In the heart of London, by Trafalgar Square and the National Galleries, sits the Notre Dame University London Center. From the 14-16 July 2011, the centre, located in the iconic building which once housed the Combined Cambridge and Oxford Universities Club, hosted the Hospitable Texts: New Approaches to Religion & Literature conference. Since the announcement of the conference and call for papers were released some eighteen months ago, it has been heralded as an opportunity to float new ways of thinking about the interactions and intersections between literature and religion, theology and literature, and Christianity and literature.
The conference began with a panel discussion with the editors of Christianity and Literature (Paul Contino, Pepperdine), Religion & Literature (Susannah Monta, University of Notre Dame), and Literature & Theology: An International Journal in Religion, Literature, and Culture (Andrew Hass, University of Stirling) and moderated by Susan Felch (Calvin College). The discussion initially revolved around the “and” featured in the titles of these three journals, which was not just about coexistence or tension but about the possibilities of meaning that are generated when both parts of each title are considered together. For Monta, the “and” is not just a conjunction but signals a problematising of both literature and religion when the two meet in a shared intellectual space. For Hass, there is a different sense in which the “and” serves to problematize “religion”; he noted in particular the subtitle of Literature & Theology, “An International Journal in Religion, Literature, and Culture,” as demonstrating the editorial board’s self-awareness of the contested nature of “theology” and “religion” as terms.
Speakers discussed the differences between the North American University and scholarly landscape, and that of Europe and beyond at various points during the conference. Lori Branch (University of Iowa), among others, argued that there is an imperative to find a way of working within the traditional disciplines of literary studies, as well as cultural studies, religious studies and theology, especially given the financial pressures facing most institutions which often mean they are hesitant to launch new interdisciplinary endeavours. Both the opening panel and Branch’s paper raised questions about the realistic longevity of interdisciplinary graduate programs. Yet at the same time, speakers noted on more than one occasion the great need for scholars to be immersed in literary and historical theory, church and socio-political history while also gaining familiarity with theology and its discourses as a precursor for high quality interdisciplinary scholarship.
I noted a tendency in quite a few cases to use literary theory or philosophical terms for concepts and traditions that equally could have been strengthened by interactions with theological discourse and theological terminology. This lack of engagement with theology could be explained by the relatively small number of participants with a self-identified background in theology; but, could it be that mainstream academia is still largely hesitant about acknowledging the scholarly legitimacy of the interdisciplinary approach to theology (or religion) and literature? It was off-putting, though, to see the fruits of this intellectual bifurcation at a conference about new approaches to religion and literature.
There was an apparent emphasis on Shakespeare Studies with a seminar and a number of papers devoted to the subject (including that of our own, Micah Snell), a reading group on “As you Like It,” as well as a keynote from Julia Rhinehart Lupton of UC-Irvine on “Shakespeare and Hospitality.” A significant number of Victorianists were also present, which was perhaps unsurprising, given that nineteenth and twentieth century literary studies research accounts for the largest number of submissions to the three host journals. I participated in a seminar on ‘Religion, Literature and Theory,’ while Jennifer Allen Craft (one of the other regular contributors here on Transpositions) was part of the seminar on ‘Religion, Literature and Place.’ We both enjoyed the substantial feedback and discussion arising as a result of pre-conference distribution and reading of papers.
Archbishop Rowan Williams received the Conference on Christianity and Literature (CCL) Lifetime Achievement award as part of the conference proceedings. He then gave a rousing keynote titled “Graceful Writing: How Does Fiction Deal with Grace?” Largely about the narrative shape of grace, his talk artfully weaved a discussion of Marilynne Robinson’s Home, Gilead and her recent collection of essays, Absence of Mind, with observations about John Calvin and Karl Barth, delivered in his trademark poetic style. I do hope that the keynote will be found in print soon for more people to enjoy, as it was certainly the conference highlight for me.
I look forward to seeing the work inspired by Hospitable Texts and to the publications that will likely come out of the work presented there.
Questions for discussion
- What does the phrase “Religion and Literature” mean for you?
- Do you think working in an interdisciplinary field opens up intellectual questioning or leads one fruitlessly into a ghetto?