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BOOK REVIEWS 305 Fictional Religion: Keeping the New Testament New. By Jamie Spencer. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2011. ISBN9781598150322.Pp. viii + 154.$18.00. Jamie Spencer has written a slim volume of reflections on the intersections between Christian teachings in the New Testament and literature and among the eclectic mix of poems, stories, and novels that are the focus of his eleven chapters (Introduction plus nine chapters and an "Interlude"). Spencer sometimes leaves the reader wanting a fuller reading of the texts chosen, and his textual pairings are bewildering at first (e.g., Macbeth and Faulkner's short story "Barn Burning"? Paradise Lost and Golding's novel The Inheritors?). But Spencer's argument that literature continually reinterprets and expands the New Testament is certainly well supported by the texts he has chosen and might lead readers to test it further with their own examples. In his Introduction, Spencer establishes three basic premises. The first, he says,is widely agreed upon: "the books of the New Testament are not the infallible Word of God;' unlike the written-in-stone (as it were) books of the Old Testament (1). Rather, they are "the inspired words of devout and humble writers;' and as such the "texts were in a state of flux during the faith's early centuries" (1). This leads Spencer to his central proposition: the New Testament is still being created and recreated as part of a "flexible tradition" that has been continued "throughout the Christian era [by] a vibrant legion of playwrights, poets, and story writers" (1). The evolution of Christian doctrine is not the sole provenance of theologians. "Creative literary artists" reinterpret the narratives of the New Testament for each successive culture and era (2). Thus, Spencer elevates writers-even those not consciously focusing on "religious" themes-to the level of Church fathers. In his initial testing of his hypothesis, Spencer reads Dickens' A Christmas Carol as a narrative parallel to Christ's parable of the Prodigal Son, as told in the Gospel of Luke, likening the elder son's grateful return to his father's house to Scrooge's revelations on Christmas morning. Both stories culminate in the rebirth of the sinners and "a festive celebration" (3). Citing biblical scholars Robert Alter (The Art ofBiblical Narrative, 1981)and Arthur Dewey (Professor of Religion at Xavier University), Spencer launches a chronological survey of great writers as they "reach for, discover,and transmit profound insights into the human condition, insights as poignant and definitive asthose created with an explicittheological and missionary agenda" (5). Spencer begins with Geoffrey Chaucer, a representative of "late medieval orthodoxy;' although his "spirit is extraordinarily humane" (7). This fundamental paradox is reflected in the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales, since some are motivated to take their Lenten journey by "honest faith;' while others have more profane desires (9). Spencer's focus is the Wife of Bath, "who is dearly a creature more of flesh than faith" (9). Her Prologue shows that she has been exposed to Christian Scriptures, especiallyPauline doctrine on virginity and marriage, but she 306 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE misinterprets them to suit her own purposes-her desire for sexual satisfaction. The moral of her Tale is given by the old hag in her bedroom lecture, "the voice of Christ;' who preaches the value of humility (16). But the Wife fails to hear that message and instead uses the hag's transformation to justify her assertion of power or mastery in marriage. Spencer's reading, though certainly astute, seems to forget that Chaucer is completely enamored with his very human Wife, perhaps the first female character in literature who is frankly sexual but not condemned for it. Next, Spencer moves forward two centuries to Shakespeare. He argues that Macbeth illustrates the political message of Christ that the Kingdom of God must be founded on "adetermined commitment to a godly life of mercy and justice" (17) and to "love of God and love of neighbor" (18). The message of the "Scottish Play" to the newly crowned King James I is that his earthly kingdom must be modeled on these Christian values. Macbeth's spiritual, moral, and even physical disintegration results from his murder of the king...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2056-5666
Print ISSN
0148-3331
Pages
pp. 305-308
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-04
Open Access
No
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