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Literature and Religion (and Theology)

September 7, 2010

The dreadful thing about so much theology is that, in relation to the reality of the human situation, it is so superficial. Theological categories (really mere theological formulae) are ‘armed without sufficient depth of understanding insensitively misunderstood. Theologians need therefore to stand under the judgments of the insights of literature before they can speak with true theological force of, and to, the world this literature reflects and illuminates. – David Jenkins** (my emphasis).

The (inter)disciplines of literature and religion and literature and theology operate in the margins of the single disciplines. Like a third culture child they sometimes struggle to feel at home in the primary disciplines as much as the interdisciplinary field struggles to achieve legitimacy and acceptance even though it is a construct of some 40 years of scholarship.

Some Theologians claim that Literature and Theology is watered down theology, and within the discrete academy of Literature Scholars, Literature and Religion and Literature and Theology occupy niches such that they are almost archaic, and are therefore often readily dismissed as passé. The problem in the latter situation lies in the examples of badly done Theology in the discussion of literature which is at its simplest are badly done literary criticism. Admittedly the increasing biblical illiteracy among literature scholars attests to the desperate need for quality literary scholarship which takes into account the theological implications and context, be it theological or in terms of religious history. It should not be enough, for example, to merely identify the biblical imagery and allusion, or use of religious categories in a text, but rather the critical enterprise demands a subtle discussion of the use and function of that imagery, of theological categories, and the context of such use in light of church history and denominational tradition. This additional demand requires a grasp of biblical theology, and of historical theology of a given historical period including the religious landscapes and movements of any given time.

Is there a distinction between ‘Literature and Theology,’ and ‘Literature and Religion’?

David Jasper (Glasgow) is persuasive in his distinction between the fields of Literature and Religion and that of Literature and Theology. He argues that Literature and Theology is not just about religion as a phenomenon within culture, or as a subject examinable by sociological, anthropological, even psychological, methodology.

I would argues that the Study of Literature and Religion should be apologetic as well as hermeneutic, theological primarily and anthropological secondarily, narrowly doctrinal as well as broadly humanistic.*

Yet, despite this, the state of the field is such that Literature and Religion is exactly appositional to these statements, and this kind of apologetic approach may yet be limited to the field of Literature and Theology as scholars acknowledging identification as a believer in the existence of God and an active life of worship within the Christian church are I suspect still very much distrusted for their natural subjectivity. Yet, a personal interest in theological matters and religious practice surely often incites detailed personal study in those materials and historical study that often enable efficient identification of biblical imagery and allusion, and subtle treatments of religious movements throughout history and with bright eyes and ears attune facilitates insights open to the mind sharpened to them.

Jasper warns in another place of the danger of seeing more than what is present and being oversensitive to these matters by employing Coleridge’s (Aids to Reflection, 1825) statement:

He who begins by loving Christianity better than TRUTH, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.

We must also be sensitive to the reality that the mystery of gospel defies simple categorisation and the systematisation familiar to systematic theology and literary formalism alike. So is it a matter of the right ordering of loves? Is literature usurping the role rightfully belonging to theology? Is it a matter of semantics? Jasper plainly states that Literature must be subservient to Theology. But how are we to reconcile this?

Jasper contends that there is a danger of succumbing to arrogance on the part of the literature scholar when considering “what is confessedly and ultimately a theological and religious concern” especially where the literature and the creation of it becomes the religion and the altar as in the religion of literature and poetry – like Yeats in which “true faith” seems to be a contrivance of the artist and poets (5).

I grate slightly at this “us and them” battle; the subservience of disciplines is a more troubling proposition to me than it possibly ought to be. How about putting this in a slightly different way – What if i said instead that Literature and its study must be considered secondary to exploring God and how we relate to him and understand him. It may be that I have a naive understanding of what constitutes theology but I am also not convinced that the study of Literature and theology is watered down theology, especially when it is done well.

Image from the Ingebourg Psalter

___________________

* The latter is a paraphrase but completely opposite in meaning to Giles Gunn The Interpretation of Otherness, Literature, Religion, and the American Imagination. NY: 1979, p 5)

**(“Literature and the Theologian” in Coulson, John.  Theology and the University (Baltimore and London), 1964. p 219).

Jasper, David. The Study of Literature and Religion. Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2010 10:34 am

    “Literature and its study must be considered secondary to exploring God and how we relate to him and understand him.” If one lives and experiences his or her life in a properly “religious” way, one tends to say that for any intellectual or artistic (or any other?) activity (s)he is engaged in and loves. Philosophy, science, dance… the list is endless. I think though, that the word “secondary” may be a bit misleading, or somewhat too weak; in an important sense, all these things could be experienced also as tools or ways of our “exploring of God and how we relate to him and understand him”.

  2. September 8, 2010 8:00 pm

    As a beginning scholar with an interest in the theological side of certain literature (or whatever you want to call it), I have found that there is a certain convenience in labeling myself as a literary critic, a professor of English, who happens to be interested in the religions and/or theological aspects of authors and texts. It makes institutional categorization easier, and keeps the administrators off my back. Even if the label is an oversimplification, it has its uses and should probably not be jettisoned.

    After all, what I am really doing as a scholar (call my field what you will) is reading texts carefully and explaining the difficult parts to other people. In order to do that, I need to understand the context of the text—historical facts, authorial beliefs, cultural reflexes, and the like. If the text touches on matters of theology, then theology becomes a part of that context, which I am responsible to know if I am to teach and write well. Needless to say, this varies greatly from text to text, and from author to author. A reader of John Milton cannot understand Paradise Lost without at least some comprehension of Milton’s theology, and of Arminian theology more generally. On the other hand, a reader of Samuel Beckett need not bother much with theology but had better have a handle on philosophical existentialism. These are simply the conventions of good literary criticism and should not be considered a separate field.

    On the other hand, theology requires a theologian to pay attention to similar concerns, since theology entails the careful reading and explication of texts, a practice that should include forms of analysis familiar to literary critics: attention to figurative language, structural analysis, and contextualization, not to mention textual criticism. In this regard, theologians would do well to learn the conventions of good literary criticism and apply them as needed to their own discipline, in much the same way that a literary critic must sometimes learn the conventions of history or art criticism and apply them to his or her own discipline. I do not know which theologians David Jenkins has in mind, but I am inclined to disagree. Literature may affirm or deny theological positions, and it may even help make a certain theology accessible or attractive (as Dante does with Thomism). But literature does not tend to do actual theology very well. I over-generalize here, but it seems to me that literature is primarily about humans, and theology is primarily about God. The old hierarchy seems warranted.

Trackbacks

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