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Literature and Christianity: A Personal View

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 23, Number 1, April 1999
pp. 32-43 | 10.1353/phl.1999.0017

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Philosophy and Literature 23.1 (1999) 32-43

Christianity has been so foundational for modern literatures and its influence so pervasive that, if it became even half as trendy as deconstruction, the whole Modern Language Association could sprout a second time and duplicate itself in its entirety on the basis of this single session. Most associations duplicate themselves all the time, of course, as a result of our bureaucratic imperative. In the case of Christianity and literature, it would be a more harmonious and organic process than the present growth because this session which is a remnant of the past can also become the seed of the future.

We are supposed to be living in the so-called postmodern era which is also labeled post-Christian. The modern era was anti-Christian but now we are post-Christian. This label means that Christianity is so outmoded, at long last, so completely passé that its enemies no longer have to worry. Vigilance is no longer needed. Christianity is on its way to being completely forgotten.

Is this so certain, however? You will observe that, in the expression "post-Christian," the more evocative word is the second one, Christian. Our time seems unable to define itself independently of what it regards as hopelessly outmoded. A remarkable thing about us is our excessive use, in the labeling of our intellectual fads and fashions, of that Latin word that cannot be used independently in English, "post." There seems to be a great scarcity of labels in our world and the same ones have to be used again and again. "Post" is the fashionable Latin preposition, or rather "postposition," right now and it seems indispensable.

In the old days it was mechanical contraptions that were used again and again. They were repaired and renovated endlessly because they were scarce and expensive. Many people had to buy everything secondhand. They bought used typewriters and used washing machines as well as used cars. Nowadays there is so much technical stuff around that to repair a broken gadget is usually more expensive than to buy a new one. The same is true of intellectual fads and fashions. They are countless. The only things that seem in short supply are labels for these intellectual fads and fashions. We cannot afford to throw them away any more; they are scarce; they must be carefully stored away because they have to be used several times.

The period before ours was still able to invent new labels such as impressionism, expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. They all ended in "ism" of course; they all resembled each other and that was not a good sign. It was a warning that our labeling creativity was under pressure and about to run out. After World War II, indeed, it became impossible to invent a truly successful new label. As a result, now, old labels have to be saved and recycled almost as much as taxicabs in Cairo.

How do we recycle our stock of old labels? So far there have been two principal techniques. The first consists in using the adjective "new" in front of an old label and the second in using the Latin preposition "post." The first technique was used a great deal immediately after World War II. There was a new criticism and a new novel; there were several new theaters. One good thing about "new" is that it could be translated into French, or borrowed from French and then it became entirely nouveau. Thanks to this clever device, the recycling was recycled and its life span considerably increased. It was a great feat of literary engineering. The first great success was art nouveau, way back in almost prehistorical times, and then there was a nouveau roman, a nouvelle critique, and a nouvelle musique and so forth until the whole thing became an excessively microwaved nouvelle cuisine.

The problem with words such as "new" and nouveau is that they are only adjectives and their very devotion to novelty naively proclaims our dependence upon the past. The past is the substantive part of the recycled label, the hated referent which stubbornly reasserts an independent existence we seem to have lost. In order to solve...

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