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Reading Literature Theologically

February 16, 2011

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.

Image: Author

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2011 4:12 pm

    I so appreciate this post. I have often wondered the line between honest assessment of an author’s worldview and its manipulation for other ends. It occurs to me that we are guilty of the same blurring with politicians and statesmen.

    I would love to know the author you are researching for your thesis!

  2. February 16, 2011 5:53 pm

    A very important set of questions, Anna. As you know, I too wrote my dissertation on the theological aspects of an author’s work, and I was pretty explicit in trying to “reconstruct” that author’s theological ideas. In some ways, though, I came at it from the other direction. Some critics and commentators had noticed the theology, but their analyses tended to be dismissive or simplistic. Even the best critics lacked the theological nuance to do justice to the theological aspects of the literature. Throughout the project, I fought hard to avoid forcing my author into a theological box–and I had to be honest when I discovered some of his ideas to be unorthodox.

    I think your purpose for writing criticism has a lot to do with the nature of your struggle. If you are writing criticism to shed light on the literature, or to help readers understand the literature’s context, then you should want to be honest about the author’s persuasions, whatever they might be. But if you are writing to actively promote the author’s books, especially within a certain sub-culture, then you will always be tempted to make the author’s views palatable to that sub-culture. I have doubts about the criticism-as-evangelism school of thought. Either the criticism or the evangelism will tend to be bad.

    I suppose we all know how much C. S. Lewis is appropriated by American Evangelicals, regardless of his Anglican theology. On the other side of the spectrum, Bonhoeffer is sometimes praised by Fundamentalists who seem wholly unaware of Bonhoeffer’s view of Scripture. We all want to believe that the people we admire also endorse our deeply-held beliefs.

  3. February 16, 2011 6:02 pm

    A really helpful post – one of my academic interests is how theological themes and issues are handled in children’s literature. I think there’s always the danger of letting one’s own views distort the reading of a text, either twisting it to fit your views, or using your views as a stick to beat it with, rather than letting it speak for itself.

    Used carefully, the concept of “worldview” can be useful for exploring certain kinds of themes and ideas in a text, but it carries with it the danger of reducing a narrative to a set of philosophical statements. It’s a mistake to assume that an author is necessarily using a story as a comprehensive statement of a worldview. Because narrative requires conflict, all stories are to some extent a debate between different points of view. The ending of a story usually comes down in favour of a particular perspective, but it isn’t necessarily making a universal statement.

    As far as examples go, I wrote an essay last semester on C S Lewis and hierarchy, which raised some interesting issues. Interpretations of his fiction, such as his representations of gender, sometimes seem to be agenda-driven at the expense of doing justice to what he wrote. On the one hand, you’ve got conservatives trying to use C S Lewis’s views on gender hierarchy to support complementarian agendas, neglecting issues such as whether the patterns he depicts in the unfallen or less fallen fictional worlds of Perelandra and Narnia are applicable to our own fallen reality. On the other hand, you have some feminist scholars trying to save Lewis from patriarchialism by arguing that he moved to an egalitarian outlook in his later writing.

    There are legitimate cases to be made for the different readings of Lewis on this, but people on both sides sometimes fall into the trap of treating his fictional writing as a quarry from which his opinions can be straightforwardly excavated. It’s particularly fraught because Lewis is so widely respected among many Christians, and so it’s a way of bringing the weight of his reputation to bear on the argument. It’s rather odd how a fairly high church Anglican who was himself barely evangelical has been adopted as the “patron saint of evangelicals”, especially in America, but largely by ignoring those issues where he takes a non-evangelical view. Carl Trueman wrote an interesting article critiquing the tendency of evangelicals to claim people like Bonhoeffer and C S Lewis as “anonymous evangelicals”.

    Personally speaking, I have a deep appreciation and respect for Lewis, but I disagree with some of his theology, and find some aspects of his fiction problematic. As a literary scholar, however, my task is not that of assessing his orthodoxy, at least not directly, though it can sometimes illumine his writing to consider these issues. In studying Lewis, I hope that I steered a course between unthinking hagiography on the one hand and knee-jerk iconoclasm on the other.

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