Literature and the Christian Imagination

During the last few years of my life, I’ve felt as if I had a foot in two worlds. One foot (left or right – I’m not sure) stood on faith, and the other in academia. All in all, I kept my balance pretty well (yay me). As a student of literature and a person of faith, I instinctively felt that there was a compatibility between the two, invisible perhaps on the outside, but inseparable for me. It made perfect narrative sense, then, that I would end up teaching English at a small, Christian liberal arts college.

This confluence of events and interests has led me to inquire more deeply into the role the imagination and Culture (big C) in the lives of Christians. My thinking is that this will benefit both my students and my sanity, though the latter notion may turn out to be delusional. (I’ve been called worse, both by myself and others).

At any rate, this inquiry has implications not just for how Christians engage with or avoid literary cultural productions, but also how they engage with their faith. For example in The Gospel Coalition today, Greg Forster takes exception with a recent article in The American Conservative in which Rod Dreher claims that Evangelicals are hostile to religious expressions of wonder and awe (sacraments and such). This may seem to have little to do with Christian consumption of literature, but it does address the issue of Evangelical engagement with physical, cultural expressions of metaphysical ideas. In this way the conversation explores the depths and limitations of the Christian imagination – a subject of great interest to me as I attempt to challenge my students and myself going forward. Disruption as engaged learning.

As happy coincidence would have it, my department has decided to read the 1989 book, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith, by Susan Gallagher and Roger Lundin. I thought this to be a good occasion to dip my toe in the subject matter, bloggy-style.

Being written during the height of the Culture Wars, the book seems dated and reading it now is frequently to nod impatiently and say to oneself, “yes, I remember that. People used to talk about this back then.” However, the book does a fair job of establishing the history and logics of long standing debates about the role of literature in the age of High Theory (though not with the panache or precision of Robert Alter’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age). To its credit though, the book is a sincere attempt to inquire into the relationship between faith and literature. It is a serious-minded study of the joys and dangers of Christian consumption of literary art.

This virtue is, however, also its vice. The book is far too serious about this subject and makes the idea of danger too large an ectoplasmic boogeyman for the Christian reader. An example of this is found in a meditation about overt Christian themes in literature. The authors write, “Although we may be pleased to find works based on Christian narratives, characters, or practices, we must not hastily conclude that they endorse or advocate Christian ideas” (123). Implicit here is the idea that “good” literature must ultimately only validate Christian orthodoxy. I challenge this notion and feel that a Christian faith slavishly seeking opportunities to affirm cherished orthodoxies becomes intellectually dead. The Imagination uniquely offers a means to challenge assumptions, keeping their holders keen-witted and productively engaged with the world. Added to this limited engagement with literature’s richness is a repeated insistence that it not dare tread too close to the divine and ostentatious practice of doing anything. It must only reflect, not create realties or challenge existing ones. These themes run throughout the book, buttressed by a cautious rhetoric meant to keep literature safely in its place.

I wonder, in the end, how much the book really believes what it is saying. The section about metafiction, toward the conclusion, seems to suggest that philosophies that challenge Christian ontological claims have value both in their requirement that the reader question their conception of reality and in their engagement of the reader in the process of fiction-making. As much as the book claims a role for sanctified reading practices, it can’t seem to shake a respect for the sheer excitement of world-creation and energizing effect that literature, as an agent of chaos, can have if given the opportunity.

This contradiction is, to me, ultimately good as it complicates an otherwise overly-simple argument (though the book suffers as a pedagogical resource because of it). Let me just focus briefly then on what the book says rather than what it actually does, as the former contains the larger implications for Christian education and engagement with Culture.

Two statements epitomize my complaint with the book. The first has to do with literature’s ability to transcend circumstance. The authors write, “Though literature can provide us with relaxation and with images of the world as it might ideally be, it is neither an escape from reality nor a saving transformation of it” (xxiv). In other words, literature can do little to escape the forces of history. The book argues that its value instead lies solely in its reflection of God’s truth. For those of you in academia, think Foucault meets John Calvin. This is a kind of theological New Historicism, with the text unable to escape the material (and spiritual) conditions of its production.

In the context of a liberal arts education, this is a disastrous perspective. If the humanities cannot both provide perspective on the world and an intervention of imagination then what good is it? This absence leaves the world solely under the sway of material forces. Economics and politics are left as the only means by which God’s creation functions. Furthermore, this calls into question the authority of the Bible. Is it merely a record of events that reflect a world that God made and continually redeems while Human Beings continually ruin? Or is it an intervention in the world that shapes its reader and creates a new and richer reality?

Matthew Arnold

This is, of course, the same war Matthew Arnold, awesome side-burns and all, waged with those that marginalized Culture in favor of mechanical forces like economics and politics. Gallagher and Lundin reduce Arnold to his wish that Culture replace a diminished Religion in society (60), but they neglect to account for his definition of Culture in the early pages of Culture and Anarchy. Defending it against claims that it seeks and values mere curiosity, Arnold offers an alternative definition:

But there is of culture another view, in which not solely the scientific passion, the sheer desire to see things as they are, natural and proper in an intelligent being, appears as the ground of it. There is a view in which all the love of our neighbour, the impulses towards action, help, and beneficence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it, – motives eminently such as are called social, – come in as part of the grounds of culture, and the main and pre-eminent part. Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection.

By denying curiosity as the defining feature of Culture, Arnold simultaneously denies that its primary service is that of reflective mirror. Literature and art do not simply wish to explore a pre-fabricated world, crafted through the forces of sin, salvation, and free-will enterprise, it also seeks to create a world that is better than the one formed through strictly material forces. Christians, and particularly those in the liberal arts and humanities, should then identify a comrade in Culture, not an adversary to be only leery of.

The historicist-influenced line of thought in Literature Through the Eyes of Faith also motivates the next statement I take issue with. In a chapter depressingly called “Keeping Literature in Perspective,” the authors write, “A Christian perspective on reading lies between the extremes of hedonism and redemption. Books are neither objects of pure pleasure or instruments of unlimited power. Instead, they are one way in which humans have developed the potentials of God’s world” (59). I, of course, would not claim “unlimited power” for books, but to demote them to just “one way” of reflecting divine influence is to make sociology out of literature and to deny a special-ness that narrative has in our lives as created beings that have creative potential. Metafiction, which the authors apparently like, in spite of their own argument, foregrounds the vitality of narrative-creation in our lives. It is not mere sociology, only reflecting images of truth back at ourselves. Nor is it distinct from “the real world.” Fiction is part – perhaps the most important part – of how we create the world.

Imagination is indistinguishable from reality. Christians too often neglect it at their peril.

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