Reverend Richard M. Gulla, S.S., Church magazine

January 14, 2022

This book is neither a typical theological textbook nor a book on literary theory. Rather, it is a theological reflection. It is written for those who would otherwise be intimidated by a theology text, but who still want a resource to guide their thinking about the big questions, such as the nature of God, the problem of evil, the meaning of life, the possibility of love, or the way to reconciliation and restoration of justice. Paul Wadell has already established himself as a theologian who writes lucid pastoral theology with an eye for how good literature can reveal the great mysteries of faith. Here, he peels off the surface layer of human experience portrayed in literary works to expose the raw mystery of love, human and divine. Preachers will love this book, which would also be a great resource for adult faith formation or study groups.

The book has five chapters. Each explores a theological theme through the characters, ideas, and experiences of five great works of literature, four novels and one play. Chapter One uses Walker Percy’s The Second Coming to explore the call to choose life over death each day. This chapter helps us to see how we live with disguised deaths and get released from our tombs through unexpected love. Chapter Two examines the mystery of being human and the power of divine compassion through Graham Green’s The Heart of the Matter. Wadell uses this novel as a literary parallel to the doctrine of original sin and to God’s magnanimous love. Chapter Three is about learning to love. “Beware of loves that soar too high” begins this chapter’s probing of the meaning and limits of human love, the realism of trying to love your enemies, and the difference between love as sacrifice and love as care. Through Mary Gordon’s novel Final Payments, Wadell teaches us lessons about living under the command to love. In Chapter Four, Athol Fugard’s play My Children! My Africa! becomes the setting for examining the meaning of justice, the scourge and destructive power of injustice, and the moral imagination needed if justice is to be restored. This chapter prompts us to ask whether the way we live each day brings harm somewhere else in the world. Injustice, Wadell teaches, calls not just for personal conversion but also for a radical transformation in the politics and economics of our world. Chapter Five centers on forgiveness through Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe. We may want forgiveness to be quick, easy and not very demanding. But such cheap forgiveness never works. Through Tyler’s novel we learn that forgiveness is not an isolated action, but the call to live a wholly new way of life.

Wadell’s book is deceptive in its simplicity and disarming in its profundity. Literature is a powerful source of moral education and theological conversion for it engages our hearts as well as our minds. A good story has the power to challenge us and to change us for it makes us see our world and ourselves differently. Wadell’s insightful reading of these great pieces of literature is an inspiring guide to how we ourselves could use literature in faith-formation programs. Each chapter ends with suggestions for other works of literature that explore the chapter themes. The reader who has been captivated by Wadell’s interpretations might try to do the same with those he recommends. This book could open the way to a creative form of moral education and faith formation. Enjoy the ride.

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