s appreciation of that which is essentially human while also claiming that Christ, “by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (GS §22).

Through this exploration of the goals of adult faith formation, we see that reading literature can indeed further the work of connecting adults to Christ, the Christian community, and the world through enabling consideration of essential human questions, building relationships between Christians through reading and reflecting on texts, and cultivating the practice of finding God in all things. For those persuaded by the fittingness and benefit of engaging literary works in the ministry of adult faith formation, the next logical questions are: what might this look like in practice, and how could it be implemented effectively? In the next section, I will strive to answer both questions together by addressing several concrete ways in which literature can be engaged in adult faith formation.

Pastoral Applications

The task of adult faith formation, according to the U.S. Bishops, requires “a comprehensive, multifaceted, and coordinated approach and a variety of learning activities” because “the content of adult catechesis should be as comprehensive and diverse as the Church’s mission.”[28] Literature can therefore be incorporated in many ways into the many different activities of adult faith formation. I will here look at five areas of possible integration: book groups within a parish community, incorporation into existing ministries, creation of ministry opportunities around literature, fostering of reading in the life of the parish, and minister formation. Of these, book groups in the parish community stands as the chief example of engaging literature in adult faith formation, and for this reason I will offer the fullest account of the benefits of this ministry.

1. Book Groups in the Parish Community

A book group provides both the motivation for individuals to read—i.e., in preparation for the book group meeting—as well as the opportunity for communal reflection on a text. Additionally, the emergence of a book group in a community can be stimulating in and of itself as those forming the group will ask the chiefly important question: what books do we find to be significant for our life of faith? In addition to texts that emerge from the Christian tradition and exemplify values that we wish to inculcate in ourselves and our communities, what is the place for texts from the tradition that challenge commonly held views? What about texts from other religious traditions, and texts written from an atheist perspective? Deciding what counts as a “significant text”[29] can be a fruitful spiritual exercise that can both clarify and deepen a community’s understanding of how God is at work in their lives.

In addition to the initial benefit of choosing a book list and the opportunity for reflection that this selection provides, book clubs also bring the possible benefits born of individuals’ encounter with the narrative. As tempting as it may be to overlook the possible benefits of individuals reading the texts chosen for a book club, it is essential to remember that this personal encounter with a text can be a significant part of faith formation. By engaging a text such as The Brothers Karamazov or To Kill A Mockingbird, a reader can be opened to an experience that is emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Such experiences do not always transform the reader, yet one need only remember the books that have marked her life of faith in order to remember the potential of reading—how books can change, inspire, and challenge us in lasting ways.[30]

[caption id="attachment_4908" align="alignright" width="469"] Photo: Bart Everson; CC-BY-2.0.[/caption]

After this benefit of individual reading, book groups also provide opportunities to reflect communally on a text. These communal reflections can deepen the experience of reading as a part of faith formation in three ways. First, these reflections will provide helpful context for those seeking to read the text in the light of faith; for example, in discussing East of Eden, a minister could articulate the Church’s teaching on predestination as a reference point for the conversation.[31] Second, book groups that meet regularly provide prime opportunities for cultivating the virtues necessary for fruitful discussion: prudence in discerning how to proceed in conversation, patience in listening to others, humility in understanding one’s point of view in conversation with others, courage in pursuing heretofore unconsidered questions. Third, book groups that meet regularly and that seek to grow in their listening to and learning with one another will have the opportunity of deepening their connection to each other as fellow book group members, as fellow human beings, and as fellow followers of Christ.[32]

2. Incorporating Literature into Existing Ministries

Reading and reflecting on literature could be incorporated easily into extant areas of ministry such as retreats, workshops, service projects, and homilies. One example of this could take place at a retreat for parents of children making their First Communion. In addition to explaining the logistics of the ceremony and the theological significance of this occasion, the minister planning the retreat could have the parents read Flannery O’Connor’s “Temple of the Holy Ghost” followed by a break-out session to discuss O’Connor’s vision of the Eucharist. This activity could give the parents an opportunity for reflecting creatively on the significance of the Eucharist, breaking open new possibilities for the parents’ consideration of this mystery personally and in conversation with their children. Once ministers become convinced of the value of narrative for faith formation, they will find that there are many ways to use stories to enhance ministries that are already in place.

3. Forming Ministry Opportunities Around Literary Reflection

Using the opposite logic of the previous approach, ministers can create new faith formation opportunities around reflecting on a literary text. For example, the pastor could recommend that all members of the parish read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory for Lent. This liturgical season book promotion would afford the same benefits of individuals reading a significant text discussed above. It could also help build community by establishing a common, creative liturgical reference point for the parish: the pastor could draw on this story in his homilies, the director of religious education could put discussion questions in the bulletin, and parishioners could discuss their impressions of the book and its significance to the liturgical season over coffee and donuts. Such a ministry opportunity would provide yet another way of engaging the grace of the season on both the individual and communal levels.

4. Fostering Reading in the Life of the Parish

Outside of these more programmatic ministry opportunities, there exist myriad ways in which to promote reading of significant texts. Publishing a recommended book list on the parish’s website and in the bulletin can raise awareness of the power of reading as a way to grow in faith. In addition to naming significant texts, parishes can also make these works available through a parish lending library. Especially for those people who do not have the opportunity to reflect on their text in a book group, commentaries on literary works can enhance readers’ appreciation of the text; Fr. Robert Barron’s Word on Fire ministry regularly features excellent commentaries on popular books and films. Finally, ministers can recommend reading great works of literature as a part of pastoral visits, spiritual direction, and personal conversations. Each of these stands as a simple but effective way to call upon the power of story at the service of faith formation.

5. Ongoing Formation of the Minister through Reading

A minister cannot pass on to others what he or she has not personally appropriated. For those whose baptismal call invites them to explicit service of the baptized through the ministerial priesthood or lay ecclesial ministry, reading literature can be part of the ongoing work of engaging the mystery of the human person and the mysteries of the faith. In their 1982 document on preaching, the U.S. Bishops stated that “the great artistic and literary achievements of a culture are surely a privileged means of access to the heart and mind of a people,” and as such, “regular and sustained contact with the world’s greatest literature . . . can rightfully be regarded by preachers not simply as a leisure time but as part of their ongoing professional development.”[33] Remembering that all ministry entails preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whether in word or deed, the Bishops’ recommendation to pastors likewise applies to all ministers, for whom the reading of literature can help inculcate a greater eye to beauty and depth experience in their ministry.

These five areas of pastoral applications name ways to enrich adult faith formation through engaging narrative in the form of literature. While this essay has focused specifically on literature, our discussion of story can also serve to draw out the narrative aspect of other parts of ministry, perhaps including pursuing narrative readings of Scripture. Though believers can approach Scripture in a number of ways, particular benefit comes from attending to the narrative quality of particular passages such as the patriarchs’ stories in Genesis and the many stories of Jesus’ life in the Gospels. Approaching these passages as stories to enter into rather than good, even holy information to comprehend can allow for a deeper appropriation of the mystery of the Word of God.[34]

Other narrative aspects to draw out of to adult faith formation include the great stories in the history of the Church and the lives of the saints. “The best way to learn the significance of stories is by having our attention drawn to stories through a story,” states Stanley Hauerwas.[35] Lifting up the stories of the tradition, therefore, can point to the significance of testimonies not only of heroes of the faith, but also of ordinary believers, whose stories of God’s work in their lives can be powerful catalysts for growing in faith.[36] In these examples of narrative, we thus see repeatedly how to fortify the mission of adult faith formation in a variety of ways.


In a Mass for Vatican Bank employees, Pope Francis stated that “we, the women and men of the Church, we are in the middle of a love story” and “if we do not understand this, we have understood nothing of what the Church is.”[37] Narrative communicates something essential about the Christian life which, like the significant stories we read, invites us to enter into and experience faith rather than simply observe or passively understand it.

In this essay, we have looked at the ways in which engaging literature can contribute to fostering such faith in adults. Taking advantage of opportunities to read and reflect on literature from a perspective of faith constitutes the first step in this engagement. Once adult faith formation ministers begin employing narrative in their work, they will face the challenge and opportunity of learning how to facilitate literary reflections well. Whether a minister leads a book group discussion or converses with a parishioner about the book he’s reading as part of Advent, the minister has the responsibility to nurture the interpretation born of the reader’s experience rather than imposing her own opinion, no matter how theologically well-formed, of what the text “really” says. Ministers will also be charged with the task of helping parishioners learn to read and discuss well such that people’s literary engagement will be as fruitful as possible.

Finally, faith formation ministers will need to ask how such literary engagement can interact with comprehensive catechesis, such that deductive doctrinal instruction can complement the inductive approach of faith formation through literary engagement. Given the paramount importance of story for all people, such steps are important to take if believers are to engage one of the most potent forms of communication to both encounter and preach the Gospel. In that evangelical spirit, it is my hope that engagement with literature will be a part of the continuing story of God bringing all people into divine communion through Jesus Christ.

Featured Photo: Carolyn A. Pirtle; used with permission.

[1] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us: A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation in the United States (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1999) §§68, 70, 72; National Directory, 188.

[2] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory for Catechesis [hereafter NDC] (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005), §187.

[3] Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Huntingdon, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2012), 43.

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] The U.S. Bishops state that many adults experience “a gap between their faith and their everyday life” and “an inadequate connection between their religious beliefs and their moral choices” (NDC, 15); likewise, Gaudium et Spes affirms that “[the] split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (GS §43).

[6] In my research for this project, I found the terms “narrative” and “story” to be used far more frequently than they were defined. Later I will examine why stories are compelling and relevant for the work of adult faith formation, but first, what do I mean when I refer to “story” in this essay? Building off two of Stanley Hauerwas’ definitions of story—“the connected description of action and of suffering which moves to a point” and “a narrative account that binds events and agents together in an intelligible pattern”—I here offer the following definition of story: an imaginatively-formed account that portrays the connection between characters and events and their connection to an overall framework of meaning. See Stanley Hauerwas and David Burrell, “From System to Story: An Alternative Pattern for Rationality in Ethics” in Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology, eds. Stanley Hauerwas and Gregory Jones (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1997), 177; Stanley Hauerwas, “Theology and Story” in Religion and Life, 45.3 (1976), 344.

[7] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: the Constance Garnett Translation Revised by Ralph E. Matlaw: Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism, trans. Constance Garnett, ed. Ralph E. Matlaw (New York: Norton, 1976), 215.

[8] Larry Bouchard names four dominant approaches to religion and literature: first, literary works can disclose “dimensions of ‘depth’ or ‘ultimacy’ in experience”; second, literary works’ ability to “express the inexpressible” correlates with religious language’s inherent limitations; third, the historic intersection between the arts and religion means that “study of religion entails study of the arts and vice versa”; and fourth, that literature and religion share “relations of mutual inquiry and critique.” At this point in the history of the field, all of these approaches, as distinct as they may be from each other, remain valid ways of studying religion and literature. See “Religion and Literature: Four Theses and More” in Religion and Literature, 41.2 (Summer 2009), 12–15.

[9] This is the case both when questions are implicitly religious—i.e., when one asks what is the meaning of her life—as well as when one asks religious questions from an existential perspective—i.e., does God exist, and if so, why does it matter to me?

[10] One example of this post-liberal engagement with literature is Robert Barron’s book And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), in which Barron analyzes literary texts such as William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In his introduction, Barron states that “what unites figures as diverse as James Joyce, Caravaggio, John Milton, the architect of Chartres, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the later Bob Dylan is a peculiar and distinctive take on things, a style, a way, which flows finally from Jesus of Nazareth” (1).

[11] Graham Ward, “Why Religion Can Never Be Entirely Secular” in Religion and Literature, 41.2 (Summer 2009), 22.

[12] Ibid, 25.

[13] Graham Ward, “How Literature Resists Secularity” in Literature & Theology, 24.1 (March 2010), 83.

[14] William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), 7.

[15] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 216.

[16] I am grateful to Vittorio Montemaggi for many stimulating conversations, in particular those in the class “Meaning, Vulnerability, and Human Existence” (Fall 2011), for helping me come to understand this unique and irreplaceable nature of story’s power for human beings.

[17] As we will briefly explore in the final section, however, attention to narrative can draw out the ways in which story already performs a significant role in our faith tradition and enhance participation in these other forms of formation by attending to the story of salvation as articulated in the institution narrative, for example, or the stories of the lives of the saints.

[18] In our next section on pastoral applications, we will examine the question of which books would be best suited for the work of adult faith formation.

[19] NDC, 188; Our Hearts, §68.

[20] Our Hearts, §52.

[21] Karl Rahner, “Poetry and the Christian” in Theological Investigations, Vol. 4 (Limerick: Mary Immaculate College, 2000), 367.

[22] Our Hearts, §70; NDC, 188.

[23] Additionally, reading literature from within the Christian tradition can build community not only between readers and the author of a literary work, but also with other believers for whom a text has been significant. For example, though I have never had a conversation with either Dorothy Day or Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, I understand myself to be connected to them through our shared love of The Brothers Karamazov; because it is each of our favorite book, we have each been formed by this text and somehow bear the mark of this within ourselves.

[24] This indeed is the logic of small group community-building initiatives, which are studied in Bernard J. Lee, S.M.’s book, The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities (New York: Paulist Press, 2000). Lee observes that experience in a small Christian community (SCC) “pushes one to be more responsible for the parish” and “increases members’ affective connections to the parish” (130–131). While some SCCs have become sectarian, Lee notes that most lead to greater integration in the local community and, one could expect, the minister supporting this group could impact the community’s tendency to grow closer or further from the institutional Church.

[25] Our Hearts, §72; NDC, 189.

[26] cf. Deus Caritas Est, §19.

[27] Paul VI’s 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, bears witness to this point: “The work of evangelization presupposes in the evangelizer an ever increasing love for those whom he is evangelizing. That model evangelizer, the Apostle Paul, wrote these words to the Thessalonians, and they are a program for us all: ‘With such yearning love we chose to impart to you not only the gospel of God but our very selves, so dear had you become to us’” (§79).

[28] NDC, 192, 190.

[29] As part of this project, I engaged with conversation with a number of friends and colleagues about what texts have been significant for their life of faith. The result is my own proposed canon of significant texts to be used for adult Catholic adult faith formation, which will be featured in a series of blogs on this website.

[30] Graham Ward argues that Foucault’s description of “technologies” can apply to reading; for him, reading can be seen as one of the “rhetorical operations that form, transform and refigure subjectivities and knowledges of self and world.” His impetus for studying how reading functions is the same as mine, no less true for its obviousness: “books have changed people’s lives.” See “Reading to Live: Miracle and Language” in Religion and Literature, 44.2 (Spring 2012), 26.

[31] While such an articulation of Church teaching is appropriate and necessary for a fruitful discussion of such issues within a faith context, ministers must also resist any temptation to cite Church teaching as offering a final interpretation of what predestination—or any other significant aspect of the faith—definitively means, lest ministers and readers alike forget that the objects of faith are not empirically proven facts but inexhaustible mysteries.

[32] I can speak to this in light of my undergraduate major, the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. As a result of our common investment in the same texts as well as in each other through conversation, I cannot separate my understanding of the texts I read in the Great Books canon from the people with whom I read these texts.

[33] USCCB, Fulfilled In Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly (Washington, D.C.: Office of Public Services, United States Catholic Conference, 1982), 13.

[34] St. Ignatius of Loyola understood this need for immersion in the stories of Scripture and thus recommended imaginative prayer, in which the believer asks the Holy Spirit to lead her through Gospel stories, permitting her to experience imaginatively the sights, smells, sounds, and touch of a boat ride with Jesus on the sea of Galilee or a dinner at a tax collector’s home. Bible studies that approach the story-nature of Scripture, and prayer opportunities using Ignatius’ imaginative contemplation, stand as ways narrative can enhance ministry around the Word.

[35] Stanley Hauerwas, “A Story-Formed Community: Reflections on Watership Down” in Why Narrative?, 172.

[36] Theologian Johann Baptist Metz highlights this value of story for theology, stating that “Christians do not primarily form an argumentative and reasoning community, but a story-telling community, and . . . the exchange of experiences of faith, like that of any ‘new’ experience, takes a narrative form.” See “A Short Apology of Narrative” in Why Narrative?, 255ff.

[37]Church Is A Love Story, Pope Francis Says” via Catholic News Agency (April 24, 2013).


Mary Ann Wilson

Mary Ann Wilson is the Adult Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Matthew Cathedral in South Bend, Indiana.

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