LITERARY STUDIES: Literature and Christianity

How does Christianity relate to Literature?

How literature works

The act of reading is an act of decoding. Until our everyday habits are disrupted, we don’t realise how complex a process it is.

Sitting in a tearoom in a shopping centre (not big enough to be a mall), I noticed an emergency exit with the notice ‘This door is alarmed’ and began to wonder why a door should be worried. Of course, I am not meant to read it that way, but I can, because the language is multivalent. It is a literary reading, if you like; if you don’t, you might think it paranoia, but then there has often been a close relation between literature and madness. Freud’s analysis of his patients’ dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams reads like virtuoso literary criticism as much as diagnosis.

Transposing a sentence into a different context can change its meaning. Hence the student of literature needs to know about context – history, politics, and religion, for example. There is also a need to be aware of genre – the signal a book sends out that says you have to see me as a tragedy, or a sonnet, or a biology textbook, and respond accordingly. However, even that is a choice for the reader. When The Pilgrim’s Progress was first published in 1678, Bunyan used a quotation from Hosea on the title page (‘I have used similitudes’) and wrote a long verse ‘Apology’ which instructs the reader to read its images in a particular way. Because he says he ‘fell into an allegory’, it must be an allegory, and we read it as such. Yet there is no such prefatory permission in The Song of Songs in the Bible, and that has often been read as an allegory. Is that kind of reading illegitimate?  No, but it is open to challenge, because the meaning and effect of any literary work (and the Bible is a literary work, though that is not all it is) is a complex negotiation between author and readers.

Generic expectation is not just a matter of finding signals and obeying the rules, though. Think of epic, among the earliest of genres (Homer, The Epic of Gilgamesh), and one of the most prestigious and ambitious. Epics are about heroes, the foundation of countries, or (like Paradise Lost) the foundation of the world. In our own time, the epic has retreated into the fantastic, or into irony, that characteristic contemporary (even postmodern) mode. As in Roy Fisher’s ‘Epic’, quoted in its entirety below, the grand claims of the traditional epic hero are ripe for undermining:

           Stranger, in your own land
how do men call you?’

           ‘I will tell you. Men call me Roy
Fisher. Women call me

Literary reading, then, is a high-level skill (to use the jargon of education), which responds to complex invitations to discern and play with words and meaning, and introduces its own complexities of understanding. It is much more than downloading, or accessing information.

It is a human activity, too, because meaning exists in a position between speakers, writers and readers. The readers are not just individuals, alone with a book in the quiet of a study or bedroom; they are part of communities, in schools and colleges, or learned societies, or congregations, or book groups, or people who read the same book reviews. Each of those has its protocols, its way of debating, of establishing authority, and of recognising what counts as an interesting or legitimate reading.

Many readers will belong to more than one of these communities. A Christian student of literature will belong to several, and may find the tensions between them difficult to negotiate. She (or, occasionally, he) will be a member of a church, which will have a particular approach to the biblical text and to other texts of contemporary culture; and maybe a Bible study group or Christian Union which will have a similar approach but perhaps a less hierarchical, more subjective practice of reflective reading. On top of that, she will be a student in an English department, which will promote a range of approaches to reading, but may have an individual tutor with a quite specific theoretical approach. Those approaches may conflict with what she has successfully practised at A-Level. Like most sophisticated readers, she will be able to switch from one to the other more or less successfully. But sometimes that switch may demand too much.  Coleridge famously described the experience of poetry as ‘That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith’ (Biographia Literaria, 1817, ch.14). That provisional granting of oneself to someone else’s perceptual world is what makes reading, watching or listening an adventure in dialogue, or something unsettling and disorienting.

On the one hand, we might feel, with Luke Ferretter, that ‘Most contemporary literary theories are atheistic’ (Towards a Christian Literary Theory, 2003). The easy conclusion might be that a Christian approach needs to look back, to critics of literature from the Christian tradition like T.S. Eliot or C.S. Lewis. Yet that is to close off debate, and to retreat into a mere comfort zone.  Many contemporary Christian critics, such as Valentine Cunningham in In the Reading Gaol, Kevin Mills in Justifying Language and John Schad, most recently in Queer Fish: Christian Unreason from Darwin to Derrida, have confronted the challenge of deconstruction with more subtlety and respect than a search and destroy mission. Equally, we need to recognise that some of the most influential philosopher-critics of the recent past have been much involved with religion, Derrida especially. Some of them, such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Paul Ricoeur, have done so from a Christian perspective that needs a bit of uncovering, but it is undoubtedly there (see, for example, Ruth Coates, Christianity in Bakhtin).

The theoretical conflict is serious and sometimes pressing, but there is another, week-by-week issue, which is the challenge of literary texts themselves. Here, sometimes, Christian academics and Christian students have an advantage – they recognise biblical and religious ideas where their contemporaries don’t.  This may make them seem obsessive, but most of the time they are welcomed as repositories of knowledge to an era which has lost the biblical literacy of previous generations. The fact that most of them/us don’t read the Bible in the King James version, or worship according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, is a slight disadvantage in this respect, though. This is by no means confined to the explicitly Christian canonical writers of the Middle Ages or the seventeenth century. It can apply equally to Jane Eyre, or Waiting for Godot, or the stories of Flannery O’Connor.

To see that there is a Christian reference in a text is, perhaps, no more than a good edition’s footnotes should give you anyway. However, when many students (as my colleagues complain) have so little in the way of intellectual furniture, ideas with which to operate, then it is a Christian student’s calling to equip themselves with some decent theology. On creativity and the idea of creation, for example, read Genesis, of course, but also Colin Gunton The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (1993), and the first part of David Thistlethwaite, The Art of God and the Religions of Art (1998). This would give an interesting basis for looking at the poetics of creation in Wordsworth and Coleridge, for example. Coleridge in particular locates the act of imagination within theological co-ordinates.

The return to religion in contemporary criticism

When Stanley Fish, the influential and combative American literary critic, was asked recently what would happen to criticism now Derrida, the father of deconstruction, has died, he replied simply ‘religion’. This could mean that criticism in America will go the way of presidential politics in America, but it is much more complex than that.  In a way Fish was only reporting what was already happening. Derrida himself, at least since Glas (published in French in 1974) had confronted questions of religion with sympathy and acuity.

Stephen Greenblatt, the founder of New Historicism, one of the most influential schools of criticism practised today, has become increasingly concerned with Shakespeare’s religion, in particular with his father’s Catholicism. In Hamlet in Purgatory, and the more recent biography Will in the World, he has developed a picture of Shakespeare as responding creatively to the Reformation:

Shakespeare grasped that crucial death rituals in his culture had been gutted. He may have felt this with enormous pain at his son’s graveside. [Hamnet died in 1596, aged 11]. But he also believed that the theatre – and his theatrical art in particular – could tap into the great reservoir of passionate feelings that, for him and for thousands of his contemporaries, no longer had a satisfactory outlet…Shakespeare drew upon the pity, confusion and dread of death in a world of damaged rituals (the world in which most of us continue to live) because he himself experienced those same emotions at the core of his being…He responded not with prayers but with the deepest expression of his being: Hamlet. (321).

Now, this is not a response to Shakespeare from a Christian faith position, but it is a recognition of the importance of religion to the creation and reception of a key literary work.

Specialists in seventeenth-century literature are used to sophisticated, theologically aware studies of Christian writers like Milton, Bunyan and Herbert, but, apart from Marlowe’s alleged atheism, the religious dimensions of theatrical writing have been sidelined.  Now, with Greenblatt’s books, Richard Wilson’s research on the Lancastrian Shakespeare, and Stephen Marx’s more modest but in some ways more useful study, Shakespeare and the Bible, the emphasis is changing. It may be that, as one of Greenblatt’s reviewers has noted, he needs Shakespeare to be a Catholic, and that is a fragile position. But the point I am making is different. There is a moment in academic criticism when the study of religion and its relation to literature has become more viable because those who do not necessarily share that kind of belief have recognised its importance.

We can see this in the textbooks, too. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory is now in its third edition (2004) and is widely used and accepted in English departments. Because it does not deal with theories one by one (as does, for example, Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, possibly even more widely used) it has space for dealing with the familiar terms in which literature is viewed (character, laughter, war, for example) as well as the postmodern and the queer. And so, chapter 19 has ten pages on God, sandwiched between sexual difference and ideology. It is an invigorating and revealing chapter, based round six ‘edicts: ‘God is an anthropomorphism’, ‘God is dead’, ‘To acknowledge the idea that God is an anthropomorphism or that he is dead is not the same as getting rid of him’, ‘religion is everywhere’, ‘literature has an evil streak’, and ‘literature is sacred’.  Maybe for a student unsure of his or her faith, that would be threatening, but for anyone prepared to take it on, it offers a space for thinking about literature from a Christian perspective.

Some pointers on the relationships of Christianity and Literature

For starters, try the essays in The Discerning Reader, ed. Barratt, Pooley & Ryken (Leicester 1995) and Michael Edwards, Towards a Christian Poetics (1984). For A level or book group readers, a useful book is Bridget Nichols, Literature in Christian perspective: becoming faithful readers (2000).   The group, Christianity & Culture have published a handbook, The Bible in Western Culture: the Student’s Guide’, by Dee Dyas & Esther Hughes (2005) which is widely available.

There is a long Christian tradition of poetics by imaginative writers in England, from Sidney’s Apology for Poetry to the essays of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. The Inklings work is interesting, too: most useful for the Christian critic is Tolkien’s work in Tree and Leaf. Of more realistic writers, Flannery O’Connor’s essays and letters are invaluable. She offers a plausible theology of Christian realism. For reference, consult David Lyle Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature and Isabel Rivers, Classical and Christian ideas in English Renaissance Poetry. The CD Rom Images of Salvation in Medieval Art and Literature, produced by the Christianity and Culture group, is attractive and valuable for students and teachers.

There are two academic journals, Christianity and Literature and Literature and Theology which publish high-quality articles on a regular basis. Many university libraries will subscribe to one or both of these. The Glass comes out once or twice a year from the Christian Literary Studies group, who also hold annual conferences (visit There are some more popular American periodicals, Books and Culture and The New Pantagruel, which often have useful material on the arts, and sometimes read like a plea not to despise culture and intellect addressed to the American Christian situation. When the current Archbishop of Canterbury is a published poet, the situation in this country may be a bit different. – But then think of the rubbish we tolerate as words to worship songs! (See Nick Page, And now for a time of nonsense…why worship songs are failing the church; and contrast the magisterial work on the English hymn tradition by J.R. Watson, a recently retired professor of English at Durham.)


There are no easy answers to the question of how Christians should approach literature and literary studies. Some innovative work is being done to produce resources, and new projects associated with Bible Society, Stapleford House Education Centre, The Association of Christian Teachers and Christianity and Culture are in process.  Students, teachers and academics are alert to the needs.  It would be good if in due course, alongside the Bible and science books, some Christianity and literature books appeared in every church library and Christian bookstall.

Our reading shapes our lives.