Notes from “Free Will in Hamlet?: Shakespeare’s Struggle with the Issues of the Great Debate between Erasmus and Luther”

By Lee Oser


This essay is my second offering from a book-in-progress, Shakespeare’s Christian Humanism. Its predecessor, entitled “Bad Christians in The Merchant of Venice,” was published recently in Literary Imagination.

In many years writing on Christian humanism, both in modern and in early modern times, I have found no unifying definition to serve my purpose. The phenomenon is not systematic or monolithic. For Shakespeare, it is unfailingly volatile and unstable, cohering only in the unique forms of individual plays. Though not didactic, Shakespeare’s Christian humanism nonetheless has moral designs on a Christian audience.

These moral designs elude the lenses of Shakespeare scholars who (the world changes fast) do not know the Lord’s Prayer, do not know the order of the Gospels, and most certainly do not believe in a final judgment. Mainstream scholarship has nothing in common with the theater-loving Christians for whom Shakespeare wrote and performed. Really? Well, yes. For one thing, Shakespeare’s audience believed the Bible was the epitome of truth. For another, they had skin in the game of salvation.  

All this would be neither here nor there, except that it does substantially impact our interpretation of Shakespeare.

Given the inescapable, historical divide between Shakespeare and us, scholarship intent on keeping an up-to-date grip on Shakespeare has found it convenient to modernize him, usually in one of two ways: first, to dilute his religious sensibility with our skepticism; and second, to exploit his text as a resource for the contemporary academic market, subjecting him to what the poet W. H. Auden called “a foreign code of conscience.” We find these practices are common. They have the effect of rendering Shakespeare’s intentions superfluous. Another consequence has been a blight of bad productions, for example, the RSC’s most recent Merchant of Venice, in which Portia discards her father’s wishes with a cynical relish that somehow borders on hokey.  

Is it possible, at the present time, to conceive of a school of humanists entering imaginatively into the spirit of plays in which Christianity counts for a great deal? In preparation, these curious scholars and directors might take time to become acquainted with the best philosophical writing on the experience of belief, for example, Newman’s Grammar of Assent and Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. Newman and Wittgenstein resemble Shakespeare in this: for them, skepticism lacks its post-Cartesian authority.

The more complacent postmodern types, by contrast, might inquire of themselves whether at bottom they believe in anything at all. Then they might ask how the volcanic Christian ferocity of Hamlet could possibly emerge from an author for whom belief was on the level of theoretical and aesthetic problems:

Shakespeare may or may not have been a Christian author. He likely was Christian, but gauging the degree of his Christian ideas is problematic, simply because a character, rather than the author directly, is always voicing them. Christian ideas and allusions do pepper his plays. But that is another matter.

In its ubiquity, the “pepper theory” amounts to a form of mobbing. It diminishes Shakespeare. It has the calculated effect of shutting down debate. It protects the lazy and the dull.

When I first approached Shakespeare with scholarly ambitions, I was attracted to a number of energetic Catholic interpretations, in particular to the work of Dennis Taylor, who avoids the pitfalls of agenda-driven work. I still incline to believe that Shakespeare grew up in a Catholic household, and that he remained in some important ways attached to Catholicism, though not necessarily committed to it. It was not the hostile arguments of secularizing critics that altered my thinking. It was John Cox’s distinguished body of work, in particular his understanding of “Christian skepticism,” which, prior to Shakespeare’s uses of it, served various reformist purposes in sixteenth-century England.

Cox’s writings brought me into conversation with Jeffrey Knapp’s Shakespeare Tribe, a book that has the great virtue of focusing our attention on Elizabethan theater culture. For Knapp, of course, Elizabethan theater culture was Erasmian in its big-tent Christianity and preference for tolerance in religious matters. Knapp’s argument has its detractors, in particular, the formidable Peter Lake. But recognition of an Erasmian element in Shakespeare goes back at least as far as William Empson. Erasmus looms large in what we might call the Berkeley School of Rhetoric, which flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, and informs such indispensable works as Joel Altman’s Tudor Play of Mind.  Knapp’s attention to Erasmus was, in my view, an overdue correction to the influential anti-humanism of Stephen Greenblatt. 

Among the most brilliant contemporary readers of Erasmus is Ricardo Quiniones, whom I met at a conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. He humorously challenged me, before a group of distinguished if vinous scholars, to recite the opening section of T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I obliged him, and he very generously sent me a copy of his magisterial book Dualisms—essential reading for anyone interested in the great debate between Erasmus and Luther. I quote Quinones to suggest how the great debate shaped the intellectual and religious destiny of Europe: “Erasmus represented the advanced stage of European consciousness in his time, while Luther was suspicious of consciousness, its traps, its lures, its self-flatteries and self-promotions.” That sentence is the germ of my essay.  

While Luther’s place in Hamlet scholarship is secure, Erasmus remains a stranger to the critical tradition. So I set about finding “an opening for Erasmus”:

That Shakespeare had some consciousness of the great debate cannot be doubted…Ben Jonson, for instance, took sides in his commonplace book, Discoveries, championing Erasmus over Luther. The debate marked the permanent divisions between Christian humanism and the Reformation—which is why Quentin Skinner referred to it as a “definitive breach.” The debate’s impact on Shakespeare’s mind was to foster an atmosphere of ideas that was by its nature traceable to many analogous sources, and reducible to none. To reconstruct this atmosphere entails risks: it is not a matter of nailing things down. But if we begin with Hamlet’s being a student at the University of Wittenberg, where Luther had held the chair in biblical theology, we may proceed by means of Shakespeare’s text to Luther’s argument for predestination and the bondage of the will, and thus to the debate in which that argument achieved its most memorable expression. If we go so far, it is impossible to exclude Erasmus.

Readers who object to the premises advanced in this passage will have little patience with my article. It helps me, though, that Gregory D. Dodds, in his 2009 book Exploiting Erasmus, makes a series of astute observations that I quote to buttress my case—and that may be of particular interest to readers of this journal: “in most accounts of English opposition to Calvinism, anti-predestinarianism simply appears in the 1590s.” Of the Elizabethan period, Dodds writes: “anti-predestinarian thought was present…in the writings and thought of Erasmus….Erasmus’s legacy was…firmly established in English religious culture.” And in Dodds’s account, Erasmian ideas influenced the controversy over free will that boiled over at Cambridge University in 1595, leading to the formulation of the Lambeth Articles. My work, then, takes its place as part of a larger and fairly sympathetic reassessment of the Erasmian legacy.  

The seminal clash between Erasmus and Luther generates a core instability that is always threatening to explode Hamlet’s Christian humanist synthesis. As I remark, “In Hamlet, the discourses of literature and theology, of humanism and reform, jostle and jar as a consequence of their occupying the same text. Hamlet embodies this core instability. He wants to hold ‘as ’twere the mirror up to nature’ and a ‘glass’ to his mother’s soul. He asks the players to ‘reform’ their bad acting, after declaring, ‘The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of a king.’ Hamlet, in other words, shifts rapidly between, or may be said to condense, the registers and impulses of literature and theology, humanism and reform.” 

Aligning Erasmus with Shakespeare’s humanistic impulses, and Luther with Shakespeare’s theological consciousness, I study how the play voices but does not resolve the question of the freedom of the will versus its bondage. The possibility of framing this question on the stage is, I argue, Erasmian. The possibility of a distinctly Lutheran answer is never far from view.

The Mousetrap offers a case in point. Hamlet imposes his will on the stage-world of the players, as well as on Gertrude and Claudius, whose reactions he strives to “interpret,” much as he would “interpret” Ophelia’s “love” if he “could see the puppets dallying.” But his ability to establish moral agency is not clarified. Predestinarianism and the bondage of the will may reveal even Hamlet to be a puppet. There is no way of knowing, because the tension is inherent and structural: we are all actors trying to write our own scripts. Fixing his (double) audience’s attention on vows of love, Shakespeare makes these vows a test case for the will: “If she should break it now!” exclaims Hamlet, accidentally supplying an uncanny cue for the Player King’s comment: “’Tis deeply sworn.” Cooperation with God’s purpose regarding the union of woman and man becomes a crucial means of exploring the nature of the will in the light and heat of human sexuality.

As a kind of Hamlet in miniature, The Mousetrap calls the morality of the surrounding play into question. After all, what claim could the dramatist make for his art, what could “the purpose of playing” be, if the stage were essentially a puppet show—a reduction of “man” consistent with a world where “marriage vows” are “false as dicers’ oaths,” and “reason panders will”? Such vexatious questions, on a Lutheran reading, banish freedom to the marginal activity of theological speculation, and leave the audience grappling with terrifying insights into their own nothingness. On an Erasmian reading, there is potential comfort in ambiguity, in mystery and silence, which conserve the possibility of the will’s slender part in the drama of salvation. Either reading leads inevitably to the prospect of judgment—and to the reality of having skin in the game. 

I conclude that the Shakespeare of Hamlet attempted to illuminate the meaning of the most serious human actions, an effort that can be compared to chiaroscuro in painting, as humanism and theology cohere in a shadowy synthesis. In this sense, the indeterminacy of Hamlet’s fate is the sign of Shakespeare’s effort to master his own moral and dramatic limitations and come to grips with what he could and could not say. Shakespeare maintained the play’s action by pursuing the fate of the soul “beyond the reach” of humanism or theology, where the interpretation of words and actions breaks down and God alone can judge.     

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Free Will in Hamlet?: Shakespeare’s Consciousness of the Great Debate between Erasmus and Luther,” published in Christianity & Literature 67.2 (2018). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

The Poetry of Penitence: Asenath of Genesis and the Fifteenth-Century English Reader

By Katy Wright-Bushman

At the moment of Augustine of Hippo’s famous conversion, narrated in his Confessions, the young protagonist throws himself at the foot of a tree, weeping. Invoking psalms 51 and 79, Augustine writes that his coursing tears were an “acceptable sacrifice” to God: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” Augustine’s conversion narrative famously hinges on the audible answer to this prayer—“tolle, lege, tolle, lege,” “take it up, read it”—and on his doing just that: taking up “the apostle’s [Paul’s] book,” and reading from it. The narrative of Augustine’s conversion turns on the call he hears and on his response; but it turns, too, on the image of an unconverted penitent praying as one praying the psalms—praying in the form of ancient Hebrew poetry.

There is poetry in the narrative of Augustine’s conversion. There is poetry, too, in the narrative of conversion that is my subject here. The narration of religious conversion in literature did not begin with Augustine; nor did it end there.

In the early fifteenth century in England, one curious conversion narrative, translated anonymously from Latin into Middle English verse, was written into a manuscript alongside the religious and philosophical verse of medieval luminaries like Boethius and Chaucer (Ellesmere 26.A.xiii). This verse narrative tells the story of Asenath, the Egyptian wife of Joseph, named in Genesis. At the heart of Asenath’s narrative is a religious conversion—one that hinges, like Augustine’s, on the image of an unconverted penitent praying as one praying the psalms—praying through poetry.

The Storie of Asneth, as this Middle English text is known, recounts the marriage of Joseph, Jacob’s and Rachel’s firstborn, to Asenath, an Egyptian priest's daughter, and her conversion to Judaism, in about 900 alliterative English lines in rhyme royal stanzas—a stanza form popularized by Chaucer. The Middle English version of the narrative is a fairly close translation from its twelfth-century Latin source; the translator does, however, invent suggestive readings through language, form, and occasional expansion and omission. At the climax of the story, the wealthy young pagan Asenath retreats alone to her chamber, where she experiences a religious conversion that occupies about a third of the full text. She expresses that conversion in a long, nearly unbroken verse prayer. Asenath’s conversion is then illustrated sacramentally and mystically in an angelic visitation.

I want us to consider the Middle English Storie of Asneth  as a text in the hands of its fifteenth-century readers—readers who were part of the rise in English literacy and lay religious practice across the period.

The burgeoning of vernacular texts in the English fourteenth and fifteenth centuries corresponds to the simultaneous spread of the practices of reading among newly literate groups. Lay women in particular constituted an important addition to the ranks of English literacy in this period and came to play a key role not only as readers of certain kinds of vernacular texts (like hagiography), but also as fictionalized audiences represented within them and as characters in their narratives.  At the narrative heart of Asenath’s transformation, the Storie of Asneth places prayer—in the form of lyric poetry, and in the mouth of a lay woman not unlike the text’s presumed early readers. The central role of this lyric prayer gives us a window into the dynamic, literate religious culture in which this text circulated—a religious culture in which prayer in the form of poetry played no small part.

This peculiar verse narrative was read by English lay women at a historical moment when English religious lyric poetry was exceptionally prolific. At the physical and narrative center of the text is just such a poem—a long lyric prayer (339-407). That the crux of Asenath’s conversion would be represented through a lyric prayer, through her alliterative, rhyming, apostrophic address of God, befits the English text’s historical religious setting. If the poem’s readers were characteristic of the fifteenth century, they would have been familiar with such poems: they survive by the thousands in manuscripts of all varieties, including on the surrounding pages of the manuscript containing the Storie of Asneth. Hundreds of these poems take the form of prayers; dozens of them are penitential lyrics resonant with Asenath’s. These religious lyrics were copied and read to effect ethical, affective, epistemic, and volitional change in a growing array of medieval readers. Lyrics like the widely-proliferated “Nou goth sonne under wod” and “Let fal downe thyn ne and lift up thy hart” (the latter, carved across a fifteenth-century rood screen rail in a Yorkshire church) were believed to properly serve these formative functions by their authors, advocates, and readers. Alongside Asenath’s prayer, such lyrics attest to a period of profound religious transformation, of penitence and conversion through writing and literacy.

Now, to the text. At the point of her conversion, beginning a third of the way into the poem, Asenath retreats to her chamber and meets the interior crisis of penitential guilt head-on: she mourns her sin in ashes, fasts, and weeps. And on the eighth day, as the dawn breaks, kneeling, Asenath turns to an east-facing window, towards the rising sun, and begins her long penitential psalm. The prayer Asenath offers begins with a cry of distress and desperation: “What schal I do? Were may I go? Were schal I have refute? / Desolate maide and deserte, of cumfort destitute,” she cries (340-41). After confessing both her sin and God’s character, Asenath declares, “He repreveth no maner man that turneth Hym with penance. / Therfore I wil returne to Hym and fro me synne chace; / … / For He is protectour and defendour of fadirles children alle. / Therfore to His grete mercy I schal clepe and calle” (356-57, 361-62).

After three unbroken psalmic stanzas in this style, the narrator interrupts only to describe Asenath’s devotional posture: she stands, still facing the east window, and addresses the God she’s confessed directly—“Lord God of al rightful, that madest land and flood, / That inspirest al wysdam in hertis that ben hard,” she cries (365-66), and proclaims her conversion ten lines beyond: “I flute [flit], Lord, to The, Thyn humble suppliant, / Cryinge to The with my prayere in Thyn hihe presence, / Confessynge to The my grete synnes, and schewe The my offence” (374-76). When her lyric prayer ends, Asenath sees the eastern star brighten through her window and receives it as a sign that her prayer has been heard. It is then that the sky itself parts with light and she falls on her face.

The sixty-eight lines of Asenath’s lyric prayer are interrupted just once, to describe her change in posture. It is otherwise continuous—a poem within the poem. Her long prayer of penitence and conversion is essentially psalmic: it takes the form of a verse prayer addressed emphatically to God, begun in penitential sorrow and with a recognition of God’s will and power. It builds to an appeal to God for transformation, sanctification, and deliverance, and concludes with a promise to serve God and his people. This progression modeled so poignantly in Asenath’s penitential prayer upon her conversion is not novel; it is the progression of several of the Seven Penitential Psalms—of the famous “Miserere mei” of Psalm 51,  and of the “De profundis” of Psalm 130; and in large part, of Psalms 32 and 143. The Seven Penitential Psalms were enormously popular in the late fourteenth-century English verse translations of Richard Maidstone and Thomas Brampton and they almost always appeared in Books of Hours and primers across the fifteenth century, so the form was a familiar one.

The devotional progression of Asenath’s prayer models religious practices familiar to the early readers of this text. Like the psalmist, she turns her body towards the symbolic dwelling place of God, she kneels, she stands, she holds out her arms, she lays her face on the ash-strewn floor. These devotional postures, choreographed to her lyric prayer, resonate with the experience of late medieval devotional and sacramental practices. In the Storie of Asneth, penitence and conversion happen through poetry. Faith is performed through language.

In one of her final short stories, “Parker’s Back,” Flannery O’Connor narrates the conversion of a man named O.E. Parker—a man who, like Augustine, like Asenath, finds himself flung to the ground, crying out to God. For Parker, this cry is no psalm, but the spontaneous yell of a man who’s driven his tractor into a tree—an ironic exclamation, “GOD ABOVE!” The source of Parker’s epithet, almost certainly unbeknownst to him, is ultimately the book of Job (31:2). Hebrew poetry has found its way to the heart of Parker’s conversion narrative, as well—but only by accident. Augustine and Asenath make their conversions through poetry; for Parker, another form of artistic representation, another aesthetic mode comes into play: he has, as O’Connor writes, “the haloed-head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes” tattooed over his whole back (235). What this means to Parker is not fully articulated, but it is penitential; it is devotional; it is a sign of conversion. To address God in these forms—through poetry, voiced by the broken-spirited penitent, through iconography, inscribed even on a canvas of human flesh—is not unique to medieval accounts of conversion, whether of the fifth or the fifteenth century. In the telling of the story of conversion, literature returns still to the image of the one who prays as one who recites poetry. Even if, in our own day, only by accident.

This post was written by the Managing Editor of Christianity & Literature.

From “Turn Away the World”: Notes on The Imitation of Christ

By R. Jay Magill, Jr.


Nearly six centuries ago, between the years 1420 and 1427, in a modest monastery just outside the Dutch city of Zwolle, a German-born monk named Thomas à Kempis was working on a little book that would change the world. With the exception of the Bible, no other book would be translated into more languages or be read by more people—certainly by more Christians. That book is called The Imitation of Christ.

The Imitation of Christ offers instructions about how to lead a more fulfilling and perfect spiritual life. Through short chapters and direct voice, it offers a kind of roadmap back to an ideal inward state that many proto-Reformation believers thought had gone lukewarm, if not plain cold, inside the Vatican and among fellow Christians during the early fifteenth century. The Imitation is, in short, one of the first early-modern advice books.

The structure of The Imitation is supposed to represent the organic movement of the soul’s spiritual journey to God. The first two Books are divided into short chapters, with titles such as “Superfluous Talking,” “Avoiding Too Much Familiarity with Others,” “The Benefits of Adversity,” “The Recluse Life,” and “Works of Charity.” The third and fourth Books are dialogues between Jesus and a disciple. Throughout, the author suggests that the best way to begin spiritual renewal is to hate the flesh and the world, infested as they are with hierarchies, jealousies, animosities, power struggles, and desperate quests for fame and riches. “Endeavor therefore to withdraw thy heart from the love of visible things,” Thomas advises, “and to turn thyself to the invisible.” The true believer should cultivate the revolutionary Christian virtues of forgiveness, gentleness, compunction, charity, forbearance, peacefulness, and humility. Book Two, “The Inner Life,” begins with Luke’s admonition that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” suggesting that the reader “learn to despise outward things, and give thyself to things inward, and thou shalt perceive the kingdom of God to come in thee.”

Such a move, perhaps unsurprisingly, mirrored the life of Thomas à Kempis himself. Born in 1380, near Cologne, he was the son of a robust craftsman, John, who owned a bit of property, and Gertrude, a bookish woman who ran a school for village children. They had an older son, John Jr., Thomas’s senior by a dozen years, and they exemplified the embryonic middle-class family of Northern Europe in the late fourteenth century: educated, employed, and possessed of some disposable income, they had hopes for the future and for their children.

In 1393, Thomas left his hometown to attend secondary school in a Dutch city across the Rhine called Deventer, an intellectual vibrant trading city that would be home to one of Europe’s first printing presses. There, under the intoxicating spiritual spell of the Brethren of the Common Life, he was drilled daily on the grammatical nuts-and-bolts of the official language of the Holy Roman Empire, then spanning from the tip of Italy’s boot to the North Atlantic. He learned the Latin trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and, later, the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), a curriculum to prepare young minds for the administration of empire. “Here, at the Brother-house at Deventer,” Thomas later reflected, “I learned to write.”

Not just to write, but to write beautifully. Thomas possessed an elegant penmanship that impressed both his tutors and schoolmates. He also displayed the fundamental virtues of a professional scribe: correctness, distinctness, and order. Training as a manuscript copyist remained one of the most effective ways for students to gain access to the spiritual innards of classical and biblical texts—and to share them with others. “Putting good books into the hands of neighbors,” Thomas wrote, “open(s) to them the fountains of eternal life. Blessed are the hands of such transcribers.”

In 1399, at tender age of 19, Thomas headed off Mount St. Agnes monastery, where we would remain for the rest of his life. He spent his days as monks did: reading, writing, copying manuscripts, meditating, singing, and praying. He was ordained in 1413 and became sub-prior in 1429. He was immensely prolific: he copied two entire Bibles, each in ten volumes, as well as several missals and hymnals. He wrote religious treatises and biographies of figures who had influenced him in Deventer: Gerard de Groote, Florentius Radewijns, John van der Gronde, and John Brinckerinck, each active in the Devotio Moderna movement that had so influenced his youth and sparked the Reformation in Central Europe.

Thomas never left the Netherlands, nor did he travel 75 miles beyond his birthplace. In fact, during the seven and a half decades he lived at Mount St. Agnes, he left the grounds only twice: once for a short trip on clerical business, and the other for three years, beginning in 1429, when he and the Brethren were exiled from the Bishopric of Utrecht. A contemporary portrait of Thomas shows a bookish monk atop a Latin motto that sums up how he spent his life: “In omnibus requiem quaesivi et nusquam inveni nisi in een Hoecken met een Boecken.” (“Everywhere I have sought rest and found it nowhere, save in little nooks with little books.”).

But Thomas did find rest, the final kind, on July 25, 1471, at age 91. “Having attained a ripe old age,” reads the St. Agnes chronicle, “Brother Thomas was afflicted with dropsy [edema] of the limbs, slept in the Lord in the year 1471, and was buried in the East side of the Cloister.”

He left behind The Imitation of Christ, of course, widely considered a cornerstone text of the Devotio Moderna movement and a spiritual bedrock of the Reformation. Esteemed for more than five centuries by Catholics and Protestants alike, the book has spoken to every generation of believers: Martin Luther, Thomas More, Erasmus, John Wesley, Samuel Johnson, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, Thomas Merton, St. Therese of Lisieux, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Noted British military officials carried the book onto the battlefield. The nineteenth-century French theologian Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais wrote, that when reading the Imitatione, “One would almost imagine that it was written by one of those pure spirits who have seen God face to face.” And although that professional holy-basher Friedrich Nietzsche carped that the Imitatione was one of those books he “could not pick up without a physiological feeling of revulsion,” the card-carrying positivist Auguste Comte admitted that Kempis’s guide was one of his “principal daily sources of nourishment and consolation.”

Today, no other book except for the Bible has been translated into more languages—over 340 of them. By the year 1900 alone, over 6000 editions of De Imitatione Christi had been in circulation. That’s the equivalent of one new edition appearing each month for the last five hundred years. Equally as amazing is that De Imitatione Christi has never once been out of print—despite the fact that for over a century after it was published, no one knew who wrote it.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Turn Away the World,” published in Christianity & Literature 67.1 (2017), a special issue on sincerity. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

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.