Teaching Notes: "Religion and Literature" (Fall 2016)

This fall I taught a course for advanced undergraduates on "Religion and Literature." In it, I assigned Milton's Paradise Lost (the first five books), a substantial selection from William Blake, Iris Murdoch's The Bell, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, and Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Overall, a pretty successful class on a topic I have been thinking about for much of my career. The following is a lightly edited version of the opening day lecture I wrote up for my students. 

Let's start with the following poem by William Blake:
“The Garden of Love” (from Songs of Experience)

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars, my joys desires.

English and American literature has been deeply connected to debates over religion, going back to the medieval period. Even as Christianity seemed to recede in public life in the modern era, prominent writers continued to write about it, sometimes expressing their passionate dissent from various religious orthodoxies -- as we see in Blake's poem "The Garden of Love" above. For Blake, the formal institution of the Church (represented by the Chapel that's been built in what used to be a garden) is first and foremost an institution of interdiction and denial ("Thou shalt not"). Its principles of self-denial and its championing of suffering are a species of death for Blake. And yet he resists them not in the name of atheism or secular humanism -- but in the name of a much more personal, text-centered interpretation of Christianity. Blake's Christianity was not centered around the idea of Christ's particular suffering on the cross, but on the idea of a divine gift in the form of human prophetic genius in dialectical relationship with the restraints that are placed on it.

For many of Blake's peers, his radical beliefs and personal practices (he refused to enter Churches for much of his adult life!) would actually have placed him outside of Christianity. It’s worth remembering that in England at least, the Church of England was the “Establishment” Church throughout this period: the Monarchy and Parliament were directly connected to the Church. Non-Anglican Christian sects -- Roman Catholics, and Protestant “Dissenters” (Quakers, Baptists, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Methodists…) were banned from holding public office, and there was widespread discrimination against them in many walks of life. It wouldn’t be until 1835, for instance, that Catholics would be allowed to vote or serve as members of Parliament in England. English Jews wouldn't get the same privileges until 1858.

With Milton in the 17th century, through Bunyan, Blake, Defoe, and Swift in the 18th century, and going further through the 19th and 20th centuries there is no shortage of canonical writers who have seriously engaged issues of religion in their works. Books like Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) are thickly saturated with religious references. People often overlook these when they talk about Robinson Crusoe – whose eponymous hero starts off rebelling against religion. His life as a castaway can be interpreted in the novel as punishment for his sins. Later, he has a “conversion” experience; his subsequent rescue might be seen as a reward for that good behavior.

There’s a shift in the approach to religion in the 19th century. During this period, many of the great canonical novelists (especially George Eliot and Thomas Hardy) are preoccupied with the decline in influence of the Church on everyday life. A writer like Eliot agrees with many of the moral ideas of Christianity, but from an early age she rejects organized religion and makes the case to friends and family that the teachings of Christianity should be seen as mythology rather than literal truth. If we had more time together in this course, we could look at novels like Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1894), and Eliot’s novel Adam Bede (1859) – which both show ordinary people turning against the values of the Church in favor of a more common-sense idea of personal morality. The sense of a Church in decline is also very much present in mid-20th century novelists like Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark. Here we will look at Murdoch’s fascinating novel The Bell (1958), in which the novel’s heroine finds herself on a kind of spiritual quest. Can the Church reassert itself, and can religion/Christianity once again play the defining role in the lives of modern people (and especially: modern women) that we believe it played in the Medieval period?

By and large, in designing a course on this topic, we are most interested in secular writers. That is to say, we are interested in writers who were using their poems and novels to speak to a general audience, not a “church” audience. In the 19th century in particular there is a vast body of novels and poems by writers aiming to proselytize for Christianity. Just as today Christian rock and hip hop is usually unlistenable (except perhaps for Chance the Rapper), Christian novels and poems from the 19th century tend not to be very good novels. Maybe it’s the tension with religion that comes from falling out of love with the Church (or at least some facets of it) that makes certain writers so interesting on this topic.

Some of the writers on our syllabus were personally secular (Joyce and Rushdie) while others would have considered themselves quite religious (Blake and Milton). One important distinction worth remembering throughout the course is that the kind of intense Protestantism practiced by both Blake and Milton led them to mistrust large Church institutions (especially the Anglican and Catholic Churches). Their idea of Christianity was fiercely individualized and fiercely textual – they felt that the best way to learn to interpret the word of God in the Bible is to read the Bible yourself, again and again. Thus, language and themes from the King James translation of the Bible are all over books like Paradise Lost and Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Despite their differences, it might be possible that writers Blake and Joyce, who were on opposite sides of the fence religiously, might be, accidentally, aiming at the same target. Is it possible that Blake’s individualized, personal approach to religion might have opened the way to more explicitly secular approaches? Is he a secularizer despite his passion for prophecy and his deep commitment to theodicy? And vice versa, perhaps Joyce (who came up through a strict Catholic education in Dublin that he later rejected), despite his public disavowal of religious faith, is still somewhere in the mix of the Catholic theological paradigm. One of the characters in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) famously says to the hero, Stephen Dedalus: “It is a curious thing . . . how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” If the idea of aesthetic beauty that Stephen develops over the course of the novel is wrapped up in theological concepts from medieval theological thinkers like Aquinas, where does Stephen's secular aesthetics begin and his religion end?

One theme that will come up again and again in our course is the question of what it means to assert oneself as a human Author. If we are living in a universe with an omnipotent and omniscient God, what does it mean to say that we ourselves have agency, free will, and the need to have our names be known and remembered? Why should human individuality (and literary creativity / authorship) matter if God is so much superior to us?

It may be that authoring books that reflect our individual creativity is always in some sense secularizing. Which is to say, we are claiming authority and power for ourselves as authors, which inherently takes attention away from God and religion. When we write books of our own, we are saying we aren’t really content to just be “sheep”; we want to be more like the Shepherd. Perhaps even writers who understood themselves as religiously devout were doing this even without intending it. This is certainly a pretty plausible interpretation of Milton.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is intended on the surface as a way of showing the futility of Satan’s rebellion against God, and of understanding the importance of the fact that God created human beings with free will: it’s most meaningful if we use our free will (gained through Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden) to dedicating ourselves to devotion to God. But God (who does not even show up in the poem until Book III) is nowhere near as charismatic or memorable a character as Satan and the various other Demons are. Meanwhile, Satan seems very “human” and his anger and resentment against God are very relatable and logical.

Some critics (including Blake himself) have suggested the despite his official condemnation of Satan, Milton is much more sympathetic (perhaps unconsciously) to Milton than it might seem:

William Blake voiced a thought that had been troubling readers almost since the poem's publication, and has dogged it ever since. Noticing that Books I and II are rather more absorbing than Book III, Blake concluded: 'The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it'. Whatever Milton's intention - and Blake here concedes that the effect was not deliberate - the power of the poetry glamorizes the figure of Satan at God's expense. Shelley went further; ignoring the theological constraints of Milton's framework, he considered the divine and the diabolic as literary characters, and decided that Satan came out rather better. 'Milton's Devil as a moral being' is, he writes, 'far superior to his God'. Satan's noble striving against immense adversity, his valorization of the individual, had greater appeal than what Shelley read as God's cold and certain execution of the preordained plan of the devils' (and Man's) destruction. Such an impression, Shelley believed, could not have been accidental: 'this bold neglect of a direct moral purpose is the most decisive proof of the supremacy of Milton's genius'. (Sophie Read. Source: http://darknessvisible.christs.cam.ac.uk/critics.html)

Another way of saying this might be to say that Satan seems human. Satan prefers personal freedom – freedom of the mind – over public glory and pomp and circumstance. These choices resemble those made by the author John Milton in his own personal life after the fall of Oliver Cromwell in the mid-1600s. And the grand ambition of the poem Paradise Lost -- to "justify the ways of God to Man" -- suggests that the poet sees his role as important, even definitive.

We'll spend some time talking about gender issues in Paradise Lost, specifically the ways in which Eve and the character Sin (in some ways Eve's negative twin in Milton's version of things) are seen as both the key factors in humanity's fall and as curiously disposable and secondary to the main currents of Milton's narrative. Feminist scholars like Christine Froula have directly questioned the seeming desire to erase women both in the Biblical narrative and in Milton's version of the story: it's a woman who takes a bit of the apple, but all of the other actors in the story are men.

The debate about the separation of humanity from access to the Divine is an ongoing theme in the books in this course. The idea that taking on the role of the Author is inherently “Satanic” is one that Rushdie comes back to – it’s one of the central themes of The Satanic Verses (1988). And the idea that before you can become an Author you have to experience a Fall – from innocence, from a close attachment to family and friends, and especially, from the Church – is the central argument of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Unlike Blake and Milton, Joyce and Rushdie are very much open secularists who see their work as part of an argument for secular humanism and against organized religion.


For the most part we have just been talking about Christianity (though again, in an alternate approach to this topic we could certainly have addressed the complex history of Jewish communities and the works of Jewish writers). We will spend a fair amount of time talking about a non-Christian religious tradition, namely Islam, in connection with Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Helpfully, Rushdie's novel is deeply engaged with the representation of religion in the English tradition -- we'll see references to Blake, Milton, and Joyce in the novel -- while also adding in a sustained satirical and postmodernist exploration of Islam's own origin story. 

The controversy about the depiction of Islam in Rushdie’s novel is such an extended and involving story that we perhaps will be better off if we don’t talk about it at great length yet. Suffice it to say that some of “dream sequences” in the novel have been deemed blasphemous to believing Muslims. Shortly after the novel was published it was banned in India. Soon after that, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran signed a death sentence (“Fatwa”) on Rushdie in 1989, leading to a major international incident and a decade of life in hiding (with British secret service escorts and protection) for the author. (The details of this period of Rushdie’s life are discussed in his recent memoir, Joseph Anton.) Exactly what The Satanic Verses is trying to say about Islam has been a matter of some debate amongst scholars. Some have felt that Rushdie was not challenging Islam per se, but a particular (fundamentalist) interpretation of Islam; it’s also worth mentioning that he challenges religious fundamentalists from a number of different communities in the novel, including fundamentalist Christians, Sikhs, and Jews. Others have felt that, while we ought to protect his right to free speech, the construction of Islam in the novel deliberately provokes controversy – as if Rushdie were effectively engaged in trolling the Muslim community. (Let’s read the novel and see what you think.)


Another important theme that will come up for us in the 20th-21st century texts we'll be looking at is the theme of religious revival. In both the Oxford Movement of the mid-19th century and in wave of writers experiencing religious conversions in the early and mid-20th century there was a significant interest in the English tradition in restoring pre-modern forms of religious experience. In Iris Murdoch's The Bell, we'll see a neo-traditionalist Anglican community that is attempting to rediscover aspects of medieval Christianity on the site of a former medieval monastery (which had been originally destroyed during Henry VIII's "Dissolution" of the monasteries back in the 15th century). In many ways it's a 20th century miniature of a pattern that started at Oxford with writers and theologians like John Henry Newman a century before. Here, modern social problems and questions about gender and sexuality make any pure reconstruction of pre-modern Christian life extremely difficult -- and not necessarily desirable. The heroine of Murdoch's novel is a young woman who comes to the community alienated from her husband and not particularly interested in discovering her spirituality, especially if it means she has to abide by traditional gender roles she sees as irrelevant to her experience. And within the community is a devout religious leader named Michael who is a closeted gay man, very much committed to the mission of his group of religious seekers. Can he be reconcile his spirituality as a kind of primitive Christian seeker with his very modern experience as a gay man? 

By and large we will be focused on England and English history (including the present-day turn to multiculturalism with the large-scale immigration of Muslims into Great Britain after 1945). But I did want to include at least a brief unit where we might look at American religion as well. Thus we will end with Marilynne Robinson’s fascinating novel Gilead (2004) looking at the history of American Protestantism, especially its more militant and political forms. In many ways, the debates about the role of the Church as a moral guide that preoccupied Blake and Milton have also been central themes of American life as well.

In Gilead, we get a Congregationalist preacher who is the third in a line of preachers in the town of Gilead, Iowa. His grandfather was a fiery abolitionist activist who fought with the Free-Soil movement (against slavery) in Kansas before the Civil War, and who then served in active combat in the Civil War itself. But since the wild days of the first John Ames, both his son and grandson have modulated their message and embraced Christian pacifism in direct contrast to their fierce, visionary predecessor. The third John Ames is a rich and complex character, one who is deeply in love with the spirituality of life. But his actual theological and ethical commitments are slippery, and they are tested when a young man with a difficult history returns to the town asking for John Ames' help. While Ames can give Jack Boughton his blessing, he holds certain things in reserve; the reader is left wondering whether John Ames really believes anything he seems to be saying. The issue of America's racial divide also runs through the center of the fault lines that existed in the past and that are brought back into focus with the burning of a black church in the town.