Post-Secular Nature and the New Nature Writing

By Alexander J. B. Hampton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[vi] Robinson, Connemara, 362.

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

[viii] Macfarlane, Landmarks, 1.

[ix] Macfarlane, Landmarks, 101.

An Iconic Image: Henry Ward Beecher in Puck Magazine

By Patricia Marks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spiritual Authority of Literature in a Secular Age

By Dawn Coleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “The Spiritual Authority of Literature in a Secular Age,” published in Christianity & Literature 67.3 (June 2018). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

David Foster Wallace’s Evangelicals: The Other Postsecularism

By Christopher Douglas

In David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good People,” two young evangelical Christians sit by the side of a lake, deciding whether they can carry through with their plan to terminate their unwanted pregnancy. Having met in a Christian campus ministry in their junior college, Lane doesn’t think he loves Sheri, and “they’d prayed on it and talked it through,” but they meet before the appointment because of Sheri’s growing hesitation about the abortion. Full of self-doubt, “Two-hearted” Lane is eventually given a “moment of grace” in which he perceives that Sheri, in a “last-ditch gamble” born of “desperation,” will let him off the hook. He sees that she will take responsibility entirely on her own to have and raise their child, proposing that “she releases him, all claim, and hopes he finishes up” his college accounting program “and does so good in his life and has all joy and good things.” “She is gambling that he is good,” Lane realizes, and the story ends with him experiencing “something more” than pity, “something without any name he knows,” which is perhaps both love and courage, as we are to understand that the young couple will marry and have their child together.

It was a surprising, even transgressive, story in the February 2007 New Yorker—shocking that such a sympathetic view of evangelical faith would appear in the arch-liberal organ of the coastal progressive cultural and political elites. And Wallace knew his stuff when writing about the subculture: “What he believed in,” Wallace says of Lane in a characterization that would be true of almost all evangelical Protestants, “was a living God of compassion and love and the possibility of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through whom this love was enacted in human time.” When Lane asks himself at the end of the story, “What would even Jesus do?”, it was a reference to the well-known WWJD slogan and bracelets of evangelical youth culture in the nineties and the noughties. That social movement had become a wider political force in previous decades in the form of the Christian Right, culminating in the current (in 2007) presidency of George W. Bush, who had named Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher “because he changed my heart” when running for the Republican nomination in 1999. (Yes, there appears to have been a time when debate moderators asked such questions.)

In the decades prior to Wallace’s story, conservative Christians had reshaped the political and moral landscape of the nation by making universal claims within the culture wars, from questions of gender roles and sexuality, the Cold War and the War on Terror, science and health education, race and immigration, economic policy and the welfare state, and indeed the meaning of America and America in the world. They believed in general that communism, pornography, abortion, premarital sex, evolution, homosexual acts and gay marriage, and anthropogenic climate change were wrong or untrue. Conversely, they argued that school prayer and Bible-reading, traditional gender roles, creationism, abstinence-only sex education, and the untold Christian history of the nation were morally right and factually correct. Their universalism entailed the belief that people who believed in evolution or who had abortions or engaged in homosexual sex were not just culturally different, but were in error.

The rise of the Christian Right represents a definitive return of what we might call “strong religiosity,” in distinction to the “weak religiosity” often said to define our postsecular situation. In his now-classic formulation, John McClure suggests in Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison (2007) that “postsecular fiction” is characterized by a kind of diluted religious impulse that disdains doctrinal certainty, power, and institutionalization. Adopting Gianni Vattimo’s concept of “weak religion,” McClure argues about postsecular fiction that “Absurd excess, extravagant impiety, and parody function in these works both to make the reintroduction of the religious palatable to secular-minded readers and to check the tendency of religious speculation to drift toward dogmatism and intolerance.” And in fact, McClure marks the postsecular spirituality of writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Alice Walker, Michael Ondaatje, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko, and Louise Erdrich through contrast to the bestselling fundamentalist series Left Behind, about the Earth’s last days as foretold in the Book of Revelation. It is the “spiritual obscurity” of the postsecular that “sets postsecular fiction apart” from “fundamentalist fiction” like the Left Behind series, in which “the enchanted world waiting just beyond the boundaries of secularism offers answers to all problems, and the only challenge is to get there, learn its laws, and submit to them.” Postsecular fiction, in contrast, affirms pluralistic spiritualities and idiosyncratic religious experiences, not the kind of rigid theologies, textual certainties, and institutional commitments characteristic of Christian (and other) fundamentalisms.

In the two decades since McClure’s key contribution, the concept of the postsecular has allowed us to name a significant and real pattern in our literature—which is not to disregard the pointed critiques the term has undergone in American literary studies, as well as the core concepts of religion, the secular, and secularization on which the notion seemed premised. But I want to suggest in this essay that insofar as the postsecular is an attempt to name a literary-sociological period and provide a powerful heuristic for our literary history, it has had the effect of reinforcing the ways we have ignored the return of the strong religiosity against which the term was originally constituted. This is true of Amy Hungerford’s Postmodern Belief as well, another influential study that doesn’t adopt the term ‘postsecular’, but whose reading of literature and culture as prizing belief in belief, in meaninglessness, and in sheer style and form without semantic content, concords with the idea that what returned to haunt us after the secular was diluted and rarified, without strong doctrines or the power of the old time religion. This is not a critique of McClure and Hungerford; it is only to draw attention to their self-chosen limit, to what they themselves bracketed out of their analyses.

In this sense, to draw attention to postsecularism’s other is to notice the way in which our literary period since the 1970s has simultaneously been marked by a very strong and vital resurgence of politically and socially muscular conservative Christianity. That resurgence, I would argue, is one of the two most consequential religious developments in the United States since the Second World War (the other being, to my mind, the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which changed immigration law from the national origin system to one based on skills and family reunification). Indeed, the rise of the Christian Right blindsided not only most literary writers in the U.S., but also most of us literary critics, because we remained duped for too long by the secularization thesis, that our society was becoming less religious as it continued to become more modern. It was not always easy to see evidence to the contrary, or to recognize it for what it was. Perhaps we were entranced by the institutional memory of the Scopes trial in 1925, during which fundamentalist beliefs about creationism and the Bible were publically ridiculed on radio and in newspapers, and after which, José Casanova writes in Public Religions in the Modern World, fundamentalism “collapsed and, once banished from public view, most intellectuals assumed that it had been relegated to the dustbin of history.” We were slow to recognize conservative Christianity’s unheralded public return beginning in the 1970s, as it re-entered the social and political sphere reinvigorated and prepared to make its moral demands on the nation.

Where this matters for our notion of the postsecular is that insofar as the “post-” in postsecular names a historical, if generalized, sequence of events, we didn’t just get the return of weak religiosity after what we might call a mid-century Civil Religion consensus comfortable talking about God’s abstract, watered-down, ecumenical divine mission for the nation (as sociologists like Robert Bellah and Will Herberg perceived). We also got the return of a religious energy that had hibernated but never really gone away, destroyed neither by Scopes nor the literary testaments to (and reinforcements of) secularization like The Waste Land and The Sun Also Rises. This emergent, strong religiosity was committed to an inerrant, literal Word of God. It was strongly institutional, even as its base extended across a fairly wide range of conservative white Protestant churches, and as it grew eventually to include many (white) Catholics and members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. It sought to preserve traditional gender roles and sexual mores, forming in part as a reaction against feminism and the “shock” of the sexual revolution. It extended its ethical and truth claims to those outside its community through legislation and judicial review. It believed in God’s ongoing active power in the world, as well as the power of prayer to change individual lives, and indeed the nation itself. Insofar as literary studies’ notion of the postsecular allowed us to see the weak religiosity animating some of our greatest literary works in the period, it also contributed to our continued blindness to the hugely significant social arrival of strong religiosity in the public sphere. The postsecular, it turned out, carried the baggage of classic secularization theory.

I believe this to be true of our literature as well. With rare exceptions like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which saw with famous clarity the gender, sexual, and racial politics at the heart of the emergent Christian Right, our literature generally disregarded it, or misrecognized it for what it was, translating it into the more palatable terms of multiculturalism—as is true of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, however different these three authors’ religious perspectives are. And this is what makes David Foster Wallace’s short story all the more striking and exceptional in the postsecular age. After all, Lane and Sheri were in an evangelical predicament, about to compound their sin of premarital sex with the even worse one of abortion, the culture-war mega issue. The Christian Right was first galvanized, in fact, through its gradual reaction to the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States. (There was another issue that galvanized the nascent white Christian Right—its general opposition to the Civil Rights movement and its marriage of politics and religion – but that is another story.) As Susan Harding demonstrates in The Book of Jerry Falwell (2001), white Protestants were initially split on the ethics of abortion. But they were eventually mobilized and considerably “sorted” politically by the end of the 1970s, partly through the agency of Francis Schaeffer’s documentary How Should We Then Live? in 1977. After the founding of the Moral Majority by Tim LaHaye (who later co-wrote the famous fundamentalist Left Behind series) and Jerry Falwell in 1979, pro-life politics became the default stance of white conservative evangelicals, and then the Republican Party that they adopted, energized, and whose primaries they came to dominate in the years to come.

Thus Wallace’s New Yorker readers might have expected his tale to revel in the religious hypocrisy of the situation: that these sexually self-repressed followers of the abstinence-only sex education movement had obviously not practiced what they preached. What the story does instead is draw a deeply sympathetic portrait of a young couple in spiritual pain, trying and failing to find an easy solution to their dilemma. The core of the story is our human psychological apparatus of justification; how we, ethically and emotionally, arrive at ideas we wish to be true or right rather than those that really are true or right. And so Lane sits largely silent, knowing he can’t appear as a “salesman” for the abortion, but wanting badly for Sheri to re-commit to it un-coerced by him. They had previously prayed over the issue, appearing to jointly arrive at the God-blessed decision to terminate their pregnancy. But Lane has declined to pursue prayerful introspection beyond this point; having arrived at the answer he wants, he does not seek out his youth pastor or other prayer partners, or any of the other accoutrements of his evangelical church. His manipulation of Sheri entails “trying to say things that would get her to open up and say enough back that he could see her and read her heart and know what to say to get her to go through with it.”

“He knew this,” Wallace continues, “without admitting to himself that this was what he wanted, for it would make him a hypocrite and a liar.” So far so good, liberal secular skeptics of faith might agree, watching Wallace dissect the machinations of faith, our will to believe, to make believe in the things we want to be true. In this sense, the story at first appears on track to being a familiar secularist critique of faith as wishful thinking. More particularly, it is a critique of the particular brand of evangelical Protestantism ascendant in the Christianized Republican Party of the day. Indeed, what really made this story’s sympathy so transgressive is that Lane’s faith-based wishful thinking would have reminded New Yorker readers of the obviously faith-based policies and decisions of the current Bush administration, whose process of prayerfully arriving at the answers one wants to be true was most spectacularly on display in the justification of the second Iraq war back in 2002 and 2003, which by 2007 was clearly one of the biggest political and military debacles in U.S. history. (The same New Yorker issue included a 9,000 word article on Saddam Hussein’s execution, sectarian violence among the Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds, and Bush’s planned “surge.”)

By the time of the story’s publication, it had become obvious to anyone who cared that the Bush administration had justified the invasion of Iraq by ginning up intelligence linking Saddam Hussein’s regime to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and suggesting that the regime had active Weapons of Mass Destruction programs and was seeking sources of uranium in Niger. We knew by then that Bush had, the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers, asked his aides to find out if Saddam were involved. We knew that Bush had prayed over his decision to invade Iraq, with God seemingly confirming the decision to launch the war. We knew that the claims of WMDs had been spectacularly wrong, as were the claims linking Saddam to Al Qaeda. Obviously, the chief architects of the war, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were not born-again Christians like their Commander in Chief. But they participated in faith-like processes of harmonization and mental sifting, both setting up mechanisms to “stovepipe” raw intelligence directly into offices they controlled rather than go through the usual vetting and critical evaluation of fresh intelligence by experts across America’s several intelligence agencies. For the mostly secularist readers of the New Yorker, this is what strong faith looked like, with all its terrible consequences.

The New York Times later summarized the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2008 report on intelligence failures leading up to the war that skewered in particular the false WMD and Al Qaeda claims, establishing “how much the Bush administration knowingly twisted and hyped intelligence to justify that invasion.” “The report shows,” the Times said, “that there was no intelligence to support the two most frightening claims Mr. Bush and his vice president used to sell the war: that Iraq was actively developing nuclear weapons and had longstanding ties to terrorist groups. It seems clear that the president and his team knew that that was not true, or should have known it—if they had not ignored dissenting views and telegraphed what answers they were looking for.” The Times was reluctant to say that Bush and administration officials lied, partly because it had no access to other people’s mental intentions. Lying has to be accompanied by the intent to deceive, which is not possible if someone has first convinced himself.

It is these very questions of deception and manipulation—and, crucially, self-deception and self-manipulation—that Wallace takes up in his portrayal of the evangelical couple in “Good People.” Lane and Sheri are in the fix they’re in partly because of just such faith-based beliefs on sex education promulgated by the Christian Right. Indeed, abstinence-only programs of the kind endorsed by the Bush administration were actually “positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates,” even after accounting for socio-economic and ethnic differences. We might sympathize with Lane and Sheri’s predicament, particularly because it is not (unlike the Bush Administration’s fateful decisions on Iraq) affecting anyone but themselves—but on the other hand they have no one but their faith tradition to blame.

Where things go sideways, for the progressive readers of The New Yorker enjoying the schadenfreude of Wallace’s skewering of evangelical Christian faith as wishful thinking reminiscent of the far more portentous wishful-thinking resulting in Iraq, is that at the story’s climax faith becomes a kind of technique for deep spiritual introspection and self-interrogation. As it turned out, Lane’s growing self-awareness of his manipulation of Sheri was part of Wallace’s longstanding fictional interest—most spectacularly evident perhaps in his Infinite Jest—in the ordinary human predicaments of self-knowledge, the apprehension of our own insincerity, of ironic self-consciousness.

Indeed, in his famous 1993 essay on television, literature and irony, Wallace framed the problem of coming to terms with late twentieth-century ironic self-consciousness by way of religious reaction:

“What responses to television’s commercialization of the modes of literary protest [that is, irony] seem possible, then, today? One obvious option is for the fiction writer to become reactionary, fundamentalist. Declare contemporary television evil and contemporary culture evil and turn one’s back on the whole spandexed mess and invoke instead good old pre-1960s Hugh Beaumontish virtues and literal readings of the Testaments and be pro-Life, anti-Fluoride, antediluvian. The problem with this is that Americans who’ve opted for this tack seem to have one eyebrow straight across their forehead and knuckles that drag on the ground and really tall hair and in general just seem like an excellent crowd to want to transcend. Besides, the rise of Reagan/Bush/Gingrich showed that hypocritical nostalgia for a kinder, gentler, more Christian pseudo-past is no less susceptible to manipulation in the interests of corporate commercialism and PR image. Most of us will still take nihilism over neanderthalism.”

Wallace’s snapshot was a pretty perfect expression of hip, ironic 1990s American literature looking at Christian Republican values, at its hypocrisy and its strategic ties to big business (as Kevin Kruse’s recent history of this alliance put it, “How Corporate America Invented Christian America). In this scheme, conservative Christianity, or conservatism in general, and its resistance to coming to terms with postmodern ironic knowingness manifest as pure reaction: to refuse to see irony’s predicament of self-consciousness. It was this kind of arrogant, supreme self-confidence that characterized the emergent Christian Right, and indeed, the administration of Bush’s son, Bush Jr., 7 years later.

Wallace’s liberal literary disdain for the unibrowed Christian Rightits portrayal here as an evolutionary throwback affirming secularization’s teleology of progressively abandoned religious beliefis really the context in which “Good People” needs to be heard, its Judas author now, fourteen years later, locating in the very evolutionary retrogrades he had indicted years before a renewed capacity for self-examination. Lane is watching Sheri, but he is also watching himself, and his “moment of grace” comes from recognizing his own complicated doubleness in his attempts to manipulate Sheri. (It’s difficult to read this story now without thinking of the recent #MeToo discussions of Wallace’s own manipulation, coercion and abuse of women.) Even his own private promise to God that “he had learned his lesson” and so the abortion should go through is bracketed with the self-reflective question of motive: “But what if that, too, was a hollow promise, from a hypocrite who repented only after, who promised submission but really only wanted a reprieve? He might not even know his own heart or be able to read and know himself.” With this rumination in his own opacity, the evangelical Christian arrives at the beginning of wisdom.

And so but when Wallace inserts the purposefully clunky “even” into the story’s penultimate question, “What would even Jesus do?”, he disarms the satiric eye-rolling the cliché might prompt in his mostly secular readers, allowing us to hear the genuine ethical quandary facing his evangelical character. What Wallace seemed to see is that his evangelical characters are not necessarily more prone to self-deceptionto seeking the answers we want to be right or true rather than the unpleasant answers that are right or truethan secular liberals. In fact, in this sequence Wallace grants Lane precisely the agonizing second-guessing and ironic self-consciousness he had previously contrasted to conservative religious faith. Sheri’s “last-ditch gamble” absolving him of responsibility evinces a similarly nuanced nesting of motivation and performance. Wallace’s evangelicals revealed the kind of emotional and spiritual complexity usually reserved, in postsecular criticism, for nontraditional, non-dogmatic spiritualties. Maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised by “Good People,” given its title’s reference to Flannery O’Connor’s widely-anthologized “Good Country People,” which we know Wallace read and annotated (on this, see Michael J. O’Connell’s “‘Your Temple is Self and Sentiment’: David Foster Wallace’s Diagnostic Novels” in Christianity & Literature 64.3). When O’Connor’s nihilist protagonist Hulgashe “sees through to nothing”is robbed of her prosthetic leg by an itinerant Bible salesman who tells her that she isn’t so smart after all, and that he’s “been believing in nothing ever since I was born,” it is a hard-won lesson for the university-trained intellectual that arriving at unbelief is no great achievement.

O’Connor’s con artist is not, after all, good country people, but Wallace’s Lane and Sheri do end up being good suburban people, white evangelicals in 1980s Peoria. And they survived. Wallace’s posthumous, unfinishedmaybe unfinishablenovel The Pale King includes the story “Good People” as its section six (pages 38-45), and later fragments about Lane which show that he married Sheri, and they had their baby. A final novel-planning note has Lane going to church one morning but becoming “less fervently Christian” than Sheri. But this was not a snide negation of Lane’s hard-won self-realization in “Good People”; it was merely the sociological truism of a more-faithful wife paired with a less-devout husband, such as would also end up being the star of the Left Behind series during this same period. The Pale King lets us know that Lane, who is nineteen in “Good People,” thinks a lot about his “infant son” in 1985 at his job at the Midwest REC (Regional Examination Center) of the IRS where he processes tax forms, putting him in his early twenties. Perhaps we might, in a thought experiment, run the tape even further forward to the 2016 election and imagine that, like most fifty-something white evangelical Midwesterners, they had been voting for Republicans for decades, and they came home once again to Donald Trump in 2016, as the Christian Right rallied to his support: Trump garnered the support of 81% of white evangelical voters, many, we might suppose, because of the goal of appointing conservative Supreme Court justices who will decide on the legality of the moral issue at the center of Wallace’s story, abortion.

The rise of the Christian Right is the necessary context for understanding the transgressive force of Wallace’s story, for its recognition, even during the Bush administration, that faithful people might arrive at self-knowing with the difficulty that other human beings experience. What Wallace found as he paid attention to this body of specific, historical, contextualized belief was not the semi-sacred “whooshing-up” experienced by sports audiences, prized by postsecular criticism (a la Dreyfus and Kelly in All Things Shining as critiqued by Fessenden in “The Problem of the Postsecular”), and unattached to traditional dogma, institutions and theologies, but rather the currency, the now-ness, of traditional Christian theology and practice. It was a mode of experience and belief the literary world had largely ignored, but Wallace managed to listen to and sympathize with a form of American religiosity that took most of the rest of us by surprise. Perhaps this sympathy was partly due to his own religious questions, embodied, Maria Bustillos explains, in the spiritual ambiguities of Alcoholics Anonymous whose shape looks somewhat more like postsecular energies than the faith of his characters in “Good People.” In contrast, David Foster Wallace’s evangelicals represent the other postsecularism, postsecularism’s other, and there has not been as good an outside literary observer since.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “David Foster Wallace’s Evangelicals: The Other Postsecularism” published in Christianity & Literature 67.3 (2018). Many of the hyperlinks take the place of the printed article’s footnotes. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

Choosing Rest in Paradise Lost

By Daniel Ritchie and Jared Hedges

Immediately after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost, John Milton describes the first steps of Adam and Eve in these striking words:

Some natural tears they dropp’d, but wip’d them soon;

The World was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence thir guide:

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way. (12.645–49)

Why “rest”? Why not repentance or obedience? Or, given Milton’s Puritan affinities, why not work or vocation? Why not covenant or sanctification? Prior to the fall, Milton emphasizes how Adam and Eve find rest in their Edenic cycle of eating, conversation, worship, sexual expression, and labor. After the fall, these elements are degraded, but not lost. Rather, each element needs to be re-established in a new “place of rest.” Following their expulsion from the Garden, our human parents may choose to use their time in the world to choose rest, or not. In this article we explore the ways in which Paradise Lost carries Adam and Eve—and its readers—through their choice of a “place of rest.”

The “holy rest” of God, mentioned twice in the poem, will be attained in Paradise (6.272, 7.91). But a different kind of rest must be discovered here on earth. At the risk of stating the obvious, Paradise Lost is emphatically about life in this world, and the “rest” described at the end of the poem is clearly available to the wandering Adam and Eve, and potentially available to readers of Paradise Lost as well.

Rest is strikingly absent at the poem’s opening, and Milton frequently links restlessness to evil in its first few books. Hell  is a place “where peace / And rest can never dwell” (1.65–66, cf. 1.185), and even the earth scorches Satan’s feet upon his arrival: “Such resting found the sole / Of unblest feet” (1.237–38).

This demonic “restlessness” finds its antithesis in Adam and Eve’s “haste,” which is neither chaotic nor restless (5.136, 211, 326, 331). Instead, our unfallen parents’ alacrity is always balanced by conversation, walks, sexual expression, and sleep. Even their labor is in equilibrium with their rest; it is never viewed as the enemy of rest. Conversely, Satan and the fallen angels attempt to “work ease out of pain / Through labor and endurance” (2.261–2, emphasis added).

In addition, while Satan seeks to destroy God’s cycles (9.136–37), Adam knows that “God hath set / Labor and rest, as day and night to men / Successive” (4.612–614). Rather than being their enemy, time can be used fruitfully by the unfallen Adam and Eve for all kinds of activities, laborious and restful. The primary way they enrich these activities is by conversing with one another and with God. Indeed, Adam dreads the loss of such conversation first among the consequences of the fall, asking Eve: “How can I live without thee, how forgo / Thy sweet Converse” (9.908–909). Such sweet converse is not limited to speech either. Adam cannot rest while he is in “unity defective”; he needs the “Collateral love” of a sexually conversant lover (8.425, 426). Both the verbal and sexual conversing of Adam and Eve plays an essential role in the couple’s developing understanding of rest.

Rested from a night of rejuvenating sleep, Adam awakens Eve to converse about the next stage in their God-ordained cycle: the day’s labors. “[W]e lose the prime,” he urges, “to mark how spring / Our tended Plants” (5.21–22). Even here, though, Adam places the urgency on “marking” rather than reforming the plants and groves. His following lines explode in sensory appeal, and affirm the Garden as an object of contemplation as well as a place of labor.

Adam similarly pauses to appreciate Eve (5.19ff), demonstrating again that, in their relationship, resting takes precedence over laboring. It is only after speaking with each other and with God that they “to thir morning’s rural work … haste,” and even these labors are to be punctuated with “[r]efreshment, whether food, or talk between, … [f]or not to irksome toil, but to delight / He made us” (5.211, 9.235, 242–43). This is “eat, pray, love” with depth.

Pursued with restful intermission, labor fits harmoniously into the cycles of creation as Adam and Eve experience them: sleep, worship, conversation, sexual expression and work. Significantly, four of these blessings are experienced primarily during times of rest, and all are ways of obeying God.

After the fall in Book Nine, however, toil becomes irksome, and the other varieties of resting mentioned above are similarly degraded. Milton explicitly frames the pair’s fallen condition as an absence of rest: Adam and Eve not only have no “paradise within,” but are “worse within” (9.1122). In the wake of the fall, Adam and Eve indulge in lustful but unsatisfying passion, and arise from sleep “[a]s from unrest” (9.1051–52). Likewise, conversation is veiled by deception and leads to error, food intoxicates rather than sustains, and work is entirely absent from their consideration (9.1034–1189).

But even such degraded rest can be recovered in new forms. Christ, says Michael, will “bring back / Through the world’s wilderness long wander’d man / Safe to eternal Paradise of rest” (12.312–314). Christ’s “eternal Paradise of rest” anticipates both the promise of a “paradise within” and Adam and Eve’s sought-after “place of rest,” both of which must be found in the fallen world. While eschatologically charged, Milton’s language here is consistent with the promised restoration of earthly rest.

When Michael pronounces their exile from the Garden, Adam and Eve must again reconceive their rest. Indeed, it is the loss of the place of rest that so undoes Eve: “O unexpected stroke, worse than of Death! / Must I thus leave thee Paradise?” (11.268–269). But Eve is mistaken in supposing that her violets, pansies, and hyacinths cannot grow outside the Garden’s “Climate” of rest. The angel instructs Eve to reconceive her “native soil” as wherever she and Adam go (11.270, 292). He reassures Adam that God, who met him in Paradise, will also be found “in Valley and in Plain” (11.349). They now must learn, however, to cultivate a “paradise within” (12.587).

Unlike both the eternal future Paradise and the Paradise that was “so late their happy seat,” this “paradise within” is to be found during their present life on earth (12.642). The entire poem has prepared Adam and Eve—and the reader—for this conclusion. “The World was all before them,” and the poem’s ending beckons toward the answer: their joined hands signify a renewed relationship; their “choosing” signifies a renewed rational capacity; and their slow steps toward their place of rest signify that space and time are no longer enemies, but rather their means to a redeemed life. “Some natural tears they dropp’d, but wip’d them soon” (12.645), and in doing so they reaffirm the cycles that will define their wandering and give meaning to their labor, their conversation, their sexuality, and their rest.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Choosing Rest in Paradise Lost,” 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.

“A Divine Kind of Rhetoric”: Rhetorical Strategy and Spirit- Wrought Sincerity in English Puritan Writing

By David Parry

“Puritanism” and “rhetoric” are both terms that have negative connotations in everyday conversational use today. “Puritan” and “puritanical” convey to many the image of a sanctimonious religious hypocrite, while “rhetoric” reminds us of the politician who is capable of fancy talk but has no intention of following through in action. Both terms conjure up today the specter of insincerity. However, this is not fair to the historic meaning of either term – in fact, sincerity was a core value both for Puritan believers and for the key classical writers on rhetoric.

“Puritans” were English Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who felt that the Church of England was not sufficiently reformed in light of their understanding of Scripture (and, by extension, their theological heirs in New England and elsewhere). While Puritan reforming zeal entailed opposition to ceremonial practices that they deemed too reminiscent of Roman Catholicism, Puritans also had significant positive emphases, including the importance of preaching and the need for a personal experience of divine grace. Puritans encouraged individuals to pursue a rigorous self-examination of their spiritual state to ensure a truthful, sincere presentation of themselves both to God and to others.

“Rhetoric” in the broad sense refers to the art of persuasion, the skilled use of language to persuade an audience to adopt a particular belief or to pursue a particular action. In the Western world there is an established rhetorical tradition tracing back to the eloquent orators of classical Greece and Rome and their persuasive verbal techniques, as codified by writers such as Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. In his Institutio Oratoria, Quintilian taught that the true orator was “a good man skilled in speaking,” one who uses language with skill to persuade hearers of the truth of that which the speaker sincerely believes.

The Cambridge Puritan Richard Sibbes (c.1577–1635) attributes rhetoric to God himself, saying in the preface to his work The Bruised Reede and Smoaking Flax that “the Holy Ghost effectually perswadeth by a divine kinde of rhetoricke,” while another influential Cambridge minister, William Perkins (1558–1602), writes similarly in his commentary on the book of Revelation that logic and rhetoric are “the practice of the holy Ghost.” Puritan ministers likewise sought to imitate the God that they believed in by using their skills in speaking and writing to persuade their audiences towards saving faith and godly living.

But there is a problem here. It initially appears contradictory to “perform” sincerity – surely sincerity consists in inward integrity rather than outward performance, we might think. Some Puritan ministers themselves likewise use “rhetoric” in a pejorative sense to refer to insincere eloquence that contrasts with the Puritan commitment to a “plain style” that communicates truth in a straightforwardly understandable way. For instance, in his manifesto for ministers Gildas Salvianus: The Reformed Pastor, the prolific Presbyterian pastor Richard Baxter complains:

O how curiously have I heard some men preach! and how carelesly have I seen them live! They have been so accurate as to the wordy part in their own preparations, that seldom preaching seemed a vertue to them, that their language might be the more polite, and all the Rhetorical jingling writers they could meet with, were prest to serve them for the adorning of their stile[.]

I would nevertheless argue that Puritan ministers made use of a “good rhetoric” that adopts some of the core principles of classical rhetoric, and adapts them for the rather different persuasive goals of Puritan “practical divinity.” In particular, I argue that English Puritans made use of the three primary modes of persuasion identified by Aristotle. These are logos (appeal to reason), pathos (appeal to the audience’s emotions), and ethos (appeal to the credibility of the speaker as perceived by the audience).

Different Puritan writers prioritize these modes of persuasion differently. For instance, William Perkins writes that “there is no perswasion but in the minde,” and so stresses the role of reason in persuading people to faith (logos), while Richard Sibbes sees the “affections” (emotions) as the gateway to the will (pathos), claiming that Christ himself uses an affectionate rhetoric. In the wonderfully titled Bowels Opened (a title whose connotations differed somewhat in the seventeenth century), a posthumously published series of sermons on the Song of Songs, Sibbes observes:

There must bee a great deale of perswasion to still the accusing conscience of a sinner, to set it downe, make it quiet, and perswade it of Gods love. Therefore hee [Christ] useth all heavenly Rhetoricke to perswade and move the affections.

My article concludes with a discussion of the tinker-preacher John Bunyan, the author of the celebrated allegorical narrative The Pilgrim’s Progress. In the preface to his spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan justifies his use of plain style in this way:

God did not play in convincing of me; the Devil did not play in tempting of me; neither did I play when I sunk as into a bottomless pit, when the pangs of hell caught hold upon me: wherefore I may not play in my relating of them, but be plain and simple, and lay down the thing as it was.

However, if we look closely, Bunyan is indeed playing with language, with the triple repetition “God did not play […] the Devil did not play […] neither did I play” being an example of the rhetorical figure tricolon. Even the contrast between “play” and “plain” plays on the similarity between the words. Yet this is a serious play with a serious intent.

In an insightful article on Sibbes including wider attention to the performative rhetoric of Puritan preaching (freely available online here: third article), Chin Hwa Myatt comments, “The end of sincerity requires much effort. […] The performance of a preacher would be inadequate if he did not perform with sincerity.” The Puritan writers and preachers surveyed in my article all demonstrate that, just as play can be serious in its purpose, rhetoric can be sincere. While the sincerity of Puritan preachers and writers was grounded in a commitment to an inward heart integrity, this integrity needed to be expressed outwardly in words in order to have its desired effect: cooperating with the divine rhetoric of the Spirit to persuade people towards their own inward transformation.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “A Divine Kind of Rhetoric”: Rhetorical Strategy and Spirit-Wrought Sincerity in English Puritan Writing” published in Christianity & Literature 67.1, a special issue on sincerity. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.

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.