- A Grain of Faith: Religion in Mid-Century British Literature by Allan Hepburn
Philip Larkin got it slightly, though beautifully, wrong in "Church Going" (1955)—at least insofar as his poem aspires to tell the story of its time. The vacant, echoing, not-quite-haunted place where nothing's going on, "this special shell" that beckons only to the curious, the superstitious, and the antiquarian is a building largely of Larkin's making. It is not the space many of his contemporaries inhabited and explored. Allan Hepburn's admirably capacious new contribution to Oxford's Mid-Century Studies series, A Grain of Faith: Religion in Mid-Century British Literature, presents us with a British culture characterized by religious belief, habits of faith, and theologically informed thought and practice. Hepburn leads us into books, churches, periodicals, museums, memorials, gatherings and assemblies of all sorts and sizes that are filled with voices debating, inquiring about, affirming, and revising everything that the vexed history of their century has forced them to confront, and doing so in terms that are fundamentally indebted to the Christian faith. (Early in his book, Hepburn notes the comparatively homogeneous nature of mid-twentieth-century Britain, in terms of race and religious affiliation ; he is clearly aware that there are other stories he might tell, though he makes the case for the centrality of the Christian one that concerns him.)
A Grain of Faith is an erudite but accessible history of mid-century British culture—a culture that was, to an extent many of us have forgotten or ignored or never known, woven of Christian cloth. This book is filled with assertions that may strike some readers as exaggerated, but Hepburn, whose range of reference is impressive, shows them to be true: "theology was a customary starting place for intellectual discussion at mid-century" (2); "religion offered the best perspective from which to understand war and peace" (11); "[f]or mid-century writers, religion offered a framework to think about peace, collaboration, rights, dignity, and human potential" (28); "[t]he hope for certainty, order, and community expressed itself, in many instances, in religious terms" (222). A Grain of Faith engages in a wide survey of the period's writing—literature, journalism, church pamphlets, theology, propaganda—as well as studying some of its most significant art and photography and exploring debates about war memorials and church architecture. Hepburn [End Page 450] argues convincingly that "[m]id-century British novels, architectural styles, and visual art cannot be understood without references to the culture of faith that prevailed in the 1940s and 1950s. Evil, survival, miracles, cruelty, citizenship, war, the future—these cultural preoccupations are articulated through Christian narratives and symbols, not just allusively but integrally" (233).
On or about the turn of our new millennium, approaches to the study of religion and culture in Western academies were noticeably changing. Stanley Fish's January 7, 2005 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "One University, Under God," is regularly cited as an early articulation of a shift already underway in college classrooms: "it is one thing to take religion as an object of study and another to take religion seriously." A few years later Douglas and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen's edited collection considered this new dispensation in The American University in a Postsecular Age (2008). In 2010, Pericles Lewis's Religious Experience and the Modern Novel pointed us toward authors whose work contained occulted gestures toward the sacred, novels that were numinous but not orthodox—the products of sensibilities that were still drawn to aspects of religious experience but that for a variety of reasons were disinclined or ill-equipped to express those inclinations in doctrinally sanctified forms. Now, a few years later, we are presented with studies in which religious inquiry and belief play an even more central, more open part. Today's scholars are showing us how the domains of faith, theology, and the aesthetic frequently and fruitfully overlapped in a century that was less wholly, less certainly...