Caliban and the Rhetoric of Sincerity

Joshua R. Held


The character Caliban in William Shakespeare’s late romance The Tempest (1611), an enslaved, demeaned, and misunderstood anthropoid, arguably inhabits the most complicated situation on a magical island in a complex plot, filled with all the romance machinery of natural disasters, political intrigue, and romantic attachments. As his situation grows increasingly intricate during the course of the play, as he encounters new human beings, new liquor, and new prospects for freedom, Caliban displays (and further develops) a skill in rhetoric that, initially revealed in violent curses, ultimately issues in an ambiguous resolution:

I’ll be wise hereafter,

And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass

Was I, to take this drunkard [the butler, Stephano] for a god,

And worship this dull fool [the jester, Trinculo]! (5.1.294-97)

Through the trials of action and rhetoric in the play, Caliban comes to an Aristotelian anagnorisis, or recognition, regarding his situation at the end of the play, respectively, vis-à-vis his former companions (“drunkard,” “fool”) and his future hopes to be given self-rule based on wisdom and grace.

The increasingly timely, sensitive, and sometimes imaginative rhetoric Caliban shows in the course of the play establishes a precedent for his inventive rhetoric here at the end of the play, as he aims to win favor with his master Prospero. This final speech adumbrates the Janus-faced orientation of his rhetoric, and whatever shroud of sincerity that it affords. In his rhetoric he produces a façade of subservience, as in his obsequious promises of a search for “grace,” and yet he apparently grasps selfishly toward liberation. Although with the one hand (or “face,” à la Janus) he indicates sincerity through his overt submission, with the other hand he uses this putative sincerity as a cover for his ulterior goal of freedom.

The problematic nature of the lines perhaps explains why Julie Taymor cuts them (“I’ll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace”) in her 2010 film and why, much earlier, John Dryden and William Davenant cut the second line from their own alteration of The Tempest in 1667. In scholarly approaches to the play, likewise, the lines in question have generated widely divergent interpretations, which significantly influence the concluding tableau and the whole interpretation of the character of Caliban. That Caliban’s cryptic phrase highlights the term “grace” only complicates matters, for the term carries widespread resonance in the early modern religion, and in genteel manners.

On the one hand, Caliban in the word “grace” may reveal a manifest tone of sincerity, shifting from earlier rebellion to genuine repentance, a shift no less believable for its quickness. The very brevity of Caliban’s possible changes, rather than indicating hollowness, might instead reveal a deep but largely inexpressible sincerity. Indeed, the paradox between inner realities and outer appearances ultimately derives from the fact that sincerity can sometimes emerge clearly in the artificial space of the theater, the ancient Greek etymological context for the word “hypocrite.”

On the other hand, however, Caliban may propose his repentance only to escape immediate punishment, without any intention of permanent change. By changing his allegiances earlier in the play, he establishes a precedent of following the path of least resistance, which might yet cause him to reverse course at the slightest hint of advantage, using the cover of rhetorical declarations of sincerity. This interpretation is grounded in the enterprise of reading against the grain of a particular statement, a practice hardly new to The Tempest, because readers and viewers of the play have long distrusted Prospero’s statements regarding Caliban, such as the name “demi-devil” (5.1.272). Like Prospero’s rhetoric, Caliban’s final speech displays mixed motives, uses words with competing connotations.

The rhetorical skill that Caliban sharpens over the course of the play suggests the problems of assigning tone, motive, and behavior to this character here, at perhaps his most crucial lines, certainly his most important for his own future prospects. Yes, Caliban implies his own sincerity, and does so in several forms throughout the play, even claiming a non-superficial sincerity when he spews Prospero’s learning back at him (“I know how to curse”). Yet perhaps most pointedly in this and other moments of putative sincerity, Caliban celebrates it as an instrument, something he can control, in addition to an attitude that he knows also exercises a certain control over him.

Caliban could be rhetorically dexterous and yet ultimately unsuccessful in expressing himself because he bases his own performances of sincerity on the performances of the society around him. Through the use of his learned rhetoric and, more broadly, performances of sincerity, Caliban challenges the suggested meaning of the very concept. He is sincere, if by sincere we mean his rhetoric of sincerity, but such sincerity does not assure other characters, much less viewers or readers, of anything beyond appearances. Given Caliban’s history of evolving, mutable logic and rhetoric, audiences simply cannot know his final purposes.

Whatever Caliban’s place on the sincerity spectrum, he hardly matches the dissimulation displayed most brashly by other characters in the play, such as the traitors Antonio and Sebastian. Even Prospero and, to a lesser extent, Ariel and Ferdinand (at the chess game in the concluding scene, if not before), prove deceitful, a feature especially realistic in a stage performance that, despite its magic charms, mimics the pressures of the outside world toward conformity, whether religious, political, or otherwise.

In the characters of The Tempest, Shakespeare implies that, in life and on stage, sometimes sincerity is impossible to discern, and Caliban is perhaps the most enigmatic of these figures, an oppressed character who has much to gain through rhetorical ambiguity. He reveals through his developing rhetoric over the course of his performance that he cannot be interpreted simply. If he be sincere, as he claims, are the claims for sincerity themselves sincere? Or are his claims to sincerity, paradoxically, a rhetorical façade? His rhetorical art ensures that the audience cannot know.

The public nature of a performance, featuring the push and pull of society, the abrasion of beings amongst others, gives greater flexibility to the concept of sincerity, as a character shifts and changes across a play, even a short one that obeys the three unities, as The Tempest. Thus, although Caliban may be more identifiably sincere or insincere in some portions of the play than in others, his development highlights not a reified sincerity or insincerity but the mercurial potential of inner forces such as reason and the passions to use the notion of sincerity as a cover for selfish ends.


The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Caliban and the Rhetoric of Sincerity: Postcolonialism, Performance, and the Self,” published in Christianity & Literature 67.1 (2017). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

Notes from “The Conversion of Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick”

Raymond Anselment

Six years after Mary Rich began the diary she continued to write until the last weeks before her death in April, 1678, Lady Rich noted in a 1672 entry that she “had spent most of my last 3 dayes” writing a considerable part of her recollections about her birth, marriage, and religious conversion.  Four years later she would complete the narrative she characterizes as “som of the most remarkable good prouidences of God to me in my forepast life.”  The seventh of eight daughters born in Ireland to the first Earl of Cork, Robert Boyle, and his second wife, Catherine Fenton, Mary defied her father’s wishes and in 1641 married Charles Rich, the second son of the Earl of Warwick, who had few prospects and less hope of inheriting the wealth and status her father expected.  The marriage of the willful fifteen-year-old brought her into the religious family of her father-in-law; and, ironically, when Charles’s older brother died, she unexpectedly became in 1659 the Countess of Warwick.  While readers have found the diary’s record of Rich’s daily and decidedly religious life formulaic and repetitious, they have been drawn to the narrative of her courtship and marriage.  Readings of “Some Specialities In the life of M warwicke” that emphasize an idealized life influenced by romantic conventions tend to contrast the “reality” and “broken dreams” of the married life depicted in the diary.  But the center and focus of the narrative is God’s converting grace.  The tensions in Rich’s marriage, however strained they may seem, are paradoxically inseparable from a newfound spiritual love that leads to a renewed love for her husband. Through religious conversion and marital conflicts, Mary Rich ultimately understands and reconciles the demands of love both secular and spiritual.

Conversion is etymologically a turning, becoming the “new man” of the Pauline epistles.  The truly converted, Richard Baxter contends in A Treatise of Conversion (1657), “turneth his mind and heart and life from the Creature to God in Christ.”  Mary Rich’s conversion was not sudden.  The illness of her only child prompted a bargain with God: the boy’s life in return for her spiritual renewal.  Her diary records her turn to inner spirituality through meditation and prayer.  She also zealously embraced Christ’s command to Peter: “When thou art converted, strengthen thy Brethren” (Luke 22:32).  Seventeenth-century commentaries on this passage stress that love for the souls of others “forceth” compassionate admonition.  Worry about Charles’s physical well-being intensified her anxiety about his spiritual state.  Infirm, wracked with gout, and increasingly unable to leave his bed, he endured periods of prolonged suffering in the years leading to his death.  The days and nights at his bedside were for Mary vigils of secular and spiritual concern.  Her fears for the soul of her husband and her pleas and prayers for his conversion were a significant cause of tension between them.  Admonitions urging her husband to make his peace with God are persistent as she presses him with what she believes is kindness and humility to understand God’s design in his suffering.  She never attempts to understand that her husband’s debilitating illness might well account for his embittered, unpredictable temperament.  Mary’s belief that she voiced her earnest pleas with kindness, plainness, and humility is the conviction of a spiritual zealot, unaware that her relentless pleading appears to him constant nagging.  His passionate rejection of her “charitable and fit” exhortations, she believes, is unwarranted for she is “much in the right.”    

Mary’s struggles in “great sadness” with the troubled relationship lead through worldly sorrow to greater godly love.  She sees more fully the “insofisancy” of the worldly and recognizes her melancholy is inseparable from over-love of the world.  Mary has learned from experience that she has “too freely let out my heart to creatures,” expecting “too much comfort from them.”  She comes to understand the wisdom of turning “mind and heart and life” to God.  Exhilaration displaces melancholy in her affirmation from the Song of Solomon, “I was my beloued and my beloued was myne” (6:3).  The love for her husband, though seemingly minimized, is not lessened.  She realizes that she should not love him best; she should love him through the love of God.  Overwhelmed by “inexpressible griefe” when he died, Mary asserts with new conviction that her husband is also her beloved.  Through her spiritual conversion she has ultimately found deeper love.   

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “The Conversion of Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick,” published in Christianity & Literature 66.4 (2017). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.


“Cap, My Little Man, Be a Woman!”: The Hidden Hand and the Book of Judith

By Linda Naranjo-Huebl

In E.D.E.N. Southworth’s The Hidden Hand (1988), the protagonist, Capitola, when faced with her greatest physical threat in the form of the villain Black Donald in her bedroom, invokes in an inner monologue the biblical heroines Jael and Judith: “Now, Cap, my little man, be a woman! don’t you stick at trifles! Think of Jael and Sisera! Think of Judith and Holofernes!...” Southworth’s biblical allusions to Jael and Judith evince her familiarity with both the Old Testament and the apocryphal texts, and they underscore her view of God’s sovereignty. While the similarities between the narratives abound, their differences mark the limits of Southworth’s endorsement of the biblical hero Judith and her story. Southworth’s allusion to Judith helps justify in the strongest (i.e., biblical) terms the assertive and masculinized behavior of her protagonist Capitola, but Cap’s rejection of violence points to Southworth’s own conviction that women’s empowerment will be characterized by alternative, nonviolent responses to oppression, and to her rejection of the concept of an irredeemable “enemy.”

A comparison of the stories of Judith and The Hidden Hand suggests that Southworth was more than casually familiar with the apocryphal hero Judith, as were most nineteenth-century readers, writers, and artists. The Hidden Hand echoes Judith in formalist elements—plot features and genre (comedy)—and in its themes of gender role inversions and emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Both stories have enjoyed extraordinary popularity among readers over time and across cultures while they have also been the subject of mixed criticism and exclusion from biblical and literary canons, respectively. Capitola’s departure from the sentiments of Judith correlates with contemporary feminist theologians’ observations of a spiritual progression from Judith to Mary, the Mother of Christ, that moves from “righteous” violence to acts of peace. Thus, Capitola emerges as a more progressive Judith who acts to usher in an age of peace.

The dominant feature of both stories are the gender inversions that have their protagonists moving fluidly across gender boundaries through disguise, costuming, and performance (demonstrating gender as performative). Both Judith and Capitola act as warriors against powerful men who tyrannize nations and communities, and they operate with the readers’ tacit approval because their “masculine” behavior protects them from literal rape and their communities from figurative rape. Their gender nonconformance and emasculation of male oppressors serve national/communal security and preserve personal virtue.

Both stories are also comedies. The obvious humor in The Hidden Hand serves to deflect criticism of Capitola’s assertiveness and utter lack of submission to any authority. The humor in Judith is more understated but well established by biblical scholars. Both stories share humorous and fantastical plot twists, clever commentary, satire, word play, and happy endings that delight readers, help divert moral objections, and arguably play a role in their devaluation by critics and gatekeepers of the canon. The stories’ endings have led to accusations by feminist critics that they reinscribe masculinist values, particularly in the mixed messages sent by the gender inversions and the stories’ conclusions.

Most notably, both narratives share the underlying theme of God’s sovereignty and practice of raising up people—including women—to champion the cause of the marginalized and the oppressed. Inasmuch as “God hears the prayers of the widow and orphan” (Ex. 22:22), the widow Judith and the orphan Capitola are directed by the hidden hand of God in seemingly hopeless circumstances to gain the victory over malevolent forces. As Lynette Carpenter notes in her article on the paradoxes of The Hidden Hand, “Double Talk” (Legacy 10.1), “the true hidden hand in this novel is ‘His good hand,’ which sends all good and evil and writes the endings of all stories.”

For all the narrative and interpretive similarities between the stories, Southworth’s protagonist in The Hidden Hand differs from Judith in one major aspect: Capitola eschews violence, particularly the taking of human life, because she believes in the redemptive potential of even the most reprobate persons, whereas Judith and her community celebrate the violent demise of Holofernes and the Assyrian troops and rejoice over God’s vengeance. Southworth gives us a gender-bending protagonist who, like Judith and Jael, fights for justice for the oppressed, but in this case, does so without spilling any blood and, further, rejoices in the villains’ redemption. Brittany Wilson, in her study of what theologians have noted as a progression from Jael and Judith to Mary the mother of Christ, notes a similar discontinuity in the stories of Jael, Judith, and Mary. Wilson acknowledges how “the violence of Jael and Judith is often explained as being in continuity with Mary, since Mary ‘crushes’ the head of Satan,” but she notes how “Mary’s ‘crushing’ symbolizes God’s defeat of evil (through Mary), but Jael and Judith kill with their own hands” (The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68). While Capitola is no Mary, one can read in her depiction Southworth’s own endorsement of an age of peace and equality brought about not by the hand of man or woman, but the hidden hand of God.

Blake and Byron; or, Art and Imagination After the Second Fall

Jerome McGann

Of the most prominent English Romantic writers, Wordsworth and Byron engaged Blake’s serious attention, but Byron alone provoked him to a major act of unequivocal imaginative sympathy. Both had views of Nature, in particular Romantic Nature, that differed sharply from Wordsworth’s view. But it was Byron’s investigation into a key nexus of Christian doctrineguilt, retribution, atonement, and forgivenessthat finally drew Blake into poetical dialogue with Byron’s post-1815 works. In The Ghost of Abel, Blake’s reading of Byron’s Cain, Byron was imagined as the wilderness prophet Elijah, orin Blake’s early 1790s figural formthe just man raging in the wilds where lions roam.

But more important than these shared intellectual and ethical concerns were the visionary means both men adopted. A great admirer of Byron’s work, Goethe famouslyor perhaps infamouslyremarked that “when he thinks he is a child.” Far from denigrating Byron’s work, Goethe’s comments were calling attention to what in his view made Byron one of the greatest poets of the age: the power of his specifically imaginative representations, and the fact that he explored the caverns of Romantic ideology in poetical rather than philosophical forms. Blake took the same view of how “mental fight” ought to be engagedthrough imaginative action and sympathy: “That he who will not defend Truth may be compelld to defend / A Lie: that he may be snared and caught and snared and taken” (Jerusalem, plate 9). For Blake, thinking through philosophy and “systematic reasoning” was to hold a candle in sunshine (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 22).

The consequence of this imaginative approach to thinking can be seen in all of Blake’s and Byron’s works, especially after 1804 in Blake’s case and 1815 in Byron’s when both began to show, in acutely personal terms, what it meant to be “perfected in the furnaces / Of affliction” (Jerusalem, plate 9). Briefly, imaginative action short-circuits the pretentions that fund the ideologies of enlightenment, whether sacred or profane. “The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life” (Manfred I.1.12). The Tree of Knowledge is the apparatus of crucifixion erected in “the wastes of Moral Law” (Jerusalem, plate 24).  The function of poetry for both Blake and Byron was to bring a revelation of that “Truth.”


Matthew J. Smith

The first of three times that Augustine uses a cognate of the word “sincerity” in his Confessions—a book sometimes described as innovative for its narrative exposé of the internal life—appears in the beginning of Book 3. Augustine remembers his time in Carthage as a young man as plagued with unchecked passions and a relentless pursuit of sex. It’s also a time during which Augustine frequented the theater and tragic drama in particular. He remembers his enjoyment of tragedy with shame because of the pleasure that he took in witnessing another’s suffering. The problem with tragedy, he thought, is that it incites spectators to an incomplete act of compassion. And, according to Augustine’s ontologically informed ideas about morality, an incomplete act of compassion is therefore a sinful one.

While making this argument, Augustine refers to the necessary and inherent sincerity of benevolentia, one’s good will or compassion toward characters suffering on stage.

Si enim est malevola benevolentia, quod fieri non potest, potest et ille, qui veraciter sinceriterque miseretur, cupere esse miseros, ut misereatur.

The term “sincerity” is deployed here to make an argument about the incoherence of tragic pity. The fact that spectators enjoy tragic theater, he reasons, means that there is some delight taken in another’s suffering, and since good will by definition cannot include bad will, then the presence of such enjoyment at theater proves that any compassion that someone feels toward a character is not, in fact, compassion at all.

Sincerity is coupled with truth in Augustine’s statement (veraciter sinceriterque) because, by his reasoning, sincerity must be coupled with truth. In this sense, to be sincere is to be true, since to be true is for one’s loves to be rightly ordered and properly directed, namely, toward God. There is no sense of true or false self-representation in this use of sincerity. It’s simply a matter of the orientation and wholeness of one’s action. 

The English word “sincerity” comes from the Latin noun sinceritas. The term has been the object of a somewhat dubious etymological legend claiming that the word comes from sine (without) and cera (wax). A sincere sculpture, according to this etymology, is one whose flaws have not been smoothed over with wax. This is probably a false origin, but it does reflect the notion of “purity of source” that seems to characterize uses of sincerity from classical Latin through early modern English. To be sincere is to be from a single source and unmixed with other substances.

What this meaning lacks, notably, is any sense of a thing representing itself as what it truly is. Or as applied to a person, to be sincere doesn’t necessarily have to do with behaving in a way that reflects what is on the inside. This development came much later. A popular Renaissance emblem titled “Sinceritas” displayed a woman offering her heart literally in her hand. We might think of such concern over the difference between inner and outer life as especially characteristic of Romantic thought and perhaps as the object of critique for Modernist writers and artists. The philologist Patricia Ball in 1964 observed that in the Victorian period sincerity was virtually synonymous with morality. To say that an author was sincere, for instance, meant that he was trustworthy and upright and in many ways had more to do with fitting a certain mold of social legibility than anything.

As one might imagine, the development of a performative, or representational, aspect to sincerity (where what is without matches what is within) had an enormous impact on the production of literature and particularly on the writing of character. Of course, classical literature—I’m thinking especially of Ovid, Seneca, Aeschylus, Euripides—involved complex characters who struggled not just over the events of Fortune but also with their internal composition, with mastering their passions or dealing with the consequences of living on the extremities.

But something new emerges at some point. Whereas dramatic conflict in western literature had long come from characters’ struggles to master a situation, overcome obstacles, and do what is right, at a certain point a new kind of dramatic conflict emerged, a conflict of sincerity. For an illustration, consider Milton’s character of Satan. For centuries, readers have argued over what exactly causes his fall—including Daniel Defoe, who in The Political History of the Devil suggests that Milton distinctly fails to account for the origin of sin. But most accounts of Satan’s fall acknowledge that he believed that he was acting in the right, or if that’s saying too much, then at least Satan’s pride was more than merely passionate. His sin was also mixed up with a problem of knowledge.

At one point, Milton depicts Satan’s fall as a problem of forgetfulness:

Forgetful what from him I still received,

And understood not that a grateful mind

By owing owes not, but still pays, at once

Indebted and discharged.

(Book IV, 55-57)

Is this a moment of recognition? Satan is attempting to make sense of his inclination to rebel by entertaining the possibility that his mind is fallible. As in some late medieval dramatic depictions of the Fall of Lucifer, perhaps Satan was seduced by the splendor of the immanent. Recall that the argument that Satan makes to the soon-to-be-fallen angels is that they shouldn’t accept the Son’s authority simply because they’re told that his existence predates their own. Can one—should one—comply with a moral law that is not manifestly true? …And here the can and the should join sides in a conflation of knowledge and morality.

This has significant consequences for the question of sincerity. Whether or not Satan is right in his justification for rebellion—whether he is right that demands for obedience have been placed on creatures who have not been endowed with the requisite insight to comprehend the law behind such demands—it is noteworthy that Milton offers a view into Satan’s internal wrestling over what counts or should count as morally binding. In essence, Milton has created a new register to the Fall narrative. Satan’s is not only a drama of Fortune and of passion, but also a drama of sincerity.

The key question, I believe, is when and how it became conceivable for rational beings to
sin “with sincerity.” For Augustine this would have been incoherent, just like the prospect of being moved with compassion toward a fictional character whom a spectator already knows is merely fictional. At the heart of this question is the relationship between one’s knowledge and one’s will and more specifically whether a voluntary act always follows what one knows to be true.

As I explore in my essay on the topic (“w/ Sincerity, Part 1: The Drama of the Will from Augustine to Milton”), the problem of the will became a central one for medieval theologians. And as it happens, theologians like Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Scotus turned to the example of Lucifer’s original angelic sin for a test case. In many ways, this is the theological debate that gave rise to what we think of as modern character—a character whose deepest struggle is not the struggle to choose what is right but the struggle to know what is right, and also the struggle to know which right is the ‘right’ right.

We get a glimpse here—though just a glimpse—of what theorists like Lionel Trilling will much later term modern “authenticity,” the notion of being true to oneself. For Augustine, this would have made no sense at all. For Milton’s Satan, maybe a bit more, but only to a limit. Why? Is there a way in which modern authenticity is grounded in an old theological problem? The essays in the recently published December special issue of C&L on the literary histories of “Sincerity” explore these sorts of questions.

The ideas above are adapted from Matthew Smith's article published in Christianity & Literature 67.1 (December 2017). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your institutional library's subscription.

From “'The world will be made whole': Love, Loss, and the Sacramental Imagination in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping"

Matthew Potts

Considerations of sacramental theology and literature sometimes beg the sacramental question while burying their theological lede. Take for example George Weigel’s “Chesterton’s Pub and a Sacramental World,” which sketches a familiar picture of sacrament.[1] Weigel suggests that Roman Catholicism has a peculiarly “sacramental imagination,” that it holds to the “conviction that God saves and sanctifies the world through the materials of the world.”[2] Thus, for Roman Catholics like Weigel, holiness is not just about angels or cathedrals or creeds but about “steaks, cigars, pubs, and laughter” too.[3] Weigel is correct in this, but also no different than Martin Luther who argued passionately that scrubbing soiled diapers, for example, should be counted a sacred labor.[4] One wonders, then, how denominationally distinctive Weigel’s imagination of Catholic sacramentality actually is. Or consider Regina Schwartz’s erudite and largely persuasive volume Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism which accounts for the movement of the sacred into Western cultural and literary traditions in early modernity. According to Schwartz, Luther railed against the Church of Rome because “the doctrine of transubstantiation implicitly granted the priesthood the power to deliver miracles, to change bread into the body of Christ . . . . The mystery of hoc est enim corpus meum was [for Luther] simply hocus-pocus.”[5] The transformation was a trick, a magic show. But as several authors have argued, the Reformers’ concern was not with the mean possibility of material miracles in themselves, but with the exclusive power of priests to administer holy things.[6] Consider Marilynne Robinson’s complaint that

many critics, taking transubstantiation to be the one understanding of the sacrament that realizes the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, repeat the canard that for Protestants the rite is symbolic only. In fact, the rejection of transubstantiation had to do with the role it asserted for priests, the teaching that they uniquely are capable of making the presence of Christ real, in effect interposing themselves between the faithful and the Lord’s gift of Himself.[7]

The Reformers weren’t secular skeptics of the sacred; on the contrary, they were proponents of a sacred secularity, of an expansive notion of God’s movements both within and (especially) without the church. Their critique was of prelates not sacraments. Luther and Calvin and others meant – like Chesterton and Weigel – to locate the holy in the world, beyond basilica walls.

It seems there is more theological consensus than meets the eye. The question of whether God is at work in the material world seems largely settled. But other questions remain, among them: how should theology understand God to be at work in the material world, and how might this affect our understanding of God?  I suggest that one of the best places to look for an answer to these questions is in the writing of Marilynne Robinson.

In this article, I suggest that the several images of water and flood in Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping should be read as renderings of baptism, and that when thus read they articulate a sophisticated sacramental theology, one congruent with theological developments of the late twentieth century. Her fiction, and this theology, continues to insist – along with generations of both Roman Catholic and Protestant thinkers – that the sacraments uniquely realize God’s work in the material world. What marks both her literary writing and this theological tradition is their shared understanding of reality itself, their argument that what sacramental signs effect and occasion is God’s ontologically foundational and self-effacing love. But Robinson goes a step further than these theological arguments, too, because her fiction also implies something crucial about the nature of literary representation itself, about writing’s relationship to the reality of love. Briefly put, in her first novel Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson not only proposes a novel sacramental theology and anticipates its development in other thinkers, she also suggests a sort of sacramentality inherent to the act of literary writing itself.


1. George Weigel, Letters to a Young Catholic (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 83-100.

2. Ibid., 86.

3. Ibid., 99.

4. Martin Luther, “The Estate of Marriage,” in Luther’s Works Vol. 45 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1962), 47

5. Regina Schwartz, Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 12.

6. See Rowan Williams, “The Nature of a Sacrament” in On Christian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 197-208, especially 207; Ronald Thiemann, “Sacramental Realism: The Humble Sublime” in The Humble Sublime (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014), 9-42; the introduction to my book Cormac McCarthy and the Signs of Sacrament (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 1-18.

7. Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 59-60.

The ideas above are adapted from the author's article, “’The world will be made whole’: Love, Loss, and the Sacramental Imagination in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping,” published in Christianity & Literature 66.3 (June 2017). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your institutional library's subscription.

The Word and the Wheel: Navigating the Incarnation in Twentieth-Century Literature

Kathryn Stelmach Artuso

In his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell denounces the increasing use of abstractions and clichés in the English language. Satirizing the “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” in twentieth-century prose, Orwell decries how “the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed.”[1] Despite his humorous forays, Orwell’s point is grave when he notes that the obscurantist techniques of political propaganda are often designed to cloak indefensible atrocities, as typified in phrases such as the “elimination of unreliable elements.”[2] Seventy years later, Orwell’s essay bears re-reading, especially in the aftermath of deconstruction’s demise, when Paul de Man’s exposure as a Nazi sympathizer challenged the textual—and implicitly ethical—indeterminacy lauded by the breakdown of binary oppositions. Despite Derrida’s attempts to defend de Man, deconstruction’s dance into the abyss of instability and ambiguity had exhausted itself by the conclusion of the twentieth century.

The backlash against deconstruction continued with a discourteous obituary for Derrida in the New York Times in 2004, followed by a new strand of anti-postmodern thought that actuated a paradigm shift from the previous linguistic turn.[3] Over the past decade, the academy has witnessed a turn to religion and theology in literary studies, critical theory, and continental philosophy. Influential European philosophers such as Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek initiated a Pauline revival in 2004, with Badiou interpreting Paul’s letters as the “foundation of universalism.”[4] In Britain, Radical Orthodox theologians such as Catherine Pickstock, John Milbank, and Graham Ward critique modernity’s glorification of the state and market capitalism and promote Christian theology as the only alternative to a disenchanted modernity—a project that has elicited an intriguing Christological debate between Milbank and Žižek.[5] On the other side of the Atlantic, Saba Mahmood, Talal Asad, Charles Taylor, and Vincent Pecora have challenged the Enlightenment’s thesis of inevitable and evolutionary secularization, while Amy Hungerford and John A. McClure have addressed post-secular themes in late twentieth-century literature.

Despite the trend of the “religious turn,” which may have already peaked in popularity, any attempt to reimagine an ontology or epistemology centered on the Logos of Christianity and Western metaphysics, coupled with a pre-Saussurean notion of the sign, in which there exists a natural, non-arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified, may still be a nostalgic dream. Yet as George Steiner reminds us, pointing to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, even mathematics rests upon unprovable axioms: “There is no mind-set in respect of consciousness and of ‘reality’ which does not make at least one leap into the dark (the a priori) of the unprovable.”[6] Taking a Cartesian and Pascalian “wager on transcendence,” as Steiner does, as well as accepting a Hegelian synthesis of transcendence and immanence, the longer version of this essay maintains that an incarnational aesthetic often privileges the concrete over the abstract, transcends the dichotomy between the secular and the sacred, and offers a glimpse into the intersection of time and eternity, as evidenced in the works of Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Jorie Graham, though such themes are given particular resonance in the wheeling, non-linear narrative technique of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair.

Any attempt to define the divine Logos in His pre-incarnate state falls short of human language’s capacities, though the “Word made flesh” makes the ultimate abstraction communicable to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. In the prologue to John’s gospel, the pre-incarnate Logos is God’s “self-expression” and “agent of creation,” through whom all things were created, alluding to the divine fiat of Genesis 1:1:[7] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Whether one tries to conceive of the pre-incarnate Logos as “creative reason,” “Wisdom,” the Father’s “utterance,” or the mind of God, the passage culminates in the enfleshed person of Jesus Christ, in a hypostatic union fully human and fully divine, in the one who has explained and communicated God to humanity.[8]

In Real Presences, George Steiner draws upon Greek philosophy to describe Logos as the “saying of being,” a guaranteed connection between the signifier and the signified, which he believes ended in the late nineteenth century with the rise of the French Symbolist poets.[9] He notes that the “break of the covenant between word and world . . . constitutes one of the very few genuine revolutions of spirit in Western history” and “defines modernity itself.”[10] If there is a way to recuperate this loss, the language of incarnation may provide a pathway of redemptive reconfiguration, working on a literal and figurative level as both a one-time event and an eternal model for abstractions made concrete, rehabilitating the figurative and physical capacity of language as well as providing a glimpse into the confluence of time and eternity. In this way, it may be possible to merge an incarnational aesthetics and ethics by offering a revaluation of metaphor’s physicality as well as emphasizing the embodiedness of empathy.[11]


1. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in Politics and the English Language and Other Essays (London: Oxford City Press, 2009), 8.

2. Ibid., 17. On misleading phrases such as “collateral damage,” see Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 3-4, 9.

3. Jonathan Kandell, “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74,” New York Times (Oct. 10, 2004).

4. Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 2.

5. Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Ed. Creston Davis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 48-50. The hypostatic union of Christ answers Žižek’s problem of God ostensibly turning his back on God on the cross. The Father turns his back on the human nature and not the divine nature, which is impassable.

6. George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 214.

7. On Jesus as the “self-expression” of the Father, see Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1978), 226, and “The Eternal Significance of the Humanity of Jesus for our Relationship with God,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 3 (Baltimore, MD: Helicon, 1967), 43-46. On Jesus as the “agent of creation,” see Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 347; and “Word,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 1105-1106. I’m grateful for insightful conversations on this topic with Julianne Gilchrist, Benjamin Redelings, Thomas McCollough, Jon K. Cooley, John W. Soyster, Elizabeth Nees, and Robert H. Gundry.

8. On Jesus as the explanation and communication of the Father, see Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament, 351. On Christianity as the religion of Logos, or “creative reason,” see Joseph Ratzinger, “Cardinal Ratzinger on Europe’s Crisis of Culture,” Catholic Education Resource Center (April 1, 2005): On a revision of the Wisdom story in John’s prologue, see N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis. MN: Fortress, 1992), 413-417. On Jesus as God’s “utterance,” see Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 185-188.

9. Steiner, Real Presences, 93, 94-99.

10. Ibid., 93. Passage was italicized in the original text.

11. An “incarnational ministry,” for instance, emphasizes face-to-face interaction and care for bodies as well as souls, rather than merely donations from a distance. On the significance of empathy and bodily care from a Marxist perspective, see Terry Eagleton’s After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 155-159, and The Body as Language: Outline of a New Left Theology (London: Sheed & Ward, 1970), 12.

The ideas above are adapted from the author's article, “The Word and the Wheel: Navigating the Incarnation in Twentieth-Century Literature,” published in Christianity & Literature 66.3 (June 2017). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your institutional library's subscription.