Friday, July 16, 2010

Safe Lions and Startling Figures: Representing Sin in Christian Art

Note to blog readers: I gave this talk at the 7/16/10 meeting of the Christian Graduate Student Alliance. The Flannery O'Connor quotes are taken from Mystery and Manners (Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, 1995). We concluded with a discussion of the video I mention at the end, so there's no formal conclusion to this post.


Safe Lions and Startling Figures:

Representing Sin in Christian Art

This past April, a colleague and I drove up to Cleveland to present at a conference, and as part of the festivities we got to attend a reception at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: great food, good music, and a hundred or so uber-nerds crowding the dance floor and rocking out to piped-in Journey songs. Surrounding all this, of course, were dozens of music-themed exhibits, including a rather interesting one on attempts by various legislative and religious groups to censor rock and roll over the years. Their criticisms, I suspect, are familiar to many of us: rockers glamorize immoral behavior, their songs are coarse and often vulgar, and as Audio Adrenaline once put it, “if it’s syncopated rhythm, then your soul is gonna rot.”

Now, I’m not here tonight to argue about rock-n-roll per se, but to point out that this kind of polarizing critique has strongly affected how we conceptualize and classify Christian art, especially in terms of music. If mainstream secular art thrives on nihilistic excess and debauchery—what we would assess theologically as sin and rebellion against God—then its Christian counterpart, many contend, ought to be positive, uplifting, and most of all keep sin safely in the abstract. Consider, for example, a few slogans for explicitly Christian radio stations. WBGL in Champaign, IL declares itself “family-friendly radio” and offers “a positive source of encouragement to family development”; Z88.3 in Altamonte Springs, FL boasts that its selections are “safe for the little ears,” and our own 104.9 The River vows to be “positive, uplifting, [and] encouraging”—even offering “The River Promise” to “keep 104.9 the River a safe place for families.”

Don’t get me wrong here: having at least one station free of the four-letter screamfests populating most of the Top 40 on any given day is a good thing, as is giving parents ways to safeguard their young children from negative influences. But this squeaky-clean version of Christianity glosses over a very important truth: this world, being itself fallen and populated by a bunch of perpetually mark-missing people, is often anything but positive, uplifting, encouraging, and family-friendly. And if Christians are to use art to represent the fullness of creation, the necessity for redemption, and the opportunity for salvation, whitewashing the reality of fallenness both cheapens the art and lends credibility to those who denounce Christianity as fantasy. Human sinfulness—ugly, broken, painful, and yes, sometimes even offensive—is a central part of the entire Scriptural narrative of redemption, and must necessarily be equally central to the work of any Christian artist who hopes to move from warm fuzzies to the actual Gospel.

This often places such artists between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, they seek to represent the physical and spiritual reality of human sinfulness, but on the other hand their audiences have come to expect a positive and uplifting message—and these same audiences make a habit of decrying anything with a hint of immorality as not real Christian art. That’s the problem that I want to focus on tonight. One way to approach it would be to talk about specific content, and the appropriateness or effectiveness of more or less graphic ways of representing sinful acts. For instance, we could look at Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ and ask whether the graphic violence was justified; or, we could read Walker Percy’s fiction and ask similar questions about his representations of adultery. However, I want to put a slightly different spin on the question: how can Christian artists—and more broadly, Christians who use any form of culture to make an argument—represent the fact of sinfulness, and use that fact to point towards the chance of and need for redemption?

Before we move on to study an example together, let me point out a few things about aesthetic and moral choices based on my own studies in literature. Every writer—and the same principle applies for filmmakers, photographers, painters, actors, directors, and so on—has to make a set of ethical choices about how to represent reality: whether or not the piece in question is “realistic,” he or she still makes certain truth claims about how that reality works. Naturally, these choices are bound and in some cases dictated by the genre in question, especially when it comes to representing sin and sinfulness. Literature, for instance, typically lacks an explicitly pictorial aspect, so it’s possible to include a story element without necessarily showing it directly. At the same time, a good writer must create and somehow represent all the relevant aspects of a given story world, family-friendly or otherwise. To do so requires two sets of decisions: first, what material to include—or, we might say, what elements of sinfulness to highlight—and second, how to contextualize that material in terms of concepts like sin, repentance, redemption, and so on. In other words, both the representation of sin and the author’s attempts to assign some sort of meaning to it—even if that meaning is simply hedonism or some other denial of sin’s importance or efficacy—is part of worldview creation and communication. After all, as Thomas Sowell reminds us, facts (even unpleasant ones) “speak for or against competing theories. Facts divorced from theories or visions are mere isolated curiosities.”

So, how can Christian authors wrestle these “isolated curiosities” into a coherent worldview, whether or not the text is explicitly evangelistic? Well, the basic model of rewarding the good guys and punishing the sinners dominated English and American literature for several centuries: for example, Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, which was a runaway bestseller in England and was the first novel published in the American colonies, is subtitled “Virtue Rewarded.” As you might expect, that’s pretty much how the plot goes: the poor but virtuous Pamela is under constant threat of seduction by her nefarious master, Mr. B, but after fending off his advances for years—and telling all about it in the letters which comprise the actual text of the novel—she eventually impresses him so much that he proposes an honorable and equitable marriage. Much of what became known as “conduct literature” followed this pattern closely, even up to a lot of present-day Christian fiction. And quite frankly, while this approach was somewhat effective when the majority of one’s reading audience held similar worldviews to the authors, now it’s more of a recipe for ridicule. Even Christian thinkers and writers who otherwise value reason and theological rigor sometimes fall into this trap: I still remember having to read an awful novel by Christian apologist Josh McDowell entitled The Love Killer, from which I learned that the slippery slope between unsupervised kissing and drug-addicted teen pregnancy was approximately half a paragraph long.

That said, I do think there are some effective ways to demonstrate the reality of sin and depravity, without automatically reducing complex human experience to a morality play. The process, however, can be difficult. For one thing, conceptions of shared values have changed drastically in the past century, and particularly since the 1960s: in the logic of the liberal utopia, insisting on any single transcendent morality is itself the unforgivable sin. The watchword now is diversity, which in theory encourages actual cultural engagement in both the public and private squares, but in practice entails ridiculing or simply ignoring exclusionary truth claims. One result of this weakening of moral standards, as many cultural critics have observed, is a desensitization to many actions and ideas that would have shocked previous generations, especially in public forums like television or popular literature. A sitcom like Roseanne, for instance, pales in its envelope-pushing to Family Guy, but both built their reputations breaking cultural taboos. Perhaps more importantly for our purposes tonight, while Roseanne often approached these taboos, such as teen pregnancy and homosexuality, with at least an awareness of their controversial nature, a common Family Guy technique is to normalize similar—and often more extreme—issues by letting them pass without comment or even the opportunity for critique.

This brings us, by an admittedly unusual path, to Flannery O’Connor: a devout Roman Catholic writer of the mid-20th century, whose fiction features crooked Bible salesmen, an atheist who founds “The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ,” and a proper Southern lady who insists that she is not a “warthog from Hell.” Unfortunately, we won’t have time to dip into any of these stories tonight, but I do want to spend a little time on one of O’Connor’s essays, entitled “The Fiction Writer & His Country” (1957). In this essay, O’Connor is responding to an editorial published in Life magazine complaining that the pessimistic writing of the time lacked “the joy of life itself” and overlooked “the redeeming quality of spiritual purpose.” Indeed, a lot of Christian artists today would agree with the editorial, and a common defense of slapping the “Christian” label on various art forms is that doing so is ostensibly the “positive alternative” to modern nihilism. However, O’Connor took the opposite stand—that “writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable” (33).

Personally, I think O’Connor’s views are worth serious consideration as we work out how to assess (and create) culture in a fallen world. Elsewhere in the essay, O’Connor argues that since “in the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense,” then a “belief in Christian dogma...frees the storyteller to observe” (31). Or alternatively, as the Newsboys put it in their song “God is Not a Secret,” “I’ve heard that positive pop you dig/ I’d rather be buried in wet concrete.” O’Connor, I suspect, would argue that glamorizing sin and ignoring sin have the same root cause: they both distort the reality of human nature, one by way of immorality and the other by way of amorality. She put it this way:

Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause. The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience...when you have to assume that [your audience holds different beliefs], then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures (33-34).

With this framework in mind, I want to conclude our time tonight by looking at a text way outside my field of academic expertise, but one that highlights some of the major issues I’ve mentioned: the music video for a song called “Monster,” by the Christian hard rock band Skillet. This particular song has enjoyed lots of “crossover” success, climbing to #4 on Billboard’s “Active Rock” and “Mainstream Rock” charts, and has been featured prominently in various pro wrestling events and media products. So it’s not surprising that many conservative Christians have complained loudly about it, saying that it’s not even remotely a “Christian song.” Let’s watch the video, and then we’ll spend some time discussing the song’s imagery and lyrics in light of O’Connor’s ideas about making sin noticeable.

[At this point I played the video and passed out lyric sheets.]

Now that you’ve had a chance to read the lyrics and watch the video, would you classify this as a Christian approach to the problem of evil? Does Skillet’s description and presentation seem accurate to you? Is it effective?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Living Utterances: Bakhtin and Christianity

The Living Utterance: Bakhtin and Christianity

(delivered at CGSA, 10/23/09)

Good evening, and thanks for having me back to speak. I’ve been working through some of these ideas for about five years now, and I’ve found that it’s always helpful to try them out on new audiences, especially audiences who haven’t heard my worst jokes yet. I must admit, though, that you all have me at a bit of a disadvantage: at all my previous CGSA talks, we’d have to finish the meeting and actually go out somewhere for dinner, whereas tonight, I understand, there may well be actual food in the room before I finish speaking. I find myself, then, metaphorically standing between grad students and a free meal, a position only slightly less perilous than standing between a mother bear and her cubs, so will do my best to limit my remarks to a reasonable length.

In his email announcing tonight’s meeting, Bob asked whether the world of literary theory was any place for a Christian. It’s a fair question, especially in today’s academy: though many foundational critics of the early 20th century professed Christian faith, as did the majority of their philosophical and literary mentors, most currently popular theories at least implicitly reject Biblical views of language, creativity, human sinfulness, redemption, and even the possibility of faith. For many critics, and often for scholars who use their ideas, Christianity is often not so much tried and rejected as it is left out of the entire conversation. Academic freedom, it seems, only goes so far.

I bring this up not solely as an excuse to get good and mad at the Vast Left-Wing Ivory Tower Conspiracy that’s constantly keeping me down (Cue Dennis from Monty Python: “Help, help, I’m being repressed!”), but to remind us that not all academic expressions of faith can necessarily be expressed openly. This was certainly the case with Mikhail Bakhtin, the subject for tonight’s talk. Bakhtin lived in Russia from 1895-1975, meaning he spent the bulk of his life under Soviet rule. As those of you who’ve studied Russian history know, this was an important period of transition for Christianity in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church, which was still a significant cultural and ideological force during Bakhtin’s early life, gradually lost power during the opening decades of the twentieth century—opposing the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917 didn’t help matters—and was one of the key targets of Stalin’s purges during the 20s and 30s. And though Stalin did officially reopen a Soviet-friendly version of the church in 1941, by the time of Bakhtin’s death in 1975 there were fewer than 5,000 active churches in the entire region.

As a member of the intelligentsia at this time, with his first academic publication appearing shortly after the Bolsheviks took power, Bakhtin was a relatively high-profile writer, and knew well that stating any explicitly Christian opinions publicly would not exactly be a smart career move. Accordingly, the kind of biographical evidence that we’d normally expect for someone we wish to claim as a Christian scholar—Galileo’s work on the theology of science, for instance—is sketchy at best, a fact that has led most Western Bakhtin scholars to deny or downplay his religious convictions. However, thanks primarily to the outstanding research in Ruth Coates’ 1998 book Christianity in Bakhtin, I believe we can build a convincing case that Bakhtin was at least sympathetic to Christian faith, even if the specifics of his beliefs are hard to pin down. From there, I’ll discuss some theological implications of Bakhtin’s rather multifarious theories, and conclude by showing how I’m using those theories in some of my own research.

Because Bakhtin was careful, and rightly so, about revealing beliefs and opinions contrary to those of the Communist Party, Coates notes that he “rarely and with great reluctance talked about himself” and that “almost nothing is known of his life, still less of his inner life,” and even interviews conducted late in his life, decades after Stalin’s purges, “yield next to nothing about Bakhtin’s personal convictions” (2). However, she maintains, and this is consistent with other biographical sources, “there is a general consensus among those who knew him that Bakhtin was a religious man” (2). Although some biographers have tried to associate Bakhtin with certain religious or philosophical groups by virtue of personal connections with their leaders during the 20s, many of the specifics of his beliefs remain elusive. We do know that he was interested in theology from early in his career, participating in a debate in 1918 entitled “God and Socialism.” The only extant account we have of that debate, a review written by a socialist apologist, notes that Bakhtin “defended religion, that muzzle of darkness,” and while “at certain points of his discourse [Bakhtin] showed recognition and appreciation of socialism, [he] could only wail and was disturbed that this same socialism showed no concern at all for the dead…and that, as he put it, with time the people would not forgive it for this” (qtd. in Coates 5). Now, it would be foolhardy to try and extrapolate a fully-formed doctrine of eschatology or the Resurrection based just on this review, but it does suggest that Bakhtin was not entirely comfortable with the Party line about religion, and at least in this case considered Christianity to have definite advantages over socialism.

This focus on religion carried over to Bakhtin’s early academic essays, though most of these writings were only made available in translation in the past 25 years or so. In a series of lectures among a group of scholars who would come to be known as the Bakhtin Circle, for instance, Bakhtin analyzed the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18 (in which Jesus contrasts their attitudes in prayer), arguing that the tax collector (I’m quoting Coates’s summary here) “finds justification not in himself, like the Pharisee, but in an ‘incarnated Third Person’” and that “well-founded peace…is reached when one abandons self-assurance and passes through a period of restlessness and penitence to arrive at a condition of trust in God” (6). In making this argument, Bakhtin was most likely drawing on the extensive Russian Orthodox studies of kenosis, a Greek term meaning “emptiness” or “emptying,” as in Paul’s teaching in Philippians 2:7 that Christ “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing [lit. “emptied himself”], taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man.” Along similar lines, another of Bakhtin’s papers from this period argues that “[a] personal relationship with a personal God…is the sign of religion, but it is also the special difficulty of religion, thanks to which a peculiar fear of religion and Revelation may arise, a fear of its personal orientation” (qtd. in Coates 6).

Unfortunately, not long after Bakhtin participated in these discussions, he was accused of collaborating with the underground Russian Orthodox Church in 1929—the truth of that accusation is still unknown—and was sentenced to five years in a prison camp, a sentence that was “commuted after a great effort on the part of his friends to a period of internal exile” in Kazakhstan (Coates 7). Though two separate transcripts of Bakhtin’s interrogations classify him as “religious,” presumably based on his own testimony, after this point Bakhtin fell silent for some thirty years, continuing to write but not publish, until he was rediscovered in the early 1960s by—who else—a handful of graduate students who had found his early work. He did manage to publish one book, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, before his exile, but for the most part he had to content himself with what the Russians call “writing into his desk.” Grad students, I suspect, can relate.

Now, as you might imagine, with no bureaucracy, advisors, or papers to grade, Bakhtin’s scholarly output during these years was quite prolific: just what’s been collected and translated so far fills six books and six articles, and the resulting volume of secondary literature is quite frankly staggering. Likewise, though various scholars have done good work setting up a taxonomy and a working glossary for Bakhtin’s theories, he was not exactly known for strict and conscientious organization within his essays, let alone within an entire work. So as I turn now to look more closely at the potential theological implications of one of his key concepts, that of dialogue, I do so fully aware that no brief summary—and probably not even a lifetime of dissertations—can do justice to the entire body of his work. With that said, however, I do think that Bakhtin understood his various concepts, particularly those related to language and worldview, as constituting a coherent worldview, one which I will argue is rooted in Christian thought.

Both as a literary critic (primarily but not exclusively of Dostoevsky) and a theorist of language, the idea and implications of dialogue fascinated Bakhtin, and his arguments about it occupy much of his work. In fact, one of the central terms in scholarly conversations about Bakhtin is “dialogism,” which according to Morson and Emerson he conceives of as “a live process” that “transcends received models, none of which allow for unfinalizability” (50)—that is, none of which can fully account for the continual self-revisions that Bakhtin sees as necessary for human interaction. An individual utterance, in contrast to the system of dialogue in which most of Bakhtin’s formalist and structuralist contemporaries were interested, not only expresses an individual’s personality—which for Bakhtin, was always a fallen personality—but by requiring an audience it opens up the possibility of both community and transcendence. Or, to cite Holquist and Emerson’s definition, under dialogism “everything means, is understood, as a part of a greater whole—there is a constant interaction between meanings, all of which have the potential of conditioning others. Which will affect the other, how it will do so and in what degree is what is actually settled at the moment of utterance. […] A word, discourse, language or culture undergoes ‘dialogization’ when it becomes relativized, de-privileged, aware of competing definitions for the same things. Undialogized language is authoritative or absolute” (426).

There’s lots we could do with this passage in terms of Bakhtin’s interaction with Christian theology—or, as he puts it in a description of Dostoevsky, his “feeling for faith, that is, an integral attitude (by means of the whole person) toward a higher and ultimate value” (qtd. in Contino & Felch 1). Here, I want to highlight the fact that for Bakhtin all utterances are somehow responsive, whether one’s immediate interlocutor is physically present or not, Bakhtin identifies conversation as necessitating ethics and ultimately charity, a theme he develops in his book on Dostoevsky as well as in his long essay “Discourse in the Novel” (1934). One critic puts it this way: “the incomplete Bakhtinian ‘I’ is…to be understood within the Judeo-Christian tradition as that which is in need of the other, of communion, for completion; that is, as a refutation of egoism” (Coates 16, summarizing Barbara Thaden).

Let’s go back to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18, which as you’ll recall Bakhtin wrote about early in his career. We’ll start in verse 9:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Now, we don’t know for sure whether the tax collector heard the Pharisee, or even whether the Pharisee consciously addressed the tax collector, but we can argue that there’s some sort of interaction between their respective prayers, even if it’s only for the audience of Jesus’ parable. The Pharisee, presumably like those in the audience “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” uses what Bakhtin would call a “word with a sideways glance” to identify, define, and, well, quite frankly diss the tax collector. In the Pharisee’s logic, the other man was simply an object to use for comparison, not a human being made in imago Dei and certainly not a fellow sinner in need of grace. This self-centered focus is clear even in the English translation: I am not like other men, I fast twice a week, and I give tithes of all that I get. What Bakhtin saw in this parable, I think, was the truth that the juxtaposition between self-exaltation and humility that Jesus highlights at the end of the parable is not exclusively a function of one’s attitude towards God, but also involves even indirect interactions with other fallen humans.

So, does the bare fact that Bakhtin imagines linguistic community in a manner consistent with Scripture necessarily earn him the title of “Christian scholar” in the traditional sense? Well, I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to claim absolute orthodoxy for him, but based on what I’ve read I do agree with Ruth Coates’ claim that we can identify a “’coherent theistic framework to Bakhtin’s aesthetic theory,’ based upon the biblical doctrines of God, persons, creation, fall, and incarnation” (qtd in Contino & Felch 5). And because Bakhtin was, by training and by profession, first and foremost a scholar of literature, I’d like to finish tonight’s talk by showing one way Bakhtin’s ideas helps me understand the relationship between the Bible and American literature, which broadly speaking will be the topic of my upcoming dissertation.

Earlier, I focused on the implications of Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism in terms of interpersonal ethics, what Alan Jacobs has recently labeled the “hermeneutics of love.” Now I want to turn to another key facet of that theory: the relationship between a source of authority, particularly an authoritative text, and an individual consciousness or utterance. Bakhtin primarily expresses this relationship in terms of what he calls “double-voiced discourse,” which he distinguishes both from “direct, unmediated discourse directed exclusively toward its referential object, as an expression of the speaker’s ultimate semantic authority” and from “discourse of a represented person.” (It’s worth noting here that slovo, the term translated as “discourse,” has a broader sense than the English term word, and is toughly analogous in scope to the Greek Logos.) Like the Pharisee’s prayer, double-voiced discourse has “an orientation toward someone else’s discourse” (199), and represents the re-voicing of an external text by an unfinalizeable human. For instance, when a Christian recites the Lord’s Prayer as part of corporate worship, he or she in a sense translates the original Greek NT text through multiple registers, first into the language he or she learned it in, through whatever filters of corporate or institutional associations, and finally by owning the text through a personal utterance. All of these registers, Bakhtin argues, require some sort of negotiation, and often involve some sort of change.

This is certainly true for my final example tonight: Melville’s transformation of the character of Ishmael from Genesis to Moby-Dick. Particularly in the Massachusetts of 1850, where Melville composed the bulk of his masterpiece, Genesis constituted an authoritative text, one which both Melville and the bulk of his audience would have known inside and out. So let’s start by looking at the Biblical account of Ishmael, which starts in Genesis 16. There, once Ishmael’s mother Hagar has fled to the desert, we’re told in verses 11-12 that “the angel of the LORD said to her,

"Behold, you are pregnant
and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
because the LORD has listened to your affliction.
12He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
his hand against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen."

And, sure enough, Ishmael is born, named, and by all accounts lives up to the angel’s description. That’s not precisely the end of the story, as Abraham goes on to try (unsuccessfully) to lobby God to make Ishmael count as the promised child, but I want to call your attention here to the dynamics of agency. In this account, Ishmael is always the object, being acted upon by others: the angel names him, Hagar bears him, Abraham circumcises him, and God effectively writes him out of the main covenant. Now, I don’t think we can realistically argue that Ishmael does not matter in this text, either as a character or as a human being, but the narrator makes it very clear that God’s narrative agency—the ability to frame a story, choose what characters appear, and in some way control the plot—mirrors His power over the rest of creation. In Bakhtin’s terms, this narrative approach is monologic, meaning that it uses a single, authoritative voice, as opposed to the dialogic or heteroglossic, multi-voiced novels he finds in Dostoevsky. Bakhtin tends to view all sacred writ as monologic, an argument that has some weaknesses, but for our purposes the characterization will do.

So what happens when we move from a sacred text to a secular novel, and from “You shall call his name Ishmael” to Melville’s well-known opening, “Call me Ishmael”? Well, lots of things, many of which I haven’t really figured out yet—fortunately the dissertation isn’t due for a few more years! But just for a start, consider the implications of that verb, “call.” As this is the opening of the narrative, we don’t have a specifically defined audience, such as another character, but we do know that someone has to respond to Ishmael to grant him his name. In this way, the narrative resembles that of Genesis, since Ishmael still isn’t completely in charge of his own identity, a theme that Melville returns to often in the course of the novel. Furthermore, in the same intro Ishmael tells us that he goes to sea as a “substitute for pistol and ball,” that is, for suicide, which further suggests a loss of identity. Yet at the same time, this is a real, complicated, messy, human narrator taking on this character, and refracting it through his own set of neuroses. By taking on the Ishmael persona from Genesis, I’ll be arguing in my future chapter, Melville’s narrator also takes on the dynamics of internal and external character definition, and does all sorts of wacky and hopefully interesting things with them.

I’ll stop here, so we can move on to the more edible part of the evening, but I hope I’ve given you a sense of how Bakhtin’s theology of language opens up avenues for thinking about human language, and more broadly human interaction, in Biblical terms. There’s certainly still a lot about Bakhtin that I don’t understand—this happens when you work with an occasionally obsessive and wordy super-genius—but I’m looking forward to figuring out more of his work and his worldview as I go on in my studies. Let me leave you with one of the many quotes from his essay “Discourse in the Novel” that makes me want to bang my head against the desk until I understand his ideas better: “Indeed, any concrete discourse (utterance) finds the object at which it was directed already as it were overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in an obscuring mist—or, on the contrary, by the ‘light’ of alien words that have already been spoken about it” (276). But even those alien words, Bakhtin reminds us, bring us back to “living utterances” that “cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads”—and whether we like it or not, with equally vital Pharisees and tax collectors, all desperately in need of the Word become flesh. Thanks for your attention.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Graduate Study of Christianity & Literature

This is a repost of an email originally by Steve Petersheim (a grad student at Baylor), which is in turn a compilation of various book recommendations by members of the Christianity & Literature listserv, for titles relevant to advanced study of Christianity & literature.

Seminal Books for the Study of Christianity & Literature
Christianity and Literature Listserv
October 2009

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in the Western World. [Auerbach compares and analyzes Homer’s Odyssey and the Bible as the two texts that have most influenced the western world’s ways of thinking about reality.]

Bakhtin, Mikail. Art and Answerability (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990). [RP: if you prefer the primary texts, probably the early essays]

Bercovitc, Sacvan. American Jeremiad. [HKB]

Berry, Wendell. Sex Economy Freedom and Community [HKB]

Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep. [HKB]

Borgman, Erik, Bart Philipsen and Lea Verstricht, eds. Literary Canons and Religious Identity. Aldershot, Hampshire; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2004. [DM]

Brown, Robert Macafee. Spirituality and Liberation. [HKB]

Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture. [HKB]

Cavill, Paul, et al. History of the Christian Tradition in English Literature and Criticism. [MF]

Coles, Robert. The Call of Stories. [HKB]

Coates, Ruth. Christianity in Bakhtin: God and the Exiled Author (Cambridge UP, 1998) [RP: as Bakhtin, of all the great mid-20thc theorists, was closest to Christianity]

Cunningham, David. Reading is Believing: the Christian Faith through Literature and Film. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos P, 2002. [DM]

Cunningham, Valentine. Reading after Theory. Oxford; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002. [DM]

Edwards, Michael. Towards a Christian Poetics. London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1984. [BH: Edwards, whose ideas of Possibility, how language was affected in the Fall, and a ternary pattern in tragedy following the fall from Paradise and promise of redemption are particularly interesting.]

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane [HKB]

Ferretter, Luke. Towards a Christian Literary Theory. London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003. [BH: Cross-Currents in Religion and Culture; Ferretter examines the implications of deconstruction, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and hermeneutics for Christian literary theory. Of particular interest is his explanation of what a text is in the Christian perspective (yes, I know that that definite article is troublesome). Ferretter also discusses Edwards' book.]

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed." [JS: Chapter 2 (his definition of the "banking concept") is usually anthologized in teaching anthologies. Liberation Theology is the anchor of the book.]

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism [HKB]

Frye, Northrop. The Critical Path [HKB]

Hamlin, Hannibal. Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature. (Cambridge University, 2004) [PT: perhaps too recent to be seminal...]

Hass, Andrew, David Jasper, and Elisabeth Jay. The Oxford Handbook of English Literature and Theology. Oxford: University Press, 2009. [BH: has some excellent essays]

Holland, Scott. "How Do Stories Save Us?" [TB: little article, quite helpful tome as a theology grad student]

Jacobs, Alan. A Theology of Reading. [OC]

Jasper, David. The Study of Literature and Religion (2nd ed., Macmillan, 1992) [RP: introductory viewpoint]

Jeffrey, David L. People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture. Eerdman, 1996. [JB: This book clarified to me the history of Christian reading and how this relates to contemporary theory, particularly Bloom and Derrida.]

Lewalski, Barbara. Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton UP, 1979) [PT]

Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory [HKB]

Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain [HKB]

Lewis. R. W. B. American Adam. [HKB]

Marsden, George. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. [HKB]

McFague, Sally. Speaking in Parables. [TB: quite helpful to me as a theology grad student]

Middleton, Darren J. N. Theology after Reading: Christian Imagination and the Power of Fiction. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008. [DM]

Noll, Mark. Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. [HKB]

O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners [TB: offer for consideration]

Ryken, Leland. The Christian Imagination. [MF: Theory and criticism: Collected essays having to do with imagination and literature]

Schad, John. Queer Fish: Christian Unreason from Darwin to Derrida (Brighton:
Sussex Academic Press, 2004) [RP: from a Christian academic deeply touched by Derrida]

Shanks, Andrew. ‘What Is Truth?:’ Towards a Theological Poetics. London; NY: Routledge, 2001. [DM]

Smith, James K. A. and Henry Isaac Venema, eds. The Hermeneutics of Charity: Interpretation, Selfhood, and Postmodern Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos P, 2004. [DM]

Steiner, George. Real Presences. [MF: Theory: though not applying Christian theology or philosophy explicitly, confronts postmodern literary theory with an approach Christians should at least be aware of if not welcome (there are other approaches).]

Stern, Karl. The Flight from Woman. [MF: Literary History: This too-little-known book covers a few major literary authors like Ibsen, Tolstoy and Goethe (and Sartre's Nausea) but also a few philosophers (Descartes, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard), in a broad view and interpretation of western culture up to the book's publication date of 1965. (Alas, we may be into a Flight from Man now.) I think it's a strong Christian philosophical as well as psychological take on "where / how western culture went wrong," along the lines of the duality of gender and their respective ways of knowing. Much of it struck me as profound and moving.]

Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth, ed. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005. [DM]

Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture Wheaton: Crossway-Good News, 1994. [BH: Turning Point Christian Worldview Series… helpful, clear, and thoughtful to students struggling to understand postmodernism]

Tim Basselin (Fuller Theological Seminary)
Jeff Bilbro (Baylor University)
Harold K. Bush (St Louis U)
Mark Filiatreau (Patrick Henry College)
Brian Heffron
Darren J. N. Middleton (Professor of Religion, Texas Christian University)
Steven Petersheim (Baylor University)
Roger Pooley (Keele University, U.K.)
Jake Stratman (John Brown University)
Olympia Sibley
Patricia Taylor (University of Connecticut; suggestions are Renaissance focused)

Friday, August 14, 2009

All the Way Down to the Amen Pew: The Great Awakenings and the Revival Tradition

I delivered this at CGSA on Friday, August 14. Comments are welcome, particularly those correcting any historical errors.

All the Way Down to the Amen Pew: The Great Awakenings and the Revival Tradition

The church revival—a concentrated, relatively informal meeting or series of meetings, generally involving large groups of people and focused on Gospel preaching, individual repentance, and rededication or conversion—has become a mainstay of discourse within and about Evangelical Christianity. Many of our modern denominations in this country can trace their origins, or at least a period of significant growth, to a revival or series of revivals, such as the Cane Ridge Revival, hosted by Barton Stone and held in Paris, Kentucky in August 1801. Stone, along with a few other Presbyterian ministers, helped found the Restoration Movement a few years later—from which, eventually, sprung the Christian Church, the Church of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ. More recently, evangelists such as Billy Graham and Oral Roberts have based much of their ministries and careers on the revival model, and the pursuit of revival (literally, to “live again”) animates many churches and ministries, particularly those of a Charismatic bent. Indeed, if your church happens, by some freak of statistics, to recognize worship songs written previous to 1950, you may well sing “Revive Us Again” on a semi-regular basis. Such revivals may take many forms, arguably ranging from Vacation Bible School to youth group trips to missions conferences such as Urbana, but whatever the form, the pattern of preaching, conviction, repentance, and salvation (for now we’ll bracket the theology of those steps) remains constant.

Perhaps as much for its spectacle as for its spiritual results, the revival has also captured the imagination of many an artist and author. Neil Diamond crooned about Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show (pack up the babies and grab the old ladies and everyone goes), Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood features the failed revival preacher Asa Hawks, and even Moby-Dick includes Father Mapple’s whale of a revival sermon, as preached to the Nantucket sailors. Others have ridiculed the whole idea: Sinclair Lewis’ title character in Elmer Gantry is a womanizing and power-hungry evangelist, Twain includes revival preaching in the repertoire of Huck Finn’s conmen the Duke and the King, and more recently HBO produced a short-lived series called Carnivale, in which Clancy Brown plays Brother Justin Crowe, a devilish but increasingly popular revival preacher during the 1930s. And then there’s Ray Stevens, a regular on Dr. Demento radio shows gone by, and his, um, unique take, entitled “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival.” Let’s watch.

Alas, poor Harv Newman: “some thought he had religion, others thought he had a demon.” Now, I think we can safely assume that “a half-crazed Mississippi squirrel” was not, in fact, responsible for the Great Awakenings, our topic for tonight. But a lot of the structure and theology that Stevens pokes fun at does come primarily from the 18th and 19th centuries. To be sure, both revival among believers and large-scale evangelism have Biblical precedents, such as the rediscovery of the Law in 2 Kings 22 or of course Pentecost in Acts 2. But both Stevens’ parody and its real-life counterparts add some uniquely American ingredients. Perhaps the most important among these is the idea that the event is not merely evangelistic, in the sense of winning new converts, but rather also aimed at existing church members: “seven deacons and the pastor got saved…and we all got rebaptized, whether we needed it or not.” The call to revival, like John the Baptist’s calls for repentance in the Gospels, is for believers-- though as we will see the potential gap between “believer” and “saved” caused some rather thorny problems. To try to navigate those problems, I’m going to focus tonight on two figures, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Charles Finney (1792-1875), and their respective roles in the revivals often called the First and Second Great Awakenings. Although these two preachers had the same basic goal, namely to exhort both believers and skeptics into a saving trust in Christ, the contrast in their methods and their theological bases for revival will be, I hope, instructive.

As you might remember from your history classes, most of the early British immigrants to the New World sought to reform the Church of England, and to do so by the purification of the Colonial churches, with the eventual goal of demonstrating true Christian community—a “Citty upon a Hill,” as John Winthrop put it—to the folks back home. So it’s not surprising that the impulse to revive the church started early, in the seemingly endless series of Puritan jeremiads that started with Winthrop’s speech onboard the Arabella in 1630 and arguably continued to the American Revolution and beyond. These sermons of lament, punctuated by warnings to the backslidden and calls for repentance, were modeled after the prophet Jeremiah, and greatly influenced Edwards’ thinking and style. After all, though he belonged to the third generation of Puritan settlers, a group whose theology and piety had undergone much revision and development, he was the grandson of Solomon Stoddard, a powerful New England preacher for some 55 years. Most notably, Stoddard engineered the “Halfway Covenant,” a compromise that allowed second-generation Puritans to gain partial church membership (and thus access to the Lord’s Supper) without having to produce a conversion narrative, provided that they lived moral lives.

While Edwards no doubt read and used Stoddard’s 1714 book A Guide to Christ, which was subtitled “The way of directing souls that are under the work of conversion,” ultimately he rejected what he saw as Stoddard’s theological liberalism. Instead, Edwards explicitly framed the revivals he led, first in the 1730s but also during the main Great Awakening in the 1740s, in terms of strict adherence to Calvinist theology and models of preaching, with the specific goal of strengthening church membership. Contrary to some stereotypes of the Puritans, however, for Edwards the path toward revival was not simply an intellectual, rational process. Granted, he used his considerable brilliance and erudition to craft sermons, plan and organize a return to what we would call small-group Bible studies, and try to maintain the always-precarious balance between being in the world but not of the world. For example, there is no evidence that he departed from the standard Puritan practice of writing out his sermons, and those sermons often read more like a theological treatise than what we would recognize as a call to repentance. Exegesis was paramount for Edwards, but exegesis aimed at an emotional, at times even visceral, knowledge and conviction about one’s own sinfulness and Christ’s free offer of grace. Edwards’ goal, it seemed, was to impress spiritual reality on his audience so strongly—though of course spiritual reality bounded by Scripture—that they did not simply learn theology intellectually but achieve a direct experience of God’s truth.

Let’s look briefly at Edwards in action. This excerpt, from a sermon he preached in 1736, gives us a good sense of his methods and goals, though I will not pretend to be able to imitate his performance. The title, “Justification by Faith Alone,” is consistent with Edwards’ Calvinism, as in his view Arminianism (then embodied most strongly in Wesleyan and Unitarianism, albeit in different forms) amounted to “earning” salvation by good works. Here’s Edwards:

[S]eeing we are such infinitely sinful and abominable creatures in God’s sight, and by our infinite guilt have brought ourselves into such wretched and deplorable circumstances, and all our righteousnesses are nothing, and ten thousand times worse than nothing (if God looks upon them as they be in themselves), is it not immensely more worthy of the infinite majesty and glory of God, to deliver and make happy such poor, filthy worms, such wretched vagabonds and captives, without any money or price of theirs or any manner of expectation of any excellency or virtue in them, in any wise to recommend them? Will it not betray a foolish, exalting opinion of ourselves, and a mean one of God, to have a thought of offering any thing of ours, to recommend us to the favor of being brought from wallowing, like filthy swine, in the mire of our sins…to the state of God’s dear children, in the everlasting arms of his love…or to imagine that that is the constitution of God, that we should bring our filthy rags, and offer them to him as the price of this? (13).

For those of you in or familiar with the Calvinist tradition, the basic pattern here is nothing new: man is scum, God is sovereign, and nothing we can do can tip the scales. Indeed, Edwards goes further, to claim that any assumption of human merit is unbearably prideful and insulting to God. According to this schema, conversion—admittedly a tricky concept given the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and limited atonement—does not represent a conscious human action but rather a recognition of one’s own inadequacy and a surrender to God’s grace, without which righteousness is impossible. Edwards clearly has in mind the story of the Prodigal Son, though of course he would focus more on the father’s grace and forgiveness than on the son’s decision to leave his pigsty (no comments from the peanut gallery about the state of my apartment) and return home.

But even beyond Edwards dogged insistence on human depravity and irresistible grace (also known as the “I” in the Calvinist TULIP), we should note his intellectual and highly methodical approach. Edwards’ work suggests that he saw no significant difference between the categories of “theologian” and “evangelist,” and he was quite at home expounding on theological nuances to prove his point. George Marsden labels this habit Edwards’ “characteristic fugal development of every variation on a theme” (153-4), an apt metaphor: just as an orchestral fugue follows an initial exposition with multiple episodes in various keys and sometimes for various instruments, Edwards started with a basic claim about his text of Scripture and did not give up until he had exhausted its possibilities. Sometimes this meant that he didn’t get to finish his revival sermons due to interruptions from distraught audience members, as was the case the first time he preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in 1741, and it’s a far cry from the styles of sermons characteristic of his more popular counterparts in both Awakenings. But it makes sense: while their sermons were aimed more generally at conversion, Edwards additionally wanted to instill proper doctrine, particularly in existing church members. Thus he deliberately avoids what one might call “mere Christianity” in favor of doctrinal specifics—and while he welcomed individual testimonies, which after all were required for church membership during the time of first-generation Puritans, he always made it clear that an individual’s conversion was never of his own design.

And now, through the magic of broad-brush historical summary, let’s leave Edwards behind at his pulpit and jump forward a hundred years or so. By the time Charles Grandison Finney—named, incidentally, for a character in a popular Samuel Richardson novel—came on the scene in the early 1820s, a lot had changed. For one thing, though there were already considerable political rumblings during Edwards’ time, by 1820 we’re past the Revolution and the early days of the Republic, and in the often rough transition from the rule of the Founding Fathers (John Quincy Adams was president from 1821-28) to that of Jacksonian Democracy and, later, Manifest Destiny. We’ll get more into the religious implications of this political transition in a bit, but it’s also important to note that the United States was dramatically more religiously diverse during Finney’s time than during Edwards’. Emerson and the Transcendentalists were chattering about transparent eyeballs, debates over slavery (and the Biblical hermeneutics on both sides of those debates) splintered churches, and quite frankly a whole lot of people were wondering why they needed a church in the first place. For revivalists, life was often challenging, but never dull, in this rather target-rich environment.

Change was brewing within Christendom as well. In particular, both Baptist and Methodist churches had grown exponentially in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: to quote Nathan Hatch, “by 1820 Methodist membership numbered a quarter million; by 1830 it was twice that number. Baptist membership multiplied tenfold in the three decades after the Revolution; the number of churches increased from five hundred to over twenty-five hundred…In total these movements eventually constituted two-thirds of the Protestant ministers and church members in the United States” (3). Not only were Edwards’ Puritan Calvinists thoroughly outnumbered, but such variety made his denominationally-focused revival practically impossible. Besides, even with the relative historical distance from the fiery speeches of Paine and Jefferson, any association with conservative theology, particularly conservative British theology, was bound to come under fire. Certainly there were still Calvinist revivalists during the Second Great Awakening, such as James McGready, but the academic exegesis and staunch Puritanism we saw in Edwards simply seemed out of touch. So while it’s too simplistic to say that Edwards simply disappeared from revival discourse—after all, he was one of the most brilliant American theologians who ever lived—the emphases were very different by 1820.

Finney took full advantage of these differences. Originally trained and employed as a lawyer, he converted to Christianity at (where else?) a revival meeting in October 1821, and almost immediately began formal theological study under George Gale. Actually, Finney’s choice to pursue education was atypical among revival preachers of his time: as Hatch notes, it was not uncommon for converts to start preaching immediately, regardless of their respective levels of theological knowledge or intellectual sophistication. Jonathan Edwards, I suspect, would have had the Puritan approximation of a hissyfit. In any case, Finney, like Edwards, knew how to use the emotional effects of his words to theological advantage, albeit perhaps in a less sophisticated manner. If Edwards mimicked the bewigged and begowned university professor or judge, reading off carefully crafted prose (and what, ladies and gentlemen, is wrong with that?), Finney was part pitchman, part performer, and part preacher. He never shrank from using cutting edge technology and methods in his advertising and promotion—perhaps a lesson he learned from Edwards’ contemporary George Whitefield—often spoke extemporaneously or with minimal notes, and perhaps most importantly never hesitated to use his own story in his exhortations to others.

Compared to those of Edwards, then, Finney’s revivals were far more anthropocentric in the sense of his emphasis on human action and the necessity of human response to God’s offer of grace, though he did not (as some critics charged) teach salvation by works. At the same time, though, Finney’s exuberance and forcefulness earned him some enemies. On more than one occasion, he clashed with local clergy by implying or claiming outright that they were not really converted, and similar claims tended to upset the citizenry pretty much wherever he went. You see, despite the fact that Calvinism was waning compared to the Puritan era, the idea of the necessity of having a “born again experience,” a concept normal to us, was new to many of Finney’s audience members. Whether explicitly in favor of predestination or not, they believed that the type of clear, emotionally intense experience Finney demanded was not the only legitimate indicator of salvation. Likewise, many people got upset at Finney’s at times extreme pressure techniques—he was, after all, a lawyer—as manifested in his calling out individuals by name during sermons and demanding that they repent, a habit which prompted more than one violent outburst at Finney’s revivals.

Along with this fiercely individualistic theology, which tended to do away with ceremonies and rituals that many held dear, notably baptism and Communion, Finney also popularized the use of what was then known as the “Mourner’s Seat” or “Mourner’s Bench,” a chair or bench at the front of the church or meeting room where the penitent could come to repent and be prayed for. Finney renamed it the “Anxious Seat”—a term certainly suited to his style of emotional manipulation—and made it central to his theology. In Julie Jeffrey’s words, “the anxious bench set ‘sinners’ physically apart where they became the main focus of attention. Members the congregation, family members and friends, along with the preacher poured out earnest pleas, supplications, impromptu prayers, groans and even tears. Sometimes supporters even clustered around the anxious bench to urge the sinner on. As one observer explained, anyone sitting in the anxious seat ‘could hardly avoid being affected by the tide of emotions.’” However, despite this seemingly anti-intellectual and certainly anti-traditional basis for conversion and salvation, Finney’s own ideas about the use and practice of revival were highly developed. Sounding much like Edwards, he argues in Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) that
The very idea of anxiety implies some instruction. A sinner would not be anxious at all about his future state, unless he had light enough to know that he is a sinner, and that he is in danger of punishment and needs forgiveness. But men are to be converted, not by physical force, or by a change wrought in their nature or constitution by creative power, but by the truth made effectual by the Holy Spirit. Conversion is yielding to the truth. … The great design of dealing with an anxious sinner is to clear up all his difficulties and darkness, and do away all his errors, and sap the foundation of his self-righteous hopes, and sweep away every vestige of comfort that he could find in himself.

Now, obviously we could go on in the biographical mode all night, both because Finney and Edwards were far more complex and interesting than this thumbnail sketch may indicate and because thousands of preachers, theologians, missionaries, and of course everyday Christians made important contributions to both Awakenings. For instance, during Finney’s time both the Methodist and Baptist denominations split along racial lines (and split many more times along doctrinal and other lines), with the black churches producing a distinctly different kind of revival meeting. Similarly, though the Second Great Awakening in particular was characterized by a lot of itinerant preachers, Finney among them, we’re still mainly talking about the East Coast of the United States. In 1830, for instance, not much of the Louisiana Purchase had been incorporated as states, Mexico still owned the Southwest, and Boston was very much the cultural center of the country. And lest we forget, though most historians agree that the Great Awakenings were strongest in the United States—I’ll get to one theory on that in a minute—the impulse for American revival was both influenced by and itself influenced broader Pietism movements in Europe and England; meanwhile, missionaries from many Western countries were spreading the Gospel all over the world, likely using methods they had learned from revivalists in their respective home countries. Revivals were one important way of maintaining some sort of Christian unity, a cohesion that would prove vital—and more often than not, exceedingly difficult—in the face of the Civil War, of doctrinal threats from Darwinism and higher criticism, and of an increasingly frustrating apparent gap between the concerns of the organized church and those of the average American citizen.

Besides these general concerns, however, I want to finish up by suggesting a couple specific reasons why the revival tradition is important to us today. First, the concept and practice of revival has strongly influenced the very idea of campus ministry, even if it’s not exactly standard operating procedure for Bob to insist, ala Edwards, that “[t]he God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” (Random fun fact: Jonathan Edwards College, one of the Yale residential colleges, has the spider for its mascot. Yay, Wikipedia.) Bill Bright, for instance, built his group Campus Crusade for Christ on much the same doctrinal principles that Charles Finney outlined and used, particularly in Bright’s well-known booklet “The Four Spiritual Laws.” This same spirit of revival has been evident in most Christian retreats, conferences, and camps that I’ve been to, though often the focus is more on a revitalized relationship with Christ than on a first-time conversion. Put another way, while evangelism proper does (and indeed, must) remain important in any campus ministry, groups such as Intervarsity have rightly recognized that mere evangelism is useless without a corresponding commitment to “feed the sheep.”

In much the same way, I would argue that Intervarsity’s own emphasis on student leadership, small groups, and discipleship also represents a legacy of the Great Awakenings, though perhaps more on the Edwards model than the Finney one. Edwards, remember, often used small groups and distributed leadership to maintain order and cohesion within the churches he led, and while I doubt he would deny any willing volunteer the chance to learn and serve in the church, he would also insist on some sort of theological education for high-level and/or ordained leaders. Similarly, many campus ministries, Intervarsity included, now offer substantial resources and in some cases actual coursework to train would-be leaders in Bible study, church history, theology, and so on. Yet at the same time, the point, as I understand it, is not to create a separate class of elite scholars—grad school does that quite well as it is—but to encourage and inspire our spiritual brothers and sisters to deepen their individual relationships with God. In other words, at least within Evangelical Protestantism, we’re perpetually balancing the needs of the individual and that individual’s place within the institutional structures of the visible church.

A similar dynamic—and we’ll finish up with this—operates in terms of the broader relationship between the revival and the history of the American church. Following Nathan Hatch’s research in his wonderful book The Democratization of American Christianity, I want to suggest that the Awakenings in general, and the revival more specifically, formed an important mediating bridge between American Christianity—in which, as Sidney Ahlstrom points out, we are all in some sense “post-Puritan”—and the key tenets of American political philosophy. Many theologians and historians have questioned some much-beloved principles of the American Revolution, particularly its focus on individualism and (to put it mildly) its disdain for civic and political authority, conflict with Biblical injunctions for peacekeeping and rendering unto Caesar. Likewise, though the debate rages on about whether America was “a Christian nation” at its inception, it is certainly true that people such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine tended to see organized religion as part of the problem that the Revolution was supposed to fix. After all, the leaders of the French Revolution saw the Catholic Church (and rightly so) as a major political force and thus focused their ire on priests as well as aristocrats, so why, many Americans were asking, should religion play any significant part of the New Republic?

While of course not the only factor, I do think it’s important to note the importance of the Great Awakenings in addressing these questions. Though it’s hard to pin down exactly how politics and Christianity worked together in the 1730s-40s and in the first half of the 19th century, mainly because political opinions varied quite thoroughly from person to person and church to church, I think it is safe to say that both these periods represent significant challenges to America’s national identity. With the weakening of what Mark Noll has called the “Puritan canopy” in the late 17th and early 18th century, and the corresponding rise in American economic prosperity and political clout, the Puritan narrative of America being a “city upon a hill” (see also Winthrop, Kennedy, Reagan, Bush, and assuredly not Obama) was no longer a given. If anything, in a complaint we still hear today, the established churches seemed irrelevant and out-of-touch with the lives of young Americans in particular. Similarly, as I’ve already said, in Finney’s time the vast amount of religious diversity seemed to make religion a buyer’s market: pick and choose what you think is true, shop around, and if nothing looks good, then make like Joseph Smith and start your own religion. Then, too, church smacked of hierarchy and old money, neither of which packed much of an ideological punch outside New England. What could prevent the watering down of Biblical Christianity into mere civil religion?

Well, though revival meetings didn’t address these concerns by themselves, and certainly didn’t do so overnight, they did demonstrate common goals between American Christianity and American democracy, and more importantly opened up opportunities for citizens to pursue both ideas in good faith. Edwards, while probably less of a politician than Finney or than many of his contemporaries, managed to harness the power of individual conviction and repentance and channel it into greater community and social cohesion. Along the way, he “carefully observed the social and political currents swirling about him and developed an elaborate theory of what it means to be a Christian citizen in civil community.” At the close of a survey of this theory, published in Christianity Today in 2001, Gerald McDermott remarks that “Jonathan Edwards shows us that true faith is deeply private (arising from a transformed heart) but not privatistic (devoid of active concern for society). His public theology is also a reminder that evangelism should never be opposed to social action. Rather, Edwards was convinced that a time of revival is precisely the time when the church needs to show social concern.”

Finney, as usual, took a different tack, but in doing so satisfied the desires, prevalent then as now, for Christianity to matter to the individual in a democratic context. Hatch notes that Finney “called for a Copernican revolution to make religious life audience-centered…he told ministers to throw out their notes, look their audience square in the face, and preach in a style that was colloquial, repetitious, conversational, and lively—‘the language of common life.” And Hatch goes on to quote another of Finney’s complaints in his book on revival: “Nothing is more calculated to make a sinner feel that religion is some mysterious thing that he cannot understand, than this mouthing, formal, lofty style of speaking, so generally employed in the pulpit.”

We can certainly argue further about the proper role of religious mystery and how best to communicate that to an American audience still itching for individual relevance, and moreover about the ultimate effectiveness of Finney and his occasionally televised successors. (That, incidentally, would require another Ray Stevens song: “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?”) At the same time we evaluate these events and their legacies, with whatever historical and/or doctrinal distance that we can muster, I hope we can keep one thing in mind: we serve the same God that the revivalists did, a God who has proven himself quite willing to send shockwaves of a rather disruptive Spirit all the way down to the Amen Pew. Thanks for your attention.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Making of Many Books

The Making of Many Books: Christianity and Literary Studies

(delivered 4/24/09, at CGSA)

To start off, I’d like to thank you guys for the chance to speak on this topic—as many of you can attest (okay, okay, you and some of my students), once I get started talking about literature and/or theology, it’s rather difficult to get me to shut up. So if I seem to be leaving out large chunks of argument, it’s probably because I, too, want to eat dinner at some point tonight. But with that caveat, let’s get started. It’s been about eighteen months since I last prattled to you about literature and theology, and they’ve been eighteen rather important months in terms of my own experience with and thinking about literary studies. Since my last talk, long long ago (well, summer 07) in a church basement far far away, I’ve had a chance to learn a lot more about my field and think a lot more about my place as a Christian scholar within it. As I finished up my MA in 2008 and survived the slightly nerve-wracking PhD application process, and more recently as I’ve drafted preliminary goals and descriptions for my dissertation research on Christianity and 19th-century American literature, I’ve been able to crystallize some of my ideas about this whole Christian intellectual enterprise. Perhaps more importantly, during the same period I’ve been able to teach four classes related to tonight’s topic, including a Bible as Literature course this quarter, and to discuss some of that work with some great Christian colleagues at the Following Christ conference this past December. I mention all this not because I consider myself an expert on Christianity and literature, by any means, but to remind you (and myself) that more and more this is the shape that my academic calling is taking, at least for now.

But since only part of my life takes place in the academy, I actually want to start off with a slightly more banal example: a conversation I had last Friday afternoon, with one of the local National City bank officers. I was there to re-open my savings account, and she was there to process the requisite paperwork and make the requisite small talk. Somehow, in between her dire warnings against credit card abuse and her equally dire warnings against not getting and using a credit card, say, yesterday, the topic of my profession came up. As soon as I revealed that, yes, I was an English major, she told me that “we could have used you here a few minutes ago.” Without missing a beat, and almost without thinking about it, I shot back, “Grammar dispute?” I was right, though I almost wish I wasn’t. Perhaps, just perhaps, there might have been an intra-office debate over the relative literary merits of Charles Brockden Brown vs. James Fenimore Cooper, or a fast-paced repartee regarding the philosophical sources of Moby-Dick, or even just a burning question about which century Gerard Manley Hopkins belonged to. But grammar? For a fleeting moment I felt rather like Marvin the Paranoid Android from the Hitchhiker trilogy: “Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they want me to delete an extraneous comma. Call that job satisfaction, 'cause I don't.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Particularly in my part-time job as a freelance editor, extraneous commas are my bread and butter, or more to the point, my burger and fries. Though I’d really rather answer the question “What do you do with an English major” with “marry her” than with “hunt for wayward punctuation” (though now that I think about it, there are worse first dates than hunting for wayward punctuation together.) the practical end of literary studies we shall always have with us. And when I try to think about what constitutes a Christian literary studies in that context, it seems a bit silly to talk about fixing capitalization for the furtherance of the Kingdom. Even the prospect of teaching the ever-present sections of freshman composition doesn’t exactly inspire rhapsodies, yet in the minds of many, an English PhD seems to have little other use, Christian or not. The cosmologists among us may grapple with the awesome and occasionally terrifying origins of the universe, the biologists may coax cures for cancer out of recalcitrant zebrafish, and even the theoretical physicists might just lay the groundwork for warp drive someday. But the literature folks? We grade papers. We teach students. And maybe once in a while we can point out a nifty allusion during Bible study. Most of us, quite honestly, are content to sit in an office or a classroom and talk about otherwise obscure authors and otherwise moldy books.

Okay, so I’m exaggerating slightly: at least within the academy, most people know that English does involve some level of serious research and real scholarly contributions. That end of things isn’t without its problems either, however. Particularly in the last forty years, English departments have become increasingly interdisciplinary, drawing together threads from materials that might otherwise be delegated to history, philosophy, political science, or even religious studies. My own embryonic dissertation does just that, and frankly that’s part of what attracted me to the field in the first place: the chance to study a lot of different areas of the humanities while still remaining grounded in creative literature. But this level of interdisciplinarity also means that new ideas travel even more quickly to and through English departments, even (and sometimes especially) those ideas that challenge traditional views of art, philosophy, morality, and theology. Deconstruction, radical feminism, queer theory, postcolonial studies, and yes, even that amorphous mass of ideas known as postmodernism, all occupy their own niches of my profession, and all have their own proverbial bones to pick with Biblical Christianity.

This division of labor in turn tends to create a problematic environment for Christian scholars, particularly those who hold to conservative politics or theology, and not just because the average academician relies on CNN or The Daily Show for information about what Christians are “really like.” Many of my colleagues—and here I’m speaking of the profession more broadly, not just within OSU English—associate Christianity with what they see as outmoded and exclusionary ways of “doing literary studies,” and with reductive and simplistic scholarship. After all, the argument goes, if you’re really committed to all that God stuff and can’t manage to keep it out of your professional work, obviously you would ignore or distort any evidence that posed a threat to your deep-seated ideology. (In the interests of finishing this talk before midnight, I’ll spare you the tangent I could embark on now—but rest assured, it’s there.) Meanwhile, outsiders often criticize English departments, and do so with some justification, as being repositories of particularly egregious postmodern excess and thus of tuition dollars (or worse, tax dollars) wasted on frivolous (or even dangerous) academic projects. During the conservative critique of higher education in the 80s and 90s, for instance, English departments often bore the brunt of criticism, as we seemed to do little but prove the point of Ecclesiastes 12:12: “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

Amidst such battles, what’s a Christian literary scholar to do, and how can we, as a body of believers and a body of rather bright people, come to grips with this rather vexed battlefield of ideas? Well, I’m not going to sit here and lecture you on how you should read more good books, rediscover the classics, or even encourage your undergrad friends to enroll in my next Bible as Literature course. Besides the fact that I’ve already given that talk a couple summers back, I think the case for the “library as armory,” to use James Emery White’s phrase, has been made pretty solidly already. On the Christian side, Jim Sire, Leland Ryken, Gene Veith, and Cleanth Brooks have all made strong arguments for the value of literature to a Christian. And they’re not alone: besides the early 20th-century secular defenses of reading, scholars such as Wayne Booth, Jim Phelan, Denis Donoghue, and even Harold Bloom have renewed our attention to the ethical aspects of reading and writing. So rather than rehearsing their arguments, I want to ask a slightly different set of questions: what opportunities exist for “studying Christianly” in an English department, and how might the process fit with what has been called “Kingdom purposes”?

To start addressing these questions, and indeed to make any meaningful links between academia and Christianity, we should first of all note that we’re operating, by necessity as much as by choice, within an institutional context. To study and teach English Christianly, at least at this stage of my career, means that I organize my teaching and research—my academic witness, as it were—based on boundaries that weren’t my idea and sometimes don’t exactly fit with my version of academic utopia. But they’re there, and in my experience it’s a lot more efficient to work within the system than to try to remake it in our own images. In English, the central concept is that of the organizing discourse, a sort of intellectual worldview that influences and sometimes fully determines a given scholar’s choice of subject matter, analytical approach, interests, and conclusions.

For example, studies within the discourse of postcolonialism—one of my undergrad focus areas and briefly a potential focus for my professional work—emphasize differences in race, power, and language, and posit an inherent antagonism between Western and non-Western authors, texts, philosophies, etc. A postcolonial scholar of Moby-Dick, then, might look at the representation of Queequeg and the other non-white characters, and consider what is at stake in Ahab’s using them to pursue his fiery hunt. Or, and this is probably more likely given contemporary disciplinary politics, perhaps the same scholar would consider the novel as itself a part of the Western academy, or of Melville studies, or of the Vast Right-Wing Dead White Male Conspiracy, or whatever. The point is that discourses such as postcolonialism—and I need hardly add that these are not necessarily steady or consistent categories—represent both a set of philosophical assumptions about literature and a method of analyzing it.

Given these structures, how would the “outrageous idea of a Christian literary studies,” to use Hal Bush’s phrase (itself, of course, adapted from George Marsden’s broader work) work as a critical organizing discourse? Though many individual Christians have strongly influenced literary theory—St. Augustine, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, Cleanth Brooks, Northrop Frye, and James Sire, just to name a few—with the possible exception of Lewis’ book An Experiment in Criticism no one has really tried to set up an explicitly Christian theory of literary study. Part of the problem is isolating a primary explanatory focus, the base (to borrow the language of my Marxist colleagues) which drives the superstructure of a given discourse. In feminism, for instance, everything comes back to gender; in Marxism, to class-driven ideology; and in ecocriticism, to the interplay between humans and their environment. But what does Christianity “come back to”? Yes, we can talk and write about religious expression or church history or even individual doctrines, given sufficient textual evidence. As I understand the Bible, though, the whole point of Christ’s sovereignty is that it’s not reducible to any of those things—as Kuyper puts it, and as we’ve all probably heard…several times in our respective Intervarsity tenures, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'” So what we have, it seems, is not so much an organizing principle for Christian scholarship, one that we can identify, understand, or dissect, but an organizing Person, one who is rather fond of identifying, understanding, dissecting, convicting, and finally redeeming us.

In the face of this rather inconvenient truth, I would argue that though it is possible to identify Christian ways of reading and writing—and many scholars have done some great work along those lines already-- Christianity cannot function as the same type of totalizing discourse, as just one more “ism” in the already crowded and diverse leviathan of English studies. But my own responsibility as a Christian scholar of literature doesn’t evaporate there. Fortunately, neither do the opportunities for Christian work in literary studies. Hal Bush, for instance, has identified three potentially fruitful avenues for Christian scholarship in literature: historical criticism, cultural studies, and “a more urgent and potentially even more fruitful project, which is the production of a theory of culture itself.” Likewise, as Bush suggests earlier in the same essay, our work as Christian teachers of writing and literature, a role that will no doubt dominate my own career, should also be considered as part of the process.

This leads me to my second point: that literary studies, understood in the light of God’s sovereignty and call on our lives, must consider the English department (and the university in which it operates) as a mission field. By this, I do not only mean the direct evangelism, in the sense of personal testimony and “altar calls,” that is familiar to those of us in the Evangelical tradition. Certainly, in some settings this level of boldness may be ethically and professionally appropriate, but in my experience that’s not often the case in grad school. Rather, I have in mind a broader understanding of witness, one that establishes Christianity’s intellectual and personal legitimacy, along the lines of Jim Sire’s definition of apologetics: to “la[y] before the watching world such a winsome embodiment of the Christian faith that for any and all who are willing to observe there will be an intellectually and emotionally credible witness to its fundamental truth” (26).

Let me give an example to try to explain this concept of witness. This quarter, I have the privilege of teaching English 280, OSU’s Bible as Literature course: two mornings a week (though I’m not sure 7:30 classes really count as morning) I’m in charge of lecturing to about 35 students on the Bible, most recently on the book of Joshua. Now, though I haven’t explicitly said so in class, pretty much all of my students know I’m a Christian, and the perceptive ones—of which there are many this quarter, thank God—have probably also figured out some of my more specific theological and doctrinal stances. But I’m still an untenured instructor at a public university, and frankly it would be unethical for me to act as if I were a Sunday school teacher in the classroom. (Though, I will admit that it’s fun to joke with my Christian friends that OSU is paying me to lead a Bible study!) Accordingly, I’m limited in what I can say in ways that I wouldn’t be in a typical evangelistic setting. All the same, I can and should explain to my students how a given passage might work theologically or note how certain themes and techniques play out in Christian beliefs. And what’s more, my students, many of whom are Christians themselves, are perfectly free to make their own more direct witnessing claims, and I am free to refrain from shushing them at the first glimpse of absolute truth.

So when I say that my department is my mission field, I do so aware of the fact that an apologia, the term translated as “defense” or “answer” in I Peter 3:15, can take many different forms. In some subfields of English studies, Christianity-centered research is a rather natural development, even among scholars who aren’t believers themselves. For instance, studies about the Medieval and Renaissance periods—roughly from the 5th to the early 17th centuries—often include theological and religious contexts by necessity, as do studies of early American literature. Even in my own field of 19th-century American literature, Christian scholars are making progress: Roger Lundin and Hal Bush have recent books on Christianity in Emerson and Twain, respectively, and there’s been a fairly consistent interest in the religious contexts of Hawthorne’s and Melville’s fiction as well, which will be part of my dissertation’s focus. Other subfields, though, have far less Christian representation—they are, so to speak, the “unreached” in the discipline. So far, for instance, relatively little theoretical work on gender or race has been from an explicitly Christian perspective, and many Christian scholars, myself among them, aren’t quite sure how to handle recent theoretical emphases on postmodernism and poststructuralism. So yes, there’s still lots of work to do, and still lots of scholars to pray for, but the field as a whole isn’t quite as gloomy or hostile as it might seem from the outside.

Thus far, I’ve mainly focused on why Christianity can and ought to matter to literary scholars, as part of their specific disciplinary practices. However, I want to conclude tonight’s talk by asking a more generally applicable question: why should literature per se matter to the Christian? As I pointed out earlier, there are many Christian defenses of reading literature. At least potentially, it may edify us, instruct us, educate us, and let us get pleasurably lost in the “pied beauty” of human language: paw through any good anthology, and you’ll find quite a bit of what Hopkins labeled “All things counter, original, spare, [and] strange.” Part of the reason that many literary theorists and not a few literary artists have treated literature as a proxy or even replacement for religion, I think, is that both capture us (on the page as well as through the page) in all our messily familiar—and familiarly messy—humanity. Cleanth Brooks put it well:

Like religion, literature is suffused with terms that appeal to the human heart. The interpretation may be merely implicit in the work, as when a lyric poet meditates on a flower, or it may be quite explicit and circumstantial, as when a novelist traces the history of a family or a society. But whether implicit or explicit, slightly or massively detailed, the literary artist brings together events and observations and moods into a pattern which has its coherence of attitude. The poem or novel or play gives us—if we want to use polysyllabic terms—a value-structured experience (51).

More specifically, we have in the Bible an inescapable and authoritative anthology of ancient literature, one that surprises and challenges me every time I read it, whether I’m specifically reading for theological meaning or not. Upon encountering the Bible, one may object to it, snarl at it, argue with it, read into it, or live by it—but one may not simply pretend it never existed. For the Christian, of course, this effect is even greater, for we are not simply called to appreciate Scripture’s literary artistry and historical importance, but rather to submit our whole lives to it. Yet over and above the Bible’s astounding ethics, history, artistry, and so on, consider this: it does not simply use literature as a convenient vehicle for its truth claims, but further redeems literature, and with it human language. In it, the very Word of God, transmitted over thousands of years by dozens of people, is incarnated, and by that act of incarnation God makes language matter (and, I suppose, makes matter of language). And though no human book or human author can duplicate this incarnational miracle of inspiration, I am fully convinced that good literature, properly understood, can help point the way. Writing in 1885, Gerard Manley Hopkins asked in one poem “To what serves Mortal Beauty?” This was his answer: “See: it does this: keeps warm/ Men’s wit to the things that are”—and ultimately, he concludes, to “God’s better beauty, grace.”

Human language and human literature, like all creation, is fallen, and is “groaning together in the pains of childbirth,” waiting for the here-but-not-yet redemption of the Kingdom of God. And that redemptive process, ultimately, is what makes my job and my calling meaningful—7:30 classes and endless grading notwithstanding—and what I hope will animate my life and my witness as a Christian literary scholar. Thanks for your attention.