Reading Literature Theologically
If you’ve been following Transpositions over the last week you would have seen the discussion that followed Jim McCullough’s review of Nancy Pearcey’s Saving Leonardo. Though that discussion was about appreciating the visual arts, I’d like to pick up on a thread of this discussion and draw upon a series of posts I began late last year about reading literature theologically: Literature and Religion (and Theology), Are Labels useful? or, why I’m not sure about Christian Literature, and Why I don’t just read “Christian” books. The discussion that followed the second of those posts was particularly lively.
In particular, I want to think about literature and the worldview of the author. I think we can cast assertions about the theological, cultural, and social beliefs of an author, but these must be carefully and tentatively stated; nuance must be the order of the day. The attempt to take a collection of assertions (often drawn from the biographical and literary works of an author) to form some sort of coherent belief structure is what is often referred to as worldview. It is a term subject to cliche and it must be conceded that many scholars visibly reel at its use.
It concerns me that the “constructed” worldviews of authors, especially dead authors, are often used like weapons of light against the darkness of the rest of culture and the world, including Christian denominations or traditions other than our own. It strikes me that using particular authors as a kind of battering ram does more harm than good and serves only to tarnish their literary works and leaves the ground fertile for prejudgment about the merit of an author’s work. It’s not just bad reading: it’s unnecessarily combative. It speaks to a theological belief about culture that is about one-upmanship rather than any sense of the redemptive power of literature (which is often the justification given).
I consider it one of my highest critical and theological goals not to construct theological orthodoxy where it does not exist. By constructing orthodoxy I mean the propensity to align a certain author’s theology with one’s own notion of the touchstones of orthodoxy. Most often this involves a subtle reworking, a softening or strengthening of unsatisfactory or unfortunate opinions or beliefs. Sometimes it is more serious and more pervasive, resulting in the rewriting of an author’s biography. At best, it is misleading; at worst, plain lies.
I have to admit that I have a stake in figuring this out. I admit that I’m moving further away from the position that it is feasible to move from a set of textually supportable premises to a coherent statement that could be called the worldview of an author. I’m writing my doctoral thesis on an author whose religious and spiritual interests no one has noticed, and I’m trying to claim that not only was that interest more than just a passing one, but that her growing awareness and interest in spiritual matters and religious imagery informed her poetic imagination and must be considered in critical readings of her novels, including a famous series of children’s adventure and fantasy stories.
I debated about whether to include examples of the worst “rewritings” of particular author’s theological positions or worldviews. I haven’t, because I’d like to hear your examples. I’ve been intentionally vague, even though I have particular authors and situations in mind. I also welcome your suggestions for how we might navigate this rocky, but oh so fundamentally important terrain.