And teaching normal people to read like Christians
“What would Christian criticism look like?” I used to ask my private school seniors, in the last weeks before they graduated. “We’ve done Feminist theory; we’ve done Marxism and Psychoanalysis. . . . Now, what sort of questions would a Christian literary theory ask of a text?”
We’d brainstorm (what a great word!) awhile together, and inevitably end up with a list similar to this:
In what light are Biblical virtues presented in this text? (Sacrificial love, faith, hope, forgiveness, perseverance, humility, sympathy, &c.)
What does the text consider to be the greatest virtue? What are the reasons for this value system?
What does the text consider to be the greatest sin? What consequences does it imagine for this?
What is the ultimate source of conflict within the text?
Where do the characters look for God (or for fulfillment)?
Can the reader find God anywhere in the text beyond where the characters look?
How does the text position itself in relation to truth?
I love getting high school students to ask these questions! The implied extension of each is “and how does that compare to the Gospel?” Such comparisons can make for some insightful final papers. What they don’t do, however – what I’ve never required my students to do – is provide a clear, theoretical description of what Christian literary criticism should be, and what the need for it is. Our classroom set of questions was a good tool for young, inquisitive Christians to use when applying their ideology to the literary world. Taken on its own, however, a list like this doesn’t provide much for the secular reader who’s interested in reading from a Christian point of view. A true Christian literary theory would be accessible and compelling to believers and nonbelievers alike, much in the same way that you don’t have to be a devotee of Freud to explore psychosexual allegory in Beauty and the Beast.
There’s a need for a new Christian criticism that can hold its own in dialogue with today’s more popular critical theories. The need is twofold; it’s present both within and without the Christian community. Christians need a new literary theory because, frankly, we’re often afraid to think critically about literature at all. Everyone’s familiar with the embarrassing animosity a good portion of our church holds against Harry Potter, without having ever read it, because of its use of a few token words. My wife was once told by a pastor she didn’t know that she should stop reading a fantasy novel immediately – because it had a dragon on the cover. Such paranoia about superficialities is, to use Jesus’s phrase, like straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. The camel here is superstition, or the appearance of superstition; every time non-Christians hear one of us condemn Harry Potter, they’re reminded of the Salem Witch Trials and the drowning of black cats. We need to articulate a more deliberate, insightful way of evaluating literature in terms of meaning, to soothe the nerves of our more reactionary brothers and sisters, and encourage them to read with a spirit of love instead of avoiding books out of a spirit of fear.
Non-Christian readers would also benefit from a Christian literary theory. For the last thousand years, in the West, reading and writing have been implicitly Christian activities; consequently most critical and interpretive modes were Christian too, though few were expressly identified as such. In the last century or so, however, there has been an explosion of new forms of criticism that place themselves outside of the Christian tradition. These generally draw the focus of critical reading toward social preconceptions and psychological issues that lie deep beneath the surface a text. Such readings can be extremely useful and illuminating; they raise new questions by shining their lights into previously unexplored corners of the art of language. However, by focusing only on the margins and the corners, contemporary criticism can lose sight of questions and concerns that have been central to literature for so very long. Christian themes and modes of understanding, which have been passed down by tradition and renewed every generation by contact with the Bible, still profoundly influence our cultural conversations and literary art today. Spiritual questions and questing will always be a part of why people read, and why people write in the first place. A Christian critique can speak to those questions, recover those themes. An educated reader with a Marxist and a Jungian lens in her pocket could learn something new and valuable by picking up and peering through the dark glass of Christianity.
Since late Roman times, literature in the West has been a response to the immense cultural phenomenon that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ – either an attempt to understand it, an outright rejection of it, or an exploration of its implications. As Christians, we believe that this is true, in a certain sense, of the rest of the world history as well: Paul the Apostle writes that “since the creation. . . God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). All intellectual pursuits, therefore, must at some point grapple with what do with God, whether that be to interpret him, ape him, or even try to ignore him. The Christian critique is particularly suitable for the Western canon, but it should produce interesting readings of non-Western literature as well.
So then, what is Christian literary theory? What would Christian criticism look like? As e.e.cummings said, “always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” Since I haven’t provided an answer, I hope I’ve at least made the question more beautiful for you! I’m starting this blog for the purpose of feeling out an accessible system of Christian critique, one that could be used by believers and nonbelievers alike. Hopefully I will arrive at a workable description in the end. In the meantime, I intend to post a short reflection on a book every week or so, asking why and how Christ appears in it. I hope to suggest the valuable insights that such readings can produce. I’m not a real literary scholar, though; I am only a high school English teacher. That’s not to say I’m anti-intellectual; in fact I love college professors and deeply admire their work. However, I don’t hold this blog, myself, or my new theory, to the same kind of standards they might be subjected to in a graduate program. I expect to oversimplify, and to get things wrong from time to time. If you catch me in a mistake, please let me know! The highest goals I have for this blog are to encourage Christians to read, and to provide the means for normal people to read like Christians. Short of that, starting a conversation would be nice!