Shylock, Bassanio, and the Jacob Narrative: Jewish Love and Christian Wealth in The Merchant of Venice

By Lori A. Davis Perry

In The Merchant of Venice, the Genesis narrative of Jacob appears in several forms, as the play interrogates the Biblical tradition of possession and dispossession. Within this narrative framework, love and wealth become conflated markers of divine favor while two nations vie for divine supremacy.

The Genesis story focuses on Jacob’s ability to acquire the family inheritances—first his father’s, then his mother’s—through calculated craftiness. In Shakespeare’s play, Bassanio re-enacts the Jacob narrative by acquiring the love and wealth of those closest to him, first in the male-centered world of Antonio and then in the female-centered world of Portia, with that wealth explicitly linked to family lineage and inheritance. Moreover, in Genesis, the divine prophecy that Jacob will usurp his older twin brother becomes activated and validated through his usurpation of the family inheritances. Jacob relies upon craft and deception to prove his claim to divine love, first by usurping his brother’s inheritance and then by usurping the inheritance of his maternal uncle. In each case, he relies upon the assistance of women to seal the deal.

In Shakespeare’s play, as in the Jacob cycle, love acts as a marker that anticipates the direction in which wealth will travel. Antonio loves Bassanio, and therefore offers him “My purse, my person, my extremest means.” And Antonio has given Bassanio his future earnings as well, the inheritance of his business ventures, by borrowing on Bassanio’s behalf. Antonio offers him his heart, his body as bond, and his money, as though they are interchangeable. Then Bassanio is free to travel to Belmont and pursue Portia—and her portion—as Jacob had traveled to his mother’s homeland. Having secured both the love and wealth of Antonio and Portia, Bassanio’s second important resemblance to Jacob appears during Portia’s legal intervention in the Duke’s court, for Portia manipulates the law similarly to the ways Rebekah and Rachel manipulated inheritance law in Genesis.

Despite three enactments of the narrative—through Bassanio, Lorenzo, and the clown Bobbo—Shakespeare also subverts the Jacob plot, for the play draws our attention to the disinherited through Shylock, the disinherited Jew. Unlike Jacob, who accrues inheritances at every turn, Bassanio cannot stay solvent—he is a spendthrift with both money and love. Lorenzo and Jessica, house-sitting in Belmont, echo Bassanio’s flaws, comparing themselves  to ancient lovers whose relationships end in heartbreak, severed by infidelity, ignorance, or death. Shylock’s daughter, in duplicating and even intensifying Bassanio’s plot, exposes the discrepancies between Shylock’s ancient Jacob and our modern Bassanio, who only appears to be Jacob-like.

The Jacob narrative and the two nations who arise from it had traditionally been marshalled by European Christians to justify political hegemony and the marginalization of Jews, as the younger religion displaced the older. Protestants used the narrative to argue for ascendency over the Roman church, and reformist Protestants likewise turned to the Jacob narrative for theological and political authority. Yet the Bassanio plot illuminates the dangers of absolute principle in a world where betrayal, deceit, and falseness have become the normative framework of English life. Bassanio’s profligacy with money cannot be disentangled from the ephemeral, disruptive, and uncertain nature of love itself in the play, which remains rooted in a sensual experience. 

The biblical narrative begins with Isaac’s faulty vision, which allows Jacob’s usurpation of his brother’s blessing. Yet the play persists in presenting us with lovers who rely upon vision and perception—both notoriously unstable—to cultivate and justify love, implying a certain instability in love. In Act I Bassanio acknowledges that he must be gilded with Antonio’s riches in order to secure Portia. The entire plot, indeed, stems from his need for capital to present a wealthy appearance. Bassanio in his borrowed riches understands that appearance does not reflect reality, so he chooses the lead casket, which appears to suggest that Portia’s wealth cannot be judged by appearances, though irony abounds. His earlier description of Portia with hair like “golden fleece” reminds us of the fleece used by Jacob to deceive his father and the manipulation of the fleece in his uncle Laban’s herds to increase his wealth. Stripped of her golden fleece, is Portia nothing more than a figure of lead? Stripped of his borrowed gilding, is Bassanio the same? If we cannot trust what we see because it is gilded, if love relies solely upon visual perception and that perception is constantly at risk of being blinded by gold, we must reconsider the permanence or reliability of love.

Lorenzo alludes to this dilemma while he waits for Jessica to disguise herself, for in his praise of Jessica, Lorenzo raises the possibility that he might be seeing what someone (even himself) wants him to see. And Jessica promises to “gild” herself for him in reply. The gilding makes her “wise, fair, and true” for Lorenzo, as Portia’s wealth gilds her for Bassanio.

The tension between Acts IV and V makes more sense in light of the re-constructed Jacob narrative. Portia’s faith in Bassanio has been strained, and Shylock’s faith—both his faith in people and his ability to practice his religious faith as a Jew—has been destroyed. As Portia and all that she owns is converted to Bassanio, Shylock and all that he owns is converted to his enemies. Shylock and Portia pull the play in different directions, Shylock propelling it toward darkness and tragedy while Portia wrests it back toward comedy and romance. Act V reasserts romance over revenge, humor over hatred.

When Portia realizes how readily Bassanio would betray her love to save Antonio, she diffuses the potential for tragedy by making a joke of infidelity. Unlike Shylock’s, Portia’s world requires neither fidelity nor integrity. Bassanio is not what he seems, only gilded. But it is enough. Just as Portia accepts Bassanio’s poverty earlier in the play, she accepts the limitations of his love at the end of the play. Her forgiveness and acceptance of Bassanio is not Christian charity so much as an acknowledgment that love, “engender’d in the eyes,” is unstable at best. In Act V love is joyful, witty, good-humored and bawdy, but not sacred, eternal, or divine. Portia the pragmatist triumphs at the end of the play because she does not expect transparency or sincerity, and because she does not insist upon principled absolutes. Shylock is defeated because he does.

The play encompasses two locations as two potential futures for the contemporary audience. Belmont, where love is a negotiation, is a world in which betrayal becomes a moment to reconstruct, rather than abandon, relationships. Venice, however, and Shylock in particular, offers an alternative vision, in which principles take precedence. Most significantly, Shakespeare’s audience may have recognized in Shylock not only the Jew of Venice but also the Puritan businessman of the City, both metaphorically and literally.

The Puritan claim to be the new Israelites often invited pejorative comparisons even in the seventeenth century. The severe literalism of Puritans, only slightly exaggerated by Shylock, was frequently a source of friction. It is not the Protestant-Catholic schism that threatens London society, but the principled intensity of a Puritan faction in their midst. The cultural and political response to Puritanism through a surrogate and scapegoated Jew appears most directly at the end of Act IV, when Shylock’s reliance upon a strict interpretation of the law is used to assimilate and silence him. Shylock’s forced assimilation, therefore, re-enacts the desire of the authorities to absorb and thereby silence Puritan critics as well as Jews. 

Tudor claims to religious and political authority required the repression of uncomfortable theological and historical facts. Shylock, as both Jew and Puritan-like figure, asserts his prior claims—legal, religious, and political. Portia and the Duke’s court assert their authority over Shylock by erasing his lineage, his memory of his own identity, and his future ability to reassert that heritage. By contrast, Bassanio, Jessica, and Launcelot, despite their Jacob-like plots, hardly inspire confidence in their steadiness or spiritual reliability as an alternative to Shylock. What they offer instead is a pragmatic, agile, clear-eyed understanding of legal, political, and personal possibilities among self-interested but potentially cooperative citizens, merchants, and gentry who accept the world order simply as it exists, not as it should be.

Shylock’s literal and absolute view of the world, ultimately represents a clear political and personal threat to an imperfect but relatively (for the time being) balanced political system. The play offers us a “gilded” and easily identified conflict between Jew and Christian, Old Testament Law and New Testament Charity. But beneath the apparent tension lies a reflection on the nature of ideological conflict itself—the sincerity of conviction represented by Shylock that leads inexorably toward vengeance, or the pragmatic adjustments represented by Portia that can defuse iconoclastic violence, civil war, or regicide by accepting something less than divine perfection in a human world. In the midst of internal tension and division, Shakespeare offers his audience in The Merchant of Venice a path out of an ideological dead end and political conflict toward a notion of accommodation to reality that offers a hopeful, if imperfect and tenuous, future peace.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Shylock, Bassanio, and the Jacob Narrative: Jewish Love and Christian Wealth in The Merchant of Venice,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.4 (September 2019). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

“I’m a man of this time”: Categories of Sin and the Shadow of Dante in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men

By Rachel B. Griffis

From the first monologue that hints at his retirement, to the closing narration of a dream of his father, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell confesses his sins. The defeated spokesperson for morality in Cormac McCarthy’s crime thriller, No Country for Old Men (2005), considers himself complicit in the rampant evil that populates the novel, although the more obvious embodiment of evil is expressed in the stone-cold killer, Anton Chigurh, whom Bell initially pursues. At first glance, the sheriff and Chigurh make up the conventional “good guy/bad guy” dynamic in genre fiction, with the impulsive thief Llewelyn Moss functioning as an everyman figure who makes a big mistake. However, many McCarthy scholars have recognized that Bell complicates this dynamic because he is a morally compromised character, reflected in his professional retirement, a decision he makes specifically to exempt himself from further hunting Chigurh. As Vincent Allan King suggests, “Bell is best seen not as a foil to Chigurh and Moss but as their compatriot, their partner in crime.” Indeed, Bell is the “compatriot” of both Chigurh and Moss, a partner who also demonstrates how each character represents categories, or degrees, of sin resonant with the Catholic tradition in which McCarthy was raised.

McCarthy’s resonance with Catholic categories of sin in this novel points to a more specific influence on the creation of his characters and fictional world: Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. At the initial crime scene in No Country for Old Men, Bell’s colleague Torbert aptly states, “This whole thing is just hell in spectacles,” a comment that suggests Bell’s ensuing investigative journey will involve harrowing instruction on the nature of sin and evil as he beholds men who repeatedly choose their own moral disfigurement. As a literary descendant of Inferno, McCarthy’s novel offers Bell as an unreliable commentator, a character who takes the pilgrim Dante’s place as he descends into “hell in spectacles” not only to learn about the categories of sin represented there, but also to confront his own repeated contributions to the moral catastrophes of his world. Through the course of the story, the main characters—Moss, Bell, and Chigurh—effectively represent three distinct ways of sinning, paralleling transgression in significant locations of Inferno: Moss belongs to the tribe of rash sinners in Upper Hell, Bell bears likeness to the slothful on the cusp of Lower Hell, and Chigurh’s evil acts and disposition mirror souls in the deepest parts of Lower Hell, where the most serious sins are punished.

Llewelyn Moss’s initial transgression, greed that prompts theft, corresponds to Dante’s Upper Hell, which contains lustful, avaricious, and gluttonous souls who committed the least deadly of the deadly sins. The sinners who inhabit these circles of hell are undisciplined, subject to their appetites, and often guilty of acting on impulse. When they begin their journey through the higher sections of hell, Dante’s guide Virgil tells him, “Here you shall pass among the fallen people, / souls who have lost the good of intellect,” emphasizing how such sinners have lost their self-control to their passions. The punishment of the lustful, consequently, is to be blown about incessantly by violent storms because during their lives they were controlled by their undisciplined desires. Dante explains his observation of “the never-ending flight / of those who sinned in the flesh, the carnal and lusty” as the consequence of souls while alive “who betrayed reason to their appetite.” These sinners subject to “the never-ending flight” of the afterworld are to be distinguished from the more disciplined sinners Dante will encounter deeper in hell. As Robert Hollander explains, the sins committed by those inhabiting Upper and Lower Hell is the difference “between the frame of mind of a casual shoplifter and that of someone planning an elaborate holdup of a bank: the first does not wake up in the morning planning to steal a ribbon from a department store; the second awakens with a plan in mind.” Similarly, in No Country for Old Men, Llewelyn Moss goes hunting for antelope, happens upon a failed drug deal, and makes a decision in the space of a few minutes to abscond with the 2.4 million dollars he finds in the Texas wilderness.

In Anton Chigurh’s opening scene, he is depicted as Moss’s polar opposite in matters of sin. Whereas Moss unexpectedly finds the drug money that triggers his temptation. Chigurh actively seeks to achieve excellence in immorality. Chigurh’s introduction, then, features him breaking free from detention in a deputy’s office in which he systematically strangles the man with handcuff chains. As Chigurh begins to perform the first onstage murder of the book, the narrative notes, “If it looked like a thing he’d practiced many times it was.” A far cry from Moss’s hasty decision to succumb to greed, Chigurh’s later explanation of this murder signals how he has conformed his will to sin. He explains to Carson Wells that he allowed the deputy to detain him in handcuffs due to an experiment: “I wanted to see if I could extricate myself by an act of will.” Chigurh’s choice to perform the murder in the way he does, so that he could challenge himself and have greater knowledge of his own abilities, demonstrates his devotion to evil, a kind of devotion that perversely mirrors the virtues of saints who similarly persevere in their loyalty to goodness. Chigurh’s planned experiment in his first scene, then, resembles the sins punished in Dante’s Lower Hell, beyond the Gate of Dis. As Peter S. Hawkins notes, in Lower Hell, Dante “experiences the corruption of a higher human faculty, the will, as it turns in various ways toward violence.”

Occupying the space between Moss and Chigurh on the continuum of sin in No Country for Old Men, Bell functions as the figure whose sins may be the least noticeable because they are the most common. He parallels the sinners Dante appropriately meets in the middle of his journey through hell who are characterized by their lack of love or energy, directed either to goodness or evil. These sinners are neither passionate about false gods like Moss nor disciplined in evil like Chigurh. They are not subject to the whims of desire, as are the lustful, avaricious, or gluttonous, nor do they approximate the violent, envious, or prideful individuals who occupy Lower Hell. Nevertheless, Bell is a third kind of sinner in the story, one who provides insights, with his behavior and perspective, into the moral deficiencies of his time, and by extension, the time in which the novel was published.

Bell calls himself “a man of this time,” implying that he himself possesses and expresses the sin common to and prevalent in the current age, a sin that appears innocuous for its ubiquity. Far from innocuous, however, Bell refers to a transgression that encompasses apathy, passivity, and spiritual stagnancy. Catholic theology considers this transgression a deadly sin, naming it both acedia and sloth. Specifically, this sin is defined as a disposition of despair and spiritual torpor, often manifesting itself in sinners’ refusal to pursue virtue actively even as they refrain from vicious acts. Bell illustrates acedia not only through his negative perspective but also in his failure to pursue virtue when it was his duty to stay with his men on the battlefield in France, a transgression he repeats much later in life when he resigns from his position to avoid further tracking Chigurh. By presenting Bell as a Dantean figure whose descent into hell brings him close to formidable sinners and exposure to different categories of transgression, including his own, No Country for Old Men participates in discussions and evaluations of morality in an American context. Through its specious presentation of Bell’s failures, combined with his simultaneous affinity with and contrast to Moss and Chigurh, the novel’s moral contribution to its context lies in its suggestion that the sheriff’s spiritual torpor is indeed a prominent danger to virtue in a world that mirrors hell.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “’I'm a man of this time’: Categories of Sin and the Shadow of Dante in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.4 (September 2019). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

Beauty and Madness: Caesar’s Things, a Christian Novel by Zelda Fitzgerald

By Sharon Kim

Like The Great Gatsby, which is dedicated to her, Zelda Fitzgerald is an icon of the Jazz Age: blithe, glamorous, fearlessly modern. A coveted guest at parties, she was the woman who danced on table tops and drank more than her husband Scott. Her beauty was described as un-photographable, too luminous for a static image, while her youth, wit, and irreverence made her the “It” girl of the 1920s. During the spring of 1930, however, she suffered a severe mental breakdown. She hallucinated voices and experienced terrifying nightmares. She became deeply anxious, suicidal. For the rest of her life, she would undergo long stays at psychiatric hospitals, receiving treatments that helped her recover but never fully restored her. In the mid-1930s, after a third breakdown, Fitzgerald became a devout Christian, and during the 1940s, she wrote a religious novel called Caesar’s Things.

This later phase of her life is not commonly known or celebrated. In those later decades, Fitzgerald would pray and read the Bible intently, sometimes for hours. She faithfully attended an Episcopal church. She wrote several religious tracts and even sent missionary letters to friends like Gertrude Stein. So different was this Zelda from her younger self that her conversion has seemed unbelievable to most of her friends, family, and biographers. The difference alone was striking, but Fitzgerald’s mental illness made it harder to take her faith seriously. Her husband viewed her religion as a psychosis, something the real Zelda would not have adopted if she were in her right mind.

Scholars have taken a similar view of Caesar’s Things, treating it as the sign of her mental disorder, not as a literary work. For this reason, Caesar’s Things initially vanished into a sort of Bermuda’s triangle among them. When faced with difficult passages in the manuscript, scholars explained them in terms of Fitzgerald’s illness: the novel did not make sense because the author had lost her mind. As logical as this approach might be, it short-circuited the process of interpretation a little too hastily. What is more, this attitude among critics was likely underwritten by the ancient association of women and madness, along with the equally ancient association of religion and madness, in which disrespect for the first item in a pair facilitated placing it into the category of the second. These three elements of Fitzgerald’s identity—female, mentally ill, and religious—made her manuscript unintelligible to the modern critics who first read it. They often used words like “incoherent” and “chaotic” to describe Caesar’s Things.

This novel, however, while unfinished and unpublished, is not genuinely incoherent. Fitzgerald worked on Caesar’s Things from 1940-1948, the years when she was released from psychiatric care. Doctors judged her well enough to live at home in Alabama, with only occasional returns to the hospital. Her letters and notes reveal a rational concept for Caesar’s Things, along with deliberate planning for its structure and tropes. The manuscript itself, housed at the Princeton Rare Book and Special Collections Library, shows many signs of revision, in distinct draft stages. Caesar’s Things is a crafted novel, not an unfiltered expression of insanity.

Loosely autobiographical, Caesar’s Things focuses on a woman named Janno: her childhood in the American South, her marriage to a celebrity artist, and their cosmopolitan life in New York, Paris, and the south of France. The novel’s theme and title come from the words of Jesus: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17; Matthew 22:21; Luke 20:25). Writing about herself in third person, the narrator confesses her mistake in giving to Caesar what should have been God’s. In portraying Janno as one of Caesar’s things, Fitzgerald aims to point the way out of Caesar’s domain and into the kingdom of God.

This narrative has a clear symmetry: three chapters on Janno’s childhood and three on her adult life, with a transitional chapter in between. Both halves of the novel follow a distinct theological pattern: an arc of creation, fall, and redemption. They both begin with descriptions of edenic newness— a “garden” or “paradise”— then focus on a central sin: misuse of money in the novel’s first half; misuse of human love in the second, following the two-part structure of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Both halves also contain a redeeming vision or epiphany.

Such intentional design comes with a parodic twist. Fitzgerald presents an explicit theological re-evaluation of the 1920s, recognizing its beauty but characterizing it as a form of madness: a glittering world attempting to separate itself from God, when only God provides true coherence and meaning. In presenting this critique, Fitzgerald re-purposes the techniques of modernist experimentation, using non-linear temporality, stream-of-consciousness, and dream-like surrealistic images in prophetic sequences. These experimental features leave Fitzgerald vulnerable to the charge of mental illness, yet her point is that the excesses of the 1920s were the real madness. The fragmented strangeness of Caesar’s Things reveals the mental and spiritual disorder of a modern world that had defined itself apart from God, while the biblical and theological patterns provide a stabilizing structure for the whole. 

Caesar’s Things is Fitzgerald’s effort to create a religious modernism, fusing the aesthetic forms of the post-World War I era with the biblical teachings she came fervently to believe. Her novel, although unfinished, achieves enough of its intended goal to make it visible: modernist beauty infused with faith in Christ.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “The Brokenness of Caesar’s Things: On the Unfinished Religious Novel by Zelda Fitzgerald” published in Christianity & Literature 68.2 (March 2019). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

Theory and Theology in Chinese Literary Studies

By Sharon Kim

In the People’s Republic of China, university students take required courses in Marxist ideology, and scholarly publications are monitored in relation to Marxist structures of thought. Under the leadership of Chairman Mao (1949-1976), Christianity was commonly described as an opiate for the masses, a residue of European feudalism, or a tool of Western imperialism. Religion as a research subject was taboo, subject to censorship. Yet beginning in the 1980’s, Chinese intellectuals have shown a deep interest in Christian theology, reading avidly among western theologians such as Augustine, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and John Milbank. These scholars have not sought to denigrate religion but to find within it sources of insight into the modern condition.

What makes these studies remarkable is not simply that they exist in an inhospitable context, but that they adopt theology in ways usually limited in the United States to religious believers. In Chinese literary studies, secular scholars have engaged in theological readings of literature in much the same way that there are feminist, post-colonial, or ecocritical readings. Some deliberately combine theology with literary theory in their work: an ambidextrous approach that is rare—and perhaps even incomprehensible—in mainstream American literary studies today. Although such work exists in the United States, it does so in the margins. Standard textbooks and anthologies, for example, exclude theology as a contemporary factor in literary studies, and journals such as Christianity and Literature are housed at religious institutions. The Chinese intellectuals, however, are based at major universities such as Renmin University of China, which has a stature comparable to an Ivy League school. Officially the most Marxist of Chinese universities, it nonetheless provides an institutional home for the top three intellectuals associated with theological studies; it also publishes a premier journal in that field. The Chinese scholars involved in this work are not church-affiliated intellectuals, yet they take seriously the contributions of religion to the extent of adopting theology into intellectual practice. 

Some theological concepts that have attracted the Chinese include kenosis (the divine self-emptying of Christ), Scriptural Reasoning, inculturation, and Karl Barth’s distinction between the word of God and human discourse. Although scholars have different reasons for reading theology, it seems to provide a methodology of intellectual freedom: a counter-balance to Marxist views on scientific rationality and a corrective to the overly-proscribed guidelines associated with the Cultural Revolution. By acknowledging human finitude before the divine, theology enables critical reflection in China instead of suspending it. It is the corrective to intellectual dogma as well as political.

Literature has played an important role in this development. Liu Xiaofeng’s groundbreaking work in intellectual theology, Deliverance and Dallying (Zhengjiu yu xiaoyao, 1988), was published as a study in comparative poetry. Liu first encountered Christianity not through missionaries or clergy but through his studies: in the novels of Dostoevsky and Hugo, in philosophical writings by Pascal and Kierkegaard. Similarly, Yang Huilin, currently the most active and influential of the intellectuals addressing theology in mainland China, is a professor of Comparative Literature and Religion. Major international conferences held in China and featuring discussion of theology were organized by comparative literature or foreign literature associations. Literature seems to have provided a cover for the study of religion, deflecting censorship and legitimizing the careful consideration of theology. While theology is not recognized as an academic discipline in China, the study of it has flourished within fields such as literature, philosophy, sociology, and cultural studies.

Literary studies has proven particularly hospitable. Since ancient times, literature and religion have long been interconnected in China, and for Yang Huilin and others, the theological reading of texts finds a precedent in the Chinese concept of "jing," 经. “Jing” refers to the canon of Chinese classics (Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist), but it is also used to translate the English word “Bible” or “Scripture” into Chinese. The convergence of literature and religion in “jing” has produced a centuries-old literati culture that unites reading and identity formation. Similar to the Christian tradition of forming the spiritual self through careful readings of the Bible, the Chinese “jingxue,” or study of the classics, aimed to cultivate a fully-rounded human being, equally developed in terms of wisdom, teaching, and moral behavior. To study the classics was to deepen the moral nature as well as to advance as a literary scholar. In essays such as “The Value of Theology in the Humanities,” Yang identifies three areas in which the humanities can interact fruitfully with theology: theological hermeneutics, theological ethics, and theological aesthetics. Together, these avenues develop the intellectual, ethical, and emotional dimensions of the human through knowing (zhi), moral will (yi), and the emotions (qing).

In his essay “The Potential Value of Contemporary Theology for Literary Theories,” Yang Huilin observes that contemporary theology and literary theory have both had to confront the same crisis of meaning prompted by postmodern thought; for this reason, theology can enter meaningfully into the sphere of literary theory and also speak into contemporary thought. During the 1990s, Yang placed theology in critical dialogue with postmodern theory, arriving at insightful, theologically-based responses to Derrida, Foucault, and others that parallel the responses created in the United States but were, until recently, unknown in the United States.

Yang advocates a purely secular study of theology. As the former Vice President of Renmin University of China, and a member of the Communist Party, Yang adheres to Marxist ideology and is not interested in adopting or promoting a personal Christian belief. Yet remarkably, his idea of secular study does not evacuate Christian theology of its nature as an approach to absolute truth in Christ. Yang and Liu have both been careful to affirm the divine and absolute dimension of theology and to oppose attempts to reduce theology to an ethics, even though both have sought to derive lessons applicable to Chinese society. 

This version of a secular study of theology is so respectful of religious belief that it presents a fascinating manifestation of the post-secular. The Chinese government enforces a Marxist secularity over academic programs, publications, and conferences, yet the work of these Chinese scholars opens post-secular vistas within that structure. The same government that in 2018 initiated the burning of crosses, demolishing of church buildings, and imprisonment of prominent pastors, also funds new projects in “Literature and Religion” through the prestigious National Social Science Foundation of China and has awarded large grants for the creation of research databases in Theology and the Humanities.

The recent and conspicuous crackdown on religious freedom co-exists in China with vibrant theological conversations in literature. What is more, the study of Christianity has drawn increased numbers of younger scholars in China, and research suggests that they are more open than the senior-level scholars to having a personal religious faith. As Christianity grows in China— one estimate is 67 million Christians in the PRC—, the typical Chinese Christian has an advanced education and a strong social consciousness. This demographic reality will likely fuel new developments in the study of Christianity and Literature, both through the rise of Chinese Christian literature and in alternative theoretical models for approaching it. In the 1980s and 1990s, Yang Huilin, Liu Xiaofeng, and others sought to legitimize the intellectual study of religion and theology in China, using literature as the field in which to do so. How the next generation builds on the foundation of the older generation will be interesting to watch.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Introduction to Theory and Theology in Chinese Literary Studies: An Early Map” published in Christianity & Literature 68.1 (December 2019). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

Notes from “'The sacred idiom shorn of its referents': An Apophatic Reading of The Road"

By L. Lamar Nisly

Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road follows a father and son’s journey as they try to survive in a devastated landscape.  In a world in which the boy’s mother has committed suicide rather than attempt to escape the roving bands of cannibals, the father and son find few signs of hope and more questions than affirmations.  I believe, however, that reading The Road through an apophatic lens shows that the novel contains hints and suggestions of the divine.  Apophatic (or negative) theology proposes that the language we use about God is always limiting, so it may be more accurate to avoid positive statements about God—such as God is mighty—in favor of negative statements—such as God is not weak.  My apophatic reading examines The Road’s negations, hints, and images to point out that even in the novel’s bleak world, some suggestions of God shine through. Noting these possibilities of hope does not ignore the darkness but rather provides the reader—and the characters—a ray of possibility, a way to push forward on the journey.

Over several millennia, apophatic theologians have pointed out the limits of language to talk about God and have sought to find other, sometimes negative, ways to point to the divine.  The apophatic tradition spans many religions with a variety of emphases.  Two examples from the Christian tradition suggest something of the range of apophatic responses. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa says, “Thus in speaking about God, where there is a question of his essence, then is the time for silence.” Meister Eckhardt, pointing to language’s limitations in describing God, writes in the thirteenth century, “So if I say, ‘God is good,’ that is not true. . . . . For these three dogmas are alien to God: ‘good,’ ‘better,’ and ‘best,’ for he is superior to them all.”  Though at times the bleakness of The Road may evoke silence about the divine, the text more commonly contains hints that break the silence and point toward a hidden God.

The plot and setting of The Road are spare, opening space for the reader to focus on McCarthy’s searing, poetic language as he narrates the father and son’s journey south.  Traveling through a bleak American landscape and largely abandoned cities, the man seeks to protect and feed his son while wrestling with how to make sense of the devastation they encounter.  Early in the novel, the man briefly steps away from the boy and kneels in the ashes from past fires: “He raised his face to the paling day.  Are you there?  he whispered. Will I see you at the last?  Have you a neck by which to throttle you?  Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul?  Oh God, he whispered, Oh God.”  While the compressed prose leaves some uncertainty about the man’s address, his kneeling posture and final exclamation to God—which seems some combination of invoking and cursing—draws the reader’s thoughts to the divine. The father seeks to find some hope to sustain their journey. 

Shortly thereafter, though, facing ongoing hunger and cold, the father finds the “name of things slowly following those things into oblivion.  Colors.  The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. . . .  The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.” In this evocative passage, the father seems to despair of any solid belief in God, with certainty about the divine leaching away as have other things previously encountered—colors, birds, food.  With the elevated language that McCarthy masterfully uses throughout his texts, the sentence, “the sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality,” seems to suggest that any names for God have become separated from a divine reality. Yet this calling into question the language—and even the reality—of God suggests an apophatic approach to God. 

Amidst this questioning, the novel provides images associated with the son that suggest a numinous quality.  In a scene after the father has shot a man who is about to kill the boy, the father washes the dead man’s brains out of the boy’s hair, thinking of it as “some ancient anointing. So be it.  Evoke the forms.  Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”  This linkage to the sacrament of baptism simultaneously points toward a higher reality while the father also undercuts the message by suggesting the ceremony may be an empty form.  Watching the boy sleep, the man again conjures a sacramental image as he strokes his son’s hair: “Golden chalice, good to house a god.” In another scene, the boy points out that it is snowing.  The father caught a “single gray flake” in his hand and “watched it expire there like the last host of Christendom.”   These powerful religious images—baptism, communion—call to mind the possibility of God at work in the world while their context, embedded as they are within the horrific reality of the novel, simultaneously resists a certainty about the divine. 

The boy’s prayers similarly show not a direct address to God but rather a sidling, glancing approach to the divine.  For instance, in one of the few bright spots of the novel, the father and son have discovered an underground bunker fully stocked with food, water, and other essentials for living.  Before they eat, the boy suggests that they should thank the people who left these supplies.  In what sounds like a sort of prayer, he says, “Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff.  We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldn’t eat it no matter how hungry we were and we’re sorry that you didnt get to eat it and we hope that you’re safe in heaven with God.”  The boy seems to respond to an urge to commune with the supernatural, to address a higher being, yet he approaches God indirectly. 

In an interview, Oprah Winfrey says to McCarthy, “You haven’t worked out the God thing yet.”  McCarthy responds, “It depends on what day you ask me.  Sometimes it’s good to pray. . . . I don’t think you have to have a clear idea of who or what God is in order to pray.  You can even be quite doubtful about the whole business.”  This questioning, apophatic stance infuses the whole narrative, even the passages that could include a direct address to God. Yet the presence of even attenuated prayers provides the characters and reader a suggestion that some divine power may yet be at work in this devastated world.

The novel’s concluding paragraph does not include an overt reference to God, nor is it unambiguously hopeful as it is suffused with a sense of loss.  Yet as has been the pattern throughout The Road, the ending can be read as hinting at the divine.  An apparently omniscient narrator offers these reflections:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.  You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand.  Polished and muscular and torsional.  On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming.  Maps and mazes.  Of a thing which could not be put back.  Not be made right again.  In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

On a basic level, the novel’s ending with a fish image provides a possible religious connection, with fish being long symbolically associated with Christianity.  More substantively, the passage is pulsing with a sense of beauty and order, with the exquisite description of the brook trout highlighting the wonder of creation.  Yet the description is prefaced and in some manner negated by the phrase “once there were,” suggesting that this awe-inspiring vision occurred in the past and may have been wiped away by the apocalyptic event, “not to be made right again.” 

True to the devastating scenes throughout the narrative, the novel refuses to provide an easy or unqualified hope in an ongoing divine ordering of the universe.  At the same time, the final line can be read as hinting at a reality that transcends humans’ terrible destructiveness.  Do these amazingly intricate brook trout still live in these deep glens?  Do they represent a faint hope that, as one of the “things . . . older than man,” they have survived the horrors that humanity has wrought upon the earth?  The novel’s end does not provide certainty.  But an apophatic reading that seeks hints and uncertainties as a way of pointing to God can embrace the humming of mystery as a possible glance of the divine.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “’The sacred idiom shorn of its referents’: An Apophatic Reading of The Road,” published in Christianity & Literature. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

Notes from “Shades of Bliss: Imagining Heaven in Wallace Stevens and Richard Wilbur”

By William Tate

In “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” Wallace Stevens summarizes two different pictures of heaven which he (or his speaker) reduces to projections of human desire. (You can read the poem here.) One of these summaries caricatures the Christian woman’s beliefs. This summary explains heaven as the projection of an uncharitable moralism in which “the conscience is converted into palms” (4) In other words, the speaker implies that Christians have imagined heaven for themselves as a kind of permanent beach vacation, complete with palm trees, which they will earn by means of their stringent morality. The second summary represents classical paganism as merely a projection of sensuality. In the pagan paradise “our bawdiness…indulged at last” is also “converted into palms” (9-11). The result is that “palm for palm” (12) the two summaries end in the same delights and amount to the same thing. As projections, they reveal something about human beings, but nothing about an afterlife. (There isn’t space here to develop the idea, but the poem incorporates a sort of popularized Freudianism in its idea of projection.)

In several ways, Richard Wilbur’s “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra” serves as an answer and antidote to “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman.” Near the end of the poem (which you can read here), Wilbur suggests that Saint Francis of Assisi might have recognized, in the fountain of Wilbur’s title, a “shade of bliss” (line 56). Shade here means something like picture or prefiguration, and the poem presents two different pictures of bliss—that is, blessedness. In Wilbur’s reflective poem bliss refers on one level to an anticipated afterlife. On another (but related) level it refers to moral life in this present age, a life well lived. Over the course of the poem, Wilbur considers two versions of the moral life as these are expressed by two styles of fountains. (Stevens similarly associates his two versions of the moral life and two versions of heaven with two different architectural styles: his “nave” evokes the architecture of a Christian cathedral, and his “peristyle” evokes the architecture of a classical pagan temple.)

The wall-fountain of Wilbur’s title depicts a family of fauns who seem refreshed by the falling water of the fountain. The details in the section of the poem which describes this fountain imply a conventionally negative evaluation of its paganism (an evaluation like Stevens’s Christian woman might make). The description of the fountain begins at the top and moves downward by means of diction which frequently suggests failure, and perhaps blame: the water “breaks” and “spills” over the edges of the fountain’s basins; the water is “ragged” and “loose” and “collapse[s]” (the term embeds lapse); and so on. The fountain’s figures are also described with ambivalent terms: the young fauns are “goatish” (though in their “innocence”); the smile of the “fauness” is “blinded,” apparently because she is experiencing “a saecular ecstacy.” The speaker recognizes that the fountain depicts a particular fleshly style of human participation in the world and concludes the section by asking “since this all / Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall, / Must it not be too simple?” (26-8). In other words, doesn’t this fountain’s perspective on the good life reduce it to transient, sensual pleasure?

Wilbur contrasts the wall-fountain with two “plain fountains” in St. Peter’s Square (see here). Countering the downward orientation in the description of the wall-fountain, the description of these fountains focuses on upward movement: “the main jet / [Struggles] aloft… / In the act of rising” (31-2); the water is “borne up” (35) and “Delays” (38) its falling. The speaker recognizes these fountains as “water-saints” which evidently “display / The pattern of our areté” (42-3). These fountains figure “what men are / Or should be” (41-2; we would expect Stevens’s Christian woman to approve). 

Despite recognizing the intended and conventional symbolism of the St. Peter’s Square fountains, however, the speaker’s thoughts return to the joyfully sensuous fauns of the wall-fountain. The fauns have managed to reconcile their desire with apparent peace of mind: “They are at rest in fullness of desire” (46) so that they actually reprove “our disgust and our ennui” (50) with their “humble insatiety” (51). In other words, the fauns also become models of virtue, especially the virtue of humility. In the imagination of the speaker, their desire makes them aware of their incompleteness, their need for something more than they have.

The disgust and ennui which the fauns tacitly rebuke strikes me as akin to the high tone taken by the old Christian woman in Stevens’s poem; if Stevens (or his speaker) means to rebuke Christian hypocrisy, Wilbur would apparently agree that self-righteous condescension ought to be reproved. But “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” empties out the meaning of “sinner” as well as of “saint.” Wilbur’s conclusion is more nuanced; his poem allows that holiness and sin mingle in all kinds of people—in this life—and that the categories still matter. Given this mingling, charity is in order, and the apparent saint may learn something from the apparent sinner. God’s appropriation of it may “baptize” even sinful desire.

C. S. Lewis once said, “There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else” (The Problem of Pain, 145). The point is that God may use, even that God regularly uses, human desire (including wrongly directed desire) to draw needy human beings. In Lewis such desire occurs as romantic Sehnsucht. In “Christianity and Culture” Lewis admits that “the dangers of romantic Sehnsucht are very great” and says “my early experiences” of it “were occasions to much that I…repent,” but adds that “the experiences themselves contained…a wholly good element.” Wilbur suggests the same understanding in the final line of the poem when he concludes that “all hungers leap” and “all pleasures pass” toward heaven.

Stevens’s old Christian woman apparently disdains the body and the natural; the poem associates her with ascetic self-flagellants. In his poem Christianity has nothing to offer. But neither has paganism. Wilbur similarly juxtaposes two understandings of the world which at first seem to be in conflict, but his charitable optimism recognizes in them a potential for alliance. He is of the school of St. Francis. As Cornelius Plantinga explains, “St. Francis of Assisi and his kin show us how to love the natural world without worshipping it. In their eyes, material reality is a good thing. God loves matter, which is why he made lots of it” (Engaging God’s World, 37). Francis’s humble love of God’s creation explains his readiness, in Wilbur’s poem, to see in the sensuality of the fauns “a shade of bliss,” a picture of God’s purposes.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “When Did Wendell Berry Start Talking Like a Christian?,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.2 (March 2019). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

When Did Wendell Berry Start Talking like a Christian?

By Jeffrey Bilbro

1979, or thereabouts. Granted, this answer simplifies a considerably more complicated story. But I begin with this date to foreground my claim that Berry’s use of Christian language does indeed shift. Though Berry’s Christian theology has received much attention, most readers assume its presence, conflicted though it may be, remains relatively consistent throughout his writings. This, however, is not the case, and focusing on when Berry began talking like a Christian sheds light on why Berry thinks Christian language is necessary.

It was in 1979 that Berry published his first essay on a biblical vision of stewardship, started writing his sabbath poems, and began drafting Remembering. At this time, he was also carrying on a remarkable correspondence with the Buddhist poet Gary Snyder in which he takes up, albeit uneasily, the defense of the biblical tradition. Berry’s revisions to his earlier work provide another window into his changing stance toward Christianity during these years; when he selects his poems for the 1985 Collected Poems, he omits several of his early poems that conveyed a kind of pagan, animist vision of creation.

What seems to underlie this shift is Berry’s growing sense that the Christian language of Creation was indispensable for rightly articulating the human place in the world. As he writes in his 1979 essay “The Gift of Good Land,” “the idea of the land as a gift—not a free or a deserved gift, but a gift given upon certain rigorous conditions” has far-reaching implications, and working out the implications of Creation-as-gift animates much of Berry’s later work.

As a young author, Berry sought a new language to name and articulate his sense of a sacred presence within the natural, material world. Dissatisfied with the terms handed down by his Christian tradition, Berry turned to poets working outside the bounds of institutional religion. He describes this quest most explicitly in a 1970 essay titled “A Secular Pilgrimage” in which he identifies a loose tradition of “nature poets” who “sensed the presence of a shaping and sustaining spirit within [nature].” Poetry written in this tradition, Berry argues, “arises out of a state of mind that could very accurately be described as religious.” But his use of the word “religious” seems to cause him some uneasiness, and he immediately clarifies that he means it in a “primitive” rather than institutional sense.

In this essay, Berry concludes that the dawn of a more ecologically harmonious era would require us to articulate this primitive religion in new language: “Such an era, like all eras, will arrive and remain by the means of a new speech—a speech that will cause the world to live and thrive in men’s minds.” This desire for “a new speech” motivates his readings of these nature poets, poets who are exploring new ways of naming the “mystery” that is immanent in the physical world.

Though Berry calls for “new” language in this 1970 essay, ten years later he had come to distrust the possibility of conjuring up some radically new language. Rather, Berry had committed himself to the difficult work of renewing the Christian language he had inherited. In a letter to Gary Snyder, Berry admits, “My own problems with the Bible go back to childhood. In a society even nominally Christian, the Bible is bound to be a source of cheap religious thrills and of a false and abusive authority. It also becomes a kind of ‘parent’ against which the rebellious will rebel. My own disgust and rebellion lasted longer than I wish it had. . . . I now think or hope there is a kind of critical love that can make our inheritance from the past usable and useful.” Such passages chart Berry’s growing awareness that his Christian tradition and its theological terms do not impose some false consciousness that obscures reality; rather, they provide a linguistic repertoire he needs to make adequate sense of nature’s complexity.

By 1980, then, Berry’s letters to Snyder evince his commitment to renew the language of his Christian tradition rather than to find some “new speech” that could name the divinity immanent in the physical world. Their correspondence on the Christian tradition was sparked by two manuscripts that Berry sent to Snyder in the fall of 1979: his essay “The Gift of Good Land” and drafts of his first fifteen sabbath poems. “The Gift of Good Land” represents Berry’s first extended engagement with the Christian theological tradition, and it develops the robust theology of Creation that informs Berry’s later writings.

The concluding sentences of his essay state his position in stark terms: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.” In other words, Berry has come to believe that our lives are a continual participation in the Creator’s gift of life. This ontological reality obliges us to honor this gift in the way we sustain our lives.

Berry sent Snyder a draft of “The Gift of Good Land” in September 1979. In December, he sent Snyder a manuscript with the first fifteen of his sabbath poems. Snyder was rather skeptical about the merits of Berry’s sabbath project. He makes comments about particular poems, noting lines he likes and others he doesn’t, but his overall assessment is blunt: “I can enjoy the poems, but not the theology.” In his response, however, Berry defends his endeavor. He acknowledges that the institutional church has sadly abused Christian language, but Berry no longer wants to find a “new speech”; his hope now is that careful, imaginative poetry might help to redeem an abused yet necessary way of speaking:

Biblical concepts such as ‘sabbath,’ ‘incarnation,’ and ‘resurrection’ seem to me just particular names for general principles. That’s misleading. They do have their particular meanings. What I think the churches have done is use the particular meanings to obscure the general ones. . . . These poems are the result, partly, of a whole pattern of dissatisfactions: with my time and history, with my work, with my grasp of problems, with such solutions as I have found, with the traditions both of poetry and religion that the poems attempt to use and serve. That last dissatisfaction is the cause of all the immediate difficulties. There the traditions are, inextricably braided together, very beautiful in certain manifestations, but broken off, cheapened, weakened, encrusted, with hateful growths—yet so rich, so full of the suggestion of usefulness and beauty, that I finally can’t resist the impulse to try to lay hold of them.

Berry’s syntax indicates the tentative nature of his work; he begins with one statement, then calls it misleading and offers a more accurate one. He seems at once eager to take up these beautiful yet cheapened words and unsure of how best to go about this difficult task. Yet over the following forty years, his more than 350 sabbath poems demonstrate the rich fruit this approach has born.

In one sabbath poem, Berry states his theological convictions with remarkable boldness:

The incarnate Word is with us,

is still speaking, is present

always, yet leaves no sign

but everything that is.

The presence of the Creator in Creation may sound akin to pagan animism or pantheism, but Berry comes to understand this mystery in terms of the Christian doctrine of incarnation. The Word who spoke Creation into being becomes a member of his Creation. As Berry writes elsewhere, drawing on several Old Testament passages, “Creation is thus God’s presence in creatures.”

This incarnational understanding of Creation inspires the robust theology of Berry’s sabbath poems. As another of his poems has it, each sabbath is “the morning / also of the resurrection of Jesus.” We can rest, finally, because the Word who spoke the world into being became incarnate to redeem Creation, and Christ’s resurrection is the earnest of a redemption that is already inaugurated and in which we are invited to participate. Hence, as Berry famously writes, we can “practice resurrection.” Yet by the time he embarked on his sabbath poems, Berry had come to believe that it is only through Christ that we can be at one with the Creator and so enter into “the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God.”

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “When Did Wendell Berry Start Talking Like a Christian?,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.2 (March 2019). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

How to Read and Interpret a Text Properly?

By Zhang Longxi

When a text is considered important for a culture and a tradition, e.g., the Bible, the Confucian classics, the Daoist canon or a Buddhist sutra, it becomes a critical issue how to read the text properly and understand it appropriately. In both China and the West, commentators and exegetes have tackled that question for centuries and, not surprisingly, they have come up with some basic and methodologically similar ideas about reading and interpretation. In eighteenth-century China of the Qing dynasty, the so-called “evidential scholarship” developed a philological principle of textual criticism that recognized the simple fact that one must first understand the sense of each word before one may know the meaning of a sentence, and from the accumulation of sentences one may come to understand the import of the entire text. But meaning is always contextual, so one must understand the import of the text as a whole so as to determine the meaning of a sentence, and one must understand the meaning of a sentence so as to determine the sense of a particular word. Reading thus moves forwards from words to sentences and from sentences to the whole text, but simultaneously it also moves backwards from the entire text to sentences and from sentences to individual words.

This to-and-fro movement from parts to the whole and from whole to the parts was called a “philological circle” in the West and developed into a “hermeneutic circle” in the early nineteenth century by the German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, who proposed a general hermeneutics on the basis of the long traditions of biblical exegesis and the study of Greek-Roman classics. Just as in the Chinese case, understanding is a hermeneutic circle moving back and forth not only between parts and the whole, but also between text as expression of an author’s intention and the author as a living being at a given place and time. Understanding thus moves in a circle not unlike the ancient symbol of ouroboros or a snake biting its own tail.

If that is the case, then, might not the hermeneutic circle run the risk of being a vicious circle in which reading and understanding work only to confirm one’s prior notions about a text and to legitimize one’s subjectivity? The question becomes more importunate as twentieth-century hermeneutics puts emphasis on the role of the reader and conceives of the reading process as one in which the reader participates in the creation of meaning. Martin Heidegger argues that before one understands, one already has a prior notion or anticipation of what it is to be understood, which he calls the “fore-structure” of understanding. Hans-Georg Gadamer deliberately calls it prejudice (Vorurteil) with which the hermeneutic act begins. The point of the hermeneutic circle, however, is not circularity as such, but precisely the working out of the full meaning of the text by testing one’s prior notions and correcting one’s prejudices against the text and, as Heidegger puts it, “the things themselves” outside the interpreter’s subjectivity. In reading a text, particularly a scriptural or a canonical one, the primary assumption is that the text is coherent and self-consistent, with different parts falling into place to form the whole with no internal contradictions. Textual integrity is thus a necessary condition for proper reading and valid interpretation.

In biblical exegesis, there is a long tradition that puts reading and interpretation on the basis of the literal sense of the Holy Scripture. In his small but essential book, On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine argues that the Bible contains literal signs and figurative signs; a literal sign is a word used to refer to its designated meaning, like the Latin bos referring to the animal we call “ox,” while a figurative sign is a word used to refer to a metaphorical or symbolic meaning beyond its literal sense, like the word “ox” used to mean “an evangelist, as is signified in the Scripture, according to the interpretation of the Apostle, when it says, ‘Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.’” Augustine warns the reader not to confuse the literal with the figurative, and he stipulates the following method to determine whether a locution is literal or figurative: “that whatever appears in the divine Word that does not literally pertain to virtuous behavior or to the truth of faith you must take to be figurative.” In other words, figurative signs in the Holy Scripture must be interpreted within the whole context of Christian theology as clearly expressed in the literal sense of the divine Word.

Just as there are literal and figurative signs, the Holy Scripture also contains plain passages with clear meanings and obscure passages that hide their meaning from the vulgar eye, only to be discovered with great pleasure by those who like to seek deeper meaning beyond the plain text. However, Augustine states clearly: “Hardly anything may be found in these obscure places which is not found plainly said elsewhere.” This statement ascertains the preeminence of the plain or literal sense of the scriptural text and maintains textual integrity, thereby setting up the exegetical principle that any interpretation of the Scripture must be based on the literal sense and take into consideration different parts of the scriptural text as a coherent whole.

This exegetical principle was reconfirmed by Thomas Aquinas in his major work, Summa theologica, in which he maintains that all the senses of the Holy Scripture “are founded on one—the literal—from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended allegorically, as Augustine says,” because “nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward clearly by the Scripture in its literal sense.” This principle was again consolidated at another important moment in the history of Christian theology when Martin Luther claims that the words of the Holy Spirit “can have no more than the one simplest meaning which we call the written one, or the literal meaning of the tongue”; and that “the Holy Scripture,” in Luther’s classic formulation, “is its own interpreter (scriptura sui ipsius interpres).”

Articulated by Augustine and reaffirmed by Aquinas and Luther, the exegetical principle that acknowledges the preeminence of the literal sense and upholds textual integrity proves remarkably relevant and important in the debate about meaning and interpretation in contemporary literary theory. From hermeneutics to reception theory and reader-response criticism, different schools of contemporary literary theory all tend to emphasize the creative role of the reader, while discounting the function of the author. Much of this may be seen as a corrective of the nineteenth-century positivistic bias towards the author as a God-like creator, but radical and often politicized postmodern theories tend to err by going to the other extreme, e. g., when Roland Barthes sensationally proclaimed “the death of the Author,” or when Stanley Fish argued that “the objectivity of the text is an illusion.” Confronted with such solipsistic overstatements, it makes perfect sense to revisit the exegetical principle from Augustine to Aquinas and Luther to defend textual integrity against untenable misreading and misinterpretations.

That is exactly what we find in Umberto Eco’s novel concept of the “intention of the text,” which he proposed to reinstate the preeminence of the literal sense and textual integrity, and to find a balance between the old deterministic concept of the author and the untenable postmodern extremes of an egotistic reader. The idea of the intentio operis, says Eco, is “an old one and comes from Augustine (De doctrina christiana): any interpretation given of a certain portion of a text can be accepted if it is confirmed by, and must be rejected if it is challenged by, another portion of the same text.” That brings us back to the hermeneutic circle and the idea of text as a coherent whole with no internal contradictions, which is an important idea shared by philological and interpretive traditions East and West. In modern hermeneutics and literary theory, while we acknowledge the active role of the reader and the plurality of interpretations, we should also realize that a valid interpretation must be based on adequate understanding of the literal sense of the text, and must consider all relevant factors—the author, the text, and the reader—without privileging one at the expense of the other. Interpretation is an art of persuasion that works best when it achieves a perfect balance of competing claims to hermeneutic significance without partiality or distortion.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “The Hermeneutic Circle, Textual Integrity, and the Validity of Interpretation,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.1 (December 2018), a special issue on Christianity and Chinese literary studies. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

A Chinese Novelist on Faith

By Chloe Starr 

The relation between writers and strong-arm states has always offered paradoxes of acclaim and ostracism: consider the Latin American novelas del dictator, or Solzhenitsyn and Soviet rule. As Innokenty noted in The First Circle, “for a country to have a great writer…is like having another government. That’s why no régime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.” The role of seer, or truth-teller, is heightened when people cannot speak freely, and communist leaders have long valorized the power of literature and the prestige writers bring to a country, while retaining the right to circumscribe their influence.

The generation of Chinese writers who grew up at the height of the Maoist era lived under a state that that promoted an atheist orthodoxy and claimed the right to know and judge a person’s inner thoughts. The writer Shi Tiesheng (1951-2010), who was rendered disabled during the Great Proletarian Culture Revolution, was later lauded by state bodies for his “disability fiction.” One of his short stories, “Strings of Life,” a tale of a blind banjo player seeking the meaning of existence, appears in a middle-school text book that was read by all. But Shi was also deeply interested in the interior life, and in the last two decades of his life his non-fiction writings in particular explored meaning and personhood through a range of Buddhist and Christian ideas. Delving into the self and the psyche, exploring what it meant to be human from within one’s own resources and experience, was an act of defiance and an article of faith.

Unlike millennials today in China, for many urban intellectuals of Shi’s generation there were no certainties, no clear-cut definitions of faith. Myth and story-telling are the preferred tropes to explore transcendence. Shi eschews both orthodox Christian formulae and Marxist materialism in his enquiry into the need for a human “I” to give significance to life in the face of death, while his musing on human nature encompasses a range of contemporary existential crises: the myth of science; the seeming meaninglessness of fate; the future of designer humans.

Narrative experimentation in the 1980s and 90s enabled avant-garde authors in China to protest the strictures of socialist life and fixed meanings. In Shi Tiesheng’s non-fiction writings, fragmented narratives reflect the fractured nature of life—but one of his most consistent challenges to overarching national narratives was simply in the depiction of the human soul. On the back cover of Shi Tiesheng’s anthology Matters of the Soul (Linghun de shi 灵魂的事), with its terrible English translation of “Think on Soul” printed vertically next to the Chinese text, the publishers’ blurb includes a quotation from Nobel laureate Mo Yan saying “I am full of admiration for Shi Tiesheng, because not only is he an exceptional writer, but, more, he is a great person.” As Mo Yan implies, the philosophical and theological bases to Shi’s writing have a real, human outcome, and his questioning of what it means to be human, and his own achieved humanity, are fundamentally related to his religious vision. The gentle humor of Shi’s writing should not lead readers to underestimate the depths of suffering in his experience of being a sent-down youth and of lifelong paraplegia. (Shi once acknowledged that he wrote to ward off suicide.)

The heightened consciousness of mortality that many of Shi Tiesheng’s fictional characters display is present in his own ever-brooding sense of death. Death, he argues, is not a one-off event, but a process; people die little by little. Life itself is a passage: one arrives, unaware of the starting point until awareness emerges. Life, death, time, and history are all a matter of perspective, with the novelist’s task to observe, as through a telescope, and divine their meaning. Time and habit, suggests Shi, limit us and keep most of us mired in reality, extinguishing the miraculous. When the body is fixed in a bed or a wheelchair, the soul’s mind roams abroad on dark nights, leaving behind the body, the devilish tricks of daylight, and reality itself, and entering an alternative reality where dreamers can be heard and a play of wandering spirits unfolds. Illness and the dream world coalesce in that semi-conscious state that is a space of thinness to the divine. “In a dream I heard, the soul/ is like a horsefly/ buzzing against a window,” he writes in Matters of the Soul.

A semi-fictional imaginative essay, “Lucky Design” or “Designer Luck” (好运设计), published in 1990, provides an intriguing answer to the question of many of Shi’s fictional characters, why me? Why this illness, this fate? After setting out his checklist for what he wants in the next life (to be intelligent, handsome, with a good body: ideally the body of Carl Lewis, the suave bearing of Zhou Enlai, and the mind of Einstein), Shi acknowledges that “fate from the outset is unfair,” but that we have to accept responsibility for living with the hand we are dealt. In the scenario Shi sets up, he gets to choose the perfect designer self, with all the geographical and social advantages to make the best of his somatic perfection. Further reflection, however, suggests that rich parents, a loving home, and a future with no worries “are also a disability, a kind of cage” and that a degree of affliction and disappointment in life is necessary for human flourishing. Over several pages, Shi builds his picture of the ideal, the perfect “lucky design” for life, where “in all things you have been chosen by God to be the incarnation of the beautiful.” The “lucky” character studies at the most desirable university, runs a sub-10 second 100 meters, attracts hordes of girls—but, the narrative voice questions, mid-way: can a perfect life truly be enjoyed? Will it not be boring? With nothing to overcome, can there be any sense of achievement? Without pain and tribulation, Shi suggests, “you will never strongly feel happiness. Just a cozy mediocrity…”

The real problem with a life of unmitigated happiness, is, as it turns out, that it leaves one unprepared for death. A person who has never come across pain that cannot be dissipated or a barrier that cannot be overcome is like “a child spoiled by God.” When death comes, the perfect victor may question what all of his success has been for: if others cannot enjoy the same blessings of happiness and painlessness, can there be true happiness? Is this not a pyrrhic victory? The impasse, suggests Shi, can only be resolved if one begins to care about the process more than the aim. The one who lives life as process will be fearless in death. While we need ideals and faith to resolve questions of the soul, Shi argues, the process is itself the point, the ongoing realization of the ideal.

For Shi Tiesheng, the self is not just a body, and the essence of humanity lies not in the body but the “course of the heart’s journey.” “I” am not bounded by my body, and my soul continues over generations, living on as long as human life and love continue. Throughout his writing and his life, Shi Tiesheng’s bold thinking challenged the prevalent championing of science and scientific rationale as the be-all and end-all of human life. His notion of the human was gentle and affirming of all, affirming of bodily difference and mental difference. His ultimate response to suffering and evil in the world was a rejection of the alternative: of a perfect, designer world with no flaws and nothing to strive for or love. As Shi questions the accounts of the human that have been the mainstay of atheist ideology in Communist China, he points towards the great biblical narratives of creation and suffering, to myths and dreams for insight. But while God relates to humans, that relationship is all but unfathomable. The process of understanding is our undertaking; the way of the cross not the cross itself.

The post above is adapted from the author’s article, “Shi Tiesheng and the Nature of the Human,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.1 (December 2018), a special issue on Christianity and Chinese literary studies. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

Notes from “Inside Looking In: Complicity and Critique”

Kathryn Ludwig

In 1882, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously pronounced “God is Dead.” Nietzsche was not the first to make the claim nor would he be the last. In fact, debates over the status of God’s existence, and over the value and validity of religion generally, have occupied scholars for centuries. The idea that religion was waning gained footing in American popular discourse in the middle of the 20th century, despite continued widespread religious practice; Time magazine famously ran a cover in 1966 that read, “Is God Dead?” Ultimately, the assumption that religion would gradually disappear, what is referred to as the “secularization thesis,” became widely influential within academic discourse.

Some thinkers have rejected the idea that we now live in a “secular age”; others have conceded a decline in religion’s influence but argued that a return of religion has followed. In recent decades, a body of thought dubbed “postsecular” has taken up the question in new ways. The postsecular asks what we mean by the terms “religious” and “secular” and how the two might be distinguished when, for many traditions, religion is inseparable from culture. What we call a “religious/secular binary,” it turns out, can be traced in part to the sway of Protestantism in Western scholarship. With its emphasis on the conscious adoption of a belief system, this view operates according to a very narrow definition of religion and excludes a majority of the world’s religious traditions. The challenge facing scholars is how to confront long-held assumptions and facilitate a more diverse and inclusive conversation.

Interestingly, the very recognition that religious identity is more than a simple matter of choice points out the difficulty with which people can truly think outside of their own experiences and preconceptions. We may logically acknowledge another’s right to a worldview that we don’t espouse and even claim interest and sympathy with that worldview; but that’s a far cry from being capable of stepping outside of our own worldviews into a neutral space. Put simply, in our conversations about “religion” we are always situated

The reality of our own situatedness is my starting point for an examination of the status of the religious in literary studies. I argue that we must undertake conversations with religious others without the pretense of self-transcendence. We can begin by acknowledging how our religious commitments or aversions inform our thinking, what I call (following postmodern theorist, Linda Hutcheon) “complicity.” This movement of good faith with our interlocutors has the benefit of opening up space of genuine exchange. I argue that the possibilities for collaboration and confluence are modeled in contemporary works of fiction. I suggest a model for reading the religious in our age that foregrounds responsibility to others in developing discourse on religion.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Inside Looking In: Complicity and Critique,” published in Christianity & Literature 67.3 (June 2018). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.