Across thresholds: the “and” in theology (religion) and literature

“At best reading theological texts alongside literature is illuminating”  – Susan Felch [1]

When working in the interdisciplinary contexts, the hazards and pitfalls of crossing thresholds, mapping contested territories and speaking in the grammars (often not interchangeable) of two distinct fields can be tiring. In charting contested terminology, there is great need to resist caricature. At times it can seem as though by seeking integration, illumination, and a lack of compartmentalization, you are pushing literary texts into places where you may threaten their very integrity. But, yet, just as the risk of being absolutely nowhere is great, so are the rewards for looking anew at that which has been seemingly settled.

In a previous post, I suggested how one might define the difference between religion and theology in relation to literature. In this post, I want to address the function of joining theology and/or religion with literature and specifically the role of the ‘and’ in joining these fields. I first need to acknowledge that there are many scholars who have considered this function of ‘and’. Some have focused on the linguistic ramifications while others the philosophic preconditions. James Wilson, for example, suggests the ‘and’ functions elastically to admit as much as possible as freely as possible. He considers that a more interesting question to ask is: what does religion and literature exclude or conceal? He describes it as the threshold between two rooms.[2] But can the “and” really imply equal emphasis?

For some scholars it may, but I suspect that more often than not, a scholar will naturally emphasise either the literary approach and attendant methodologies or the theological. This will lead some to write as theologians on literature with varying levels of success. To that end, I would consider Rowan Williams’ work on Dostoevsky and Marilynne Robinson to be examples of excellence. For others, it will be to write as literary scholars on the theological richness of a work or body of texts. I consider the recent scholarship of William Dyrness, Malcolm Guite, and Maria La Monaca to be exemplars.[3] To tread the fine line and meld together a work of theological import with a work of literary scholarship is rare fruit indeed. Few works are able to meet such a lofty standard: one such recent work is Susan E. Colòn’s Victorian Parables (2012).

One way to conceive of the ‘and’ might be in relation to phenomenology, insofar as the joining of theology/religion with literature serves to bracket but not remove. It seeks an identification of focus without asserting a binary and places the two in dialogue rather than in a hierarchy. This is not to say that scholars don’t place theology/religion on a hierarchy with literature, asserting one or the other as the lens through which the other should be considered.

The ‘and’ should function to open up possibilities, yet sometimes it serves only to marginalize. Audience is key and in seeking to explore texts in new ways, we must always be mindful not to place unnecessary terminological barriers before our readers. The ‘and’ should not become bigger than the texts we encounter.

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[1] Spoken as part of a round table discussion at Hospitable Texts Conference, Notre Dame Centre London, 2011.
[2] James Wilson, “Four Ways of Encountering Poetry and Religion,” Contemporary Poetry Review, available at: http://www.academia.edu/1131014/Four_Ways_of_Encountering_Poetry_and_Religion
[3]  Dyrness, William A. Poetic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2011. Print; Guite, Malcolm. Faith, Hope, and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination. Ashgate Cambridge: Ashgate Studies in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, 2010. Print; La Monaca, Maria. Masked Atheism : Catholicism and the Secular Victorian Home. Columbus Ohio State University Press 2008. Print.

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