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.

What’s “Literary” about Puritan Missionary Writing?

Paul Thifault

For generations, scholars have examined the writings of the early Puritan colonists of New England. In doing so, they’ve painted a clear portrait of the interactions between indigenous populations and the English at the time of colonization. Yet our tendency to view these texts as historical documents – as records of what occurred in the early days of the American colonies – can cause us to overlook the imaginative qualities of Puritan writing. When the Puritans recounted their experiences with the indigenous people of the New World, they did not simply report on what occurred. They laced their writings with poetry, dialogue, allusions, digressions, dream analysis, indigenous legends, sentimental anecdotes, and the occasional joke.

One body of work that we rarely think of as literature is the collected writings of the early Puritan missionaries to the Wampanoag people. Taken as a whole, these texts from the 1640s and 1650s have been dubbed “The Eliot Tracts,” in honor of the most famous of its missionary authors, John Eliot (1604-1690). Known as “The Apostle to the Indians,” Eliot eventually pulled off the stunning feat of translating the Bible into a Massachusett dialect. His enduring position in Puritan history is evident in the fact that Hawthorne would later cast him as a friend to the fictional Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter (1850).

But Eliot’s reputation is not without blemish. He was also eventually responsible for the controversial formation of “Praying Towns” in which Christian Indians were separated from their unconverted friends and family and made to adopt an English lifestyle. As with many missionary projects, the religious impulses behind Eliot’s mission contributed to aggressive policies involving exploitation, cultural eradication, and open violence.

For Eliot and fellow authors like Thomas Shepard, their primary purpose in writing “The Eliot Tracts” was to secure financial and political backing for their missionary work. They were attempting to convince readers in the colony and in England to donate and support the missionary cause. The literary result was what we might recognize today as a multi-genre format consisting of memoir, sermon, anthropology, history, drama, and poetry.

Modern readers who can get past the dusty title page of “The Eliot Tracts” are treated to a surprisingly vivid account of the intimacy, awkwardness, hostility, and hilarity that results from a collision of seventeenth-century worldviews. The experience of these intercultural encounters sometimes knocks missionary writers off course, leading to detailed ethnographic descriptions that have little bearing on the task of proselytizing. As a reader, one can feel the missionary straining to focus on the business at hand, caught up in the dynamic nature of the exchange. One might even find in the text some evidence of mutual influence. At key moments, exposure to Native culture reorients the Puritans’ own conception of themselves and their mission.

There are many literary aspects of “The Eliot Tracts” worth exploring, but I am most drawn to a ghostly presence that haunts nearly every encounter between the Wampanoag people and these English Calvinist missionaries: the specter of Roman Catholicism. It is important to point out that no actual Catholics appear in these accounts of what happened when Puritans sought to introduce Christianity for the first time to New England’s indigenous population. And although the Wampanoag had little knowledge of any form of Christianity in the 1630s and 1640s (they were “pagan,” in Puritan terms), the Puritans wrote as if they were attempting to convert a staunch group of European “Papists” to the guiding light of Protestantism.

Native political leaders like the Sachems are subtly described in harsh terms usually reserved for Popes. Accounts of Wampanoag worship resemble typical anti-Catholic depictions of the Mass, a chaotic mix of superstition and primitive ritual. Indians also appear excessively worried about not being able to read the Bible in their own language. Puritan writers take this basic linguistic problem (the fact that the English and the Wampanoag do not have a text they can both read) and link it to Rome’s so-called diabolical efforts to prevent average people from reading the Bible. Even a simple language barrier bears linguistic traces of a Catholic plot, minus the Catholics.

In one telling moment, Eliot goes off on a tirade about (among other things) the evils of Catholicism, only to write “I forget myself; this is not my present work, it is my desire and my prayer; my work is to endeavor the setting up of Christ Kingdome among the Indians.” Why would anti-Catholicism so frequently enter conversations between Calvinist Puritans and traditionalist Native Americans?  Why can’t Eliot get Catholicism off the brain?

One reason has to do with the imposing presence of other European colonial powers in the North America. Certainly, England’s competition with Spain and France for the land and souls of Native Americans would have kept the dreaded Catholic menace on English minds. But that is no reason to portray Natives themselves as quasi-Catholic people in need of conversion to Protestantism.

A more convincing explanation is that the Puritans created this Catholic-Indian analogy by force of literary habit. Up until that point, most Puritan writing had aimed to refute doctrines associated with “popery,” including those elements of the “Romish” faith that lingered in other Protestant sects. To be a Puritan writer was to be a skilled surgeon who could diagnose and dissect “popish” errors. And it wasn’t just the New England Puritans who practiced this rhetoric. It was part of a larger Protestant writing strategy in the seventeenth century. The rhetorical tactic known as “pagano-papism” meant discrediting a rival Christian group (often Catholicism) by highlighting its similarity to non-Christian religious practices such as the rituals and polytheism of classical paganism. Given the prominence of such comparisons and the Puritans’ particular animosity toward Rome, it makes sense that Puritan writers would frame the traditional Native American religions that they wanted to eliminate as akin to Roman Catholicism.

But here is where it gets really interesting. Despite the Puritans’ disdain for Rome, “The Eliot Tracts” often portray the crypto-Catholicism of indigenous people as a good thing. Prominent missionaries like Eliot and Shepard represent Native American behaviors as similar to those of Roman Catholics, and then portray that similarity as the start of a path toward a “truer” Puritan Christianity. Whereas Roman Catholicism is pure Satanism in most Puritan writings, in “The Eliot Tracts,” it’s a step along the way to salvation.

It is hard to overstate the strangeness of these moments, and if you’re interested in a fuller explanation of why contact with the Indians encouraged the Puritans to take a temporarily positive attitude toward Catholicism, you can check out my article on the topic in the most recent issue of Christianity and Literature entitled “Native Americans and the Catholic Phase in Puritan Missionary Writing.”

It suffices to say here that the Puritans may have admitted the relative “goodness” of the Natives’ Catholic-like behavior to stave off a larger problem at the very root of their missionary project.  The problem is this: if the “The Eliot Tracts” are designed to show Indians becoming Puritans, and if being a good Puritan meant being a good reader of Scripture in the vernacular, how can the Puritans claim any progress in converting a group of indigenous people who cannot read English and do not have a Bible in their own language? Until Eliot could complete his Indian Bible in 1661 (more than thirty years after the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay), the Puritans would have to find another way to chart the progress of their mission to potential supporters.

The problem of how to represent, in literary terms, the conversion of the Wampanoag was one the Puritans knew they couldn’t completely solve yet, but bringing Catholicism into the equation at least allowed them to show their work. Projecting an aura of Catholicism around Native traditions created familiar markers against which Puritans could chart the mission’s achievements. If you can make readers see a group of itinerant indigenous shamans as a highly organized collection of scheming Catholic bishops, it’s a bigger deal when those healers show some polite interest in your religion.

The “Catholic-like” behaviors of the Wampanoag may also have been portrayed as a relatively good thing because it allowed Eliot to link his fledgling missionary project in this far corner of the world to the Reformation, a narrative in which Protestantism is a fated and divinely led cause, a narrative that Puritans knew how to write.

For literary history, perhaps the biggest takeaway from this discovery – the discovery that Puritans would actually celebrate the “Catholicism” of those they would like to convert – is how a rhetorical and literary situation can shift even the most grounded of cultural and religious prejudices.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Native Americans and the Catholic Phase in Puritan Missionary Writing,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.2 (December 2018). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

Notes from the Borderlands of Belief: Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins Mysteries

Chad Schrock

I found my way years ago to Phil Rickman’s mystery series because I’d heard that his sleuth, Merrily Watkins, was an exorcist in the Church of England, and that sounded awesome. And, indeed, she was an Anglican exorcist (“deliverance consultant” in her church’s embarrassed euphemism), and awesome to boot, but no conventional priest or exorcist, and these are no conventional clerical mysteries.

For instance, her first use of the name “Jesus,” and many subsequent, is an expletive, one of her most distinctive speech mannerisms. Her conversion experience consists of a vision of “deep blue and gold,” not exactly creedal specificity. She pukes at her installation ceremony. She lies. She believes she shouldn’t smoke, but smokes anyway (although there is some hope; she’s vaping in the most recent book). Her organist describes her as “a jolly little dolly of a clergyperson with nice legs and dinky titties, oh what fun”; apparently her shape under the cassock makes it difficult to concentrate on the service during the service. And all that peculiar vicaring is just in the first book of the series.

For instance, it is not quite true to say that Merrily is crap at her job, but these books are strewn with malformed, misfired Deliverance. Although the books always come to some sort of satisfactory resolution, evil exposed and so on, Merrily’s exorcism techniques rarely work the way she draws them up. Rickman would like me not to spoil his carefully crafted cruces out from behind the Christianity & Literature journal paywall, so here are some dark hints: a climactic scream interrupting a climactic ritual, an object of a Deliverance ceremony inconveniently dying before he can be delivered, a Eucharistic rite successfully delivering someone other than the person it was intended for, twice a death (once a murder) following hard on the heels of Merrily’s prayers of blessing and consecration.

For instance, the series absolutely savages most any church it bothers to name. Merrily’s Church of England is “like any large secular organization, . . . essentially self-serving and self-protective”; its personnel zestfully embrace power politics empty of transcendent meaning or motivation; its parishioners flounder, wander, dwindle. Low-church fundamentalism and evangelicalism and the charismatic movement, all more or less synonymous, merit a string of contemptuous epithets: “fundamentalist bigot,” “evangelical maniacs,” “an evangelical madness,” “hardcore Bible freaks,” “loony fundamentalist bastards,” “fundamentalist zealot,” “fundamentalist loonies,” “born-again fervour fuelled by bitterness,” “a lot of born-again bollocks,” “crazy evangelical.” Rickman cheerfully asserts, “Born-again evangelical Christians won’t go near [the books], while they’re quite popular with a surprising number of atheists,” and himself has gone on record several times saying he’s no churchgoer. 

The books advertise their lack of allegiance to the religion that houses clerical mysteries. They portray a postsecular religious landscape and sell in that market. They tick the postsecular boxes: pluralist, apophatic, experiential in their approach to a spiritual reality that exceeds all religious (that is to say: human) categories. Christianity is definitely not dogmatic or authoritative in these books. But it is instrumental, startlingly practical. Rickman houses his examination of postsecular belief and doubt in Christianity not because Christianity is true but because it, at least Merrily’s idiosyncratic version, works the best for solving spiritual mysteries—makes the best story, is the most attractive to and provides the most common ground for his spiritually diverse audience, and, consequently, sells the best. It is as if Rickman and Merrily are offering the cheat codes to making Christianity work again, winsome again, in a postsecular public square.

I wrote the article to figure out what the cheat codes are. And they have to do with Christianity’s most distinctive ethical contribution: cruciformity—the humility, faithfulness, and sacrifice of going to the cross. Humility makes sense, perhaps a different kind of sense than it ever has, to all the competing options in a postsecular religious marketplace allergic to dogma. Non-dogmatic faithfulness provides an ontological and epistemological anchor in the tossing waves of pluralism. Merrily doesn’t know whether what she believes is true or not (or even, sometimes, what she believes). But it will not let her go. If you were really delving into mysteries of the spirit, you would need a reliable point of access within space and time but would also need to remain daunted before the mysteries. And they would be the most important mysteries, worth whatever sacrifice you had to give.

Naturally, Merrily is cruciform after the example of the man who died on the cross. There isn’t much Jesus in the books (that would be too much, too doctrinaire, too unsalable), but a print of William Holman Hunt’s famous painting The Light of the World hangs just inside Merrily’s door and shows up in almost every book in the series. This diluted, secularised, commercialised Jesus is the Jesus her world can tolerate inside its door, inside its series, past (and almost lifeless from) all its inoculations. He’s pretty easily dismissed, but there’s still something there—disempowered, but strongly marked by humility and faithfulness, by a sacrificial love that carries no certainties for lover or beloved and whose offered deliverance can end up looking malformed and misfired, or not.

Sometimes the print only functions as a Rorschach test for Merrily’s own emotions, not much more than a projection. Merrily “exchanges grimaces with” Jesus, “exchanges thoughtful looks with” him, shivers alongside him “obviously not drawing much heat from his lantern,” wonders at the disappointment in his eyes: “Him too?” Or he is sometimes only furniture, “limply dangling his lantern over a few Mars bars lying on the table underneath” or overseeing an umbrella. Sometimes he serves as ironic contrast: to Merrily’s daughter’s sullen pagan desire to smash him or give him the finger, to Merrily’s “oh shit,” to Annie Howe the atheist policewoman standing at Merrily’s door.

But he can hold more meaning than that. Sometimes he is a symbol of weariness while knocking patiently at a resistant heart’s door: “jaded,” “sorrowful and weary,” “lord of weary acceptance,” “laden with experience of humanity at its most depressing,” “a tired and disillusioned middle-aged Jesus doing this sorrowful simper: I’ll hold up the lamp but I don’t really expect any of you to follow.” Merrily is that weary, breaking supernatural news to an indifferent materialistic society. She feels like this man and acts as resignedly and doggedly as this man who levels the moral imperative of faithful suffering: “the wizened, thorn-tortured face of Jesus Christ, in . . . the picture that said, with all its Pre-Raphaelite pedantry, there are no short cuts.” He is an outsider, like her; a doubter, like her; exhausted, like her; a sufferer on the cross of corrupt religion, like her; no quitter even when he is forsaken, like her.

And, only once in the series (but once!), Holman Hunt’s Jesus’s lantern seems to light a woman’s face outside the picture frame.

Post-Secular Nature and the New Nature Writing

By Alexander J. B. Hampton

For a good part of the twentieth century British nature writing found itself caught amongst the brambles. Though many authors continued to make outstanding contributions, the respect afforded to the genre was far from the heady days of Romantic and Victorian literature. In 1932 it came in for one of its fiercest attacks, with the highly successful and entertaining comedic novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, which offered a pastiche of countryside novels by the likes of Hardy, Lawrence and Brontë. Two years later, in his novel Scoop, Evelyn Waugh offered a savage parody of the nature columnist with his character William Boot. The legacy of these popular books was to help construct a caricature of nature writers, nostalgic for a Britain that never was, which fit certain facets of the modern social imaginary. Conceptualized as hackneyed and frowsty, the public voice of the individual interacting with nature quietly disappeared, to be replaced by the disembodied, objective and impassive voice of the expert; nature writing became the realm of professional biologists or conservationists.[i]

With the turn of the twenty-first century, however, a group of writers began to challenge this view.  Rehabilitating British nature writing and the voice of the individual interacting with it, they have begun to produce a new kind of writing about nature.  In 2008 Granta: The Magazine of New Writing published an issue titled “The New Nature Writing,” marking the establishment of a movement that has since grown exponentially.[ii] Since then, numerous contributions by writers such as Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald have appeared on UK bestseller lists. In 2014 the Wainwright Prize was established in association with the National Trust to recognize this emergent genre. This new nature writing represents a postsecular re-conceptualization of our relationship to nature. It challenges a key element of the secular social imaginary, namely a subject-centered, immanence-bound, disenchanted representation of nature that sets the self over and above nature.

The newness of new nature writing can be understood by distinguishing it from Romantic and natural history nature writing. On one hand, it is more hesitant to consider nature in a metaphysical context than is the tradition that develops out of Romanticism. On the other hand, the author takes on a more central role in the new nature writing than writing in the natural history tradition. Nonetheless, the new nature writing carries forward aspects of both of these traditions: from the Romantic, it expresses an unease with the construction of the rationalized relationship of the individual and nature, and from natural history writing, it registers the importance of accurate description.

The new nature writers wish to describe a relationship to nature that is not a monological imposition that pretends that the eye of the beholder offers an objective rendering of the observed natural world. Instead, they seek to develop, through a re-assertion of the voice of the individual in nature, a subjective dialogue with the natural world. This sentiment is expressed by Richard Mabey in Nature Cure:

It's become customary, on this side of the Atlantic, stiffly to exclude all such personal narratives from writings about the natural world, as if the experience of nature were something separate from real life, a diversion, a hobby; or perhaps only to be evaluated through the dispassionate and separating prism of science. It has never felt like that to me […] it’s seemed absurd that, with our new understanding of the kindredness of life, so-called 'nature writing' should divorce itself from other kinds of literature, and from the rest of human existence.[iii]

Robert Macfarlane expresses how this renewed dialogue can be achieved: “language is used not only to navigate but also to charm the land. Words act as compass; place-speech serves literally to en-chant the land — to sing it back into being, and to sing one's being back into it.”[iv] Alternately, this is the space that Tim Robinson describes in Connemara: Listening to the Wind as “the boundary region between established truth and unstable imaginings that is my preferred territory.”[v] In these, and many other instances, the liminal language of imagination and enchantment is always close to the surface as the new nature writer seeks to re-conceptualize nature.

The new nature writers resist any disenchanted narrative that would claim to be capable of fully understanding and controlling nature. Instead, they encounter nature anew.  This re-encounter takes many forms, but two manifestations in particular stand out. The first is the irreducibility of nature, whereby the natural world possesses qualities that resist description and articulation. The second, the transverse form of this resistance, is descriptive proliferation, a kind of lush prose or thick description, oftentimes evoked by these moments of resistance. Both express the same uncircumscribable quality of their natural objects, manifesting the restlessness of the new nature writing at the boundaries of the secular social imaginary.

In the case of nature’s irreducibility, the limitations of a disenchanted secular social imaginary are challenged by the movement’s demonstration of the inadequacy of present categories to adequately represent nature and our experience of it. It is here, in the moment when nature resists language, presenting itself as irreducible to disenchantment, that a space clears for a re-engagement with nature. The encounter with the irreducible records the moment when the writer, and by extension the reader, engage in a process of deferred evaluation, which in turn opens up a dialogue with the object of resistance. In this dialogue, subject-centered, disenchanted concepts are no longer imposed upon the object; rather the object comes to speak itself. To encounter nature as irreducible is to come across something which makes a strong claim, which resists any reduction to existing human categories and narratives, and which causes words to respond to, rather than impose, meaning. One such moment is articulated in Tim Robinson’s Connemara: Listening to the Wind

Once when I was lying on the terrace of our house overlooking the bay, listening to music from the room behind me and watching a summer night subvert the scale of all things, I felt I could raise my hands and spread my fingers over the mountain range, solidly dark against the still wine-flushed sky, as if over the keyboard of a piano, and produce one tremendous, definitive Connemara chord. But Connemara tends to undefine itself from minute to minute, and this Beethoven moment quickly passed. The range of peak became sheet iron, two-dimensional, a serrated rim to the floor of the world, dangerous to the imagined touch.[vi]

In this passage, the landscape first presents itself as a musical cipher, capable of the author’s tactile decoding, only to metamorphose, and present a resistance so stark that it is even dangerous to the touch, indicating a latent, wild, and untamed character.

This resistance is equally displayed in Helen Macdonald’s visceral H is for Hawk. The book describes a year the author spent training a goshawk following the death of her father, and centers upon a creature of remarkable resistance and irreducibility. However, in the following example, which occurs during her first encounter with the hawk, as the breeder opens the box in which it has been transported, we also encounter a moment of descriptive proliferation:

Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.[vii]

In examples such as these, we encounter what Robert Macfarlane has aptly described as “writing so fierce in its focus that it can change the vision of its readers.”[viii] Here the hawk is represented as an experience that we cannot subsume into a system or narrative. Even syntax struggles to keep up with the demands of the author’s encounter. The density and detail of the description corresponds to a distinction made by Macfarlane between precision and rigor: “the former being exhilaratingly exact, and the latter being grimly exacting.”[ix] In encountering the Connemara landscape or the Goshawk we are not called back to a previous enchanted narrative, nor presented with anything that corresponds to a disenchanted one. Instead, as readers, we encounter something irreducible, which cannot be exhausted by a disenchanted, subject-centered immanent narrative.

If we understand the secular social imaginary as holding a largely naturalist view of nature, then the new nature writing sets out an alternative vision of nature and our relationship to it. In its pages we observe the destabilization of the secular, subject-centered, immanence-bound, and disenchanted understanding of nature, and the re-emergence of dialogical, transcendent, and enchanted possibilities. As a burgeoning feature of the contemporary British literary scene, the desire of the new nature writers to go beyond the limits of naturalism evinces the shifting ground of the present-day social imaginary. In doing so this writing responds to a strong public disquiet with key features of the secular social imaginary, and as such we may consider it as offering a post-secular understanding of nature and our relationship with it.

[i] Richard Mabey, “Introduction,” in Second Nature, ed. Richard Mabey (London: Cape, 1984), ix-xix.

[ii]  Jason Cowley, “Editors’ Letter: The New Nature Writing,” Granta, 102 (2008), 7-12 (Cowley, 7-12),  (Armitstead). Claire Armitstead, “Happiness to Mindfulness, via Wellbeing: How Publishing Trends Grow,” The Guardian, March 14, 2016, accessed January 12, 2017.

[iii] Richard Mabey, Nature Cure (London: Vintage, 2015), 22-3.

[iv] Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015), 22.

[v] Tim Robinson, Connemara: Listening to the Wind (Dublin: Penguin Ireland, 2006), 374.

[vi] Robinson, Connemara, 362.

[vii] Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. London: Vintage, 2014, 53. 

[viii] Macfarlane, Landmarks, 1.

[ix] Macfarlane, Landmarks, 101.

An Iconic Image: Henry Ward Beecher in Puck Magazine

By Patricia Marks

Depicting a popular reformist pastor as a plump scapegrace with hair flying and amorous inclinations is an unlikely mission for a popular magazine, but that is the image of Henry Ward Beecher that Puck magazine (1877-1918) promoted. During its first decade ending in 1887, Puck conducted a vigorous campaign against questionable behavior by the clergy, and Beecher, the first pastor of Brooklyn’s Congregationalist Plymouth Church, figured prominently in both illustrations and commentaries, despite his earlier reputation as abolitionist and supporter of women’s suffrage. By virtue of his involvement in an adultery scandal, however, Beecher became a living expression of the magazine’s attack on discrepancies between word and deed, whether spiritual or mundane. Inspired by the iconic Shakespearean figure of Puck, whose mischievous “What fools these mortals be” quip became the magazine’s motto, editor Joseph Keppler and other cartoonists and writers such as Frederick Opper, Bernard Gillam, James Albert Wales, and H.C. Bunner caricatured and satirized Beecher, whose reputation, idiosyncratic dress, and informal preaching style attracted overwhelming crowds. Beecher’s weakness for the fair sex, his evangelical style, and his social and political involvement all became targets for Puck.

The Beecher–Tilton trial in the 1870’s was, in part, the grounding for much of Puck’s satire. Accused of adultery with the wife of journalist Theodore Tilton, Beecher was let off the hook by a hung jury. The cover that appeared in 1878 entitled “Reconciled” suggests the magazine’s attitude toward that exoneration: as a pencil-thin Tilton leaves the country with his wife, a corpulent Beecher laughs uncontrollably. Earlier illustrations address his propensity for philandering as well: in the centerfold “A Traitor to the Cause: Beecher Joins the Russians and Astounds the Turks,” for instance, while the primary focus seems to be caricatures of Alexander II and Sultan Abdul Hamid II, a background sketch shows Beecher in his Brooklyn chariot approaching a decorated “seraglio,” where the adorned and adoring  women stretch out open hands to him.

Religious issues were, however, the mainstay of Puck’s attention to Beecher. Brigham Young’s death on Aug. 29, 1877 provoked an outpouring of cartoons and commentary, with Puck maintaining that Beecher should head out to Salt Lake City to comfort Young’s heartbroken wives. Later, the controversy over the existence of Hell, sparked by a sermon by the Westminster Abbey Canon Frederick Farrar that nixed the idea of damnation, evoked a caption saying “Mr. Beecher says he d-d-doesn’t believe in hell—(and then he shivers).” And Puck, which lambasted any brand of religion that did not live up to what it preached, included a sly reference to Beecher’s reputation in its centerfold “The Religious Vanity Fair,” with Beecher shown lolling on a comfortable settee under a sign “Beecher’s Only ‘Love’ Road to Heaven— Sleeping Car.” Puck’s sober comment is that “All we can do . . . is to obey the laws, be a good citizen, be kind to our neighbors, mind our own business, and do no man wrong.”

In both graphics and commentary Beecher was often coupled with Thomas DeWitt Talmage, whose sensational preaching style brought overflow crowds to the Central Presbyterian Church, twice rebuilt as the Brooklyn Tabernacle. They are pictured, for instance, in “The Rival Revivals,” in which Beecher marches arm-in-arm with a flirtatious lady dressed in red, white, and blue, while Talmage, who marches on stilts, is surrounded by signs like “The Standard of Acrobatic Religion Must be Raised,” and “Gymnastics and Religion Hand in Hand.” Puck’s perspective was that the revivals were unsuccessful: the two are shown sitting sadly together at the “Failure of the Brooklyn Revival Business” and being knocked out at the “Tournament of Sensationalism” because of their “old and effete methods.”

Beecher’s activities outside the church also attracted the sprite Puck’s attention, especially when at the age of 65, he became Chaplain to the 13th Regiment of the New York National Guard in Brooklyn. Beecher claimed that young men needed guidance; Puck and others reminded readers of the Tilton scandal and what it saw as his earlier questionable behavior. Similarly, Beecher’s Canadian trip to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1879 evoked editorials and drawings, claiming that men would need to accompany their wives on shopping expeditions, that hospitals and toy stores would be expanding infant care sections, and that the legal profession would be preparing itself for divorce hearings. In the “jubilee” centerfold, Beecher, clad in a plaid kilt, dances exuberantly with the Marquess of Lorne, husband to Princess Louise—“Beecher danced before the Lord,” Puck quips.

As time went on, the focus of Puck’s caricatures shifted from direct religious references to more pointed political barbs. Beecher was compared to Roscoe Conkling, member of the House of Representatives, who was also accused of having an affair; Puck’s Sept. 10, 1879, cover pictures “Two Effects from Similar Causes,” with a cloaked and “abashed” Beecher huddling bereft near a building while Conkling, surrounded by prostrate women, triumphantly rides the Republican elephant. Beecher was also shown with an elegant young woman, spokesperson for party, who declines Beecher as an escort, saying, “My reputation is quite bad enough already.” As the political climate in the 1880’s became more querulous, Beecher was increasingly included in caricatures that pictured him in subordinate positions or holding absurd views.

During Puck’s first decade, then, Henry Ward Beecher was for the most part pictured as a plump, rumpled, and undignified leader. Puck took umbrage at his penchant for the fair sex and his influence over the young men in the National Guard; it suggested time and time again that it was the Devil himself who ruled over the church. Eventually, however, as the magazine’s audience grew, the magazine broadened its concerns, signaling a change in editorial focus to other issues including health, politics, and social changes. What also changed was how Puck portrayed Beecher. The memorial that appeared in Puck on March 16, 1887, for instance, praised him for being “among the great men whom America has produced.” His mid-life scandals that invoked Puck’s anger about the interface between religiosity and immorality are secondary to his honesty, originality, courage, and sincerity. The magazine concludes by praising him for “loving his country”: “when he died we lost a great American.”

The study of the depiction of Henry Ward Beecher in the first decade of Puck’s existence, then, demonstrates the development of the periodical. No longer primarily a project of one man—Joseph Keppler—and no longer a periodical with a restricted audience (by 1884 the readership had grown to 125,000), Puck became an outspoken critic, reflecting the changes that led to the twentieth century. Despite criticism and threats of lawsuits and boycotts, it fearlessly maintained its determination to point the way through satire and caricature what it saw as the truth.

The Spiritual Authority of Literature in a Secular Age

By Dawn Coleman

Twenty years ago, “secular studies” barely existed as a scholarly field. Now that it is strong and growing, the role of literary study within it should give us pause. Sociologists, philosophers, political scientists, and religious studies scholars dominate the field, while literary scholars mill about the sidelines. We write books and articles for each other, but who else is paying attention? And why should they?

Scholars outside of literature have authored nearly all the touchstone books in secular studies. Think Talal Asad, Charles Taylor, Jacques Berlinerblau, or Phil Zuckerman. The field has also found a certain consolidation and public presence in the online forum The Immanent Frame, sponsored by the Social Science Research Council. Of course, those craning their necks to spot the literary scholars in the secular studies meeting hall will pick out John McClure, Michael Warner, Tracy Fessenden (who was trained in and teaches in a Religious Studies department), and a few others. But the Oxford Handbook of Secularism (2017) provides an unnerving snapshot: not a single contributor teaches in an English or foreign language department.

If we literary scholars are to do more than linger on the edges of debate—or worse, nurse resentments from afar—how do we justify our worth? How should we participate in a conversation that has no need at this point of our merely deconstructive insights, such as the falsity of religion/secular binaries or the speciousness of teleological historical narratives?

On the occasion of Christianity & Literature’s special issue on “The Secular and the Literary,” I wish to offer a daring answer. It is that literature provides us with the most emotionally resonant and intellectually profound language we have for describing the subjective experience of secularity, in which meaning is indeterminate. What literature offers the study of secularity are the unpredictable plots, mesmerizing characters, gut-punch diction, and lightning-strike metaphors that capture the texture of living in a secular age. Such texts voice experiences at odds with received language and cannot be reduced to creed or anti-creed. Hence our endless pondering of them.

Literary scholarship makes sense of this language, translating it from art into knowledge. We draw on the theories and schema of other disciplines but rarely echo them. The multivocality of novels and drama, the ambiguity of poems: such complexities disrupt attempts to read literature as functions of church doctrine or political ideology or sociological theory or even authorial belief. It hardly matters whether a chosen text might qualify as the supposed “best that has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold had it, or is a piece of racist, sexist, imperialist schlock fetched from the ash bin of history by an intrepid doctoral student wearing Discipline and Punish like a hazmat suit. Indeed, one reader might judge a literary work a jewel of Western civilization while another deems it a symbol of our collective moral depravity. Either way, literature takes us into the tangle of human feeling, behavior, and value creation that accompanies secularity. It thus gives us fascinating, meaningful profiles of spirituality.

Spirituality is a charged word, one I use gingerly yet deliberately. Though it is a notoriously fuzzy concept, Boaz Huss’s recent essay gives it a useful precision. After tracing the term’s evolution from antiquity, Huss points to two important moments of modern redefinition. At the end of the nineteenth century, spirituality came to be understood as the opposite of the secular. It implied “the religious, metaphysical, moral, subjective, private, and experiential realms of life,” over against “the physical, material, public, social, economic, and political arenas.” We can recognize the arbitrariness of this dichotomy in part because of the term’s second shift, in the middle of the twentieth century, when the spirituality/corporeality binary began to dissolve and a distinction between spirituality and religion emerged. Drawing on a range of theorists of spirituality, Huss clarifies that it now entails an individualistic pursuit of self-knowledge and a sense of connectedness between oneself and the larger world. In previous eras, one was supposed to renounce and subdue the body; now, the body is integral to spirituality. Yoga, hiking, even gardening are all examples of this new mindset. Huss’s most important point may be that these various forms of contemporary spirituality are intimately connected to late capitalism and to our networked, hybridized, globalized culture.

I agree. Yet I would submit that the post-Protestant spirituality Huss describes can be found in literature from at least the mid-nineteenth-century forward. Many nineteenth-century literary texts reveal the same cultural hybridization, critique of institutional religion, and interest in mind-body integration that Huss regards as symptomatic of contemporary capitalism. Writers like Margaret Fuller and Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman, Frances Harper and Edith Wharton all represent the challenges of living amid the competing discourses and affective structures of a secular age. Their work describes the visceral connection between the ‘‘spirit’’ and the ‘‘flesh,’’ incorporates the perspectives of non-Christian persons and texts, and dramatizes heterodox views. Even the most seemingly religious writers, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, articulate a spirituality that values the body, that contends with the economic logic of capitalism, and that exceeds or defies the boundaries of a single religious perspective. Especially in the US, a country defined by religious voluntarism and replete with Protestant faiths already hybridized and secularized, living in a secular age has meant negotiating difference for some time now.

One also finds spirituality, more or less as Huss defines it, in the work of those writers whose spiritual identities have typically been framed in terms of negation: un-believers, a-theists, a-gnostics, the spiritual but not religious, and the simply indifferent. If we set aside the idea that spirituality requires a belief in spirits or essences or deities of any sort—if we recognize that the ‘‘spirit’’ of spirituality might be a metaphor without a metaphysical referent—then ‘‘spirituality’’ equalizes otherwise ‘‘secular’’ or ‘‘religious’’ persons and short-circuits any notion that people of faith have richer inner lives than their non-religious counterparts. As the philosopher André Comte-Sponville writes in The Little Atheist Book of Spirituality, ‘‘Being an atheist by no means implies that I should castrate my soul! The human spirit…is our noblest part, or rather our highest function.’’

Once we recognize that countless texts mediate spirituality (not just those with obvious religious or spiritual themes), we can speak more precisely about the authority that literature claims for itself in the modern West—and so the leverage we literary scholars can have in secular studies. It may be tempting to think that literature seeks religious or moral or cultural authority; I have used these terms myself. But I now find it more useful to regard literature of the nineteenth century and beyond as seeking to exercise spiritual authority, or the power to define how individuals can and should know themselves and relate to the larger world, when that world is characterized by the capitalist strictures and ideological cacophony of modern secularity.

To call the authority of literature spiritual is to foreground how literature represents both recognizably religious and moral questions, such as the existence of God, the ethics of sacrifice, or the claims of justice, and those that seem at first entirely secular, such as the machinery of the marketplace or the application of the law, but whose more complete investigation often demands knowledge of the deep structures of Protestantism or other historic faiths. Texts engage in these representations with varying degrees of self-reflexivity, provisionality, and prescription. The premise that literature seeks spiritual authority acknowledges both the rivalry between literature and religion, in that religion has traditionally claimed dominion over the spiritual, and the oblique relationship between literary texts and religion within secularity. It also frees the study of literature and religion from a narrow historicism, opening us to a powerful dialogue with the past that reorients us to our personal and collective present.

For historians, as literary scholar Eric Slauter has written, “contexts are always larger, never smaller.” That is, the panorama of history matters more than the miniature of a single text. Yet those of us who live with literature know that a text can be more important, more suggestive of human possibilities, simply larger, than our narratives about its historical context. Set Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America next to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Excellent as it is, Dolin’s book does not and will not inspire the passionate response that Melville’s has in the form of scholarly attention, classroom study, visual interpretation, and dramatic adaptation. Readers care about Melville’s novel because they care about the nuances of its characters’ thoughts and experiences: perhaps, above all, these characters’ spiritual perplexity when confronted with the mysteries of the natural world. Put differently, readers care about Melville’s intense and uniquely imagined response to a secular age.

One of the primary sources of literature’s spiritual authority is its ability to represent subjectivity in ways that reveal the inadequacy of creeds or theories. Literature gives us spirituality’s loops and turns, its contradictions and ambiguities, its shifting moods. Its power lies in its specificity, its ability to offer exempla of modern spirituality. It proffers maxims and affirms doctrines only to undercut them on the next page or in the next stanza. The contradictory spiritual ideas coiled within literary texts mean that literary scholarship can parse the struggles and ironies of spirituality as other forms of knowledge production cannot. Careful interpretation of a literary work’s claims to spiritual authority gives insight into human experience as surely as careful historical reconstruction of actual persons and events or sociological questionnaires and interviews. Especially in seeking to map the spiritual lives of past generations, scholars in non-literary disciplines would be remiss to ignore imaginative literature’s intricate representations of spirituality. They will find that by staying close to the weft and warp of experience, literature makes visible the illiberal and non-rational aspects of modern spirituality—the feelings beyond reason, the contingencies that defy theory, the exceptions and specificities of individual lives.

Those who take literature seriously will find that it can unsettle the received wisdom of secular studies. Significantly, literary study reveals that despite the ubiquitous rhetoric of choice in religious and secular studies, people do not always feel in charge of their spiritual lives. Sometimes literature presents a moment of moral clarity: for instance, Huck Finn’s famous declaration, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” when he decides to buck slaveholding Christianity by not informing Jim’s owner of his location. Just as often, characters’ spiritual lives seem to be shaped by mysterious, powerful forces they do not understand, as when Ahab, seemingly irrevocably committed to the hunt, cries out, “Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?”

A final thought. Scholars of secular studies are not the only ones who stand to gain from examining the spiritual claims of literary texts. Undergraduates across the disciplines can also learn a great deal about secularity—and about themselves—from literary study. In The American University in a Secular Age, Larry Braskamp discusses the religious and spiritual journeys of college students. He reports that today’s students say they would like more help in defining their spirituality. Nearly half say that college gave them no “opportunities for religious/spiritual reflection.” Might it be that students are not reading enough literature, or not reading it with an eye to its claims to spiritual authority? One can imagine a role for literature in any number of courses on religion and secularity across the disciplines. Those of us who regularly teach literature could also be more deliberate in inviting students to define their spirituality through and against literary texts. Such instruction would call students to engage not only in the critical thinking so often touted as the goal of humanities education but also in the creative introspection essential to authentic, richly imagined spiritual lives.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “The Spiritual Authority of Literature in a Secular Age,” 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.