Showing posts with label Religion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Religion. Show all posts


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?