I run a small book discussion group through my local parish. This year, in coordination with the Pope’s own advice, we are tackling Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Fall we finished Inferno. This Lent we read Purigorio, then Paradiso after Easter.
For a while I have considered blogging about this project. Certainly re-reading the Comedia has changed my perspective on theology and the history of Catholic thought.
However, probably the single greatest insight I have gotten from re-reading Dante is just how much community means when experiencing a work of fiction. I first read and discussed the Inferno as part of a general-ed literature class in college. The impression it made on me would be hard to understate. With both Professor and students eager to dismiss the work as a grand Florentine revenge fantasy, the poem was quickly used to bolster my already unflattering view of the Medieval mind.
Needless to say, revisiting Dante’s hell with a group of orthodox Catholics is very different. The theology built into every layer of the burning perdition is too sophisticated for any modern Catholic to dismiss. The sins that bring the souls to their eternal torment are a little too close for any modern Christian’s comfort. The experience is rich, chilling, but not easily explained in words
There are certain works of art that might only be authentically experienced from inside a certain community. I remember thinking this again when seeing the new Star Wars movie on opening night. Not being a fan myself, I could understand something key about the film just by being in the audience. It wasn’t just a matter of absorbing the excitement, I could -in fact- understand a very different message being communicated. To the audience there, The Force Awakens was a fresh story of redemption even if the individual plot points were, well totally predictable. It was a story about their community, and ,more importantly about what it meant to truly like Star Wars. You had to be among them to really understand that.
Generalizing, it might be worth trying to read a book popular with an antagonistic community this way. I can’t be the first Christian who has wondered what it must be like to read The God Delusion with a group of atheists. I read the book a while back and found it to be preachy, tiresome and self-righteous, but I know people who have read it lovingly over twenty times. Perhaps the true appeal of Dawkin’s labored tirade could be better understood through seeing it read and discussed inside an atheist book group. Might it be less an explanation of scientific fact than a story of community’s exodus, liberation, and rebirth? This would indeed be a greater story.