Recent calls for literary critics to return to form and affect have faulted historicist methods for denying textual alterity. Historicism was likewise cast as a tool for denying textual power in the course of Protestant debates about Bible reading in the late nineteenth century. This essay tracks the charge of historicist narcissism as a constitutive link between sacred and secular reading practices from then to now. It describes a shared project, carried on by literary studies and theology alike, of protecting free agency from the felt threat of historicist determinism. But by reexamining the theological counterargument for a historicism that enhanced, not diminished, a reader’s encounter with divine alterity, the essay also demonstrates that historicism is not always secularizing. The point is not to argue for a more thoroughly secular mode of historicism, nor to expose the religiosity at the heart of literary studies. The point is to articulate an ideal of historically embedded alterity that can stand as a professional value worth defending.


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pp. 321-346
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