Religion and Literature
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218 ] Religion and Literature1 What I have to say is largely in support of the following propositions: Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint. In so far as in any age there is common agreement on ethical and theological matters, so far can literary criticism be substantive. In ages like our own, in which there is no such common agreement , it is the more necessary for Christian readers to scrutinize their reading ,especiallyofworksofimagination,withexplicitethicalandtheological standards. The “greatness” of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards.2 * We have tacitly assumed, for some centuries past, that there is no relation between literature and theology. This is not to deny that literature – I mean, again, primarily works of imagination – has been, is, and probably always will be judged by some moral standards. But moral judgements of literary works are made only according to the moral code accepted by each generation, whether it lives according to that code or not. In an age which accepts some precise Christian theology, the common code may be fairly orthodox: though even in such periods the common code may exalt such concepts as “honour,” “glory” or “revenge” to a position quite intolerable to Christianity. The dramatic ethics of the Elizabethan Age offers an interesting study. But when the common code is detached from its theological background, and is consequently more and more merely a matter of habit, it is exposed both to prejudice and to change. At such times morals are open to being altered by literature; so that we find in practice that what is “objectionable” in literature is merely what the present generation is not used to. It is a commonplace that what shocks one generation is accepted quite calmly by the next. This adaptability to change of moral standards is sometimes greeted with satisfaction as an evidence of human perfectability : whereas it is only evidence of what unsubstantial foundations people’s moral judgements have. I am not concerned here with religious literature but with the application of our religion to the criticism of any literature. It may be as well, however , to distinguish first what I consider to be the three senses in which we [ 219 Religion and Literature can speak of “religious literature.” The first is that of which we say that it is religious “literature” in the same way that we speak of “historical literature” or of “scientific literature.” I mean that we can treat the Authorized translation of the Bible, or the works of Jeremy Taylor, as literature, in the same way that we treat the historical writing of Clarendon or of Gibbon – our two great English historians – as literature; or Bradley’s Logic, or Buffon’s Natural History.3 All of these writers were men who, incidentally to their religious, or historical, or philosophic purpose, had a gift of language which makes them delightful to read to all those who can enjoy language well written, even if they are unconcerned with the objects which the writers had in view. And I would add that though a scientific, or historical, or theological, or philosophic work which is also “literature,” may become superannuated as anything but literature, yet it is not likely to be “literature ” unless it had its scientific or other value for its own time. While I acknowledge the legitimacy of this enjoyment, I am more acutely aware of its abuse. The persons who enjoy these writings solely because of their literary merit are essentially parasites; and we know that parasites, when they become too numerous, are pests. I could fulminate4† against the men of letters who have gone into ecstasies over “the Bible as literature,” the Bible as “the noblest monument of English prose.”5 Those who talk of the Bible as a “monument of English prose” are merely admiring it as a monument over the grave of Christianity. I must try to avoid the by-paths of my discourse: it is enough to suggest that just as the work of Clarendon, or Gibbon, or Buffon, or Bradley would be of inferior literary value if it were insignificant as history, science and philosophy respectively, so the Bible has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered as the report of the Word of God. And the fact that men of...