In a recent article for The Hedgehog Review, Alan Jacobs reflects on a strange experience. Years ago at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, he spent an afternoon in an interview room with Frederick Buechner, watching strangers praise the novelist as essential to their Christian lives. “Your writing has meant everything to my faith,” they all seemed to be saying, “I don’t think I could be a Christian without your books.” The force of their compliments leads Jacobs to ask how writers could have become so essential to the development of a community’s faith. As a scholar of literary history, he understands that this role of spiritual mentor used to be played by very different cultural figures—notably theologians, logicians, even scientists. “It seemed to me,” Jacobs observes, “that such radical dependence on literary experience would have been…impossible even a century earlier.”
The inquiry propels him into a history of Christian humanism, beginning with Renaissance Italian poets, and ending (as too many Christian histories of literature seem to end) with C.S. Lewis, whose “baptism” into the faith was at the hands of the Victorian novelist George MacDonald. At a stage when Lewis knew nothing about Christianity, MacDonald’s fiction initiated him “into habits of aesthetic experience that would later make him receptive [to faith] for reasons he could not then have stated…” So Jacobs arrives at the now classic notion of “pre-evangelism,” which Lewis and his great friend Tolkien often advanced in their mature essays.
The “Witness of Literature,” as Jacobs calls it in his article’s title, derives from its capacity to prime our imaginations to comprehend spiritual reality. Just as Lewis was inadvertently prepared to accept God’s existence by MacDonald’s fantastical novels, many a Christian can remember feeling affection for Aslan before they believed in Christ. The lion often hinted to the Pevensies that he had “other names,” one of which, we’re left in little doubt, gets whispered from the altar where as adults we take communion. “All those,” Jacobs concludes, “who are led to and strengthened in religious faith by writers must believe that writers have, at the very least, superior powers of perception enabled by superior imagination.” It is these superior powers of imagination that make authors the “best new arbiters” of spiritual wisdom in our century, infusing literature with the power to witness.
Yet this language of witness has been, as Jacobs certainly knows, picked up by other writers to describe literature’s potency. Famously, the Polish-speaking Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz used it in his book-length lecture series The Witness of Poetry. Here, “witness” is used not in the evangelical sense, but in that of the courtroom. “I have titled this book The Witness of Poetry,” Milosz writes, “not because we witness it, but because it witnesses us.”
But what has poetry witnessed us doing? As a young Lithuanian who migrated to Poland in the thirties, Milosz was present for many of the twentieth century’s most notable bloodbaths: the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazi occupation, and the equally horrible advent of Communism. Each event diminished his circle of literary contemporaries, until they were but a handful of exiles across the globe. In California for much of his adult life, Milosz was able to lucidly recall the moment when, clutching a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland under his arm, he realized that “we were going to need a different kind of poetry:”
“A man is lying under machine-gun fire on a street in an embattled city. He looks at the pavement and sees a very amusing sight: the cobblestones are standing upright like the quills of a porcupine. The bullets hitting against their edges displace and tilt them. Such moments in the consciousness of a man judge all poets and philosophers…The vision of the cobblestones is unquestionably real, and poetry based on an equally naked experience could survive triumphantly that judgment day of man’s illusions.
The man under the machine gun was of course Milosz, and from that judgement seat (who could question his place there?), he condemned any poetry that did not deal in “naked experience.” By this, he meant that poetry, and by inference all of literature, needed to pay unflinching witness to the very worst realities if it was to stay relevant in a war-rocked world.
To Jacobs, the idea that literature is essential to spiritual development seems historically unprecedented. Milosz, too, was facing an unprecedented historical situation–that of genocide in the heart of modern Europe–and searching for a literature that was adequate to it. In fact “adequate” became a vital word for twentieth-century Nobel authors, whose claims about literature’s powers were dulled, yet hardened, by repeated coatings of blood. Seamus Heaney, who lost many relatives and friends to the diffused terror of Northern Ireland’s “troubles,” said that he became a poet when his “roots crossed his reading,” a process that energized his search for “images and symbols adequate to our predicament.” That predicament was violence perpetuated by the deadly mixture of conflicting ideologies and a shrinking world: the recipe that produced the bitter concoction of our global political landscape.
Such a political landscape tended to leave the literal one dotted with burnt-out buildings. Milosz had seen plenty of these in Krakow. And knowing from such tumultuous political experiences that “What surrounds us here and now is not guaranteed,” Milosz insisted in The Witness of Poetry that we must construct literature “out of the remnants found in ruins.” Imaginative writing was his way to redeem culture destroyed–intentionally or unintentionally–during conflict. By his lights, the “witness” of poetry is its bracing power–not the power of pre-evangelism, but of preservation and reconstruction.
But Milosz’s imagination was, as he confirmed in an interview for The Paris Review, both Christian and Catholic. Though he sometimes wandered the fringes of orthodoxy: his confessor Pope John Paul II once told him that in terms of belief, his poems seemed to “make one step forward, one step back,” to which Milosz answered: “Holy Father, how in the twentieth century can one write religious poetry differently?” It therefore seems possible that at their roots, Jacobs’s idea of literature’s witness and Milosz’s might cross, or even be one and the same.
After all, the Christianese language of “witnessing” is simply a slang corruption of “witness” in the same judicial sense Milosz proposes–to Paul, the act of evangelism is firstly an act of reportage: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance” he writes to the Corinthians, “that Christ died for our sins…that he was raised…and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” So from the start, to bring others into belief was to testify with reference to reliable observers. The Bible, a piece of literature as rich at it is confusing, gets much of its energy from claiming to be fact. It can only “witness” to us in Jacobs’s sense because it has first witnessed us in Milosz’s.
“It is far too easy,” Jacobs writes, echoing the fourteenth-century French humanist Jean Gerson, “for the point of…discourse to be lost in the apparatus.” This is precisely the danger Milosz hoped to avoid by emphasizing literature’s duty to record “naked reality.” The point, as Jacobs and Milosz both seem to understand, is that imaginative literature is essential to our spiritual development. The practice of writing, reading, and appreciating it is inseparable from our pursuit of truth, because its prime effect is to heighten perception. Sensitive readers of books make shrewd students of reality. “How did literary writers come to be seen by many as the best custodians and advocates of Christian faith?” Jacobs asks. The answer might be that they always were, but that it took the nightmares of the twentieth century to wake us up to their importance.
 Seamus Heaney, “Feeling into Words,” Preoccupations 56
 Czeslaw Milosz, The Art of Poetry No. 70. Interviewed by Robert Faggen. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1721/the-art-of-poetry-no-70-czeslaw-milosz
 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 5b, & 6. NIV