Whatcha Reading? How Books Can Save the World
With the right books, we can challenge and maybe even supplant the decadent and death-dealing atmosphere in which we live.
What are you reading? I don’t mean Internet sports, news and opinion (though I encourage you to read The Stream daily). I mean, What books are you reading and why?
I asked myself that question the past week while reading George Weigel’s new book Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life With St. John Paul II.
Proclaiming Truth in Nazi-Occupied Poland
During World War II, the Nazis occupied Poland. As Weigel explains in his biography of St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope, their plan was to eradicate the nation, its culture and its people. Weigel quotes Hans Frank, leader the German occupation. “Every vestige of Polish culture is to be eliminated.” Poles who had the right Arian characteristics would be incorporated into Germany. “The rest?” Frank wrote, “They will work. They will eat little. And in the end they will die out. There will never again be a Poland.”
Weigel notes that under German rule, “the only penalties for ‘crimes’ or resistance were immediate death or sentence to a concentration camp — and a ‘crime’ could include failure to step off the sidewalk for a passing German patrol. The people were to survive on a 900-calorie-per-day diet. Secondary and higher education were shut down. Poles would only be taught to count to one hundred and read enough to obey simple instructions. Participation in Polish culture activities was a capital offense.”
Young Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) and others responded by participating wholeheartedly in Polish cultural activities. They began with their “Rhapsodic Theater.” That’s right. They fought a lawless and totalitarian regime with theater. The entirely underground operation produced Polish plays, read Polish poetry and discussed Polish literature. They did so knowing all the while that, if caught, they would be killed.
Why drama, poetry and literature? Because Nazism was a wordy world of lies impervious to argument. The only rational response was to proclaim words of truth. “The word of truth, publicly, indeed almost liturgically, proclaimed,” writes Weigel in Lessons in Hope, “was the antidote the Rhapsodic Theater sought to apply to the violent lies of the Occupation.”
Poles joke that they are the only country to have lost World War II twice. As soon as the Nazi occupation was driven out, the communist occupation arrived. In the 1980s, as a result of Solidarity and other change initiatives, the Communist government declared martial law, doing its best to enforce its own set of lies on the Polish people.
Arguing with the resulting Soviet-influenced culture, seeking to transform it or making peace with it were not meaningful options. The corrupt culture needed to be supplanted.
Thus at the Church of St. Maximilian Kolbe — who was a martyr of Auschwitz — hundreds of ordinary Poles studied Polish history and culture in secret. University professors taught the courses and facilitated “Evenings of Polish Culture” Weigel describes as “political cabarets, theatrical performances, musical programs.” In doing so, Weigel writes, they “replicated Karol Wojtyła’s own experience in the cultural resistance during World War II.”
Weigel then goes on to explain that “people in touch with their own culture can never be completely occupied, whether by a Nazi occupation force or by communist usurpers.” Let me add that people in touch with their culture can never be completely occupied by the post-Christian, materialistic, this-worldly and increasingly intrusive and aggressive culture we have in the West today. People out of touch their culture, on the other hand…
What Americans Should Read
After reading Weigel, I asked myself, what we in America should read to become “people in touch with their own culture.” The question was, how could we best resist the wordy lies and cultural occupation of our own era?
Poland is 96.9 percent Polish. Nearly everyone shares a common cultural, political, religious and ethnic heritage. Thus a canon of Polish literature and culture is easy to identify.
The vast “melting pot” of the United States is increasingly resistant to the homogeneity implicit in “melting.” So the problem of a canon is more difficult here. Black, white, Asian, native American, recent arrival, Daughter of the Mayflower, north and south, east and west, urban, suburban, rural — it’s a lot more complicated for us.
That being said, for Christians in America, the choice is obvious. For the most part American Christianity’s lineage — like American’s lineage — has its roots in Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. And that’s true for Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
For us, the canon of Western civilization begins with the Bible and the ancient Greeks. These great writings have the power to prevent a complete occupation by aggressive secular culture run amok.
Hence the question: “What are you reading?”
I’m convinced that even in this digital and video era, books rule. Scripture, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, the Church Fathers, Cicero, Plutarch, Virgil, Aquinas, Dante, Calvin, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Eliot, Lewis, St. John Paul II and others have produced the great and good books of Western civilization. These books can enable us to instantiate a new Christian culture. With their input we can challenge and maybe even supplant the decadent and death-dealing atmosphere in which we live. At least it’s worth a try.
So, what are you reading?