- Religion, Literature and the Imagination: Sacred Worlds
Religion and Literature are Gemini constellations: twin faces, but often gazing in opposite directions. This has particularly been the case in the last decades of secularizing literary discourses, where religion has tended to be absorbed into the categories of race, gender, and class. This closing of the literary critical eye has, however, become more difficult to sustain as religious identity has emerged once more into the light, not to say glare, of contemporary social, political, and — alas — military confrontation.
Each essay in Religion, Literature and the Imagination, edited by Mark Knight and Louise Lee, takes different note of the need for new recognition and re-introduction of religion into literary critical discussion. Some of the essays pursue an analysis of religious elements in literary works in terms more or less traditional, continuing critical practices that have never fully disappeared. Other essays are less specific projects of religious analysis or identification within specific literary works (although none of these distinctions are absolute) than broader [End Page 206] critical and theoretical reflections on the question of literature and religion. They connect this question in interesting ways to current debates in aesthetics. The collection also includes the fictional story “I Am Not Walter Benjamin” by John Schad.
The volume is framed by opening and closing essays written, respectively, by and about Geoffrey Hartman: “Notes toward a Supreme Addiction: The Theology Fiction of William Blake and Philip K. Dick” by Hartman, and Mark Knight and Emma Mason’s “Saving Literary Criticism.” Geoffrey Hartman has himself never ceased to interweave theological and religious concerns with other philosophical perspectives in a critical practice that combines intensely textual with intensely theoretical reflection.
Essays examining the religious references and dimensions of a given set of literary works include Kevin Hart’s “God’s Little Mountains: Young Geoffrey Hiss and the Problem of Religious Poetry,” which examines Mary Webb’s 1917 novel Gone to Earth as echoed in Geoffrey Hill’s poem “God’s Little Mountain,” written in 1952. Hill’s poem is described as a scene of struggle between religion and myth (specifically the “blood-myth” of atonement), whether erasing or intensifying poetry as religion. In the background of this essay one hears William Empson’s resolute effort to detach literary study from those critics whom he called “Neo-Christians” — such as Helen Gardner and Rosemond Tuve: Empson saw them as tightening the grip of theological discourse on literary study. In Hill, however, an Empsonian ambiguity carries and intensifies religious ambivalence in ways that enrich and strengthen the literary event. “Little Mountain” turns out to be a pun on Hill’s own name. What opens out of this discussion is the particularly Christian tension about art as “constitutively a distraction from authentic spirituality” (35), as if aesthetics represents the theft of religious spirit for the body of poetic letter.
Other essays center around religious topoi in specific works. Louise Lee’s “Deity in Dispatches: The Crimean Beginnings of Muscular Christianity” focuses on the writings of Charles Kingsley as these enact a kind of self-suspected bad faith: for the writer the fighting soldiers represented heroism, but he himself remained at home, absent from combat. Here is registered a new blurring of home/front distinction instituted by emerging technologies of communication, which immediately brought battle to those defended by but not experiencing it. The outcome was Kingsley’s ideology of “muscular Christianity,” claiming military heroism for religion itself. Jo Carruthers’s “Israel Zangwill, Jewish Identity and Visceral Religion,” shifts the discussion to American questions of ethnic identity. Zangwill, whose play gave the term “Melting Pot” to American ethnic discourses, addresses the intense instability of a democratic ideology that at once claims to transcend and preserve ethnic distinctiveness. At issue is the challenge to identity as not merely voluntary (as implied by rationalist secularism since the Enlightenment), but rather also as involuntary and “visceral.” Andrew Tate’s “The Oldest Dream of All: Heaven in Contemporary Fiction,” [End Page 207] discusses how postmodern fiction, which often proposes multiple or ambiguous endings, “imagines...