‘Now and in England’ ()
Abstract and Keywords
This article describes a historical trajectory that could be interpreted as leading to the final crumbling away of institutional religion, the breakdown of shared values, and the disappearance of a distinctively national literature, or as the empowerment of the laity in a wider community no longer hedged about with effectively policed border controls. Full empowerment, however, involves access not only to the data, but to knowledge about how that data has been produced and used in the decision-making processes which led people to this stage. This book is designed not only for those academically committed to the interdisciplinary study of literature and theology, but for any general reader interested in the cultural state people find themselves in ‘Now and in England’.
The aim of this Handbook is to provide a sense of what it might mean to engage in the interdisciplinary study of English literature and theology. The tentative phrasing of this opening sentence is entirely intentional: unlike the serried ranks of biblical commentaries, or magisterial literary histories that thunder forth from the presses, this hybrid venture boasts no unassailable pedigree, or universally acknowledged territory. Yet the Handbook begins with a section that lays claim to a tradition embedded in the roots of English literature and producing new shoots and exotic blossoms even in today's multicultural, ‘post-secular’ society. This introductory chapter will seek to explore the paradox of how it is possible to make the confident assertion that a corpus of material exists which would gain general recognition as constituting the primary sources for study, while also making a virtue of the fact that there is as yet no unified field of interdisciplinary methodology. The task of mapping out the territory has at the very least laid bare some of the terminological pitfalls that await unwary scholars. ‘Modernism’, for instance, as Cleo McNelly Kearns points out (ch. 10), is nowadays used to identify wholly different periods and politics in the two disciplines, but as her chapter reveals this retrospective critical categorization has in fact helped to obscure the way in which early twentieth-century literature was often inflected by the religious issues of theological modernism.
More fundamentally neither ‘Theology’ nor ‘English Literature’ are as transparent or uncontested terms as they might at first appear. Not only has each been used to describe both the primary sources and the academic process of studying these sources, but as boundary classifications they have proved shifting and unstable, subject to the changing political forces at work over time within society at large (p. 4) and within academic institutions in particular. If ‘Theology’ can be translated as ‘discourse about God’ this begs a number of questions as to what kind of ‘God-talk’ is permitted or implied, and who, at any particular time, is entitled to do the talking. Theology, of course, has the longer and more venerable history as an academic discipline—the study of English Literature being a nineteenth-century parvenu in both schools and universities—but that might merely be said to compound the chronological slipperiness of the term. If Theology is thought of as a discipline associated with ex cathedra pronouncements emanating from the institutions of church and university, then this radically narrows the field for study, excluding both dissenting and non-dogmatic texts, and most women's voices. And yet if we nowadays feel inclined to admit any writing that invokes the name of God or seeks to divine transcendent meaning and purpose does the field become so inclusive as to be academically unmanageable? English Literature might at first sight seem to offer a more easily agreed body of material but even if we assume that educational institutions are best qualified to mark out the territory it soon becomes clear that there is no longer an immutable canon of material for study and the academic methodologies employed have been subject to revolutionary revision in the last quarter of a century. In short, both terms of the Handbook's title are and have always been strongly politically charged.
Evolutionary models of history customarily identify a relatively simple point of origin or origins from which a linear pathway of developing complexities can then be traced. The origins of Theology and English Literature, however, confound this pattern. Although it is possible to identify formative works written in the vernacular it is still difficult to talk of a ‘vernacular tradition’ of ‘English literature’ dealing with theological matters, independently of the Germanic and Celtic cultures which contributed to it, or the Latin and French contexts by which it was influenced, even when seemingly most in revolt against them. It is easy to identify the high points of literary-theological achievement in poems such as The Dream of the Rood, but scholars have found it more difficult to know how to deal with the growing body of ‘vernacular theology’. Viewed from the standpoint of Latin, the universal language of Christendom, the vernacular mainly presented risks of misinterpretation, error, heresy, and schism as the centre lost linguistic control of and access to its margins. On these same margins, however, theology in the vernacular started to make itself intelligible to new audiences and encouraged the development of literary genres undreamt of by those who saw the vernacular as merely a vehicle for derivative versions of Latin originals.
Whether the mystery plays derived from Latin liturgical pageant or were developed as new vernacular drama remains a matter of debate: what is beyond dispute, however, is that as responsibility for their production moved into the hands of the trade guilds so they began to reflect particular economic and cultural interests. The York Shipwrights, for instance, fashioned the story of Noah to explore its connections with their own craft and way of life, just as twentieth-century feminist readings reworked the biblical tale to represent the experiences of women that had been occluded in the patriarchal focus of the original. In both cases, such engagements, (p. 5) because they originated in a recognition of the immense power these foundational myths exerted, contributed to a struggle which has had consequences both for literature and theology. The secularizing tendencies of these medieval dramas fed into the world of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and ultimately into the Puritan backlash which sought to regain control of religious representation. (The feminist challenge to patriarchal readings of the Scriptures is still being worked through in many churches today.) The Handbook's opening section does not aim to provide a comprehensive historical survey of the route from the representation of Mr and Mrs Noah in the medieval mystery plays to the recent refashionings of this tale from Genesis by, inter alia, Jeannette Winterson (Boating for Beginners, 1985) Michèle Roberts (The Book of Mrs Noah, 1987), and Julian Barnes (A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, 1989). Instead, by focusing upon some of the crucial moments, movements, and turns in the relationship between literature and theology, this section illuminates the high political stakes involved in negotiating or disputing control of the Word.
One of the effects that Julian Barnes achieves by resituating the Noah story in a variety of historical settings is to make us confront complacent habits of reading biblical narrative as fossilized religious discourse, remote from our interpretation of the world around us. Furthermore, by loosing the story from its canonical moorings, he reminds us of art's pivotal role in the wrestle between theological authority and the human imagination for supremacy in detecting or imposing patterns and meaning. Tracing a watery pathway from Noah to the story of Jonah and the whale, Barnes proceeds to consider other perilous voyages in their light. Of the account of James Bartley's 1891 escape from the belly of a sperm whale, he writes:
You may not credit it, but what has happened is that the story has been retold, adjusted, updated; it has shuffled nearer. For Jonah now read Bartley…For the point is this: not that the myth refers us back to some original event which has been fancifully transcribed as it passed through the collective memory; but that it refers us forward to something that will happen, that must happen. Myth will become reality, however sceptical we might be.
(Barnes 1990: 180–1)
As confirmation Barnes offers us the shameful tale of what befell the thousand Jews, who embarked upon the German cruise ship St Louis, which sailed in 1939 from Hamburg. In Barnes's hands the account serves as a commentary upon the cruelty the human race has routinely and casually condoned in its primitive lust for tales of providential survival, and so the tales of Noah and Jonah fall into place as analogous narratives, which we have preferred to attribute to the ‘fairly repellent morality’ of the God of the Old Testament (ibid. 177) than to the human capacity to author and authorize. For the purposes of the Handbook, whether we espouse the Jungian collective memory or the proleptic theory of myth proposed here is less relevant than the recognition that theology and literature are discourses which continue to exert political power despite attempts to corral them as ‘academic’ and thus irrelevant or dead tongues. If nothing else the history of ‘the Holy Land’ should remind us of the mythic potency exercised by such biblical phrases as ‘the Promised Land’ and (p. 6) to the risks implicit in regarding ‘sacred texts’ and officially sanctioned theology as set apart from all other forms of literary endeavour.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the Journal of Literature and Theology came into being at very much the same time that novelists working in Britain, such as Barnes, Roberts, Winterson, Sarah Maitland and others, were turning back to the Bible as the imaginative springboard for novels which proceeded as much by narrative cogitation as by easily discernible plot structures. These scholarly revisitings and creative revisionings of the grand metanarratives came at a time when institutional religious affiliation was markedly in decline and the Christian church, was, as a consequence, losing its power to claim control of a monolithic story of universally applicable truth. British novelists began to turn away from fiction's post Second World War love affair with the analysis of contemporary social mores, and, often fuelled by modish critical theories, to take to speculative wandering among fantasized alternative realities and multiple truth systems. Fiction began to parade a fresh self-consciousness, drawing attention to its own fictiveness, and often employing a fictional narrator whose function was to brood over the impossibility of his/her interpretative role in a world where values could no longer be assumed to be universal. The emergence of the various strands loosely woven into the scholarly activity of ‘Literature and Theology’ might be traced to some of the same social and intellectual phenomena. Some literary scholars were drawn to it through a sense of perceived loss, wanting to restore to their students the cultural resonance of classical and biblical knowledge which they sensed was fast disappearing. These recruits were often drawn from a generation who had been the last to be handed a canonical map of English literature whose compass points referred to the founding texts of Western civilization and whose more local grid references were formed by the intersection of national institutions and patronage systems with schools and movements of writers, usually gendered male. This generation, released from the bondage of the canon by a wave of critical theory, proceeded to lead their successors as students out into a wilderness where texts replaced books, and hermeneutic and linguistic theories were preferred to contextual knowledge. This move coincided with, or was indeed part of a larger cultural change, in which it could no longer be assumed that knowledge of the Christian religion or indeed of Homer and Virgil would form part of the secondary education of the ever-increasing numbers coming into Higher Education in Britain. Patterns of immigration have certainly contributed to an ethos that no longer finds it appropriate to sow British, or even Western cultural values, in its state schools: it is difficult to exaggerate the extent of the sea-change this represents for a literature embedded in a nationalism embroiled, almost from its inception, in religio-political conflicts.
It is possible to point to R. A. Butler's 1944 Education Act as heralding the moment at which the British ceased to assume that Christianity was hard-wired into the nation's culture. Previous Acts had presumed that religion formed an integral part of education, being concerned only to insist upon a non-denominational provision. This meant that even those authors who had themselves abandoned orthodox Christian belief had to hand a vocabulary and a myth-hoard that they knew they held in common with their readers. John Ruskin's pessimistic prophesy in 1852 that (p. 7) the very fabric of the education of his own childhood was being dismantled: ‘If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses’(Ruskin 1903–12: xxxvi. 115)—was still unrealized by D. H. Lawrence's day. Lawrence could still perceive himself as being characteristically provocative when he claimed, in his posthumously published essay, ‘Why the Novel Matters’, that the Bible, along with Homer and Shakespeare, was an exemplar of the novel as the true ‘book of life’, (Lawrence 1956: 105), and, more importantly, a novel such as The Rainbow (1915) is scarcely intelligible without recourse to ‘every cadence of the Bible verses’. Not to recognize the reference to Deuteronomy 34: 1–5 in the following passage is to be deprived, not of a piece of vocabulary for which a synonym can easily be found, but of the novel's narrative trajectory which is predicated upon an understanding of civilization as aspiring to new covenants as the journey over the generations is retraced from Genesis to Revelation, from the rhythms of tilling the land to the culture of ‘the great city’, ‘Something she had not, something she did not grasp, could not arrive at. There was something beyond her. But why must she start on the journey? She stood so safely on the Pisgah mountain?’ (Lawrence 1970: 195).
For the first time, in 1944, it was thought necessary to make a collective act of worship compulsory in all state-aided schools, suggesting that in post-war Britain neither parents nor teachers could be relied upon to transmit Christian religion as endemic to the nation's values. As the twentieth century wore on church and chapel attendance dwindled to the point when Grace Davie (1999: 49) described the nominal allegiance professed by the many as a condition where the British know which church they are not attending. Although non-attendance at corporate Christian worship does not necessarily signify the death of belief, it does indicate the passing of an intimate—or, increasingly, any—familiarity with Christian liturgy and the Bible. The perception of a divergence between popular culture and a strongly religiously inflected literary heritage is of course, not new. When Marlowe's Dr Faustus reviews the medieval university curriculum that he has mastered and resolves to abandon even ‘Divinity’, the crowning glory of the academic disciplines, in favour of the ‘profit and delight’ to be gained through magic and necromancy, the text displays a marked nervousness about its ability to count upon the audience's knowledge of what rests unsaid.
- When all is done Divinity is best.
- Jerome's Bible, Faustus, view it well.
- Stipendium peccati mors est. Ha! Stipendium, etc.,
- The reward of sin is death. That's hard.
- Si peccasse negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veritas.
- If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us. Why,
- then, belike we must sin, and so consequently die.
- Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
- What doctrine call you this? Che sera, sera:
- What will be, shall be. Divinity, adieu!
- These metaphysics of magicians
- And necromantic books are heavenly…. (Dr Faustus (i. i))
Although, as Thomas Healy argues (Ch. 23), the play's overall theological stance is difficult to interpret, it is important that the audience feels upon its pulse the drama of this moment when the threat of the ‘wages of sin’ is precisely not balanced by the promise of ‘eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Romans 6: 23). Whether this pivotal moment is regarded as the beginning of Faustus's descent into false logic, or the articulation of a challenge to the Christian world order, it is imperative that the entire audience, including those familiar with the Bible only in the vernacular, should be able to experience the frisson occasioned when an anticipated rhythm is unexpectedly jarred and broken.
For scholars of the 1980s the urge to regenerate lost or dying knowledge was complicated by the impossibility of a return to an Edenic world innocent of critical theories. Their mission of recovery seemed questionable to at least two classes of critic: those who doubted the worth of prioritizing the pursuit of lost resonances when the past is, in any meaningful sense, unknowable, and those who, though they valued the effect of a truth felt upon the pulse, privileged personal readings precisely because they offered an escape from the tyranny of the totalizing (white male) discourse in which liberal humanism had so often been couched. This decade, which saw a predictable conservative backlash against the dominance of theory, in the shape of new Historicism, created some strange alliances in literature departments, but in so doing began to weaken the prejudice that distrusted all interest in matters religious or theological as an indication of conservative recidivism or proselytizing fundamentalism. The safest compromise was generally admitted to be the bringing back of the Bible ‘as’ or ‘together with’ literature into the seminar room, where it was used, inter alia, as an outstanding example of English Renaissance prose, as a complicated example of the cultural politics of production, or simply as a series of source passages. To some of this new cohort of biblical readers, with such honourable exceptions as Robert Alter, it now seemed that adequate theoretical justification existed to validate their annexation of the Bible without the need to learn Hebrew or Greek—always a snag when taking on say Homer or Virgil as taught in rival Classical literature departments: far simpler to venerate the Authorized Version as an aesthetic Ur-text.
Biblical scholars did not remain immune to these winds of change, but were apprehensive of dabbling with theories whose implications might well lead beyond the Judaeo-Christian mind-set. Almost twenty years ago the editors of The Literary Guide to the Bible, despite claiming to embrace a ‘pluralist’ notion of criticism, explicitly ruled out Marxist, psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, and ‘some feminist’ critics as unlikely to provide help in the task of learning ‘how to read the Bible again’ (Alter and Kermode 1987: 5–6). Our approach as Handbook editors, by contrast, has been simply to seek out the best biblical scholarship available. In this process certain trends have become apparent. Although recent biblical scholarship has been happy to raid literary theory for approaches, such as genre and feminist criticism, which carry obvious affinities for its own concerns, it has often been content to return, with this booty, to its usual occupations, rather than engaging more directly with the subsequent turns of theoretical or ‘post-theory’ debate. Nevertheless, the growth in (p. 9) readings which regard the individual books of the Bible as contextualized productions of Mediterranean antiquity, and in which St Paul, the chief begetter of Protestant theology and saint for all seasons, becomes Paul a man of his time, is proving divisive for Theology, driving a wedge between systematics and biblical criticism. Not every branch of the discipline has embraced with equal enthusiasm this new cultural space where theology can no longer presume upon even faint echoes of its previous coercive authority. Some theologians have argued, with Graham Ward, that interdisciplinary dialogue represents a way out of the modernist ghetto where theologians were condemned ‘simply to speak to and write for other theologians’ (Ward 2000: p. viii). From this perspective the re-engagement with literature appeared potentially revivifying for theology while offering theorists who were reluctant to become trapped in endless linguistic ‘play’, the possibility of retrieving a framework of ethically based discussion.
Those theologians, on the other hand, who remained apprehensive about popular culture's power to trivialize rather than fertilize might well point for vindication to that recent best-seller, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003). John Robinson's project, in Honest to God (1963), of demythologizing Christianity's ‘traditional orthodox supernaturalism’ so that it might once again become ‘meaningful’ for the ‘lay’ world (Robinson 1963: 8) would appear to have come full circle in Brown's novel which responds to a new popular craving for myth and belief in cultic movements with aspirations to world domination. Brown's novel, which is as devoid of the theological, in the sense of discussion of transcendence, as it is of the pleasures which a good literary style confers, would seem to have gained its reputation from yoking cultural pretentiousness—offering guided tours to the must-sees of European tourism—to an interpretation of church history driven by a combination of popular conspiracy theories—the suppression of ‘goddess-worship’ by the patriarchy, and the presentation of Opus Dei as a sinister religious mafia. The Vatican's decision to authorize an official refutation of the misinformation it believed to be contained in a novel which was selling well even in Roman Catholic bookshops, followed by the decision by Lincoln Cathedral's Anglican dean to permit filming of the book in its precincts, are indicative at the very least of the polarized approaches to cultural engagement now taking place under the umbrella of institutional theology.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that the section ‘Literary Ways of Reading the Bible’ should be the most marked for the divergent approaches its contributors assumed. Some welcomed the chance to consider the readings which English literature has offered of biblical narratives, while others felt better placed to interpret their brief as applying methodologies derived from literary criticism to biblical texts. In a few cases we have endeavoured to respect the author's original choice of approach, while helping readers to gain a sense of both approaches, by appending to these chapters a brief account of the way in which particular biblical themes, episodes, and symbols have informed English literature.
All the chapters in this section, however, share the premise that literary approaches to the Bible inevitably uncover the hermeneutics at work in the act of translation, as one word or phrase, one mind-set, dogmatic persuasion, or cultural value is (p. 10) privileged over another. The reactions of two reviewers in The Times newspaper to Good as New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures (2004), by John Henson, a retired Baptist minister, offer an interesting guide to the place occupied by the Bible in Britain's contemporary cultural wars. As indicated by the review titles, ‘Rocky of Ages’ (Whittell 2004), and ‘Archibishop blesses a gospel with more sex’ (Gledhill 2004), the surface furore raged around the ‘inclusivity’ of the language employed in the translation, but deeper anxieties about the cultural power afforded by control of the Word were at work than might have been anticipated in a soi-disant secular society. The enthusiastic endorsement given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to a translation which he hoped would spread ‘in epidemic profusion through religious and irreligious alike’ precisely because it does not take the reader into ‘a specialised religious frame of reference’ was the chief offence. ‘Yet isn't that precisely where the Bible is meant to take us? Out of the humdrum, the everyday, to somewhere different, more taxing, better?’ argued The Times columnist, claiming to speak on behalf of ‘England's adult, literate agnostics’ in wanting to retain ‘the tradition and the calming ritual of unmodernised Church life and language that is most likely to lure us there’ (Whittell 2004). At first glance this seems to be simply another version of the medieval rivalry between the establishment's favoured language and the vernacular employed by a missionary church intent upon gaining the broadest transmission for its message. There are, however, interesting differences. This time around ‘education’ is being aligned with ‘scepticism’, while an attempt is also being made to neutralize the undoubted attractions of the Bible and formal liturgy by consigning them to the heritage theme park. In this reading, religion's alarming power to disrupt the civilized consensus of ‘High Culture’ is imaged in the spectacle of an archbishop, the symbolic embodiment of the Establishment's investment in religion as history, preferring the claims of popular culture. Williams's own triple credentials as theologian, priest, and poet to the post of champion of the values of ‘High Culture’ only accentuate the extent of his ‘defection’ for those anxious to turn ‘the sacred’ into a fossilized and aetheticized commodity. The enduring tradition to which Williams himself of course belongs, of the Anglican pastor-poet, is both discussed and exemplified in David Scott's chapter in the concluding section of the Handbook.
Failing to recognize the organic connections between language and beliefs can prove curiously disenabling. Both Times reviewers chose for especial excoriation the rendering of Mark 1: 9–11, reporting John's baptism of Jesus. The Authorised Version reports the voice from heaven as saying ‘Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased’, which is now rendered ‘That's my boy! You're doing fine!’, but neither review explains precisely what is wrong with this locution. A literary-theological reading might suggest that the generic nature of this praise, applied in modern, usually American, English, to a well-performed act by any younger male, does not seem to offer any specific recognition of a Father–Son relationship between two parts of the Trinity. Instead, the Times reviewer has nothing but ‘good taste’, a curiously fickle, and often culturally localized principle, on which to ground his criticism: the choice of the word ‘dipped’ in the same narrative episode: ‘Then Jesus came from Nazareth (p. 11) to be dipped by John in the Jordan’ is simply dismissed as ‘cringe-making’ (Whittell 2004). A literary-theological commentary might take into consideration that this word had been chosen by an American Baptist, whose sect had, over three centuries ago, acquired the nickname of ‘dippers’ on account of their practice of baptism by total immersion, before proceeding to question whether the word resonates differently for British readers.
The cultural specificity of the encounter between readers and writers was one reason for preferring to limit ourselves to English literature, rather than ‘literatures in English’ when broadening the discussion beyond the Bible, and so the Handbook largely ignores the textual and credal negotiations that took place when English literature was read beyond British shores. Such an account would have to include the glimpse offered in Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1998/188), of how it must have felt to the child of a German-born, Lutheran-turned-Wesleyan missionary, and an English, Wesleyan mother who was to finish her days in a South African, Roman Catholic convent, to pore, at the far ends of the Empire, over the pages of literature produced in England, and to what extent the common reading inheritance she shared with her fellow freethinkers in England was to draw her closer to them or to sharpen her profound feeling of alienation. To read the relationship in the opposite direction, George Eliot's work has had an impact on American fiction, as seen most recently in Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers (1997), but to trace the way in which it has fed into a literary heritage with its own theological traditions, not to mention the knowledge of writings from many non-English-speaking cultures that immigrants brought with them, would require a companion volume.
From today's anti-imperialist perspective, this volume contains at least one blatant anomaly. Why have we annexed, for English Literature, James Joyce, who regarded England as little more than an obstacle between that ‘fauborg called St Patrice’ and continental Europe? Or, rather, to invert the question, how could we possibly omit an author for whom addressing the theological matters abroad in the Judaeo-Christian tradition of his times was an imperative so great that it not only forced scholars to pay attention even in the two or three decades after the Second World War when theology had almost entirely disappeared from the agenda of literary scholarship, but was also to spark an exploratory reworking of his materials on another continent in Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (1993). Joyce's œuvre lays out the problem inherent in the current enterprise with devastating clarity. Between 1801 and 1921 Ireland was, politically speaking, an integral part of the United Kingdom, but as the reactions of those English-born, Oxford-educated Roman Catholic converts, John Henry Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins showed, culturally speaking, the lives of their fellow Romanists in this distant part of the kingdom were almost wholly unfamiliar. This perception of an alien encounter between co-subjects and brothers in Christ was not one-sided: in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Stephen Dedalus mulls it over from the perspective of the Dublin student taught by an English convert to the Jesuits:
The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without (p. 12) unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of its language. (ibid. 189)
If what constitutes the tradition of ‘English literature’ is contentious, to restrict ‘theology’ in this volume to the Judaeo-Christian might seem equally perverse at a time when departments of Theology and Religious Studies rightly require their students to familiarize themselves with a variety of global religions. The recent fashion for characterizing opposing tendencies in today's society as examples of either ‘tribalism’ or ‘globalism’, serves to obscure the way this has developed from a much older Western tradition of categorizing into ‘Old’ and ‘New’ dispensations, ‘orthodox’ and ‘sectarian’ movements, ‘darkened’ and ‘enlightened’ periods or conceptions. Joyce's upbringing in Catholic Ireland enabled him to interrogate England's entrenched hierarchical assumptions, in such a way as to prepare his readers for embracing the exilic, European Judaism, embodied in Leopold Bloom. From a Jesuit perspective, Stephen Dedalus's speculations remind us, if ‘the vain pomps’ of Anglicanism had figured in the pilgrimage made by the convert English dean of studies on his way to finding ‘the one true Church’, the Church of England was scarcely to be differentiated from any other heretical sect.
From what had he set out? Perhaps he had been born and bred among serious dissenters, seeking salvation in Jesus only and abhorring the vain pomps of the establishment. Had he felt the need of an implicit faith amid the welter of sectarianism and the jargon of its turbulent schisms, six principle men, peculiar people, seed and snake baptists, supralapsarian dogmatists? (ibid. 188)
The Handbook's historical bias has undoubtedly favoured a rather traditional canon, and the editors were particularly aware, in selecting authors for inclusion in the third and fourth sections, that almost every choice involved the rejection of a viable alternative. For instance, we might have chosen James Hogg's portrayal of extreme Calvinism in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1997/1824) to represent Romanticism's engagement with Scottish Presbyterianism, rather than Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake's differently unorthodox, but more Anglocentric offerings. The Wesley brothers might have ousted Bishop Butler, and Gerard Manley Hopkins might have been preferred to Newman or Keble. Within the Anglican tradition, some will query why the Welsh-centred poetry of R. S. Thomas has not merited a full chapter. Hymnody, as a discrete generic category, is a marked absence from ‘Theology as Literature’, but this area has been particularly well-served in recent years, notably by J. R. Watson (1997). The theological and literary texts we arrived at are not only heavily weighted in favour of the Anglican as opposed to the Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Dissenting traditions, but also predominantly English and male. But to pretend that things had been otherwise, in a handbook that seeks to convey, at least in skeletal form, a sense of the key moments of English literature's relationship with theology, would be historically misleading.
Until the 1851 Religious Census, which revealed the hitherto concealed extent of godlessness abroad in the nation, it was the official assumption that Britain was a (p. 13) Christian nation, and this ensured both that theology was inextricably bound up with politics, and that men dictated educational policy and what was published. Although religious toleration became incorporated into the law of the land in 1689, theology not acceptable to the prevailing regime still found it hard to gain a hearing. There has been much valuable work done in the last couple of decades on the ways that women, over the centuries, have articulated their theological speculation in private journals and unpublished poetry, and in publications such as hymns, novels, religious drama, autobiographies, biographies, anonymous reviewing, and works of overtly non-sectarian devotional meditation. A survey work, entitled Religious Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1896), probably reflected the public perception well in allocating only 8 of its 396 pages to women's contribution, but the nineteenth century had in fact seen a decisive shift in wresting theological debate from the control of the clerisy. Discussion of the consequences of Higher Criticism, for instance, had moved beyond the control of the church and the academy into the pages of more generally available periodical essays, novels, and poetry. Culture, that is, heralded by Matthew Arnold as the substitute for God, drifted away from the religious authority that had fashioned its delivery through its control of the two universities. The full-blown privatization of religion, legitimating individual ‘spirituality’, that we are witnessing now, had its origins in the complex circumstances that saw the growth of a mechanized publishing industry and the spread of literacy promoting a wider dissemination of ideas that were often absorbed through the private practice of reading, which, in turn, had an inherent tendency to encourage the notion of the right of the individual conscience to make out its own faith.
The inclusion of two chapters discussing feminist theology and literature speaks to the definitive emergence, in the final thirty years of the last century, of women's voices as both ideological and economic forces, and to the profound difference that feminist critical theories have made to the two major disciplines with which this handbook deals. In a future edition of the Handbook I would look forward to seeing comparable space devoted to gender theory and the impact that this is having on literary-theological reflection in academic circles, within faith communities, and in thoughtful and adventurous fiction such as Michael Arditti's Easter (2000).
This chapter has described a historical trajectory that could be interpreted as leading to the final crumbling away of institutional religion, the breakdown of shared values, and the disappearance of a distinctively national literature, or as the empowerment of the laity in a wider community no longer hedged about with effectively policed border controls. Full empowerment, however, involves access not only to the data but to knowledge about how that data has been produced and used in the decision-making processes that have led us to where we are now. The Handbook therefore is designed not only for those academically committed to the interdisciplinary study of Literature and Theology but for any general reader interested in the cultural state we find ourselves in ‘Now and in England’.
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