I teach literature today in no small part thanks to Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane’s realistic novella depicting the impoverished conditions of life in the Bowery at the turn of the twentieth century.1 When I first encountered the story, I was immediately captivated by Crane’s ability to use mere words to bring Maggie and her family to vivid life and to garner sympathy and concern for her and those like her.
Somehow these marks on the book’s pages filled my mind with empathy for the less fortunate, challenged my preconceptions about poverty, and—among other things—helped me better understand American history and culture. Reading this story impressed upon me how astounding language is. Used well, it fills us with joy and ennobles our existence. Language can entertain us through stories and verbal games. It can delight us through brilliant literary expression. We can use it to convey our internal experiences and to get a peek into the experiences of others. In short, we can do wonders with words.
Recognizing the transcendent quality of language, especially in its creative forms, has been a spur for my scholarship and teaching ever since. I sense through my study of words and their artistic expressions an encounter with the divine, and I suspect this is the case for most Christian academics, no matter the discipline. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” to use the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins,2 and it’s our privilege as Christian scholars and teachers to explore our small corner of that world and profess its virtues and value.
Ironically, it is in the very acknowledgement of our discipline’s importance that our greatest temptation as scholars lies. We may become so enamored of our subject matter that we lose sight of the one who animates, sustains, and endows that subject with meaning. As a literary critic, for example, I sympathize with Samuel Coleridge who elevates creative expression with words to the apex of human activity.3 Emerson takes this notion a step further, making poetry foundational to reality itself and placing it beyond humanity’s comprehension or control, something whose greatness we can only glimpse.4
Still others invest in poetry hope for personal or communal salvation. Matthew Arnold makes such a case in Culture and Anarchy, where he explicitly links a happy and flourishing society to its elevation of literature and art.5 It’s an enchanting vision, to be sure, of society in full cooperation and prosperity. But literary genius as the source of such conditions strikes the ear as a bit of wishful thinking.
Yes, Coleridge, Emerson, and Arnold affirmed the existence of God and saw literary activity as in some way or other directly tied to a divine source, but in their writings we can see the makings of a disconnect between the two, a displacement and eventually an elevation of one for the other—and the wrong one.
In The Screwtape Letters,6 through the mouth of his titular demonic character, C. S. Lewis warns of such a temptation regarding social justice. Rather than the so-called “patient” prioritizing Christian doctrine with social justice concerns flowing from that, Screwtape wants him to reverse the order: “The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice.”7
This slippery slope is just as applicable to literature, and indeed any academic discipline of substance. Reversing the order of one’s allegiances amounts, of course, to idolatry. And it’s exactly this status to which Wallace Stevens uplifts poetry in Adagia: “After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”8 Perhaps as a creative discipline, literature is more susceptible to such veneration, but no worthwhile object of study is outside its draw.
Christians would, of course, assiduously avoid embracing Stevens’s conclusions, not least of all because we retain a belief in God that the poet himself left far behind. But before we start patting ourselves on the back for recognizing the error of Stevens’ ways, I wonder if we don’t sometimes verge the same idolatrous thinking about our academic vocation. It’s often the subtle errors that are the most perilous and insidious.
Do we ever prioritize academia at the expense of something more vital? Do we ever use it to overindulge our own longings or boost our own ego? Does our love of our scholarship or subject matter ever interfere with or displace our deeper callings, especially our highest calling as Christians to love God and love our neighbor? Do we mine our discipline’s truths as means for self-advancement instead of with kingdom-building aims? Have we ever allowed our God-given gifts for appreciating and analyzing our subject matter to look down on others who don’t share those gifts? Are we guilty of imperialistic thinking, believing our discipline the most important, implicitly saying to another part of the body of Christ that we have no need of them?
In the literary field, particularly, we also sometimes see self-indulgence of a different kind, that which is practiced from a critical stance where a scholar or reviewer uses the work of another as merely a soapbox for self-promotion.9 A piece of literature is no human being, of course, but treatment of a book or literary work surely implies our treatment of the one who wrote it and who poured so much of themselves and their time into it. It also has implications for our own character formation.
Christian scholars must center our Christian identity as primary, with our specializations flowing from that. John 13:35 says that love is the distinguishing mark of disciples of Christ. In Matthew 22, Jesus identifies love of God and love of neighbor as the two greatest commandments, ending with the profound but mysterious truth that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on [them].” Alan Jacobs uses this claim as a springboard for his worthwhile book, A Theology of Reading, which is intriguingly subtitled A Hermeneutics of Love.
The challenge I want to pose—as Christian academics—is for us to contemplate what loving participation in our discipline looks like. In literary studies, for example, we might examine our own use of the words we so love: What kinds of words do we use; when and how do we use them? What kinds of stories do we tell; why do we tell them? How do we handle the words and stories of others?
Questions like these go beyond the typical scope of our disciplines. They implicate our Christian convictions, bringing them to bear on fundamentals of the field. Again, in the case of literary studies, we have a range of critical frameworks for reading, terminology for criticism, and insights into the creative process and lives of poets. Literary studies can provide us with untold lists of books to read, ways to understand them, and thematic angles for interpretation. But alone it cannot instill in us love for God or others, nor can any other field.
What makes a difference for academic studies, as for life—what makes possible our love for one another—is that God first loved us. He entered into our world to redeem his creation, thus enabling our free responses to his overtures of love. A belief in the incarnation, as Roger Lundin argues, should make all the difference in how we conceive of “the nature, scope, and power of words.”10
Our studies have value, they have meaning, they have purpose because of the Living Word: the Word made flesh who chose to dwell among us. This truth should ground our engagement with God’s world and human words, our own and those of others. Done well and right, even our academic study, if subsumed under the lordship of Christ, can become a way for us to fulfill the great commission and the great commandment, to discharge our God-given vocations, to do the good works for which we were intended.
- This piece has been adapted from an address to the Sigma Tau Delta chapter of Liberty University, delivered March 10, 2020. It is also available at MoralApologetics.com.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in The Norton Introduction to Literature, Portable 13th ed., Kelly J. Mays (New York: Norton, 2020), 606.
- In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge says that “poetry is the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (817), chap. XV, sec. 4, Project Gutenberg, 2013, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/6081/6081-h/6081-h.htm.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” Essays: Second Series (Boston: James Munroe, 1844), par. 6, Project Gutenberg, 2013, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2945/2945-h/2945-h.htm.
- Matthew Arnold, “Sweetness and Light,” Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (1869), par. 23, Project Gutenberg, 2020, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4212/pg4212.html.
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Centenary, 1944). Kindle.
- Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, chap. XXIII, par. 22.
- Wallace Stevens, “Adagia,” in Opus Posthumous: Poems, Plays, Prose, ed. S. F. Morse (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1966), 158.
- In a comparison of creative writers and literary critics, W. H. Auden deftly captures the force of this temptation: “It is far easier to say — ‘Life is more important than anything I can say about it’ — than to say — ‘Mr. A’s work is more important than anything I can say about it.’” The Dyer’s Hand (New York: Random House, 1962), 8.
- Roger Lundin, Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature And The Question Of Belief (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014), 8.