Christianity and Literature
by David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory P. Maillet
InterVarsity, 292 pages, $24
In undertaking a work called Christianity and Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice, David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory P. Maillet wisely compromise with the vast body of material their title suggests—I think of the Vatican Library, if not Borges’ Library of Babel—and limit themselves to “suggesting ways that a Christian worldview can provide a pertinent and fruitful approach to literary study as an academic discipline.” Jeffrey, a Protestant evangelical with Catholic sympathies, and Maillet, a Catholic with evangelical sympathies, direct the work toward literary students in Christian colleges and universities, but they hope also to reach non-Christian students by showing the “ethical (or counter-ethical) presuppositions” underlying literary texts and the judgments made about them. In some ways, the book succeeds admirably; in others, it suffers from the centrifugal forces inherent in an attempt to do too many things at once.
The Bible’s “grand narrative”—a whole vision of reality from the creation to the end of time—provides the starting point. An appreciation of this narrative must be recovered “by reading the Bible, book by book, beginning with Genesis and persevering to the end. This is also an ideal preparation for Christian study of literature.” The heart of the book is a straightforward, often very appealing, five-chapter description (mercifully unburdened by too much theorizing) of major works in the Anglo-American tradition influenced by the Bible.
The chapter on Renaissance literature, for example, deals not only with explicitly Christian works (the Faerie Queene, the sacred lyrics of Donne and Herbert) but also with sacred themes in such secular literature as the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare. The necessity of brevity makes some readings too simple—for example, the claim that Othello is “a Christian Everyman, forced to choose between the love and sacramental grace embodied in his marriage to Desdemona and the demonic deception woven by Iago”—but they effectively show that biblical themes infused Renaissance culture, despite the great political and theological rifts in Christendom.
Succeeding chapters trace out the loss of the Bible’s cultural centrality, from the increasingly politicized poetry of the eighteenth century to the overt challenges to biblical authority and its consequences over the past two centuries. This section of the book has many of the virtues I associate with Edmund Wilson, who had the uncanny ability (for example, in Patriotic Gore) to make his readers eager to read what he writes about. The authors make readers eager to take on works like the wonderful medieval Pearl, and they succeed in showing how such now less-known works as Dryden’s “Religio Laici” and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner are not only compelling but indispensable. They might even convince a few students of the Canterbury Tales to sit still for what the Parson has to say.
Concentrating on English and North American literature, the book provides no encounter with Dante, no mention of Cervantes or Dostoevsky, and this affects its view of Christianity and literature. Where, for example, is the figure of Beatrice, whose complex appeal to Dante draws him toward God in the very ardor of his love for her? Where is Don Quixote with his splendid and hilarious imposition of an ideal world of chivalry onto homely La Mancha? Where is Raskolnikov, who finds his way to conversion by way of a brutal, ideologically motivated murder? Where is the challenge of Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor, or the scandal of Fr. Zosima’s rapid decomposition, or the joy of Alyosha?
Even within the Anglo-American tradition, some choices are puzzling. James Hogg, much as he might need to be recovered, receives a great deal more attention than Herman Melville, who is dismissed with a sentence or two for not being Christian in his emphasis. Surely a book whose aim is to help Christian students approach literature could spend a few paragraphs reflecting on the implications (for which students of the Bible are most prepared, I might add) of beginning a novel with the words “Call me Ishmael.” What does St. Paul have to say in Galatians about the children of Hagar and Sarah? What does it mean for Melville’s narrator to locate himself outside the “Isaac” line of the American covenant tradition? It is hard to imagine readers of Moby Dick more qualified to capture the resonances implicit in the name Ahab or the implications of Ishmael’s “worship” of Queequeg’s little idol Yojo than Christian students immersed in the Bible. Yes, Melville has a quarrel with God, but so did Job, and those most familiar with Scripture will be the ones to catch (without footnotes) the many references to that great book of the Bible. Who is more capable of wrestling with Melville’s great narrative—New Historicists or students of the Bible?
As part of their sometimes puzzling emphases, Jeffrey and Maillet elevate fantasy literature to a height that I find troubling. The greatest literature of the Christian tradition has followed the Bible in its type of realism. Dante’s exposition of the fourfold method of biblical exegesis in his letter to Can Grande included the claim that poetry—at least his poetry—could be read in the same way, and Flannery O’Connor reiterated the claim in our own time. Their claims were based on the historical “givenness” of what they depicted—for example, the real men and women of the Commedia or O’Connor’s true-to-Georgia characters. Dante explored the kinds of meaning to be found in the literal or historical level.
Fantasy, by contrast, generates its meanings from an invented world, albeit one with implications for the literal one we inhabit. I find that Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee necessarily lack the ontological gravitas of Dante’s Cacciaguida or O’Connor’s Misfit. Tolkien’s many admirers obviously disagree, but there are implications here about faith and the enchantment of fantasy that Christians need to take up seriously.
The authors frame their overview of the Anglo-American tradition with a critique of Matthew Arnold, who founded English literary criticism as a discipline when he was named professor of poetry at Oxford in 1857. “In his revolutionary wish for the study of literature to provide an alternate clerisy and to preserve reading of the Bible not for religious but for cultural purposes,” they write, “he exhibited an unstable tension that has bedeviled literary formation in our guild ever since.” In other words, Arnold fatally determined the course of English literary criticism at its outset by rejecting the authority of the Bible.
This impatience with Arnold is understandable, but Jeffrey and Maillet do not, to my mind, address explicitly and fully enough, even in their theoretical chapters, exactly what it means to make religious belief the crucial part of a literary hermeneutic. The question is whether literary criticism is or is not a discipline somewhat like the practice of optometry—a correction of sight whose nature is the same whether it is practiced by a believer or an atheist. There is something to be said for simply learning to read well, and the New Critics (whom the authors consider mere followers of Arnold) taught us a great deal.
To some extent, belief adds another dimension to a capacity that must be learned as its own discipline. Christianity begins with radically new visions of old texts: the risen Christ expounding Scripture on the road to Emmaus, for example, in Luke 24, or Paul’s metaphorical stripping away of the veil over the face of Moses, thus of the hidden meaning of the old covenant, in 2 Corinthians 3. Belief here is crucial. But how exactly might Christian belief—other than knowledge of biblical references—truly illuminate one’s reading of Joyce’s Dubliners or Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses? It seems inappropriate to speak about movements of the spirit in terms of literary criticism.
The great contribution of this new book is to insist on the centrality of the Bible in the discussion of literature. It is less satisfying in encouraging students to read broadly and generously. Jacques Maritain observes in Art and Scholasticism that “wherever art, Egyptian, Greek, or Chinese, has attained a certain degree of grandeur and purity, it is already Christian—Christian in hope, because every spiritual splendor is a promise and a symbol of the divine harmonies of the gospel.” Students need not simply an emphasis on Christian literature, which the book succeeds admirably in providing, but the openness to discover what Maritain calls the “ontological splendor” of the imagination wherever it might be found.
Glenn C. Arbery, d’Alzon Professor of Liberal Education at Assumption College, is author of Why Literature Matters.