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Through a Glass Darkly: Suffering, the Sacred, and the Sublime in Literature and Theory.

Holly Faith Nelson, Jens Zimmermann, Lynn R. Szabo
Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in 2010

Few readers of Through a Glass Darkly: Suffering, the Sacred, and the Sublime in Literature and Theory will read it from start to finish; instead, most are likely to begin by seeking out sections that align with their teaching and research interests. Certainly, such an approach seems appropriate for a collection of loosely linked conference presentation essays. Holly Faith Nelson, Lynn R. Szabo, and Jens Zimmerman have, however, succeeded better than many editors in providing their collection with a unifying conceptual framework and encouraging their contributors to revise their presentations with the larger project in mind, yielding a volume worth reading straight through. While some of the collection’s essays are, of course, stronger than others, attending to the resonances among them will provide the Christian scholar with even richer reflective fodder than reading a few individual essays might.

Nelson’s “Trauma and Transcendence: An Introduction” serves as the collection’s foun-dation. In addition to summarizing briefly the essays that follow it, this clear and capacious introduction provides background on the concepts of suffering, the sacred, and the sublime. Explaining that in “Christian tradition, [all three] coalesce in the figure of the crucified and risen Christ” and that they all “speak to the ineffable—that which appears to transcend or operate outside of language or that which is challenging or impossible to represent,” Nelson also points out that each category emerges frequently in contemporary secular scholarship in trauma studies, religion, and aesthetics (xv). She thus makes a convincing case for the timeliness of the book project and explains that she and her co-editors have grouped the essays chronologically and regionally, concluding with a final three essays that speak directly to ethical concerns. The introduction ends somewhat abruptly, but this minor weakness points to the difficulty of summing up such a vast undertaking.

The collection’s second essay, David Lyle Jeffrey’s “Sacred Proposals and the Spiritual Sublime,” is in itself quite ambitious but fulfills its promise. A keynote speaker at the 2007 Western Regional Conference on Christianity and Literature meeting (Trinity Western Uni-versity in Langley, British Columbia) from which this volume emerged, Jeffrey has adapted and extended the address in which he asserted that contemporary scholars, like the Greeks before us, have separated suffering, the sacred, and the sublime. “[W]e postmoderns,” he observes, “have tended to divorce with a social construct what, in liturgical language, ‘he has joined together’” (3). Tracing the (d)evolution of thinking about these concepts through the centuries, Jeffrey discusses examples from the visual arts as well as poetry to illustrate his argument. (Having heard his conference presentation, I wished that the book’s editors could have added an image of Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Annunciation to the black-and-white reproductions of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece and Rogier van der Weyden’s Annunciation they have provided.) Jeffrey’s essay’s eloquent conclusion draws from John Donne’s “Upon the Annunciation and Passion, falling upon one day. 1608 [March 25]” to point to the paradoxical nature of a faith in which love and suffering remain in tension. The piece challenges readers both intellectually and spiritually, much as his CCL conference address served as a sermon in the best sense of that word.

Many of the subsequent essays are also engaging and salutary. Except for a lone essay on Japanese drama, they appear in pairs or trios under such headings as “Medieval Visions and Dreams,” “Shakespearean Horror,” “The Fellowship of Suffering and Hope in Fantasy Literature,” and “Violation and Redemption in Canadian Fiction,” offering stimulating dialogues on related topics. Although Nelson’s introduction suggests that the essays doing the ethical “heavy lifting” appear in the book’s final section, a piece that appears early in the volume, Heather G. S. Johnson’s “Precious Stories: The Discursive Economy in Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece,” provoked me to think more carefully about the ways I use stories about others’ trauma experiences, both inside and beyond the classroom. Johnson’s discussion opens issues Bettina Stumm’s “Testifying to the Infinity of the Other: The Sacred and Ethical Dimensions of Secondary Witnessing in Anne Karpf’s The War After” addresses equally meaningfully in the volume’s officially “ethical” final section. Both of these pieces also resonate powerfully with Deborah Bowen’s “Annie Dillard on Holy Ground: The Artist as Nun in the Postmodern Sublime” and Steve Vine’s “Belated Beloved: Time, Trauma, and the Sublime in Toni Morrison’s Beloved”—an essay exciting enough to drive me to WorldCat in search of several of its sources. Moreover, David Doerksen’s “Bearing the Cross: The Christian Response to Suffering in Herbert’s The Temple,” Esther T. Hu’s “Christina Rosetti and the Poetics of Tractarian Suffering,” and Monika B. Hilder’s “Consolation in Un/certainty: The Sacred Spaces of Suffering in the Children’s Fantasy of George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and Madeleine L’Engle,” all in different sections of the book, each challenged me to consider more seriously the ways in which suffering can be a wellspring of blessing for believers.

Beyond the project’s obvious thematic links are shared references not only to biblical, literary, and critical master-texts but also to works by other volume contributors. The most often cited of the latter is surely Richard Kearney, whose essay here, “Sacramental Imagination: Eucharists of the Ordinary Universe in the Works of Joyce, Proust, and Woolf,” struck me as an overly ambitious contribution to a collection of this sort. Perhaps Kearney, an obviously prolific and influential scholar, should extend his essay further into book form. Another piece I found less than satisfying in this context is Richard Lane’s “Sacred Space and the Fellowship of Suffering in the Postmodern Divine.” While its effort to connect the postmodern sublime to a Pauline fellowship of suffering is provocative, the essay’s literary-critical name-dropping becomes hard to follow. As with Kearney’s essay, Lane’s argument might have been better served by fuller development in a longer format.

Whatever the appeal of individual essays throughout the collection, readers must not quit before reaching Jens Zimmerman’s concluding chapter, “Suffering Divine Things: Cruciform Reasoning or Incarnational Hermeneutics.” Zimmerman brings a sense of closure to the volume by hearkening back to Jeffrey’s consideration of the contemporary trifurcation of suffering, the sacred, and the sublime. Asserting that the stakes are even higher than Jeffrey’s essay suggests, Zimmerman argues for what he calls an “incarnational humanism” (378). “[T]he Christian doctrine of the Incarnation,” he contends, “made possible a humanism that enabled a rich concept of reason and correlated it with religious belief in such a way that human solidarity, even empathy, became constitutive of one’s deepest religious convictions” (377). Drawing from a diverse list of thinkers including Terry Eagleton, Jean Baudrillard, Charles Taylor, Stanley Fish, Pope Benedict XVI, Jurgen Habermas, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida, Zimmerman diagnoses contemporary thought as having exhausted secular reason and subsequently rejected metaphysics. Few if any resources remain for answering several important questions:

How does universal reason unfold in the cultural particularities of language and interpretation without becoming relativistic? How can we ever reach a universally acknowledged sense of who we are and what we live for?… [H]ow can we have a unified, universal ideal of reason and humanity which recognizes cultural and individual differences as intrinsic to self-understanding? (386)

To address these challenges, Zimmerman believes that

we need… an ethical measure of our humanity and reason in which we participate ontologically and which unfolds hermeneutically but also transcends time, history, and culture. And this measure must have a face, preferably a human face. (387)

Rather than immediately naming Jesus as this “measure,” Zimmerman devotes the next section of his essay to considering Richard Kearney’s eschatological hermeneutic of possibility, concluding respectfully that he finds Kearney’s work’s ultimate “uneas[iness] about God’s presence” troubling (387). Citing an interview in which Kearney stated, “in the beginning is hermeneuein—interpretation,” Zimmerman suggests a word substitution: “‘in the beginning was communion,’ or community” (387, 388). Acknowledging the Johannine precedent for both claims, he writes, “it is of course true that ‘in the beginning was the Word,’ but we cannot forget that the same text also tells us that ‘the Word was with God’” (388).

Zimmerman, then, ends up at Trinitarian Christianity, which he asserts necessitates “being-for-the-other” in ways that preclude religious triumphalism. Urging readers to “recover the passion antecedent Christian minds derived from the mystery of Incarnation,” he extols a Dantean vision of an inviting, winsome faith that draws humans to God and to one another (393). His essay’s emphasis on community and communion provides a fitting conclusion for a collection that grew out of a conference “community” commitment to pursuing Truth as it surfaces in literary and visual considerations of suffering, the sacred, and the sublime.

Cite this article
Martha Greene Eads, “Through a Glass Darkly: Suffering, the Sacred, and the Sublime in Literature and Theory”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:1 , 103-105

Martha Greene Eads

Martha Greene Eads, Language and Literature, Eastern Mennonite University