Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reading Between the Lines, Chapter 2. Vicarious Experience and Vicarious Sin: The Importance of Criticism

As a disclaimer: the reason we haven't published recently is because this chapter is very long. We've had to work on it for three Sundays. And now, onward.

One of the main points Veith is trying to make in this chapter is that reading isn't necessarily better than television simply because it's reading. There are good and bad books, just like there is good and bad television.

What are bad books? I think Veith is trying to say that there are a number of ways a book can be bad, and that readers need to be able to distinguish between them. There is bad content (sexual, violent, or other things that may occur to you), but many books in the most popular genres are bad aesthetically. They are written badly. Now Veith hastens to point out that the problem is NOT the genre, or even the reason for reading (for pleasure). Even the content of certain books that deal with sex or violence may do so in a very moral way (the Bible comes to mind). Veith says that the problem is how bad books are written: badly. The answer to bad books is good books.

He then goes on to explain the current literary dichotomy: either you have the "high culture" (See Ken Myers's All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes for an excellent explanation of this term) books that have ideas but no entertainment, or you have the "pop culture" fare that gives entertainment but no ideas. Veith thinks that Christians might be able to heal this breach.

Imaginative Experience

Reading acts on our imagination. We are always imagining. Engineers, scientists, artists, craftsmen are always imagining. Veith thinks of imagination as a gift from God. He claims that reading requires us to imagine, or we get nothing whatsoever out of it. He is happy when his children are reading less substantial fare just because they get an imaginative workout. The imagination has a moral dimension as well, e.g. to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn.

Reading offers vicarious experience, which are pleasurable because they enable us to "enlarge our being", as C.S. Lewis put it. The vicarious experience can be more pleasurable than a real one. We can learn from second-hand experience, and not just first-hand. Books are not everything, and there are some who never leave them (a problem).

Vicarious Sin

Some experiences are forbidden, such as sin. Sexual sins, dreams of power, etc. are things some people take perverted pleasure from. But what happens in our minds or imaginations has moral significance. See Jesus' words about lusting and anger. We must avoid sinful imaginings. So imagination can be a source of evil as well as good. See the description of mankind before the Flood: all the imaginations of men were only evil all the time.

Bad literature can have an evil effect just as much as good literature can do good. There are therefore some limitations necessary to our reading scope.

Now the subjects of sexuality and violence are definitely not necessarily out-of-bounds. Jesus talks about gouging our eyes, and the Song of Solomon endorses marital love. People are different, and some passages affect some people more than others. Writers should be more careful lest they cause some to sin. To depict sin is not necessarily to advocate sin. This is, I believe, an important point. As G. K. Chesterton said, loosely quoted, "Any book that has nothing bad in it is a bad book." If we read no books that depict sin, we'd have to stop reading the Bible! Another aspect is that profanity and sexual sin are not necessarily the only, or even the worst sins. Often Christians react the most to those sins, but there are many others, such as materialism, cheating, manipulation, the need to have a perfect body, egotism, etc., that may be just as tempting if not more so. We must distinguish good and evil.

He goes on to distinguish between the words obscenity, pornography, vulgarity, and profanity.

Obscenity literally means "that which is off-stage." In ancient Greek drama, the aesthetic drama demanded that violence never be shown on stage. The reason was not prudishness, but a sound aesthetic one. Whenever violence or sex is put on-screen, the audience starts reacting to that instead of to the aesthetic effect. So obscenity is an artistic fault, not just a moral fault (usually). One problem with such writing is that the writer will have to keep getting more and more perverse in order to preserve the "tang" of the forbidden. There's no stopping-place.

Sex is a private thing, and it is a sacred thing. That is why stripteases and such are obscene. Nudity is a private thing, not a wrong thing.

Veith describes pornography for the uncleanness that it is, but makes an additional point: while the women in pornography are debauched and used, the writers of pornography are selling themselves, their imaginations. He says that pornography must always be getting more and more extreme in order to achieve that "tang of evil", and points out that there's not really any good stopping place. Thus, serial killers and the like often describe how they started in pornography.

Next subject is vulgarity, which the author points out is not as extreme as the obscene; it is not even always sinful. Vulgarity is literally "of the common people." It would be something someone in a lower class would say, and someone in an upper class would not. Interestingly, in today's society, it is often the higher classes that have the foulest mouths.

Next is profanity. Profanity is the opposite of sacred, and means, literally, "outside the temple." It violates the holy. Profanity is a violation of the third Commandment. Christians do not have the option of saying, "Those are just words." Words, in the Christian worldview, have meaning and importance. Various curses such as, "God damn you" and the like are things God apparently sees as prayer. Only what is religious risks being profane.

Veith says that the sin of blasphemy is in the writing or speaking, not in the hearing or reading. Though, he is also quick to point out, we should not be desensitized to it. Veith says that as long as we "wince" at it, it's probably not hurting us.

Censorship and Selectivity

Veith does not believe in censorship per se, but is interested in a kind of "free market" censorship, where bad books are not bought. However, he is also set against misguided Christian censorship, where we censor The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for having the word "witch" in the title.

Veith says that we as Christians should support good work. As an aside, Christians often have no idea what this means, and will support the latest half-done, poorly acted Christian movie simply because it's Christian.

Good Books

Some very important things are said here: that the notion of good books is not completely subjective. We must learn and be taught what is good. Veith points out an interesting distinction Mortimer Adler makes: between the enjoyable and the admirable. The enjoyable has to do with the subjective reaction one person has. The admirable refers to qualities inherent in the object itself, independent of the observer. Good taste, as Veith defines it, is tuning our enjoyments to coincide with what is admirable.

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