The Word Made Fresh

“The word ‘history’ is missing an ‘s.’ It’s not ‘history,’ it’s ‘His story,’ and the story is right here in the Bible.” That is more or less what I remember hearing from a subway preacher stationed at 34th Street as I trudged to Regis High School from Long Island each morning. Visions of Latin declensions and history quizzes danced in my head, and I was not willing to hear more about anyone’s story, not even God’s. Maybe I should have paid more attention.

Christianity is about many things: the encounter with the love of God shown forth fully in the life, death, and Resurrection of the Son; how the church, gathered in the Spirit, responds to that love; the power of God’s grace in a creation wounded by sin. But all these things have a relationship to a story recounted in Scripture. The story is found in the law and the prophets, in the Old Covenant and the New, in the Gospels and the Epistles. Indeed, Christians have long understood the Bible—from the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation—as one grand story explaining the pattern of God’s salvation.

Even if the Bible holds pride of place as a story among Christians, it is not the only story they encounter. All Christians who are lovers of sacred as well as secular literature ask themselves about the relationship between “His story” and the stories of Homer and Sophocles, Shakespeare and Milton, Melville and Hawthorne. There are at least two ways Christians can understand the relationship between the Bible and secular literature. First, Christians can look at the influence the Bible has had on literature written after it. Of course, this influence is not confined to Christian authors. Both Marilynne Robinson and Cormac MacCarthy have the cadences of the King James Bible in their prose. In this way, knowledge of Scripture enhances one’s appreciation of secular literature. Second, Christians can bring their knowledge of secular literature to bear on their reading of the Bible. Christian biblical criticism has long mined philology, classical history, and archeology to deepen our understanding of the biblical text. But biblical criticism can also learn from literature: reading the poetry of Dante or Louise Gluck can open up the Bible to us in ways that attention to history cannot.

The field of religion and literature is one of the most important developments in literary studies and in theology. Scholars working in this field—notables include Harold Bloom, Terry Eagleton, Regina Schwartz, Robert Alter, Kevin Hart, Cyril O’Regan, Nicholas Boyle, and Denis Donoghue—attempt to understand authors in light of the religious convictions of the authors themselves or the societies around them. Theological discussion helps ground the historical context, and it opens the texts to an exploration of perennial human questions. Our understanding of literature also adds to our understanding of theology. Narratives bring out the existential dimension of theological doctrines, and understanding literary genre helps us appreciate the genres within the Bible.

David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory Maillet’s Christianity and Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice is a noteworthy addition to the field because it helps readers interpret the stories they read in light of God’s story. The book is part of the Christian Worldview Integration Series edited by Francis J. Beckwith and J. P. Moreland and published by InterVarsity Press. This series aims to help its audience “live a unified life...in which the various aspects of our personality are consistent with each other and conducive to a life of human flourishing as a disciple of Jesus.” The authors speak specifically to Christian undergraduates who study literature and seek to integrate their story with God’s story. Although InterVarsity is traditionally an Evangelical press, Christianity and Literature is an ecumenical venture. Both Beckwith and Maillet are Catholic, and the authors discuss John Paul II’s Fides et ratio, orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, and the work of C. S. Lewis.

The book is divided into three major sections: “Christian Foundations,” “Literary Interpretation,” and “Contested Authority.” The first and strongest section discusses the relationship between literature and truth and how Christian literary criticism and theological aesthetics might be brought to bear on literary interpretation. Its presentation of the Bible as a literary text is especially fruitful. In the second and third sections, the authors offer a history of English literature from the medieval period to the present, and along the way, they discuss authors and texts that should be of interest to Christian students. They discuss how literary criticism began as an offshoot of biblical exegesis, and discuss the fate of literary criticism and literary movements once both are stripped of a Christian worldview.

Jeffrey and Maillet are correct when they write, “participation in the imago Dei makes of the study of the humanities something almost sacramental,” but their presentation does not always bear out these words. At times the authors run the risk of making their history sound as if it were a checklist of those authors who can be read fruitfully by Christians and those who cannot. For example, when they discuss modernism and postmodernism, the reasons they give for reading the literatures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries boil down to the fact that it is important for Christians to realize how dark the times are. They offer little constructive evaluation of the authors and texts themselves. Surely even the most “secular” literature participates in the image of God. I hope their next book takes up the challenge of offering a “rule of faith” for the Christian use of secular literature.

Basil of Caesarea, writing in the fourth century, would be a good place to begin. In his “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature,” Basil writes that Christians ought to “examine each of [the teachings of the pagans], to harmonize it with our ultimate purpose.” Basil reminds his audience that Moses learned from the Egyptians and Daniel from the Chaldeans. The lesson here, I think, is that not only does reading the Bible help us become better readers of literature, but reading literature helps us become better readers of the Bible.

History might well be missing an “s,” but the astute Christian, like his or her biblical forbears, must learn from it and its literatures, whether they be sacred or secular. It says so, right there in the Bible.

Published in the 2012-03-23 issue: 
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Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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