Paul LAKELAND. The Wounded Angel: Fiction and the Religious Imagination. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2017. 215 pp. $24.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-4622-9. Reviewed by Kathleen M. FISHER, Assumption College, Worcester, MA 01609.


The title of Paul Lakeland’s latest book comes from a 1903 painting (appearing on the cover) by Finnish artist Hugo Simberg. Like many artists, Simberg resisted questions about what he “meant” the painting to convey, insisting that “meaning” was created in each observer’s engagement with it. Viewers must develop their imagination to interpret the meaning of art for themselves. So, too, with faith. Like any of the arts, especially literature, faith grapples with the meaning of existence and the possibility of transcendence. Faith seeks truth in the face of mystery. But, as Lakeland argues, we live in a time when literature and religion seem culturally irrelevant, the result, he says, of an impoverished imagination, ill-equipped to deal with life’s deeper questions.

As both commentary and prescription for our times, The Wounded Angel offers a “theology of literature” that revitalizes religious imagination through the interaction with fiction. Organized into three main parts over nine chapters, the book compares the act of reading with the act of faith. Part One examines the relationship between intellect and imagination through the theologies of Aquinas, Ockham and Ayer, pausing briefly among the Romantics to consider their poetic avenues to the sublime. Returning to the theologians, Lakeland traces several efforts to create a middle path between faith and reason, first through Pierre Rousselot’s claim that faith and intellectual assent are one event, and later in the phenomenological theories of Jean Mouroux and Richard Niebuhr for whom faith is a personal encounter with a loving God.

Lakeland describes the faith of pre-modern times as willing acceptance of a universal set of intellectual principles (and the community from which they came). “Contemporary spirituality” is, by contrast, an intensely personal experience, often outside of religious tradition, propelled by questions rather than creeds. Not surprisingly, Lakeland attributes this change to unrestrained individualism; his call for “mindfulness” as an antidote to the consumerism, speed and superficiality of American culture is a familiar response. He does not, however, reject “spirituality” as an act of faith nor does he romanticize the past as a time of stronger communal and moral commitments. In fact, he pointedly criticizes Catholicism (and other organized religions) for intensifying individualism by postulating salvation, not as the fullest experience of Divine love, but as personal reward for obedience to God and the Church. Such a religion, he says, points only to itself and not to the holy mystery that lies beyond it. It suffers from a failure of imagination that impedes faith.

Lakeland is, however, optimistic about the power of fiction to renew the religious imagination. In Part Two, he first distinguishes between “serious” and “light” reading (more helpful than the judgment of “good” or “bad” literature). Light reading offers a story that is sufficient unto itself – it entertains, but does not invite or require interpretation. Serious reading points beyond itself to what Henry James called “the matter that lies beyond the text.” It creates what Wolfgang Iser calls an interpretive space for an “aesthetic object” to emerge through the interplay of reader and text. Lakeland sees an obvious and instructive parallel for faith: serious literature strengthens our imagination and deepens our capacity for mystery. Close readings of Simberg’s The Wounded Angel, Albert Camus’ The Plague and Virginia Woolf ‘s To the Lighthouse illustrate and refine the comparison and link literary to religious imagination.

The theology of literature finally takes its full form in Part Three with Lakeland’s claim that all work of the imagination is in some sense a search for the sacred. “The human story and human stories reveal the holy whether or not we wish to name it God” (p. 93). Lakeland highlights here the usual suspects – Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Shusaku Endo – alongside some surprises such as Jim Harrison, Gloria Naylor and the detective novels of Louise Penny. Sin, grace and the communion of saints can take many forms. And to the degree that such narratives mirror and challenge the reader’s own life story, they become transformative and salvific, as in the work of Marilynne Robinson, David James Duncan and C.E. Morgan.

If it appears that Lakeland has simply equated the experience of reading with the experience of religious faith, he is careful to differentiate their approaches to the transcendent. Faith, even when tinged with doubt, carries an attitude of commitment by the believer to what has been revealed. Literature opens many paths into mystery without expecting allegiance to any one revelation. Nevertheless, the capacity of literature to take us out of ourselves makes love possible – is this not also “God in all things”?

The Wounded Angel is itself a patient, thoughtful act of literary and religious imagination. It entices us with the rewards of deep reflection and invites us, through fiction or through faith, to slow down and attend to the mystery of the holy.