Review: Resisting the Marriage Plot

Resisting the Marriage Plot (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Dalene Joy Fisher. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Contrary to prevailing ideas of Christianity being an oppressive force in women’s lives in Victorian literature, looks at four instances in this literature where women resist cultural expectations around marriage due to the liberating and empowering quality of their faith.

It’s fairly common in Victorian literary studies to show the oppression of women in the conventions of marriage. And it was indeed the case that marriage could be oppressive. Under coverture, discussed in this book, a woman’s legal rights were subsumed under her husband and she had no independent legal existence. She had no property rights of her own and so was economically dependent or “covered” by her husband. Even in a beneficent situation, the deprivation of these tokens of personhood, of agency, were a form of oppression. In an abusive situation it could be much worse. And many critics point to ways the church supported this understanding of marriage and the place of women.

Dalene Joy Fisher offers us a counterfactual in this study of four novelists whose characters resist the “marriage plot” in different ways, often at great cost to themselves, but sustained by convictions of their Christian faith that led them not to submit to marriage where this would compromise their human dignity. They are:

Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria in The Wrongs of Woman. Maria marries George Venables, only to discover he is libertine. He even pays a friend to seduce her. She decides to flee with her daughter, an unlawful act, and is confined to an asylum, guarded by Jemima who eventually helps her escape.

Jane Austen, Fanny in Mansfield Park. Fanny is an impoverished girl who is sent to live with her wealthy Aunt and Uncle, who attempt to marry her off to Henry Crawford, an impressive man of questionable morals. She resists the pressure to do so because of her faith and understanding that the power to “transform” him is beyond her. Eventually she marries a clergyman, Edmund, who has counselled and befriended her.

Anne Brontë, Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Helen discovers her husband Arthur is both alcoholic and adulterous and flees with her young son Arthur, living under an assumed name and supporting them by selling paintings. Her faith will not allow her and her son to live in a state of moral degradation, despite society’s expectation. She falls in love with Gilbert Markham but cannot marry. When Arthur suffers what will be a fatal accident, She returns to for one final attempt at his reform, then marries Gilbert after Arthur’s death.

Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth in Ruth. Ruth is a teenage orphan seduced by Henry Bellingham, then abandoned when she becomes pregnant. A reform minded minister takes her in, they label her a “widow,” and under this identity, she becomes a highly respected governess. Later, Bellingham, using the name Donne, shows up and insists she marry him, but she refuses because of her faith. But her true background is discovered, and she has to turn to nursing the most impoverished, gaining a name for herself. Donne falls ill and comes under her care, and, while caring for him, she contracts his disease and dies.

One of the key themes running through these novels is women refusing or leaving unworthy marriages due to their understanding of the Christian faith, that gives them a sense of agency to stand against the pressures to conform to societal norms. It is also the case that they resist the pressure to adopt the approach that a good woman can reform a bad man. They recognize that only God can transform hearts. In two instances, their resistance is rewarded with loving marriages. Two others end sadly, reflecting the consequences of oppressive structures.

The novelists considered were powerful voices. They reveal a more complex narrative of both ways Christianity has been used to oppress and Christian faith as liberative, of characters empowered by their understanding of Christian faithfulness to resist the “marriage plot” when not to so would implicate them in immoral behavior and subject them to abuse. Victorians spoke of marriage as “he for God only, she for God in him.” Fisher shows the power of Christian faith to lead both men and women to say, “they for God only, he and she for God,” a message which seems as needed today as in the Nineteenth century.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis

The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis, Jason M. Baxter. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: An exploration of the great medieval writers whose works helped shape the mind and the works of C. S. Lewis.

Many of us who are Inklings lovers have heard the rule C. S. Lewis proposed that “after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in-between.” This was not mere scholarly pontification on the part of Lewis. As Jason Baxter observes, when asked about recommendations, Lewis would turn to a Kempis, Hilton, Theologica Germanica, Lady Julian, Dante, Spenser, Boethius, Milton, and the poet George Herbert. Rudolf Otto was the one relatively contemporary exception. Surprisingly, he read little or nothing of what many of us consider the great modern theological writers like Barth, Brunner, Tillich, or Niebuhr. This was Lewis the medieval scholar, the “third Lewis” lesser know to most of us who know him by his children’s stories and other fiction or his apologetics.

In this work, Jason Baxter contends that this third Lewis, in addition to scripture and ancient mythology, profoundly shaped all that Lewis thought or wrote. Lewis not only devoted himself to medieval scholarship, it was his native land, according to Baxter, and he was determined to bridge the chasm between the medieval and modern worlds, so convinced was he that even as there are things we understand that they did not grasp, there were things they understood that we have lost–and at times, we have slighted them in our understanding. The ancients also understood our smallness in the cosmos even though their models of the spheres were faulty.

He examines the cathedral of Salisbury and the writings of Augustine and Dante to capture the awe with which the ancients viewed the cosmos. It was his “medieval apprenticeship” that trained him that literature enables us to look, not at, but “along the beam” of light. The medieval sense of the world as a symphony reminds us of the chasm that has opened when we see the world, indeed all of life, as a form of machine. He was convinced of the need of a renewed chivalry that combined courage and civility in an age of “flat-chested” beings devoid of moral sentiments.

Baxter explores Lewis’s love of Dante, the wonder and weightiness of the Divine Comedy and the ways he drew upon this as he described the substantial weightiness of heaven in The Great Divorce. In Lewis we find both the apophatic of The Cloud of Unknowing and Otto’s “wholly other” and the incredibly intimate cataphatic of Nicholas of Cusa, captured in Lucy’s encounter with Aslan in Prince Caspian. In the unveiling of the pilgrim in Dante at the end of Purgatoria, we see Lewis’s own understanding of unveiling of our false selves when we stop hiding from God and are converted, portrayed in the concluding scene of Till We Have Faces. The final chapter explores the chasm between modern science and ancient myth and makes explicit that the ancients understood more of the world than we credited. We also discover the sources of Oyarses and the personalities of the planets.

We often say the Old Testament illumines the New. Likewise, the medieval writers and what Lewis gained from them illumine his writing and make our understanding of his works richer. Indeed, reading Baxter inclines me to pull Boethius off the shelf and determine to read all the way through the Divine Comedy, having not read past Inferno. I do have to admit, I’ve read Otto and fail to see Lewis’s attraction. In this case, I might choose Barth instead.

What Baxter also reminds me of regarding Lewis is how his voice stood out from the many clerical voices of his day. I can’t help but wonder if it was that he spoke from a different time, though living in ours, and hence from a different perspective. He brings “Narnian” (or perhaps Boethian) air into our modern, stale atmosphere. It also makes me wonder if so many who seek the mantle of Lewis miss something crucial–the startlingly different worlds of scripture, mythology, and ancient theological and literary figures with whom Lewis lived. He dared to speak from a different time rather than seeking to baptize the present with a veneer of Christianity. Perhaps we might begin, as this book models, with interspersing those old books with our new ones. Today we are encouraged to read diverse books. Lewis reminds us that the greatest diversity may be found in the writers from another time.

Review: The Western Canon

The Western Canon, Harold Bloom. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Publishing, 1994, this edition 2014.

Summary: A spirited defense of the traditional Western Canon of literature against what Bloom calls the “School of Resentment” and a discussion of 26 representative works Bloom would include.

Harold Bloom wrote this book in 1994 at a time when the “dead white males” who constitute most of the works considered part of “the Western Canon” were under attack. With the continued growth of feminist, anti-racist, post-colonial, and queer criticism, many of the works Bloom treats in this volume have been further marginalized. Alternate reading lists have flourished, classics departments have closed down, and course offerings focused on those in the “traditional” canon have been done away with in many English departments.

This is not without some warrant. The men clearly outnumbered the women. Writers of other cultures were non-existent as were those who were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and LGBTQ. The perspectives of most represented ruling and affluent classes, and the dominant powers of the world.

Harold Bloom is less diplomatic than I am. He calls the critics the School of Resentment, who want to replace these works with representative modern authors. Bloom’s case is that the works we’ve called “canonical” have survived not because of some hegemonic dominance of white and mostly male proponents, but because of their compelling originality and what he would call their “strangeness.” Coming from a different time and social milieu, they nevertheless pose insights about the human condition that generations of readers, and other writers have wrestled with.

For Bloom, the works of William Shakespeare are at the center of the canon, with Dante and Milton close by. Under the categories of aristocratic, democratic, and chaotic ages, he considers 26 authors representative of those he would include in the canon. A theme running through his discussion of authors from Milton to Whitman to Beckett and Joyce is how they interacted with and defined themselves in relation to the Bard. Their “anxiety” about Shakespeare, Bloom contends, is part of what drives them to their own brand of greatness.

Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf manage to make it into the men’s club. Bloom seems to especially like Dickenson, praising her intellectual complexity, literary originality and own brand of strangeness. Borges, Neruda, and Pessoa also make his list.

Bloom plainly doesn’t care about critics or the academic guild where he spent so many years. What he does care about is the love of reading and the awareness all bibliophiles have of there being so many books and so little time. He wonders how many of the books replacing what once were canonical will be read in a generation or two. He also observes how great authors in later generations wrestled with the greatness of those who preceded them. The inference is, what great influences will our contemporaries have? What does this bode for literature.

Bloom also offers us an extensive list from the Greeks to the present (at least the 1990’s) of books he considers worth reading, going far beyond the works he focuses on. This list alone might keep most of us busy for a lifetime, and expands to include a variety of Latin American and African authors in the recent era.

If you have not read the works Bloom discusses, the book could be a hard, long slog. In that case, read the “Prelude and Preface,” “An Elegy for the Canon” and “Elegaic Conclusion” and you will have the gist of the argument. On the other hand, if you know many of the works, Bloom offers a fascinating intertextual commentary. Beware that Bloom is a curmudgeon who has little sympathy for contemporary authors seeking to develop voices unbeholden to the “dead white males.” Yet I think we must also consider what makes works sufficiently great that they are read long after the authors (and all our literary critics) are dead. Are not these the works we hope to read before we are dead?

Review: Defending Middle-Earth

Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity, Patrick Curry. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Summary: A study of the enduring power of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, tracing it to both its counter to modernity and its genius as modern myth.

Many in the critical community have puzzled over the public acceptance and staying power of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Patrick Curry notes that Tolkien has been described as “paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic and…irrelevant.” Curry believes the nature of the books account for their success. It is a myth about an earlier age of the earth drawn from both Norse and Anglo-Saxon material, fashioned into a truly unique place, not to be read allegorically, yet one that speaks into late modernity, a project more or less exhausted.

He describes the work as centered around three domains. The first is the social, centered around the Shire, where community, local government, and love of place dominate. There are many such places throughout Middle-Earth from Lothlorien to Fangorn forest to Gondor, all standing in contrast to the soulless industrial wasteland of Mordor. The social domain is nested within a second domain, an ecological or natural one of Middle-Earth. Everything, from the mountains and rivers to Tolkien’s beloved trees, pulses with life and the peoples of Middle-Earth live harmoniously within these domains–Elves in the forests, dwarves in the mountains and hobbits in the Shire, and the Ents shepherding their trees. Surrounding Middle-Earth is the Sea representing the spiritual–the ethical, the questions of death and life, the ultimate.

Curry’s exploration of the latter notes how Tolkien did not impose Christian theology by another name on his story, unlike the Narnia Chronicles of C. S. Lewis. Oddly enough, Curry notes that Tolkien combines a polytheistic pantheon at war with evil with a kind of animism, that resacralizes nature. All this combines with Christian virtues of humility, courage, hospitality, and compassion drawing together a fellowship of the “differents.”

Curry proposes that a Middle-Earth with this character, these domains, speaks powerfully to modernity-weary readers, tired of big and bureaucratic states, alarmed by the exploitation of the planet, and groping for a spirituality that embraces all of life. But he believes it is also powerful, certainly in the English speaking world because Tolkien succeeded in his project of fashioning a contemporary myth, a story neither true nor false, but one that explains something of the origins and place and future of not only those in the story but that of the reader as well.

Curry’s discussion rings true for me in many ways. The Shire of the hobbits is the local membership of Wendell Berry’s Port William, calling us away from identity-less exurbia. The love of all nature, and especially the forests speaks into a land stripped of trees, seemingly destined for a Mordor-like wasteland. Then there is the surrounding sea, the reminder of lives answerable to something greater, destined for something beyond, longing for God knows what.

Finally the mythopoeic elements helps explain the power of this story for me, that only grows as I age–not merely the adventure but the hope and loss of which life consists. And there is the power of traveling with the Fellowship, the Nine who faced wonder and danger and sorry and strove to overcome. Having traveled so far, and through so many readings, we each face the question of what then shall we be and “what to do with the time that is given us.”

Review: Bookmarked


Bookmarked: Reading My Way from Hollywood to BrooklynWendy W. Fairey. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015.

Summary: A literature professor who is the daughter of a famous Hollywood columnist writes a memoir interweaving her life with significant books and characters.

“I want to write of the private stories that lie behind our reading of books, taking my own trajectory through English literature as the history I know best but proposing a way of thinking about literature that I believe is every reader’s process. We bring ourselves with all our aspirations and wounds, affinities and aversions, insights and confusions to the books we read, and our experience shapes our response.”

In Bookmarked, Wendy W. Fairey draws upon her own life, both experienced and in books, as an illustration of this thesis. The daughter of famous Hollywood columnist Sheila Graham, she grew up in a home with one of many Graham’s lovers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who selected books for Graham, a “College of One.” Reading through Fitzgerald’s books started her on a lifelong journey with books, books that helped make sense of her life.

In David Copperfield, she sees in brutal Mr. Murdstone the violent male paralleling “Bow Wow,” one of her mother’s lovers. She takes us through Jane Eyre and Vanity FairDaniel Deronda, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Henry James The Portrait of a Lady, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Forster’s Passage to India, and more recent authors from India.

She intertwines four themes from these various books, also paralleling her life–the orphan, the new woman, the artist, and the immigrant. As she does so, she traces her own discoveries that her mother was a Jewish orphan (not unlike Daniel Deronda) and that her true father was British philosopher A.J. Ayer. She takes us through the ups and downs of her marriage to Donald Fairey, her own self-discovery as a woman in academia, and her love affair and eventual marriage to Mary Edith Mardis. She reflects on Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse as well as “Tonio Kroger” in Thomas Mann as she recalls her affair with Ezio Tarantelli. She considers the immigrant experience as she recounts her travels in India and growing familiarity with Indian, ex-pat Indian, and Indian-American writers.

As we read, we listen to a skilled literature professor critically reflect on issues of class and gender, even as she also considers her own life. We read someone who both thoughtfully engages books on their own terms, and yet not in a way detached from her life. She both reads these books with her life, and in some respects, finds the books reading her.

At times I wondered if all of this might be considered a bit self-indulgent. And then I reflected on the self-indulgence that is reading–an exercise in which we both lose ourselves, and sometimes find ourselves as well, making sense of ourselves, our lives as we have lived them thus far, and perhaps making some sense of our world. Isn’t this, as she contends, “every reader’s process”?

The book made me wonder what books I would use in narrating my life. It clearly would be a different shelf of books than the author’s. But I have no question that there were books that resonated with my experiences, and others that served to shape and crystallize my understanding of the world. It is an exercise I would like to pursue further as time allows.


Review: Balm in Gilead

balm in gilead

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, edited by Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of presentations from the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference, discussing the work, and particularly the fiction, of Marilynne Robinson with contributions from Robinson.

It is not unusual at an academic conference to discuss the work of a particular author. What is perhaps more remarkable is to discuss the work of a living author with the author present and contributing. The subtitle of this work calls this “a theological dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, and this is true in two senses. The various essays do engage the theology, particularly the Calvinism of Robinson’s work. But the conference also engaged Robinson, with a presentation by her (“The Protestant Conscience”) and a conversation between her and Rowan Williams, and an interview with Wheaton College President Philip Ryken.

Most of the essays focus on some aspect of the theology found in Robinson’s work. Timothy Larsen considers the main character of her fiction, Reverend John Ames, his heritage as the grandson of a staunch abolitionist in the mold of Wheaton’s Jonathan Blanchard, his reaction against that as a pacifist, and the mindset of the 1950’s Christian Century which he and fellow minister Boughton regularly discussed. Han-luen Kantzer Komline explores Ames “heart condition,” both physical and spiritual, and his struggle to forgive and extend grace to Jack Boughton, the wayward child of his friend. Timothy George explores the unusual, for an academic and a writer, embrace of Calvinism by Robinson, with its doctrine of predestination, emphasizing grace and undercutting human presumption. George notes the central focus of Robinson on Christ and so does Keith L. Johnson in a discussion of Robinson’s metaphysics. Here he teases out Robinson’s understanding of the significance of the cross as the demonstration of the love of God for us rather than on its sacrificial character, a focus Robinson engages and differs with.

Lauren Winner focuses on the preaching of John Ames–the 67,500 pages and 2,250 sermons in the course of his pastorate in Gilead and his conclusion that “they mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” One of the most intriguing essays for me was that of Patricia Andujo on the African American experience in Robinson’s works. She explores how these works reflect the attitudes of mainline white churches in the 1950’s, a kind of passivity in the face of racism, even while raising the uncomfortable issue of Jack Boughton’s inter-racial marriage, and the lack of response when the town’s black church burns down and the congregation leaves.

Tiffany Eberle Kriner’s essay on “Space/Time/Doctrine” raises the intriguing idea of the influence of Robinson’s understanding of predestination, and the shifts backwards and forwards in time in her novels. Joel Sheesley, a midwestern artist, focuses on the landscape of Robinson’s novels. In the penultimate essay Rowan Williams explores the theme of the grace that is beyond human goodness. He writes:

“Grace, not goodness, is the key to our healing. To say that is to say that we’re healed in relation not only to God but to one another. Without that dimension, we’re back with toxic goodness again, the goodness that forgets and excludes. Lila’s problem in the novel is that the instinctive warmth, the human friendliness, the humanly constructed fellowship that characterizes Gilead cannot allow itself to be wounded and broken open in such a way that the stranger is welcome, whether that stranger is the racial other, or simply the socially marginal and damaged person like Lila herself. But to be wounded in our goodness, to learn to have that dimension of our self-image and self-presentation cracked open, is the beginning of where grace can act in us” (pp. 163-164).

The final essay is Robinson’s on “The Protestant Conscience,” in which she defends not only the freedom of conscience of religious believers but argues that the Protestant idea of conscience defended the freedom of all rather than enforcing a Christian conscience upon all through means of the state. This presentation is followed by conversations with Rowan Williams, and an interview with Philip Ryken. In this collection, I found these diverting, but not nearly as substantive and satisfying as the various essays. Perhaps a highlight was the difference between Robinson and Williams on the literary merits of Flannery O’Connor, of whom Robinson is no fan.

This is a great volume for any who, like me, love the work of Marilynne Robinson. It helped make greater sense of some of the themes I’ve seen in her work, particularly her Calvinism. It served to invite me to a re-reading of her work in its exploration of themes of place, race, and grace. Robinson’s presence by no means muted the critique of her work, and yet I saw no defensiveness in her comments, which bespeaks the evidence of grace in her life. All in all, this is well worth acquiring if you have followed Robinson’s work. For those who have not, read the novels first, and then you will appreciate this volume!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination

scripture and the english poetic imagination

Scripture and the English Poetic ImaginationDavid Lyle Jeffrey. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of essays tracing the influence of the scriptures, and particularly the poetry of scripture, upon poetry in the English language from medieval to modern times.

If you are a Jeopardy fan, you may have noticed how most contestants avoid categories involving biblical knowledge. Friends of mine in university English departments tell me that there is a similar avoidance of Bible as literature courses by university faculty. This is particularly striking given the profound influence of the Bible upon English literature throughout history.

In this work, Baylor University English professor David Lyle Jeffrey focuses on a very specific aspect of that influence–the influence of the Bible, and particularly its poetic character, on English language poetry. He states:

“The central purpose of this collection of essays will be to explore some of the ways Holy Scripture has shaped the English poetic imagination, not merely through subject, cadence, idiom, and various echoes of its diction, but by effecting something deeper in the consciousness of English-speaking poets from Caedmon in the eighth century to Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg among our contemporaries. Essentially, this involves an atunement of the vernacular English poetic imagination to biblical poetics as a wellspring of inspiration.”

Jeffrey begins with poetry in God’s own voice, the passages of scripture where God speaks, whether through the Old Testament prophets or the parables of Jesus up through the final visions of the Revelation to St. John. The remainder of the book then explores the English poetic imagination from the medieval period up to the Reformation, and then from the Reformation to the present time. The first part includes discussions of the works of Caedmon, Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare. The second part begins with John Donne and George Herbert. In Donne, we see human love transmuted into love for the divine. In Herbert, we find one who has deeply digested the scriptures, whose poetry is a prayerful commentary of scripture as a whole. And what scripture? The following chapter explores the profound influence of the King James Version on poetry from the time of this translation forward, as perhaps the pinnacle of English expression not to be matched by modern translations, however accurate they may be.

The last chapters introduced me to modern poets I have not explored: Margaret Avison, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Foremost of these is Richard Wilbur, named poet laureate of the United States in 1987, one who Jeffrey says, “teaches us to be open ourselves to wonder.” His descriptions left me wanting to read all of them, Wilbur in particular.

He concludes with the contemporary disarray of the humanities that have ceased “being purveyors of high and noble verities for low, and often trivial, advocacies.” He sees in an academy that has dismissed the higher authority found in Holy Scripture, a place given over to the exercise of power. Against all this, he urges the community of those who are people of the Book (harking back to an earlier work) to the task of the preservation of literature in which they recognize expressions of truth that reflect that Book.

This is a book written particularly for those familiar both with the literature about which Jeffrey writes, and the academic language in which Jeffrey’s fellow academics discuss these texts. This is not so much an introduction to the influence of the Bible on poetry, as an extended rigorous disquisition for students and teachers of English literature showing from medieval to modern periods that much of English poetry cannot be well-understood apart from the biblical text that served as the wellspring of the imaginations that crafted these works.

Those without this background may despair after a few chapters. If they are hungering for a deeper engagement with literature, they might begin with other writers like Karen Swallow Prior. This is a more advanced work, especially suitable both for Christians and those who are not who are engaged in literary studies and suspect the Bible has a greater influence on the works they are studying than credited. I think Jeffrey makes a case well worth considering as well as offering a searching analysis of the parlous state of literary studies at the present time.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

how to read literature

How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.

Summary: An introduction to the basics of understanding literature–symbols, themes, and contexts–that enrich our reading of literary fiction.

Have you ever read a literary work and had the feeling that there was so much more going on in the text than you were grasping? Or have you read a review of a book that you read, and felt that the reviewer saw much more in the text than you had? Have you felt that you describe the characters and summarize the plot, but wondered what all of it might signify (although sometimes a story is just a story, but not often in serious literature)? Or were you like me in literature courses where this was all brought up very seriously and pretentiously in ways that made you feel utterly stupid, or worse, where it was just assumed that you understood this stuff?

If you identified with any of these descriptions, I think you will welcome this book as a welcome aid to enrich your reading. For one thing, Foster engages us in an informal, offhand style that makes all the different literary devices he is discussing interesting and fun, and make you feel you are not as stupid as you thought. Here, for example is a passage from the chapter “Every Trip is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)”:

“The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason. In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task. So why do they go and why do we care? They go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves. The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge. That’s why questers are so often young, inexperienced, immature, sheltered. Forty-five-year-old men either have self-knowledge or they’re never going to get it, while your average sixteen-to-seventeen-year-old kid is likely to have a long way to go in the self-knowledge department.”

Foster, who is the lit prof all of us wish we had, helps us to see that memory, symbol, and pattern are key to going beyond characters and plot. As we are reading, asking “where have I seen that before?” can be helpful to understanding what is going on. Shakespeare, the Bible, and Greek mythology are three common sources upon which writers consciously or subconsciously draw. One of the key things is that “there’s only one story” and that writers draw upon what they’ve read, a phenomenon known as “intertextuality.” Have you ever felt your books are talking with each other? They just may be.

Then there are symbols, and the challenge of interpreting them: rain and weather, trips that are quests, shared meals that in some way signify communion, going into and coming out of water (baptism), all the symbols that point to sex, and the other things that sex points to.

Then there are patterns, like the vampire pattern–the older person who sucks the life out of the younger, innocent, the hero pattern and how it is usually those next to the hero who die (like the crew in the red uniforms on Star Trek) or the pattern of the Christ figure. Then of course, there is irony which turns the patterns on their heads.

Foster walks us through all of these, with a variety of examples from literary works. I found his use of these works to illustrate various elements from symbol to irony piqued my curiosity to read works I have not read. After covering these elements, he invites us to put them into practice with an exquisite short story by Katherine Mansfield, “The Garden Party.”

The book concludes with the encouragement to read what we like while offering a reading list of works he has mentioned throughout the work as places to start. What I most appreciated was his encouragement in the previous chapter in his discussion on Roland Barthes “death of the author.” His point is that what we really have access to is the text and our opinion of it. He urges:

“Don’t cede control of your opinions to critics, teachers, famous writers, or know-it-all professors. Listen to them, but read confidently and assertively, and don’t be ashamed or apologetic about your reading. You and I both know you’re capable and intelligent, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Trust the text and trust your instincts. You’ll rarely go far wrong.”

Now doesn’t that make you want to read great literature?

Review: A Subversive Gospel

A Subversive Gospel

A Subversive Gospel (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Michael Mears Bruner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2017.

Summary: Proposes that the grotesque and violent character of Flannery O’Connor’s work reflects her understanding of the subversive character of the gospel and the challenge of awakening people in the Christ-haunted South to the beauty, goodness, and truth of the gospel.

A number of years ago our book group decided to read the collected works of Flannery O’Connor. It was a challenge. The stories involved everything from a stolen wooden leg to a rape to the murder of a whole family. The word “grotesque” is often used to describe her work. The question arises, why did this single Catholic woman, who lived on her parents’ farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, suffering and ultimately dying of lupus, write such strange stories?

Michael Mears Bruner explores this question in his contribution to the Studies in Theology and the Arts series.  His discussion focuses particularly around the novel The Violent Bear It Away (an allusion to Matthew 11:12 in the Douay-Rheims version) and a statement about the main character, Francis Tarwater, about whom O’Connor says:

“His black pupils, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, until at last he received his reward, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf.”

Bruner’s thesis is “that through the medium of her art, Flannery O’Connor showed her readers how following Christ is a commitment to follow in his shadow, which becomes a subversive act aesthetically (“bleeding”), ethically (“stinking”), and intellectually (“mad”).” Elsewhere, and repeatedly in the text, he refers to the “terrible beauty, violent goodness and foolish truth of God.” Bruner helps us realize that O’Connor writes in a Southern context that has been effectively innoculated against the Christian gospel–grown so comfortable with Christian language that it is impervious to the radical and startling claims of the Christian faith–the beauty of God’s love revealed in suffering, the goodness and righteousness of God revealed in the violent death of Jesus, and the foolishness of a message wiser than human wisdom. The grotesque and the violent in O’Connor’s stories startle us awake to realities to which we’ve grown too accustomed.

Bruner begins with tracing the development of O’Connor’s writing from the earlier to the later works which reflect a theological turn that he attributes to the influence of Baron von Hugel’s thought. He then looks at the moral and theological vision that shapes her work as a Roman Catholic in the fundamentalist south. He connects her dramatic vision with her subversive aesthetic and then goes deeper into how her work subverts the transcendentals of beauty, goodness, and truth. Finally he applies this approach to her last novel, The Violent Bear It Away. A brief conclusion is followed by a liturgical celebration of the Eucharist using O’Connor’s work.

The body of this work consists of dense literary analysis, and it is helpful to have recently read and have a copy of O’Connor’s work handy. In the process, Bruner joins O’Connor in challenging the nostrums and platitudes of Christian faith with the subversive character of O’Connor’s work. One example is this passage:

“Yet this hardly settles the matter regarding the notion that God might indeed be terrible, and so what do we do with this component of O’Connor’s fierce theology? She refuses to placate us with religious euphemisms and spiritual jargon, preferring instead to ‘shout’ and ‘draw large and startling figures” in our faces” (p. 154).

O’Connor wrote to disturb the comfortable, and Bruner demonstrates just how subversive she was in her story writing. He also helps us understand the theological turn in her writing and the influences other critics have noted briefly or not at all. He helps those of us disenchanted with enculturated, saccharine versions of Christianity who ask, “is that all there is?” to see that O’Conner writes out a more bracing vision, one we might even need to brace ourselves against. She defies all our conventions of beauty, goodness, and truth, Bruner argues, because that is what the gospel does. She bids us ask the dangerous question of whether this is in fact the gospel we’ve believed–as dangerous a question as a Flannery O’Connor story.


Review: The Personal Heresy

the personal heresy

The Personal HeresyC. S. Lewis, E. M. W. Tillyard. New York: Harper One, 2017 (originally published 1939).

Summary: A discussion of whether the personality of the author should enter into the criticism of a work of poetry.

In 1934 C. S. Lewis published an article in Essays and Studies to defend this assertion:

In this paper I shall maintain that when we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, character, or a personality at all.

The article was written for anyone to take up. E. M. W. Tillyard published a response in the following year that led to two more rounds of responses between Lewis and Tillyard, resulting in this book in its present form.

In a nutshell, the controversy between the two men concerned whether, in poetry, we have access to the personality or mind of the poet in some degree (Tillyard) or whether poetry is about something in the world (Lewis). Lewis contends that in poetry, the poet is saying “look at that” and not “look at me.”

Tillyard proposes that in a poet’s work, we encounter a certain “fixed state of mind.” What makes the reading of and reflection upon poetry worthwhile is contact with particularly perceptive minds, and that in literary criticism, to attempt to discern the character of the poet’s mind, as well as what that mind perceives is a valuable part of the critic’s contribution to understanding a work.

What both strenuously object to is “poetolatry,” and particularly using the biography of the poet as some kind of critical shortcut to understanding a work of poetry, without doing the hard work of study and reflection upon the poem itself. The subsequent discussion then is a back and forth between Lewis, who thinks personality does not enter in any important way in the understanding of a poem, and Tillyard, who tries to find various arguments and approaches and examples to persuade Lewis, and the reader, otherwise.

It is of a piece with works like The Abolition of Man, in Lewis’s defense of the objective against the incursions of relativism and subjectivism. While I find myself in agreement with Lewis, and particularly with the slipperiness of assertions about an author’s personality, I also recognize that the style and perception of different writers does reflect something of their unique personalities. The problem, it seems is saying just what this is, and in this case, I think we are wiser to stick with Lewis’s approach, because the work, and what the poet has said in it about something is really all we have. Anything else seems largely a speculative venture, at least in my own critically untrained opinion!

One of the delights in reading this is to see two scholars sharpening each other’s thoughts in dialogue, while respecting the person with whom they are in disagreement. It also strikes me as characteristic of many academic dialogues I have observed–while ideas are sharpened and clarified, positions rarely change, at least within the frame of such a discussion. The ground of disagreement may diminish, the areas of common agreement are more clearly articulated, but usually some fundamental disagreement remains. Even if you do not understand all the terms of the argument, this is a glimpse of the academic world at its best, as these closing words of E. M. W. Tillyard suggest:

…Mr. Lewis is an admirable person to disagree with; and I incline to admire his arguments as much when they seem wrong as when they seem right. He is, indeed, the best kind of opponent, good to agree with when one can, and for an enemy as courteous as he is honest and uncompromising; the kind of opponent with whom I should gladly exchange armour after a parley, even if I cannot move my tent to the ground where his own is pitched.

Would that the university world, and our public discourse were marked more by this kind of spirit!