Spiritual Spins on Literary Classics

This spring, an evangelical publisher, a Catholic press, and an imprint known for spiritual, Hindu, and Buddhist titles are turning to classics of Western fiction — with a twist.

Literature professor Karen Swallow Prior peers deeply at Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter; A Guide to Reading and Reflecting (B&H, out now), one of six books in a series that examines novels from a Christian perspective. Writer, editor, and Fountains of Carrots podcaster Haley Stewart extols the Catholic ideas of virtue to be gleaned in the works of the beloved Anglican novelist in Jane Austen’s Genius Guide to Life: On Love, Friendship and Becoming the Person God Created You to Be (Ave Maria, out now). And Lauren Shufran, a poet and writer, creates a primer on Buddhism from Shakespeare’s plays in The Buddha and the Bard: Where Shakespeare’s Stage Meets Buddhist Scriptures (Mandala, May).

PW asked the authors and their editors how classic fiction can connect readers to spiritual truths.

‘The Scarlet Letter’ in a post- # MeToo era

Prior, a professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is the author of several books including On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. Clarissa Dufresne, B&H senior acquiring editor, tells PW: “[Prior] teaches literature from a Christian perspective, and that falls in our wheelhouse. Great fiction puts you in situations that force you to think through your faith. ” Dufresne invited Prior to write guides to classic literature that “address questions we are facing as a church today,” Prior says. “I see a great hunger in the church for understanding how stories reveal God and his greater purpose for us. We’ve had 500 years of emphasis on doctrine. But doctrine apart from practice is dead. It’s literature and art and aesthetic experience that embodies right doctrine. ”

The book features Prior’s notes, reflections, and questions for discussion alongside the full text of The Scarlet Letter, which Prior says carries a particular relevance in a post- # MeToo and #ChurchToo world when it comes to clergy sexual abuse. When the pregnant Hester Prynne is brought before the town officials and condemned to wear the red-letter A for adultery, she is shocked by her pastor lover’s abuse of her trust. “She tells him, ‘Thou had’st care of my soul.'”

The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, raises contemporary questions, and Prior asks readers to consider: How do we shame people? Can or should “the structures placed by society or religious belief on sexual love be abandoned without consequence?” What does the novel demonstrate about Bible passages such as Proverbs 28:13? (“He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”)

‘Jane Austen is my life coach’

Stewart and her podcasting partner were leading a literary retreat on the spiritual lessons to be found in the beloved story of Anne of Green Gables, when an Ave Maria Press senior acquiring editor Heidi Saxton had a new idea for her — a book on the virtues embedded in Jane Austen’s novels. Saxton tells PW: “The moral foundation that Jane wrote from is very recognizable to a Catholic — that the dignity of a human person must be respected, that the pursuit of virtue as the goal of life, and that all relationships are pointed toward the hope of heaven that all Christians share. ”

For a lifelong Austen fan, the idea was a perfect fit. Stewart writes in Jane Austen’s Genius Guide to Life, “Discovering Jane Austen can be dangerous. You think it’s going to be all bonnets and ballgowns and then she swoops in to change your life. Consider yourself warned. Jane Austen is a lot of things. She’s one of the finest novelists to write in the English language, a moral philosopher of the highest order, and a sharp social commentator. She’s also my life coach. ”

Novel by novel, Stewart delves into the ways Austen, through small domestic details of life and romance in the English countryside, addressed the great questions of the soul: “What does a good person look like? How do I become one? ” Stewart tells PW. There are lessons in constancy, fortitude, prudence, and more, all wrapped up in tales of “friendship, love, community, and God’s grace,” Stewart writes. Through the novels, one can learn humility and how to conquer pride like Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), or “escape selfishness and develop compassion like Emma Woodhouse (Emma). ”

Stewart tells PW: “Austen’s characters reveal how virtuous habits transform us and help us become who we were meant to be. Our vocation is to love — the virtue above all other virtues. Notice that every single Jane Austen novel ends with a wedding. ”

Shakespeare meets mindfulness

“Mandala” is the word for a “sacred circle that puts disparate phenomena in a mutual, respectful conversation,” says Phillip Jones, associate publisher for Mandala Publishing. So, a press known for books on Eastern philosophy is a fitting home for Lauren Shufran’s The Buddha and the Bard, which relates Shakespeare of the West and the mindfulness of the East, ”and makes“ Buddhism accessible ”in a unique way, Jones tells PW.

Shufran was teaching Shakespeare to undergraduates when “suddenly, I had a realization that closely reading Shakespeare taught me to more closely read myself,” and so did the practice of mindfulness, she says. Both the Buddha and the Bard “offer models for how to inquire within, how to become acute readers of ourselves: our love, greed, anger, loneliness, jealous, passion,” she writes. Her operating theory, she says, is that Shakespeare was “the dramatic master of the human condition and the Buddha sought to liberate us from that condition.”

Her book is organized around core Buddhist principles and teachings, with each chapter beginning with a quote from one of Shakespeare’s plays that could be familiar to almost any Western reader. For example, in a section devoted to Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path, one chapter begins with Polonius (in Hamlet) who says, “This above all — to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Shufran sees in this an entree to describe the path of the “right view” in Buddhism.

Shufran concludes with King John, in which the monarch says, “Have I not here the best cards for the game?” Shufran says this is a metaphor for the game of life where, she writes, “Ultimately, we have a great deal of control over our present hands and how we play them. And this can profoundly reshape the subsequent hands we’re dealt with. Buddhism proposes a form of quite radical responsibility: we get the world we’ve created, and we continue to create it, now and into the future. ”

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