[This review is part of the Christian Worldview Integration Series]
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University. He is also a lifelong evangelical Protestant Christian with deep, equally abiding Catholic sympathies.
Gregory Maillet is professor of English at Crandall University in Moncton, Canada. He is also a mid-career scholar, a committed Catholic with deep evangelical sympathies.
The purpose they share is “to bring our shared love for Christ and the church to bear on our intellectual work in such a way that we are able to offer something of potential value to serious Christian students of literature in both traditions” (pg. 27) Their job in writing is one of “suggesting ways that a Christian worldview can provide a pertinent and fruitful approach to literary study as an academic discipline” (Ibid.).
A book like this, focusing on a specific academic discipline, is somewhat limited in its intended audience. In the authors words, “Our volume was written primarily for Christian students of literature in both secular and Christian universities and colleges” (Ibid.). At first glance, unless you’re an English major, you may not feel you fall within this scope. However, I would say if you rely on written or oral communication (this includes pretty much everyone in active ministry) to do your job in whole or part, you owe it to yourself to become a student of literature. This book provides a great resources to start that journey, particularly in reference to English literature. Each chapter has suggestions for further reading, so even if the text itself doesn’t capture your attention, the authors point you to plenty of others to start you on your way.
In Christianity and Literature, the authors are writing to show that literary judgments are never value free. In short, this book is a period by period survey of English literature aiming to demonstrate “how literary texts and judgments about them are invariably subtended by ethical (or counter-ethical) presuppositions” (pg. 28). For the authors that they single out, the reader is given a brief historical context, and then an exposition focused on the riches of the individual works, “first in their own terms and then also in light of a Christian worldview” (Ibid.) In doing so, the authors hope that book will not be reduced just to that, but that it would underscore
that full appreciation of literature in English requires a curriculum that acknowledges the persistent presence of Christ in the literary imagination down through the centuries, even while candidly confirming the evident complexity of response to that presence by individual writers.
In other words, the book has a certain apologetic perspective to it, seeking to demonstrate that English literature cannot be fully understood and appreciated apart from understanding the Christian worldview that is influencing it, either positively or negatively. To that end, the authors do a rather superb job of moving through the history of English literature showing how in their writings, key authors are either working out their Christian worldview, or reacting against and trying to distance themselves from it.
The book itself is split into 3 sections. The first deals with the Christian foundations to literature, starting with a chapter exploring the relationship between literature and truth. Chapter 1 argues that a correspondence theory of truth is the best foundation for a Christian approach to literary studies. Chapter 2 moves into a discussion of aesthetics, particularly theological aesthetics and their relation to literary criticism. Chapter 3 explores the literary nature of the Bible, setting the stage for bringing out its subsequent influence in the history of English literature.
The second section moves more explicitly into literary interpretation of actual texts in the corpus of English literature. Chapter 4 covers the medieval period, focusing briefly on Augustine and monastic studies, before focusing a good bit of the chapter on medieval morality plays. Chapter 5 moves the disucssion to Renaissance literature. Not surprisingly, key figures here are Shakespeare and Milton, but the authors also spend time with Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, and George Herbert. Chapter 6 shifts to the Enlightenment, using John Locke’s writing as the example of how thoughts concerning truth and religion began to shift. This marks a kind of turning point where authors either accept the new line of Enlightenment thinking, and so want to make revisions to the traditional Christian understanding, or they fight against it, pen in hand. John Dryden recieves considerable attention here, as does Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, and Robert Burns to name a few.
The third and final section, aptly titled “Contested Authority” moves the reader into the contemporary terrain. Chapter 7 starts post Enlightenment shift and explores how the rejection of biblical authority began a quest for a new suitor to fill that role. Chapter 8 moves more fully into our current modern/postmodern landscape and includes extended discussions with Lewis and Tolkien. It also explores the rise of the modern novel (locating its inception in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Chapter 9 closes out the book with a look at where Christian literary studies can go from here.
Overall, I think the authors of this book succeed in their aims. I would say as well that this is valuable book for the Christian studying literature and that pastors and teachers should count themselves among students of literature. The level of technical engagement will vary, but understanding the modern literary landscape as well as seeing how the journey brought us here is not only indispensable for Christian English majors, but future pastors and teachers as well.
Since I count myself among the latter rather than the former, I do not have the depth of understanding to offer much of a critique of this book in terms of the authors’ handling of the history of English literature or their interpretation of key texts. What I can’t offer regarding content, I can for the style, which to me was lacking. I realize this book is academic in nature, and I read a lot of academic books. But unlike in other books, I often found myself having to re-read several lines because the intervening clauses creates such a distance between the main subject and verb. Depending on your vocabulary as well, you may want to keep a dictionary nearby as the authors occasionally are more precise in their wording, choosing one to do the job that is not usually apart of discourse outside the English department.
In a way then, this isn’t so much a weakness of the book as simply a comment that the authors are clearly more well-read than I am, and many times make their points in ways that to me seem overly verbose, but may in fact be standard fair in the English department. For non-academic readers, while this may be barrier to understanding, it shouldn’t deter you from reading this book. The authors have much to offer, and this book, as well as the others in this series should be read widely.
Thanks to IVP for providing me with a review copy of this book!