Christian Thought and Literary Criticism

How ought a Christian to interact with the world? We are called to be ‘in the world, but not of the world.’ Paul’s letters include lessons to ‘live in peace, pray for Caesar,’ as well as to, ‘avoid vain philosophies.’ The Scriptures never give us an exact set of standards by which followers of Christ are to behave living in a world in which we are sojourners. This has led to a centuries long debate over what relationship should exist between Christians, who are called to ‘be holy, as I the LORD am holy,’ and the world, which shuns holiness. This question is so hard to answer that even now, in the preceding sentence, I presumed that Christians are somehow separate from the world around them, or ought to be, this is itself a disputed thing.

One set of reflections upon this issue came, not from Christian thinkers, but from the literary world. Of late, I was reading critical essays in a selection from Scrutiny, the famed modernist journal of literary criticism. In one essay the author, Q.D. Leavis, gives us several insights into the nature and problems of Christian literary thought. At a certain point Leavis comments upon a similarity between that Marxist criticism and Christian criticism, “we have to repeat to the dogmatic Christian discriminator the warning we gave to the Marxist critic, that before certifying a work on the grounds of content or apparent orthodoxy it is as well to be sure that its actual ‘message’, what it inevitably and essentially communicates, is what you thought it was.”1 This is a common failing of critics with an axe to grind, they too often measure a work of art, in this case, literary writing, by whether or not it openly subscribes to a predetermined standard of theological or ideological orthodoxy. In this line of argument Leavis seems to position himself in such a way that criticism and literature are necessarily distant from theological concerns. Later on he goes so far as to say that, “The novelist, unlike the theologian, works in terms of concrete particularity.”2 In his mind, the theologian is more airy and divorced from the world, whereas the novelist deals with what is real. Leavis denies that a Christian may first analyze literature in light of a Christian philosophy or theology, arguing that unless a Christian is a critic literature ‘he is nothing,’ preferring to ‘exercise some ‘standard of orthodoxy’. The standard of Christian orthodoxy appears then as a chain upon the powers of a Christian critic. Is this necessarily so? It would be the question of what it means to be a Christian critic, a Christian thinker.

C.S. Lewis, in his essays on Christianity and culture, held that Christianity had no great opinion of human culture, basing himself largely upon Paul’s brief comments on the topic. For Lewis, the world of culture may be useful and even beneficial for a Christian, but is not necessarily a good thing, since a culture is the product of fallen mankind. Yet his contemporary, T.S. Eliot differed. In his work Christianity and Culture, Eliot argued for a different conception of culture. For him, a culture derived necessarily and inherently from a religious standpoint, whether it is centered upon a god, Jesus, Revolution or some other thing. For Eliot a Christian culture was one in which the overall moral precepts of Christianity were accepted by the society at large, and that its cultural creators, writers, artists, poets ect. would operate under them. An example might include Western culture from the Renaissance to the 20th century. During this time religious themes were often prominent in the arts, whether or not the artists themselves were actually sincere followers of the Christian faith.

While for Lewis and Eliot a Christian criticism may be possible, Leavis dissents. In his eyes, applying the simple standards of religious orthodoxy is a violation of the nuance needed for literary criticism, he tells us, “For in examining a piece of literature as a literary critic he is inevitably appraising it and the appraisal is a process much more subtle than the application of any standard orthodoxy or the extraction of any moral lesson or he discovery of some panacea for a situation producing works of art that don’t’ answer to his doctrinal specifications.”3 I think that he is correct in this. The standards of a religious orthodoxy, even my own, cannot be purely applied to a literary work.

Many great writers have written of things and in ways that, for a strictly religious person, it is forbidden or immoral to do. An example would be I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. In the course of this work I found detailed descriptions of the moral degeneracy and sexual license present on American college campuses. I had two reactions to this. The first is that of a Christian, who finds Wolfe’s explicit language to be at best shocking and at worst a temptation to dwell upon such things as the promiscuity of a frat house party and the ‘hook-up culture’ I hear so much of. The second reaction is a questioning one, “why is he discussing this in so open a fashion?” Tom Wolfe is well-known as a social critic and has been called “the American Juvenal” by some. Given his reputation as a critic, I approached his novel with the knowledge that he is not writing merely to be salacious and vile, but is writing to a purpose. The purpose of I am Charlotte Simmons appears to be an honest look at the lifestyle of college students today. What is portrayed in the novel is socially horrible and morally condemnable as the worst sort of sexual license, coupled with backbiting and the hypocrisy of campus liberalism. If this is what Wolfe’s goal was, then he succeeded. The novel is well written, and displays and keen understanding of the sort of thinking, or non-thinking, that college students commonly do. My own experience of college has confirmed portions of his novel as being true to their topic. I would not recommend Wolfe’s novel to anyone unable to handle its immorality, although it is questionable whether anyone should have to do so in the first place. To my mind, a Christian thinker must be able to read many things, whether he is able to do so is largely dependent upon his maturity as a Christian. I cannot say whether the novel is wholly appropriate even for me. I do know that as a Christian thinker it is my role to understand what is being read, thought and watched in order to know how I am to defend the Christian faith.

Many writers have used crudity and even vulgar language in their works. The Greek Aristophanes wrote plays which are so vulgar as to offend and yet he uses crudity to satire and mock the stupidest conventions of his day. The Roman playwright Plautus was later to write in a similar vein. It is well known that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is hardly a shining example of moral rectitude; the Wife of Bath’s tale is a ribald tale of moral insouciance and vulgar behavior. Both Boccacio and Rabelais brilliantly mocked churchmen, intellectuals, lords and rulers in their works. Shakespeare was not above using crude language. This tradition of using vulgarity to mock, expose and satire seems to have dropped off after the Protestant Reformation, though I do not ascribe its cessation to Protestants. It was only in the last century or so that writers like D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer and William Borroughs began to explore and use crudity again in literature. But these latter writers seem to have done so in the spirit of flippant rebellion against the supposed Christian moral norms of their day. Mailer and Borroughs have been especially vile for apparently no other purpose than to be vile. Historically there has been a line between crude literature which is brilliant at a set purpose, and crude literature which is simply salacious, vile and adolescent.

What I have just done is an example of moral criticism of writer’s works, my morality stems from my Christian faith. Were I asked to evaluate the work of Chaucer, Lawrence or George R.R. Martin on their literary basis alone, it would be a challenge. Yet criticism need not be, and I think cannot be, written in a vacuum. Leavis noted that, “At present we have, the inheritance from a long tradition, a centre of merely literary critics whose disinterested evaluations have mad possible some recognition of poets and novelists who subscribe to no orthodoxy, that is, nearly all creative artists of the last two centuries; this centre, moreover, provides and atmosphere and milieu where value-judgments can be discussed with more freedom.”4

Leavis further held that literature was best read in an atmosphere in which moralistic Christian thought was absent. Otherwise it might occur that, “the direct inspiration of the Devil is imputed to any artist who runs counter to our prejudices, in which access to the one source of absolute truth is confidently claimed by the critic, and anathema invoked on the dissentients.”5 The method of applying theological and philosophical moral standards to literature is thought to be too exacting, and in a sense, inappropriate to the field of literature. Leavis doubts that such intellectual training is even useful in literary studies, when he wrote, “There is no reason to suppose that those trained in theology, or philosophy for that matter, are likely to possess, what is essential to the practice of literary criticism, that ‘sensitiveness of intelligence, described by Matthew Arnold as equivalent to conscience in moral matters. A theological training seems to have a disabling effect and has subsequently to be struggled against when literary criticism is the concern. And there are other dangers. When theology is made a substitute for literary criticism or is tacked on to bad criticism the result is disastrous.”6 Such criticism is useful for those ‘who cannot begin to read for themselves’

To fully read and understand literature, one must possess a keen mind, an understanding of language, expression and a feeling for the nuances of different writers, their styles and modes. At first this seems a fool’s errand, men pursuing flights of literary fancy and calling it ‘criticism’ when in fact they follow only the flutter of the feelings. Yet Leavis bases himself upon the notion of a tradition of great readers and critics who have shown us how to engage in thoughtful, disinterested criticism of literary works. Now, does this mean that a critic ought not to uphold a standard? Of a certain not! Critics from Johnson and Coleridge to Hazlitt to Leavis to Kimball have all carried the work of the critic who seeks to understand the work he is reading, and then to apply to it the standards of artistic creation that we have inherited from the past. A tradition, such as that of criticism, is at first learned by reading those generally regarded as being the finest of their kind. As the craft is learnt from its masters, the student is in time able to engage in his own criticism. While I may not fully agree with Kimball or Leavis on some point or other of literature or the work of a critic, we may all agree that there are certain standards of creation, and even of moral thought, which may be rightfully applied to literary works.

As a Christian, I find it difficult to accept Leavis’ assertion that an orthodox outlook tends to undo literary perceptions of human society, since, “The tendency of orthodoxy is to repress these perceptions for its own convenience and cause a moral cramp in the developing consciousness.”7 This calls for me to lay aside my own strict beliefs and to allow writers to violate them in their works. But the alternative to literature which is generally bounded by its own great tradition is far preferable to lightweight, moralistic tales such as those found in Christian novelists of today.

Leavis may have a point when he wrote, “The method of literary criticism, as repeatedly defined in these pages, is to secure the maximum general agreement for evaluation by staring with something demonstrable – the surface of the work – and through practical criticism commanding assent (or giving an opening for disagreement and discussion.)”8 Were I to take a novel by a Christian, say Francine Rivers of Frank Peretti, and subject it to literary criticism, what would be the result? Ought I to approach it first as a Christian and then as a critic? This question broadly relate to the question of how Christians ought to read the Great Books. Should we read Shakespeare in light of Christianity or in light of Shakespeare?

I answer that, in approaching a popular Christian writer, it is good to first read them as a Christian. If their work is in line with Christian orthodox teaching, then it may be justly praised for its orthodoxy, but that is only the first step in the critical task. It is also the least important. The remaining work is to examine them in light of literature at large and to ask whether or not they achieve their task well, by what Johnson called ‘just representations of general nature.’ If they use too many stereotypes of moral behavior, as might be seen in Rivers’ work, then they have earned their criticism, and the critic should be unsparing in his treatment of them. Christian writers are not aided by being allowed to write milquetoast works which appeal only to those who are already Christian. A novelist like Dostoevsky was able to put elements of the Christian faith into his novels, but do it in such a way that he cannot be seen as being a mere partisan. Dostoevsky’s honest treatment of the plight of modern man is awe inspiring. Like Camus, Nietzsche and Marcel after him, Dostoevsky exposes the plight, moral and spiritual, of modern man who lives in an age of material prosperity and spiritual atrophy. But, unlike Nietzsche or Camus, Dostoevsky turns to the Christian faith, the Christian Savior, as the only one who can save us from ourselves. Camus never got that far, and Nietzsche rejected the Cross and all it stood for. So it is not true that a Christian writer need to a peddler of stereotypes and a purveyor of spiritual nostrums. He may be an honest writer, and show the hardship of the Christian faith, whether in being lived or in being attained.

The work a critic then, is best approached from a position in which moral considerations are present and play their part in keeping out the worst filth which is hailed as literature. While moral considerations are present, their theological underpinnings cannot be allowed to wholly overwhelm the work of the critic, which is not the work of a theologian or of a moral philosopher. I do not find it strange that, when theologians and philosophers wish to express a moral truth in a timeless way, they will often cite a novelist, playwright or poet. These men grasp what is eternal as well as their counterparts, and often do so in a way that everyone can understand appreciate. Many men will read a critic, and many more will read the books he criticizes, but few will read the philosopher or theologian who gives the foundation of the critics moral standards.

Your Humble Servant.

1 Charlotte Yonge and ‘Christian Discrimination”, by Q.D. Leavis, from A Selection from Scrutiny, compiled by F.R. Leavis, Volume I, Cambridge University Press, 1968, pg. 151

2 Ibid, pg. 155

3 Ibid, pg. 152

4 Ibid, pg. 152

5 Ibid., pg. 153

6 Ibid, pg. 153

7 Ibid, pg. 154

8 Ibid, pg. 153

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