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Literature Appeals to the “Better Angels of our Nature”

“Reading is an adventure. Adventures are about the unknown … Literature is a mix of unfamiliarity and recognition. The situation can take us anywhere — across time and space, the globe, through the lives of people who can never be like us — into the heart of anguish we have never felt — crimes we could not commit. Yet as we travel deeper into the strange world of the story, the feeling we get is of being understood — which is odd when you think about it, because at school learning is based on whether or not we understand what we are reading. In fact it is the story that is understanding us. Books read us back to ourselves.”—Jeanette Winterson

The Power of Literature

These words are an eloquent rendering of the nearly indescribable power of humanity’s capacity to describe itself and its experiences. A power that transcends space and time.

Over the course of human civilization, we have seen the immense power of literary expression to arouse fear, anger, and resistance. In part due to its ability to humble us and provoke wonder in our souls.

Human literature, of both the sacred and secular varieties (these being designations far too strict and cumbersome to contain the nuance of life) are under attack now in our polarized times with a vigor and vindictiveness that speaks to the transcendent power Winterson so beautifully described.

The power to transcend our limited experiences and viewpoints and stretch our hearts concern ever outward for our fellows. Books touch us in the same way that the “better angels of our nature,” as President Abraham Lincoln so tenderly described it, are meant to do. They widen our circle of concern and instruct us in the ways of empathy and in possibilities of life and living beyond which we are initially exposed.

Indeed, the importance of accessibility to a broad range of literature has been held up over the course of our democracy by American luminaries as broad across the cultural spectrum as Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, Ronald Reagan and Laura Bush. These individuals each spoke of the intellectual freedom and ethical instruction they received from literature in their times.

From volumes as diverse as the philosophy of Sapho to the adventures of Superman. Because no book, no literature should be placed beyond the reach of any human mind. Instead, we must encourage a collective responsibility, shared in collaboration and concert, to contextualize the transcendent power of literature toward the betterment of all humankind.

Public Servants Under Scrutiny

The brunt of the current attack on literary culture is being felt by our nation’s librarians. A once revered and admirable profession now under immense pressure and public scrutiny.

One such public servant recently described the painstaking care with which they try to curate and provide for our community; “We develop our library collections very intentionally, based on the ages, experiences, and needs of the students we serve. We deeply respect the right of parents to monitor what their own children read, while also fighting to the end that no parent can decide what other children can read.”

At All Souls Unitarian Church, for over a century, we have endeavored to uphold one of the most fundamental and vital aspects of our religious tradition, that of an open canon and free pulpit. In our place of worship, we welcome and interpret a broad range of writings, those of our roots in Jewish and Christian scripture, those of religions the world over, in Buddhist Scrolls, Hindu Vedas, the Koran and many other sources of spiritual wisdom.

These we hold sacred, as the Rev. Dr. John Buehrens once described, “not as Divine literature about humans, but as human literature about the Divine.”

All Souls will continue to celebrate, champion and protect the transcendent power of human literature. We invite you to do so, too. The services at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on Oct. 23 will be devoted to free expression and will highlight excerpts from a collection of so-called “Banned Books” read by children, youth, librarians and others.

This article originally appeared on October 19 as an editorial at the Tulsa World. Cory Lovell recently served as All Souls’ intern minister and then as resident minister. Read his farewell blog.

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