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What Do Books Have to Do with Faith? (Part II of II)

August 3, 2015 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Spiritual Development, Spiritual Life

What do books have to do with faith?
(Part II of II)


Editor's Note:  In part one, we looked at what literature is and the magnificent power of poetry.  Today, we will examine drama and fiction, and talk about the positive effect that the fine arts can have on our spiritual development. Here is the question we are looking at:

Dear Father John, I notice there is a book club on this site.  We don't need stuff like that to have a relationship with God.  What do books, or literature–other than the Bible, the Good Book–have to do with faith anyway?  Please help.  I am trying to understand.

The Motivating Dynamism of Drama

In drama, the emphasis is on virtue: the power of the human spirit to seek and seize what is good. Good dramas—whether on stage or screen—show protagonists exercising their freedom, sometimes heroically, to avoid and conquer evil in pursuit of authentic happiness. Conflict, whether internal or external, is the core of drama. When sin and evil defeat the hero, we have a tragedy. When the hero overcomes sin and evil, we have a triumph. Both tragedies and triumphs have their place in our journeys.

Literary genius appears in drama through the author’s capacity to include just the right amount and quality of events, conversations, and decisions, such that the audience feels deeply both the attraction of goodness and the threatening or seductive tug of evil. As the drama unfolds, the audience experiences vicariously the struggle of the protagonist. The better the drama, the deeper the identification between the audience and the protagonist, and it is according to the depth of that identification that the tragedy or the triumph will inspire audience members to repent of their own sins and to renew their hope-filled pursuit of what is true, good, and beautiful. Drama, then, can refresh, encourage, reinforce, or rekindle our good desires—an invaluable contribution indeed to our spiritual lives.

The Interior Landscape of Fiction

The unique characteristic of fiction is the interior monologue. The great novels are almost poetic in their descriptions of the world and of human experience. They also involve the dramatic struggle between good and evil. But their specific contribution is opening a window into the human psyche. Tolstoy can spend a dozen pages describing a single moment of psychological experience: the mixed motives, the subconscious influences, the conflicting feelings, the waning or waxing hopes, and the nudging of conscience that are present in a person’s interior at any given moment in life’s journey. Through an author’s description of what is happening inside the human person, readers get to know the characters much more profoundly than in a drama. And when the characters are developed truly, in consonance with our authentic identity as fallen and redeemed spiritual persons, this knowledge enriches us in two important ways:

  1. First, it helps us reflect on and get to know ourselves better. The great literary authors are like expert psychologists: Their works are a mirror in which we are enabled to see parts of our own interiors that we normally cannot fathom.
  2. Second, it helps us understand other people and their experiences. We walk in their shoes for a while, and this vicarious experience can, if we let it, empower our efforts to be merciful, forgiving, understanding, compassionate, and supportive toward our neighbors.

Just a Means—Not the Goal

The other fine arts, like music, painting, and sculpture, can have a similar positive effect on our spiritual development, if we have the time and opportunity to learn their language. Of course, the realm of the arts poses spiritual dangers, too: False values can be paraded in attractive disguises; connoisseurship can devolve into snobbery; and entertainment can over-rule edification. But all in all, an intelligent and prudent engagement with humanity’s artistic achievements will be a boost for thinking about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” (Philippians 4:8, RSV).


Editor’s Note: This is another excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s new book “Seeking First the Kingdom” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read on line.

Art: Old book bindings at the Merton College Library, Oxford, England, Tom Murphy VII, 25 August 2005; Modified Comedy and Tragedy Mask Icon, Booyabazooka, 5 July 2006; both CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Yolande Suzin

    Drama was a vehicle used for centuries to teach the faith. Shakespeare was such a dramatist, and the very best. Christians have been reading the bible for centuries since Sakespeare died, and the faith has gone downhill. Be mindful that the bible was not available to the masses. Firstly it was far too expensive for anyone other than the rich to have at home. Secondly, in places like England reading the bible was a crime punishable by death unless you were designated priveledged to read it. This was caused by the pheasant revolt of the 13th century after which the bible was considered by the authorities to be seditious and subversive. Only a very select class of people could read the bible. These were the clergy, and the upper class educated landowners who had to marry someone worthy of reading the dangerous book or have it removed from the house. Even then it was considered scandelous to marry outside of one’s “level”. Stunningly, with all the bible reading we have today, our society is flagrently sinful and don’t care who sees it. The faith is only strong where its listened to and adhered. Reading scripture is not a substitute for a well educated pious pastor.

    • LizEst

      A good guide is important to studying Scripture. Still, we can and must read the Bible. It’s not seditious. It’s the world, the flesh and the devil that causes us to deviate from truth. God bless you, Yolande.

  • Yolande Suzin

    Indeed, nice to know many of us have advanced in the perception of scripture reading since the 13th century. Then one must ask, which of the 78 bible versions should we read? Do we include the Jehovah Witness version, or perhaps the Mormons?

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