In the mid-1990s in Iran, Professor Azar Nafisi committed an act of subversion against the oppressive Islamic regime. She started a reading group.
As Nafisi recounts in her book Reading Lolita in Tehran, after being driven out of the university where she had taught literature for many years, she began to teach female students in her own home. For two years, her group met once a week to read and discuss literature, mostly “forbidden” Western classics like The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, and the novels of Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov. In these sessions, the women found the kind of freedom and hope that eluded them everywhere else.
Nafisi writes, “The novels were an escape from reality in the sense that we could marvel at their beauty and perfection, and leave aside our stories about the deans and the university and the morality squads in the streets. . . . Curiously, the novels we escaped into led us finally to question and prod our own realities, about which we felt so helplessly speechless.” The books they read were nothing like the reading material approved by the Islamic regime, narrow-minded reflections of a brutal ideology. Instead, these books brought the real world to them and helped them gain insight and perspective.
In particular, reading taught these women the virtue of empathy. If the chief sin of their oppressors was to judge people unfairly, Nafisi argues, the study of literature was a safeguard against falling into the same trap. As she told her university class, “A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals. . . . Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many other great novels — the biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains. Not seeing them means denying their existence.”
Nafisi’s compelling story illustrates one of the great reasons that we need art and literature in our lives. Interestingly, C. S. Lewis made much the same point in an essay titled “Christianity and Culture,” even though he was writing, of course, from a different perspective than the secular professor who taught in a Muslim country. Lewis wrote that culture may teach us truths about the world that point us toward the God of all truth. “Culture,” he wrote, “is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values.” He went on to explain that while these values cannot by themselves save anyone, they can help us reach a greater understanding of what salvation is, why we need it, and how to find it. In fact, literature had played a crucial part in Lewis’s own conversion; as he quipped in his autobiography, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”
The arts can never be a substitute for faith, though some have tried to make them so. But while we should always be discerning in our viewing and reading — I’m not recommending anyone read Lolita— the arts can guide us more deeply into faith. And they can reach people whom a conventional presentation of the Gospel may never reach — even a secret reading group in Tehran, searching for truth in a wasteland.
For further reading and information:
Azar Nafisi, “The Books of Revolution,” Wall Street Journal, 22 June 2003.
Barbara Crossette, “Scheherazade: Feminist Icon?” Beliefnet, 15 December 1999.
Jonathan Curiel, “Iranian rebel made room for ‘Lolita’,” San Francisco Chronicle, 2 February 2004.
- S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture” in The Seeing Eye(Ballantine Books, 1967).
Steven Garber, “Good Books, Bad Books,” BreakPoint WorldView, January/February 2003.
Myron Magnet, “What Use Is Literature?” City Journal, Summer 2003.
- Wesley Hurd, “After Virtue: The Darkness Rises,” McKenzie Study Center, February 1995.
David Kirby, “Theory in chaos,” Christian Science Monitor, 27 January 2004.
Peter J. Leithart, “Jane Austen, Public Theologian,” First Things, January 2004.
James M. Kushiner, Creed & Culture: A Touchstone Reader (ISI Books, 2003).
Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Tyndale, 1999). See especially chapters 41-45.
The BreakPoint “Christians in the Arts” kit includes It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God by Ed Bustard (editor), William Edgar, Makoto Fujimura, and David Giardinieare (Square Halo Books, 2000), and Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner (InterVarsity Press, 2001). Both are great resources for Christians involved or interested in the arts.