Literature


Christianity and Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice by David Lyle Jeffrey & Gregory P. Maillet (IVP Academic, 2011)

Guest post by Karl Persson

Ecclesiastes tells us that “of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh;” arguably, this assertion describes the plight of most of us English students who, out of the many texts in our ever expanding discipline, must be wise in considering what books we read and how to read them. Christian literary scholars find themselves in even more of a predicament, not only having to determine what to read, but also what it means to read books as Christians. Although I haven’t yet had time to purchase let-alone read this book, I nonetheless suggest that we couldn’t do much better than turn to Drs. Gregory Maillet and David Lyle Jeffrey in our search for Christian guidance in approaching English literature, past and present.

While you may wonder how I can make such a claim before reading the book, I do have good reasons, given my experience with the authors, particularly Dr. Maillet. Throughout my undergraduate program at the University of Regina, I took a number of courses with Greg, including Shakespearean Tragedy and Comedy, the Bible and Literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and perhaps most importantly for my own career, Old English Language and Literature. Greg taught all of these classes not only as an impeccable academic, but also as a Christian genuinely interested in the well-being of his students and the ways that their lives could be enriched through the study of literature and the larger philosophical and theological matters it approaches. As his Teaching Assistant and student, I learned much from his quiet but confident faith in Christ that was evident in his approach to literature, and I also appreciated the space he made for students like me to reflect on how we might learn to think about literature and literary theory as Christians. On a more personal level, I probably would not be pursuing my current line of academic study, Old English Literature, if it weren’t for Greg’s influence; not only did he go out of his way to persuade the university administration to let him teach the rarely offered Old English literature course in which I first learned the language; but he also encouraged me to study Latin at a moment when I was uncertain about my future academic plans; both of these languages continue to be instrumental in the work that I do.

In any case, given the advent of this new book by Drs. Maillet and Jeffrey, I wanted to share with you the impact that Greg’s faith has had on my life, not only in the hope that some of you will take the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom of both these superb scholars, but also in the hope that you will be encouraged by this story of someone whose faithfulness to Christ in the academy continues to testify to the grace of God.

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Karl Persson is a Doctoral Candidate working on the intersection of Biblical and Old English wisdom literature; theologically, he is interested in being a good husband to Meg, being a good father to Andrew, and working out a theological grammar that allows us to speak appropriately and well about issues concerning God, suffering, and the broader problem of evil.

 

I had originally intended to post today the next article in my recent series on Christianity and literature. Today’s was supposed to be about the good of beauty in literature (as opposed to the good of experiential wisdom which I discussed in the previous post). But a friend of mine leveled some criticism at my previous article, and so I think it a good idea to deal with it now. There, I suggested that one of the principle purposes of literature is that it provides us the opportunity to “enter into” the thoughts and experiences of authors and their characters (which I shall collectively call “the Experience” henceforth). My friend Karl countered: “Vicarious literary experience for its own sake seems to me rather dangerous; even experience is accountable to the lordship of Christ and the church, which is his body.” (To see the comment in length, visit the post here and scroll to the third comment ).

Let me be clear that I similarly believe “vicarious literary experience for its own sake” to be dangerous. I certainly never intended to suggest that this is what Christians should enter into literature hoping to gain – though I must admit that, rereading my own post on Bunyan, I can certainly see how one could draw that conclusion from my words. I fear that, focused as I was with demonstrating how literature acts on the reader (ie, by drawing them into the Experience), I failed to indicate what I believed to be the proper response of the reader to that Experience.

I hint at that proper response in the first article of this Christianity and Literature series. There, when I suggest that we ought to read literature because God can work good through the vocation of human writers, I include the caveat that we must not “do so indiscriminately,” quoting St. Paul’s advice that we “test everything; hold fast what is good.” It is clear to me now that I should have expanded upon this in the article on Experience. What literature does is draw the reader into the Experience; what the reader must do in the midst of that Experience is Judge it to see whether it be good.

The Experience, as I attempted to demonstrate in my previous post, refers to a text’s “capacity to reveal truth.” In other words, the purpose of the Experience in texts is the bestowal of wisdom – or rather, the reader has the opportunity to access wisdom and knowledge s/he might otherwise not encounter by means of the Experience. But if we say that Experience is an attempt to reveal truth, we must further acknowledge that those truth claims may fail to correspond to reality.

Sometimes literary Experience is crafted in such a way as to be deliberately false. An obvious example occurs in the character of the “unreliable narrator,” to borrow Wayne C. Booth’s words. Consider Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Throughout the tale, Gulliver informs of us his opinions on his adventures. But we as his audience need not (and indeed, should not) agree with all of his conclusions. While not always wholly in error, he certainly diverges from Swift’s own explicit opinions on a number of things. Swift no more wishes us to despise humanity, as Gulliver does at the end of the tale, than than he wants us to eat babies (as Swift’s narrator in “A Modest Proposal” suggests). These characters and narrators are unreliable, and we are not expected to trust them. Indeed, Swift presents us with false Experiences in these instances precisely so that we might disagree with them – and so gain wisdom through the Experience by rejecting the Experience.

While we are occasionally expected to reject an Experience at the author’s own (unstated) request, we must also sometimes reject Experiences against the author’s (unstated) wishes. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials take the reader on a quest to overthrow God. And while Pullman earnestly desires that the reader take the Experience to heart and use it to shape his or her own life, Christians must of course reject such “wisdom”. It is error, and must be recognized as such. And yet, we must admit that even in calling it error, we learn to articulate more clearly what we believe. While we as Christians are not limited to negative theology, we can nevertheless use it when the occasion serves: by saying what truth is not, we can come to understand more clearly what truth is. By rejecting one Experience, we may learn more truly what Life should be.

So then, when Christians enter literary Experience, they must not do so as blind men willing to be led by the blind. They must hold up every word, every thought, every action to critical scrutiny to see whether it be true or not. But regardless of whether they find the Experience in question to be true or or false, there remains the opportunity to gain wisdom through it – be it through accepting the Experience as edifying or rejecting it as destructive. Or, as is more likely the case, recognizing elements of both in the text. Indeed, we would all do well to remember my friend Karl’s word on the subject:

“I personally do not have the luxury of approaching literature from an objective, God-like stance; I read literature because I need it in the thick of things, just as I need other humans, and I will hopefully treat it no better or worse than I would treat others (for it is the voice of others) – with the knowledge that it contains the potential to reveal the image of God, but also the knowledge that sin has corrupted it and that it is not above deserving blunt words of reproach at times.”

[This is the third article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]

In my previous post, I attempted to articulate why Christians can and, indeed, should study literature. Fundamental to my argument was the idea that, whenever something good is accomplished on earth, God has been at work in and through the human agents involved in bringing about that good. Just as we thank God for providing food for us through the vocation of farmers or healing through doctors, so too, I said, we ought to thank God for the good to be found in secular literature.

But what I did not discuss in my previous article was what exactly I thought was good about secular literature. It is an easy thing to see how other vocations bring good into the world: as I said earlier, farmers provide food and doctors heal. But what exactly do authors (especially authors of fiction) do that is comparable? What is the good purpose that God works through them?

One might be tempted to say that literature is self-evidently good: that “to read the classics is better than not to read the classics,” as Italo Cavillo puts it in his essay “Why read the classics?”. But while the goodness of literature might seem obvious to some, like Cavillo and myself, the same cannot be said for many Christians throughout the history of the Church.

A case in point is Augustine, whose objections to literature and philosophy I explored briefly in my previous post. For him, secular culture represents one direction of the compass and Christianity its complete opposite. We see the same kind of binary thinking about Christ and culture two centuries earlier in Tertullian’s writings as well. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he scoffs. And again, “What has the Academy to do with the Church?” For Tertullian, the answer was as clear as it was final: nothing at all. That mindset has been inherited by many Christians today: you can have the truth of Christianity or you can have secular culture, but never the twain shall meet.

That assessment would have satisfied many early English Puritans as well. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that John Bunyan includes a defense of fiction at the beginning of his allegorical classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. After all, using fiction (a literary device drawn from secular culture, critics would allege) could obscure Christian doctrine. Fiction was for unimportant, worldly things, the sort of things, in short, which Christians should not waste their time on; what could it have to do with truth, especially the truths of the Christian faith?

Bunyan was facing this sort of criticism before his book ever went to press. Indeed, he tells us directly that some had advised him not to print the book at all. But Bunyan saw such criticisms of fiction as unfounded, and so he takes pains to explain the good that can be brought about through literature. Addressing the reader, he asks,

May I not write in such a stile as this?
In such a method too, and yet not miss
Mine end, thy good? why may it not be done?
Dark Cloud’s bring waters, when the bright bring none.

Just as dark clouds bring much needed rain to the earth, so too Bunyan argues that “some men, by feigning words as dark as mine, / Make truth to spangle, and its rays to shine.” Fiction, he asserts here, can be used to reveal fact. In fact, this is what Bunyan himself is trying to accomplish in his book: “My dark and cloudy words they do but hold,” he writes, “The Truth, as Cabinets inclose the gold.” For Bunyan, fiction has an innate capacity to serve as a vehicle to carry truth.

Of course, Bunyan is here speaking of a specific type of writing which lends itself particularly well to didacticism (namely, allegory), and he is speaking in particular of his own story, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Likewise, when he speaks of truth being made to “spangle” in other literary works, he is undoubtedly referring to Christian texts alone; Bunyan would be less than pleased, no doubt, should he be construed as suggesting that Christians make their search for truth in such books as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Ovid’s Metamophoses.

That all said,  we can nevertheless extrapolate Bunyan’s thoughts on Christian allegory to the world of fiction as a whole. One principle good that literature accomplishes is the revelation of truth – not always overtly, perhaps, and infrequently in as didactic a manner as Bunyan would like. But literature, even secular literature, has the capacity to reveal truth. Or rather, we might say that good literature invites the reader to ask of themselves Pilate’s famous question: what is truth?

Allow me to illustrate what I mean when I say literature asks us to consider truth. When we read distopian fiction, we are led to ask whether our society is evolving, as we would no doubt like to think, or whether instead our culture, left to itself, is moving in a far more worrisome direction. Likewise, the presence of extraterrestrial beings in science fiction forces us to consider the question of what it means to be human. And tragedies are forever asking us to consider the problem of evil and the vanity of this world.

Of course, these questions are not asked of the reader in such explicit terms. Instead, literature offers us another way to address these ideas: the opportunity to live, in some small way, the lives of other people. Indeed, at its core, all literature offers what Bunyan attempts to offer his readers in The Pilgrim’s Progress: the opportunity to temporarily be someone else in order to know the self better.

Would’st thou be in a Dream, and yet not sleep?
Wouldest thou in a moment laugh and weep?
Wouldest thou lose thyself, and catch no harm,
And find thyself again without a charm?

Put simply, literature offers readers the opportunity to enter a state of wakeful dreaming, to indeed live another life. And when we live those other lives, when we share the thoughts, emotions, and actions of authors, characters, and narrators, we return to our own lives wiser for the experience. We lose ourselves, in Bunyan’s words, only to find ourselves again.

That opportunity for experientially gained wisdom is, indeed, one of the fundamental goods that God works through literature. And were it the only good (which it is not), it would nevertheless be justification enough for Christians to take literature seriously. When we read, we become another person in order to grow through that other person’s experiences. So let us then, whenever we approach a poem or novel or any other literary work, heed Bunyan’s advice to the reader: “O then come hither / And lay my Book, thy Head, and Heart together.” For as we become part of the text, laying our head and heart together with the book, we briefly become something we are not; and we do so in order that, when we lay the book down, we would be be more than we were ere we began to read.

[This is the second article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]

In his Confessions, one of the first things Augustine gets around to confessing as sinful is his education. That education, with its focus on literature and writing, could well be likened to what we today would call a “liberal arts” or “humanities” degree. Put another way, we might say that one of the first things Augustine gets around to critiquing in his Confessions is the English department.

While accepting the formal aspects of his education (eg, learning to read and write) as in themselves good, Augustine takes great pains to distance himself from the actual texts he studied. Early in Book I, he speaks with disgust of his school-age love of Virgil’s Aeneid. Considering the great pity he felt over the death of Dido in the work, he writes: “For what more miserable than a miserable being who commiserates not himself; weeping the death of Dido for love of Aeneas, but weeping not for his own death for want of love to Thee, O God” (I.21). This topic – feeling pity for the tragedies of fictional characters – is one which Augustine critiques at length in Book II, but the quotation here serves a more general purpose: it demonstrates Augustine’s disgust with those who would take more seriously their literary studies than their relationship with God.

Augustine’s criticism of the humanities finds plenty of resonances among Christians today. With two arts degrees myself, I have spent a fair amount of time studying literature, languages, and philosophy. And I have certainly come up against people who consider those studies not only to be a waste of time, but more seriously a direct affront to Christian faith. They ask, as Augustine would ask, how I, a student of literature, could possibly justify my field of inquiry given the secular nature of the Academy?

Augustine is certainly correct in his criticisms to some extent. We must not, as Christians, love literature (or culture) more than we love God. Thomas Cranmer writes similarly in the Anglican Book of Homilies (1547) when he asks, “What excuse shall we therefore make (at the last day before Christ) that delight to read or hear men’s fantasies and inventions, more than His most holy Gospel?” Augustine, Cranmer and I all agree that our faith must come before all else. But where Cranmer and I differ from Augustine is in this: we do not deny that literature, even literature written by non-Christians on non-Christian subjects, can be both beautiful, true, and edifying.

Cranmer writes well when he says, “Other sciences [ie, fields of study] be good, and to be learned no man can deny; but this [ie, our faith] is the chief and passeth all others incomparably.”We need not reject secular studies so long as we keep those studies secondary to our faith. Indeed, our faith gives us a framework from which to work, from which to evaluate literature, history, and culture. It gives us the ability to distinguish what is good from what is bad.

And there is most certainly good in secular culture – though this good arises primarily from the actions of God rather than the actions of humans themselves. For so it is that God, as Martin Luther reminds us, works through the everyday vocations of everyday people. He works in the vocations of teachers and writers, as much as he works through the vocations of government, family, and the Church. Thus, when an author executes his vocation well, through the creation of some particularly excellent piece of poetry or in some particularly acute observation of human nature, we do not praise her or him alone; we praise also the God at work behind human vocation.

John Calvin articulates this theology of vocation particularly well in relation to the work of non-Christian writers. He says:

When we see in pagan authors the amazing light of truth which appears in their works, it must inform us that human nature, although it is fallen from its integrity and much corrupted, still is adorned with many gifts of God. If we recognize the Spirit of God as the unique fountain of truth, we will not despise the truth wherever it appears unless we want to insult God’s Spirit…. We cannot read the books which have been written about all these matters [ie, pagan books on philosophy, medicine, etc.] without being astonished, because we are obliged to recognize the wisdom which is in them.

Calvin continues, explaining that “anything excellent or praiseworthy… comes from God.” Here he echoes two passages of Scripture which help us understand the importance and goodness of studying human culture. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17); and “If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). When we confess with Calvin, as we must, that God’s goodness has manifested “excellent and praiseworthy things” throughout human literature over the centuries, we further recognize that we ought to “think about such things.”

Not that we do so indiscriminately. We must, as the Scriptures teach, “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). In order to know what is good, we must first test everything.

And so we can agree with Augustine that there is some measure of “vanity” in literature. But we need not conclude that all literature is therefore vanity. We need not rail with Augustine, “Woe is thee, thou torrent of human custom!” Instead, we may seek what good God has breathed into these texts, working through the vocation of their human authors, and praise Him as we are wont: as the Author of every good and perfect gift – even those found in the writings of secular humanity.

[This is the first article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]

Growing up, The Chronicles of Narnia were my favourite books by far (and were a glorious introduction to the wider writings of C.S. Lewis). Needless to say, when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe finally made it to the big screen in 2005, I was ecstatic. I had always thought the Narnia stories were made to be watched (Lewis’ own concerns on that front not withstanding). And now, for the first time ever (ignoring, as we must, the infamous BBC series), Narnian fans would be able to enjoy the stories visually.

Fast forward five years. A week since opening in theatres, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is doing extremely well internationally (though, alas, not particularly well in North America). The Canadian Lutheran asked for my thoughts on the latest film and I was more than happy to write up a little something for them. Check out my article “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: An odyssey in faith” at their website.

Incidentally, have I mentioned how much I love The Canadian Lutheran Online? The digital counterpart to the bi-monthly magazine, it’s among my favourite sites on the web. With up-to-date news and views on a variety of subjects (both popular and theological), the site is an absolute must-read. Go check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

I just returned from seeing Harry Potter 7: The Deathly Hallows pt. 1 this evening. It was brilliantly executed.

Still, despite my own admiration for the movie (and the books), we all know that the Harry Potter series has gotten a lot of flack from Christians throughout its run. In my opinion, an awful lot of it has been unjustified. Her books might not be as overtly Christian as C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, but Harry Potter is nevertheless deeply influenced by Christian ideals and symbolism. That symbolism is perhaps most evident in the final book, The Deathly Hallows.

Christianity Today had an interesting article entitled “Harry Potter 7 is Matthew 6” back in 2007 when the final book came out. Given the public rush to see the first part of its film counterpart, it might be worth rereading that article to remind ourselves of how Rowling’s own Christian faith manifests itself in the story of the Deathly Hallows.

And yes, I did write that Rowling is a Christian (or at least self-identifies as one). And frankly, given how the series winds up, it’s hard to doubt her. Consider this quote from an interview Rowling gave the Vancouver Sun back in 2000 – seven years before the final book would be released:

“Yes, I am [a Christian],” she says. “Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.”

If you haven’t read the series, let me fill you in on what that “what’s coming” comment is all about. Better yet, let Rowling (quoting Scripture in The Deathly Hallows) fill you in:

“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”

Today was the first snowfall of the winter in Regina. We’ve had about ten cms of snow, coupled with bitter winds of 70 km/h. The precise meteorological term for what we’ve “enjoyed” today is “weather bomb.” All in all, a somewhat miserable day in the Queen City. And the snow just keeps falling and the winds just keep howling.

Still, the fact that it is the first snowfall of the winter reminds me of one of my favourite poems: “St. Agnes’ Eve” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I cannot help but recall his line about the “first snowdrop of the year,” even if the winter day Tennyson depicts is far more idyllic than the one which visited Regina today. Yet perhaps the contrast between Tennyson’s snowdrop and ours serves to make his words all the more beautiful. Our dreary day makes his seem all the more heavenly. And, indeed, perhaps the heaven to which Tennyson points in this poem is made all the more beautiful by our current annoyances, as we anticipate that celestial paradise where such annoyances will finally pass away. As Tennyson himself demonstrates in the poem, recognition of the imperfectness of this world can be the impetus for greater hope in the state of perfection to come.

For your enjoyment:

St. Agnes’ Eve

Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes:
May my soul follow soon!
The shadows of the convent-towers
Slant down the snowy sward,
Still creeping with the creeping hours
That lead me to my Lord:
Make Thou my spirit pure and clear
As are the frosty skies,
Or this first snowdrop of the year
That in my bosom lies.

As these white robes are soil’d and dark,
To yonder shining ground;
As this pale taper’s earthly spark,
To yonder argent round;
So shows my soul before the Lamb,
My spirit before Thee;
So in mine earthly house I am,
To that I hope to be.
Break up the heavens, O Lord! and far,
Thro’ all yon starlight keen,
Draw me, thy bride, a glittering star,
In raiment white and clean.

He lifts me to the golden doors;
The flashes come and go;
All heaven bursts her starry floors,
And strows her lights below,
And deepens on and up! the gates
Roll back, and far within
For me the Heavenly Bridegroom waits,
To make me pure of sin.
The sabbaths of Eternity,
One sabbath deep and wide–
A light upon the shining sea–
The bridegroom with his bride!

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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