An Introduction to Religion and Literature
Literature tries to depict something – people, a culture, a historical situation, or images that stir the imagination – but depicting and explaining can work together. Mark Knight’s strength is to hear the sounds in literature and offer a critique of those who do not hear them in a Christian manner.
The introduction provides an outline of how he intends to progress, by shaping the meaning of literary texts through comparing them with other texts, a method called intertextuality. There are two questions about this approach. First, can we ignore the original intent of the author? Second, if the comparison is between “religion” and literature, can there be a horizon line that allows us to see clearly enough the issues in the literature? After all, literature has a changing program and so does religion. It is Christianity which has a solid perspective. While Knight answers these questions, his assessments of the various themes and the books that he uses to pose questions about the themes seem to rely heavily on intertextuality while not accounting sufficiently for the Christian horizon line.
Still, Knight’s organization of material is direct and spelled out clearly. He explores six theological ideas by using a variety of authors who lived between 1818 and 2001. He sets two, or sometimes more, authors within the explanation of each of the theological ideas: 1. Creation (John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein); 2. Relationships, including how the Trinity helps us to understand personhood (Emily Dickinson, John Donne, and Christina Rossetti); 3. Law and justice (Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka); 4. Interpretive communities (Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood); 5. Sin and atonement (Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge); 6. Eschatology or redemption (Samuel Beckett and George Orwell).
To answer why he has chosen these authors, he writes that the choices reflect “my own orientation and interests” (6). This response raises another question about his comparisons between literature and “religion.” Surely the Christian story is different from the world’s reality, and in particular, the Christian story is different than the stories of other religions. While it is true that some themes may be similar, the Christian perspective on creation, redemption, community, and eschatology opens a window that lets us see something different than what other religions see from their windows. Whose story of the world is the true one? And when Knight comments that stories are an opportunity for accommodating other perspectives, the question might well be, “Why is that important? Is everyone’s view a valid perspective on reality?”
In some specific discussions, Knight appears to answer these questions. For example, in chapter 5 he comments that authors have an aversion to sin, calling it “evil” instead of “sin,” even though the word “sin” names the predicament in which people find themselves and the responsibility for the things people must do. Knight himself (92) believes that the Christian language of sin provides an honest assessment of the state of our culture. But why then are the Scriptures not one of the parallel works to set into the discussion of any book, for at least the Scriptures provide a horizon line for how Christians for more than 2,000 years have seen reality. Perhaps C. S. Lewis could be a part of the discussion here when he comments, “An author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”1
Sometimes the arguments Knight uses can be reversed to go in another direction entirely. For example, when discussing The Satanic Verses, he brings The Fundamentals: A Testimony into the discussion. He states rightly that these pamphlets were a reaction by traditionally religious people to a cultural change brought by modernity. Of course, modernity was a reaction to a widespread Christian worldview, and we need to ask whether modernity created a better world. The question of how one secures an arena of discourse between worldviews reveals the problem Knight recognizes, that tolerance does not provide a suitable framework for a discussion, for the battle will be about whose story of the world is the true one. Knight suggests that stories are an opportunity for accommodating other perspectives. But if his perspective is derived from intertextuality, where stories can host what is outside our common experience, surely the question is, “To what end are these other stories helpful?” Is it to gain a wider range of knowledge and experience or to critique a narrow vision others are believed to hold? Perhaps the weakness lies in the writers themselves who, unsatisfied with their own perception of the world, seek something else that is fictive, but a fiction they themselves create. If that is the case, God might be a better Creator than they are. Or, to look at another example, in Knight’s discussion of atonement, should we not ask whether true atonement has to be related to Jesus, and not just be some solution to a problem raised in a novel? Knight concludes this argument (chapter 5) by citing Colin Gunton that eschatological concepts are not understood fully within history. As with other attempts to bring theology to bear on culture, faith should play a part, for understanding is not the only criterion of meaning.
So, in assessing the poems and novels Knight brings into the discussion, we should ask: do we look at the past through the views of the present, or do we look at our own times through the lens of the past, which thus will allow the past to influence the present? Do we read literature for enjoyment or for its critical approach to our world? And, how do we measure the literary quality of a work? Quality cannot be measured by the correspondence of a work with the current cultural flags. And Knight recognizes that by living within the wide timeframe of the works he uses.
One of the strengths of Knight’s work is that it allows these kinds of questions. In fact, the novels and poems he has chosen to be the battleground of the discussion pose all sorts of questions.