Sacred and Secular Scriptures: A Catholic approach to literature
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
Darton, Longman & Todd 14.95 (0-232-52575-7); Church TimeBookshop 13.45
Literature is the truth about life: Novels help us read and learn frothe Bible, and vice versa
MANY PEOPLE today find in novels, poetry, and plays the greatest insightabout life. Here they discover both illumination and challenge. For Christiansthe question arises of the relationship between this experience and what thChurch claims to be the true and final source of illumination and challenge
Nicholas Boyle is the Professor of German Literary and Intellectual Historat Cambridge, and the author of a prize-winning biography of Goethe. Here hturns his attention to that wider question.
Following the Dominican theologian Chenu, he sees both the Bible and seculaliterature as "the site of theology". As literary criticism has helped us tread the Bible, so, he argues, the moral and spiritual truths in the Biblenable us to read secular literature. The truths of the Bible, understood froa Catholic point of view, have their analogue in the great secular literaturof our Christian culture.
First, Boyle looks at the Bible, and considers the approach of a number o19th-century thinkers such as Herder, Schleiermacher, and Hegel. None ientirely satisfactory, for the Bible cannot be considered apart from thcontext of the Christian community to whom it is addressed, and it cannot bvalued for its aesthetic satisfaction alone, for it needs to be read witprayer.
Then he discusses a number of more recent literary critics such as Frei anRicoeur, but finds most agreement with the Jewish approach of Levinas, who seethe heart of the Bible in its law and commandment. This ethical imperativBoyle finds focused in the command of Jesus that we love. The Bible is a boothat summons us to responsibility to and for our neighbour, as someone wholike ourselves, is created, lost, and found again.
Boyle then turns to secular literature. The essence of this is that it ifree of instrumental purpose, and gives us pleasure for its particulacombination of words, themes, and images. Yet it also provides revelation.
"Literature, I think, shows us in words the truth about life." It does thisimply by representing things as they are. "Representation affirms - more, ienacts - the worth to God of what is represented. However appalling odispiriting, however low or laughable, the life that is represented, sinfulife just as it is, serving no further purpose but just being there - life ait is for its Maker and Redeemer - is affirmed by the act of representation tbe worth the labour and love and attention that goes into showing it (by thartist) and recognising it (by the audience) . . .
"Life does not have to be shown as having a discernible purpose in order tbe shown as capable of being forgiven: it only has to be loved enough to bworth representing, and worth the labour of understanding that goes intenjoying the representation."
Boyle then illustrates this theme in the work of Pascal, Goethe, Melvilleand Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. For example, in Mansfield Parit is Fanny's constancy, and her rejection of all easy, false choiceswhich reveal the truth whose full embodiment is in sacred scriptureFurthermore, the much derided Georgian Church, scorned by other characters ithe novel as well as by subsequent generations, is fundamental to thdisclosure of this truth. "In Fanny's world and circumstances, the establisheChurch of England is the socially and institutionally visible and audiblpresence of the call to principle, the call of the Law."
In the final two chapters there is a breathtaking combination of sociahistory and literary analysis in tracing the idea of England. England in th15th century was a principal exporter of alabaster carvings on religiouthemes. A 17th-century ballad on fairies laments the demise of this CatholiEngland. By the 18th century, England has become an aggressive, self-centreempire, as expressed in the great temples built to glorify the family at StoweIn Rupert Brooke, the atheism is explicit. He remarks, of a soldier's dislikof European religious imagery, "it seems to me to express perfectly thainsularity and cheerful atheism which are the chief characteristics of my race
Yet in Brooke, as in his famous poem on the soldier, the concept of Englanfunctions in some way as a false, escapist God. The total demise of even thiis reflected in Ian McEwan's novel Atonement. Yet, so Boyle argues, iTolkien's The Lord of the Rings we have a piece of popular literaturthat "reclaims the myth of England for Catholicism, and uses that myth both trepresent a more general 20th-century experience of historical uprooting and tgive new sense to the old tradition of the ascetic life lived in imitation oChrist and in the Communion of Saints".
This is not an altogether easy book, but there is a great deal in it ointerest and illuminatio
The Rt Revd Lord Harries is a former Bishop of Oxford.
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