Richard Harries: In this faithless age, we must be guided by great literature

Friday 10 October 2008 00:00 BST

Poetry and novels take us into a world of their own. But the point is, and this is a key feature of both literature and, say, the Bible, is that they illuminate the actual world in which we live. There are forms of writing which do not do this, which are, we might say, purely escapist. Fantasy, popular romance, science fiction are always in danger of doing this. Clearly that is not always the case, and perhaps the test must always be that of Dr Johnson when he said that "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it."

However, I have to express a personal preference for writing that seems closer to the world in which we live, and clearly does illuminate it. When I was at school I saw a performance of Thornton Wilder's play Our Town. The only scenery and props were a few hardback chairs, but the actors took us into the ordinary life of a small town in a way which was haunting and magical. Through the power of words, they had taken me into lives of others in a way that illuminated my life.

That performance conveyed to me an abiding sense of the poignancy of people's lives, however apparently ordinary. So, in one way or another, I look for literature not only to take me into another world, but to illuminate the one in which I live.

If I have to put the answer to this question – about why literature, and indeed all the arts, have been and are so important – in a single sentence, it would be that the arts bring home to us the mystery and depth of human existence. They not only take us out of the world of getting and spending, but they bring about a realisation that what really matters is something very different, and that our usual preoccupations are indeed a laying waste of our powers. We are acutely conscious of the mystery and depth of human existence, and we begin to sense what it is that might really matter. It is for this reason, I would suggest, that in a time of unbelief it is from literature, from novels, poetry and plays, for example, that people derive insights that in previous ages they might have gained from the Bible and those one- or two-hour sermons that were often the norm.

Taken from the lecture 'Is Literature Essential to Religion?', given by the Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, at Gresham College, London, on Wednesday

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