Editor’s Note: Due to an editorial mistake, two blog posts were released yesterday. In order to make sure the second post received proper attention, we are resending it today.  This post is from “Advice to…” series in the most recent issue of Christian Scholars Review.  Thanks, PLG

When Perry Glanzer asked me to write for CSR something akin to what Alvin Plantinga wrote for Faith and Philosophy 26 years ago,1 my desire to be helpful was conflicted by a sense of disproportion, or at least asymmetry, in our situations. I refer to much more than the authority of authors: Plantinga is without doubt the greatest American Christian philosopher of his era, yet that is not the only asymmetry with which my readers have to deal. Much has changed since 1984 in American higher education, not least of which is the loss of traction in the humanities generally, and the diminishment of respect for literarylearning as part of that wider picture. We have lost quite a large portion of student quorum, while philosophy in general has held steady, at least comparatively, and in some quarters even grown. Since a minimal requirement of one who is asked for advice is recognition that conditions pertaining to his own experience 50 years ago may be different—even radically different—from those pertaining today, let me begin by acknowledging that reality and by noting some particular aspects of cultural shift as the context for most who teach literature in colleges and universities now.

Plantinga begins his landmark essay with a striking and entirely optimistic cultural note:

Christianity these days, and in our part of the world, is on the move. There are many signs pointing in this direction: the growth of Christian schools, of the serious Christian denominations, the furor over prayer in public schools, the creation/evolution controversy, and others.2

He adds immediately, “There is also powerful evidence for this contention in philosophy.” Few in our disciplines, I think it safe to say, would share his optimism today, either for the general culture or for the culture of the university and our own literary guild in 2021. Thus, though Plantinga’s two chief recommendations, namely that Christian intellectuals “must display more autonomy… more independence of the rest of the [guild],” while at the same time resisting “widely accepted assumptions as to what are the proper starting points and procedures” are ones I certainly affirm, I want to acknowledge that those in graduate programs now, or who are teaching in secular schools, will find the conditions they face may make the “integrality” Plantinga recommends much more difficult to achieve than it was for his and my generation.3

Evolving Context

One reality that tempers my own perspective is trying to help new PhDs in their search for tenure track positions; today’s newly minted PhDs face a gauntlet neither I nor my colleagues ever experienced. When I took my doctorate in English and Comparative Literature at Princeton in 1968 there were more positions available than candidates to fill them. Tenure track positions in literature today are very hard to come by; accordingly, it is a buyer’s market, and the buyers—namely, the hiring committees—are largely composed of academics who, since the 1970s, have been more interested in theory, especially political theories and political advocacies, than in literature itself. The curriculum at their institutions, shaped by such interests, has made much less room for authors who wrote before the nineteenth century. Many institutions have cut back, if not eliminated, courses in medieval, Renaissance, and even Enlightenment era writers. Christians, who often have been drawn to the graduate study of literature through their love of Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, and Donne, are now finding that their major authors are an endangered species. In many universities this atrophy of the traditional canon has been aggravated by imposed cutbacks in foreign language and literature courses. Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Heine, Mann, Proust, and Mallarmé have not escaped demise in this winter of our cultural discontent. There is no use pretending otherwise.

Nor is there much help in the way of substitution for these losses in gender studies, culture studies, race studies, and the like, with their preferred alternative canon of writings about victimhood and ever-expanding advocacies, not because these issues are not socially important, but because only very rarely have they produced (at least to this point) great works of primary literature. In too many classrooms, professors are obliged to talk about the issues, not about the texts, which may in some cases be an incidental mercy for the teacher, but not for the students. Impoverished to a degree they cannot measure, they are likely to say, as one did recently in my hearing: “Actually, I haven’t read Milton. But that doesn’t prevent me from seeing that he is irrelevant now.” Perhaps he was channeling Whit Stillman, in whose film “Metropolitan” one of the characters is made to say, “Of course I have never read the Bible. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion about it.”

Historical Perspective

Unlike Philosophy, ours is a young discipline, basically a vernacular analogue to Classics. When Matthew Arnold was appointed to the position of Professor of Poetry in 1859, he was the first to don the mantle of that office not to teach in the Department of Classical Languages and Literatures.4 Arnold aspired to a role for literature in the universities and schools that would largely displace space previously devoted to theology; he thought of the literary profession as forming an alternative secular “clerisy,” as he called it.5 A century later, major critics as different from each other in method as Lionel Trilling, Northrop Frye, and Cleanth Brooks were still working within a discernably Arnoldian framework.

All that has changed. With the growing influence of Freudian, Marxian, Lacanian, structuralist, post-structuralist schools such as deconstruction, post-colonialist, feminist, and queer studies between the late 1960s and our present, one trending fashion has succeeded another, as a quick review of MLA annual conference programs will confirm. The cumulative result has been disruption in the identity of the profession, the curriculum it teaches, and the intellectual gravitas obtaining for literary study among our colleagues in the university generally. Once accorded grudging respect even by those with minimal aesthetic inclinations, primarily for our language skills and philological habitus, now we find ourselves most valued for remedial writing instruction. To complicate matters further, in our larger universities such teaching has been for the last three decades largely done by graduate students, many of whom will have little hope of any other kind of employment, even as their dissertations are directed toward echoing the ever-narrowing interests of the graduate professoriate. In an appropriate twist of the knife of nemesis, now that graduate programs are forced to shrink admissions because of the paucity of academic jobs, horror of horrors, professors with esoteric preoccupations are facing the prospect of having to teach illiterate freshmen themselves. Many cannot face such reality and have sought early retirement. Others are left to deal with undergraduates—especially in Christian colleges and universities, in which great literature itself is still taught—where students’ love of the “greats” frequently moves them to apply to doctoral programs, hoping for careers like that of their professors. And such jobs, you now must sorrowfully tell them, for even the brightest and best among them, are few and far between.

What else should you say?

Making a Virtue of Necessity

That question, you may have noticed, is parallel to the one I have been asked implicitly to address in these few pages. I shall endeavor to address it in practical ways according to the situation in which today’s professors of literature live and work, and to do so with two major thematic principles in mind.

First, the Christian teacher of literature should be herself firmly convinced of the value of great literary texts for the nurture of young minds and hearts, and accordingly do everything possible to spare her students the encumbrances and snares of totalizing theory and politicization of the discipline. In secular universities this will be a daunting challenge, requiring canny as well as courage; in Christian liberal arts colleges and universities the obstacles will be fewer, but in those contexts the good professor of literature will still need consciously to separate the obligations she has to her students and the separable obligations she will have to her professional guild. I recommend thinking of this double task as development of a kind of bilingualism in which one’s students should be nurtured primarily in their mother tongue.

My second principle may be understood as applying to both the classroom and articles written to make contributions to conversation in the guild: regularly contextualize your efforts, whether with your students in class or among your peers, to understand literary text of any period or language in respect to what Walter Benjamin once called its particular “counsel of wisdom,” even as a kind of wisdom literature in which “counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is unfolding.”6 One of the qualities which should distinguish a Christian teacher of literature should be, I suggest, a willingness to become a wisdom teacher in the Jewish and ultimately biblical sense. That means openness to great texts of the past as well as willingness to engage more contemporary literature; they are all part of a continuing story. When you were yourself a student, my guess is that you were not drawn to the field by the primacy of method or the issues of race, class, and gender identity, but rather by a desire to enter into a storied world to which you somehow belonged, in which your imagination could be fed and fired with possibilities, and in which there was food for the soul fit to produce that result. So it may be for your students still, and deep down, beyond their obligatory acknowledgments to the politics of the profession, even though other preoccupations may have obscured this desire among some of your extramural colleagues it is likely still to smolder, needing only a little oxygen to rekindle.

So let me elaborate.

Literary Theory and Philology

In your own research you will have necessarily encountered more than one school of literary theory. If you have been teaching for a number of years, you will have encountered many. Some of those theories have potential to sharpen questions you will want to ask, others will impose constraints on the value of literary texts which you may need to challenge. In neither case, however, should a Christian scholar-teacher permit a theoretical framework to dominate or, worse, dictate what he sees as legitimate explication as a lover of wisdom and indeed, of story itself. After all, Christians have a consciousness shaped by the Bible, an anthology of stories with counsel concerning the greater story still unfolding, and of which our own life stories are a part. We are a “people of the Book,” and as such have a vested interest in the stories authors in our own tradition tell but also in the stories of others, for in so much as they bear upon the truths of human experience, to paraphrase Augustine, they are “Egyptian gold,” useful for our instruction and even, as he added, for moral instruction.7

We are necessarily comparatists; we compare the stories we know to other stories and ponder their virtues (and vices) as a means to better self-understanding. We also contemplate their beauty, the distinctive character and elegance of their expression, and try to discern behind the voice of their authors realities which otherwise would remain beyond our ken. We (and our students) learn to be better listeners – a skill as well as a disposition much to be desired in our time. Whether in a college or university setting, or in a classical or Christian school classroom, such learning far outweighs the instrumental goods of better language use developed in the writing of essays, as vitally important as that is. Teachers of foreign languages and literatures are torch-bearers in this regard, for they actively develop in their students not only the instrumental goods of being able to read, speak, and even write in a tongue other than that of their birthplace, but their work and witness to the “others” in our world is a most helpful antidote to the prevalent narcissism of our media-shaped culture.9

Not only does the practice of this concern for diachronic meaning improve comprehension of older texts, situating them thus more fairly in dialogue with more recent works, but it makes us all more alert to the distortions and prevarications that can accompany political discourse as well. One does not need to have read George Orwell’s 1984 yesterday to see that such contradictions of meaning can become quickly institutionalized to the endangerment of personal and academic freedom. Christians have an obligation to truth. Thus, when media reports refer to riotous destruction of public and private property, arson, shootings and mob violence as “peaceful protests,” we should recognize this as a learning opportunity for our students. Such perverse usage renders the word “peaceful” unintelligible and even sinister; no less damaged for an ostensibly democratic and dialogical culture is the word “protest,” for it implies that to protest is to be violent.

Philology most simply means “the love of words.” It also refers to the careful study of historical meaning in the texts we study. It ought to be of some interest to Protestant professors of literature that virtually all of the Reformation leaders were philologists, students of classical texts, before they were theologians.10 Succinctly, they heard the call of Erasmus and other medieval humanists to turn back, ad fontes, to the texts of the Scriptures, and to build their understanding of the Christian faith from the texts up, rather than deduce them from the analysis of scholastic philosophers. I do not mean by this observation to indicate that they were not “philosophical,” nor that we should neglect philosophy either. But they grasped clearly that to be a Christian thinker was to recognize the importance of biblical words and the texts in which they occur, to understand them in the languages in which they were written and to refer all to the fact that God had chosen to reveal himself in Jesus as the Word made flesh. Christian professors of literature, whatever their faith tradition, should take their example seriously. To be an effective student of the texts of Holy Scripture is to strive to become, in both senses, a Christian philologist. The professor of literature who takes philology seriously had an almost daily opportunity to build in meaning through better language use, and to sharpen discernment against abuse.

It may take more courage to point out such abuse in secular than in Christian contexts, needless perhaps to say. But the Christian professor of literature who is philologically conscious can be of considerable help to countering sloppy and ultimately misleading abuse of language in the church, and it seems to me is duty bound to it. I have had the pleasure of teaching the Bible as literature for more than 40 years, more than half of that in a secular research university. Because I organized my curriculum so as to read the biblical texts alongside English literary texts which draw on them (I highly recommend this), there were always opportunities to challenge both pious and impious dispositions in language use. In an age in which many people take the highest human good to be sexual freedom, “freedom,” a rather important biblical word as it happens, may have acquired a meaning so corruptive of its biblical sense as to be deceptive if not re-rooted in its historical and biblical context. When I ask my undergraduates what freedom means to them, they invariably answer in terms of “choice,” “autonomy,” even “liberty to define myself in terms I choose.” When I ask them if they think that semantic range would do justice to the intention of Thomas Jefferson, some pause, especially if they have studied the Declaration of Independence or Jefferson’s Letters. When I ask them what they think it meant to Chaucer, they go blank. “What about the Knight in the Canterbury Tales who “loved trouthe, honour, freedom, and curtesye”? I ask. I have to tell them that in the fourteenth century “freedom” was glossed in bilingual dictionaries as “largesse,” generosity to others. This meaning, as the OED will confirm, is in our time preserved only in the phrase, “a free spirit,” that sort of bon vivant who may spontaneously offer to buy everyone a pint in the pub. But any such generosity—other-directed largesse or charity—is polar opposite to my students’ definition, in which the meaning of freedom is entirely self-directed. “So then,” I say, do you think that when Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32), he meant that the truth would make you autonomous, a law unto yourself?” We typically then have a discussion in which they discover that they really haven’t understood Jesus at all, for the phrase is only part of a sentence in Greek which begins in the previous verse: “If you abide in my word, then shall you be truly my disciples, and then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Freedom depends, in the usage of the Lord, on a sequence of ‘if-then’ conditionals; one must abide in his word, live there. This is the sine qua non condition of being a true rather than a false disciple, and only that kind of obedience and self-effacement makes it possible to have the foggiest idea of what Jesus means by freedom. All I have done here is to put the word in its biblical context and used the OED to do so, but the result is to clarify a necessary truth; I recommend the practice.

Truth is another word needing clarification. In no small part this is because the prevalent theory of truth in our time does not require a correspondence between word and deed or claim and fact, something which characterizes the correspondence theory of truth, historically fundamental to science and medicine obviously, and certainly normative both epistemologically and morally in the Bible. For those of you who remember Aristotle, whose law of non-contradiction says that something cannot be itself and a contrary at the same time, you will see that this correspondence view of truth has been common to the logic of more than biblical tradition. Those who have read even the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales will remember that this essentially logical sense of truth is one of the things Chaucer’s knight loved– in contradistinction to some of our politicians. But to his contemporaries, “truth” carried an additional meaning which owed specifically to Scripture, namely the fidelity and trustworthiness on which others could depend. That notion is still visible in the Book of Common Prayer liturgy for a marriage, in which the groom says to his bride (and vice-versa), “and thereto I pledge thee my troth,” which is to say, not just “I am speaking these promises to you truthfully,” but that “I am pledging myself to be faithful and trustworthy to you forever.”

In our time, of course, another theory of truth has come to be prevalent. In the pragmatic theory of truth, truth is whatever you and perhaps some of your associates choose it to be; in the words of a prominent literary theorist (Jonathan Culler), “our truth is what gets us what we want.”11 Needless to say, this theory has also been around a long time, at least since Eden. When Pilate scoffed at Jesus, saying “What is truth?” he knew very well this pragmatist debasement, that “truth” in his Roman world was anything that Caesar wanted it to be. For Jesus, by contrast, truth was a matter of fact, not opinion, and when he said of himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), he clearly meant to be understood as saying that he was the embodiment of truth, not merely of truth-telling in the mind-independent correspondence theory sense, but in the sense that he was the embodiment of faithfulness, and that he was trustworthy as no one in the world before him had ever been. In a solipsistic, self-referential world such as ours, the biblical meaning of these and many other words must now be taught as mean-ing contra mundum, enduring meaning against a corrupt and corrupting world. Christian professors of literature are well equipped to do it, or to learn how to do it, and if they do, it will be a service not only to the world but to the church, enabling students to be better readers of Scripture.

Pedagogical Realism

It seems to me that for every student we help to become a better reader there is likely to be at least one other who prefers addiction to his cell phone to the thinking—often hard thinking—that discerning reading entails. We need to be realistic about the odds, and accept that our success, if we have such, will be better measured by the few than the many. Teaching students to read literarily is, in effect, teaching them to engage in ongoing development of their minds. It is hard to think of any goal more worthy. But the professor of literature is also, in most cases, also the most important teacher of writing. For the teacher who takes good writing seriously in her authors, it will be natural to strive to have her students learn to write from their example. I recommend in this regard that students closely analyze the writing of great essayists such as G. K. Chesterton, George Orwell, and C. S. Lewis as models for both organization and composition of expository as well as analytic prose. This helps tie the students’ own development to joining in conversation with the great writers of the past. Though this goal will seldom be fully realized, it is nevertheless the right standard. Just as an aspiring football player may never win a Heisman or make it in the NFL, a good coach will put before him, even in high school, the example of a great athlete whose physiognomy most approximates his own, and who is an exemplar of play at that position, and say in effect: “Watch closely. Repeat. Then go and do thou likewise.” So with great writers and the students who admire them. The goal may ultimately be out of reach, but progress toward it will be much greater than if the exemplar was notemulated.

Christian Literary Scholarship

I am less confident that I know how to give general advice regarding Christian approaches to current debates in the profession; though I have taken on both deconstruction and structuralism in my own criticism, for the most part I have focused on the literature of the great tradition for itself, seeking to understand historical “first horizons” through the disciplines of philological and cultural study, and only then dealing with matters of reception history and debates about understanding texts in the light of their second or contemporary horizon. This is the stuff of hermeneutics.

I do recognize the potential in various theoretical frameworks, even some of those which I have come to resist or even oppose. In fact, I recommend reading, consideration, and even experimentation with some of these many post-modern approaches now in vogue. There is something to learn from almost any of them.12 What I do not recommend is wholesale adoption where Christian intellectuals are concerned. While some have a natural affinity – think of what Jeff Bilbro14 Further, while the novel has been the genre most prominent for decades there has been a visible turn to poetry in recent years, a welcome, long overdue shift in literary taste that is congenial to Christian scholars. The Decline of the Novel,15 as the title of a recent book on the subject has it, has come about in part through the dismissal of meta-narratives in the profession, the interposition of film and video contributing. It will be clear to all that poetry is a more refined taste, demanding intelligent and patient readers, so we ought not to anticipate a land-office business in new courses just yet. In another development, the eclipse of biblical narrative in secular schools notwithstanding, there has been some steps to incorporate “Literature of the Bible” courses in the curriculum of English departments across the country, largely out of a belated recognition that without a minimal knowledge of the Bible, much of the canonical curriculum, including in modern American and African literatures, has become inaccessible. In yet another development, principally in Honors Colleges and Great Texts programs, positions have come available for professors of literature with a greater range of primary European literatures, including great literature from French, German, Russian, Spanish, and Italian writers. These are all positive developments in which Christian professors of literature should be glad to participate. It may in some cases require “re-tooling” to do so; my advice would be to re-tool.

Sadly, for too many able PhD graduates, there will still not be tenure track slots available, either in secular or Christian institutions of higher learning. This is a reality one ignores at one’s peril. Our opportunities aren’t endless. But once the reality has been considered forthrightly, there are still opportunities for those who feel absolutely compelled to regard the profession of teaching literature as a vocation. Junior colleges afford some. Charter schools, Christian and classical schools afford others. One of the brightest PhD students I have taught chose after her doctorate to go to such an academy, and a dozen years later she has been a great success and, by all account, is sublimely happy with that choice. There are more jobs in that sphere, and, if past students of mine are to be believed, often the classroom satisfactions can be greater in these schools. That’s something to think about.

Distinctive Apropos

One of the main elements of Plantinga’s advice to Christian philosophers is that they construe their work as obliged not only to their professional guild but also, and even primarily, to the Christian communities of which they are a part. For ease of reference, let us call these communities “the church.” I want to affirm that order of obligation for professors in our own disciplines. As difficult as the obstacles may be in secular institutions, it ought to be quite manageable in schools, colleges, and universities that advertise a Christian educational purpose. Moreover, the apropos of being explicit about our orientation in this regard is connected directly to the core identity of such institutions, and attention should be drawn to it in the mission statements of literature departments and in the curriculum itself.

The fact is that Christians are people who live within a story of which they are or should be made conscious; the Bible itself is an anthology of stories collected over 1500 years or so and written down in three different languages in several genres, some of which are marked by high literary skill. It happens to be the case that the God of the Bible repeatedly shows a distinct inclination to express himself in poetry. Speeches accorded to him in the prophets are regularly cast in the most elegant poetry of the Hebrew Bible.16 Even when wisdom literature is borrowed and adapted to Israel’s purposes, the Hebrew writer will tend to put the speeches of God in magnificent poetry, as the concluding chapters of Job (38-42) bear eloquent witness. That this higher literary mode of discourse was held to be appropriate to dialogue with the Holy One of Israel is reflected in the Song of Moses, Song of Hannah, and Song of Miriam, as well, of course, as in the Psalms. If authors in the Bible want to sing the praises of God (tehellim), that is their genre, and as the Magnificat of Mary, a beautiful poem of praise in the traditional mode suggests, it was still natural in the time of Jesus. The voice of the Holy One is not prosy, nor should praise of him be prosy either. We recognize that the opening verses of Genesis are a hymn, that the Song of Solomon is cast as poetic drama, and that the wisdom of Proverbs is shaped to various poetic devices, modes of mashalim, figurative speech, so as to make them more memorable. When we get to the Gospels we discover that the preferred teaching mode of Jesus is to tell stories – often enigmatic stories. This frustrates the literal minded, not only the scribes and pharisees, but the disciples themselves. When the disciples ask Jesus why he will not speak more plainly, perhaps in the propositional discourse more familiar to their legalistic minds, his answer is that his purpose in telling enigmatic stories is to exclude readers with hardened categories while giving readers who genuinely seek the truth a means to think, rethink, and finally come to the ques-tion that most needs asking (Matthew 13:10-17). Nowhere does he teach “without a parable” (13:34).

There is a place for systematic theology, but it is not the way the Bible itself teaches. There is a place for philosophical analysis, but Thomas Aquinas himself thought that mastery of the questions and methods of his Summa were introductory to the more essential task of reading Holy Scripture well. When C.S. Lewis made his famous distinction between “unliterary readers” and literary ones, he was inviting those reading his Experiment in Criticism17 to grasp the same point that Jesus was pressing on his disciples: if one learns to read only for information, one may deny oneself the “one thing most needful,” reading (or hearing) that leads to transformation. Christian professors of literature ought to recognize, I suggest, that the great and distinctive task to which they are obliged is to teach people how to read so as to see into the deeper wisdom of texts, to cherish the beauties of that wisdom’s expression, to memorize much of it, and to become members of the community of learning who read the Scripture more honestly, more faithfully, because they have learned to read in a literary way. This ought to be our goal at whatever level we teach, and it ought to be our contribution to building up the body of Christ in whatever local manifestation of his church we find ourselves. My advice is to make that objective primary, no matter what guild objectives claim our professional attention.

Footnotes

  1. Alvin Plantinga,”Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Faith and Philosophy 1.3 (1984): 253-271.
  2. Ibid., 253.
  3. Ibid., 254, 256.
  4. David Lyle Jeffrey, “Biblical Scholarship and Literary Criticism,” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 6, ed. M. A. R. Habib (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 602-622.
  5. 5Matthew Arnold, Literature and Dogma: An Essay Towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1873), 30-32; 84-85.

  6. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 66.
  7. David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 86-87.
  8. David Lyle Jeffrey, “Foreign Language Learning as Medicine for a Narcissistic Culture,” Journal of Christianity and World Languages 21(2020): 7-18. An extract was republished in Christian Scholar’s Review blogpost, 09/17/2020, https://christianscholars.com/language-learning-as-spiritual-medicine-for-a-culture-of-narcissism/.[/ef_note] I would encourage professors of literature to recognize their obligation to language in both its historical and comparative dimensions. Words are important, and we can do much to enhance appreciation that in a time which there has been much blurring of definitions and even reversals of meaning, this will often be one of the most valuable things our students will take away from our courses. Even the classic “Beowulf to Virginia Woolf” sophomore course has great potential for us to teach how, as George Steiner puts it, we discover that

    every language act has a temporal determinant. No semantic form is timeless. When using a word we wake into resonance, as it were, its entire previous history. A text is embedded in specific historical time; it has what linguists call a diachronic structure. To read fully (my italics) is to restore all that one can of the immediacies of value and intent in which speech actually occurs.8George Steiner, After Babel: A Study of Language and Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 24.

  9. “Bringing God’s Word to the People: Reformation Bible Translation” Marginalia, Oct 13, 2017, http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/bringing-gods-word-people/.
  10. Happily, he later changed course somewhat in light of the evident decline of English de-partments, including his own. See Jonathan Culler, “Imagining the Coherence of the English Major,” Profession (2003): 85–93.
  11. As with persons with whom we disagree politically or theologically anywhere, it is useful to adopt what Alan Jacobs has called a “charitable” reading. See his A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (NY: Avalon, 2001).
  12. Loving God’s Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature (Tus-caloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015); Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry’s Sustainable Forms (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2019).[/efn-note] and others have done with Wendell Berry’s work and the “eco-criticism” it suggests to re-situate our Christian obligation to stewardship of Creation. That is one example; other approaches, as I have implied, may be contradictory in purpose to such a degree that to adopt their vocabulary, let alone their priorities, would be to subvert the Christian worldview, in some cases to an irreparable degree.

    There are some developments, however, which have opened running space for thoughtful Christian scholars. One obvious such initiative is the so-called “turn to religion.” This space has made room for excellent work by younger Christian scholars to emerge and find a readership.13Stanley Fish drew attention to this phenomenon at the MLA in 2005. Since then a number of journals have followed his lead; see, for example, English Language Notes 44.1 (2006) which devoted an issue to the theme, so that by 2020 it has acquired the status of an encyclopedia entry: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/literature-critical-theory-and-religious-studies. Good examples for readers of CSR include Gregory Maillet, Learning to See the Theological Vision of Shakespeare’s King Lear (Cambridge: Scholars Press, 2016), and Jessica Hooten Wilson, Reading Walker Percy’s Novels (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018), and Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: the Russian Soul in the West (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020).

  13. See Karen Swallow Prior’s review of Joseph Bottom, The Decline of the Novel (NY: St. Au-gustine Press, 2019), in CSR, October 23, 2020.
  14. David Lyle Jeffrey, Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 1-14.
  15. C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963).

David Lyle Jeffrey

Baylor University
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University.

Leave a Reply