A Cambridge Companion to Literature and Religion
Susan M. Felch, editor
Cambridge University Press £23.99
Church Times Bookshop £21.60
THE field of religion and literature, diffuse and amorphous as it is, has grown rapidly in recent years. It encompasses a very wide range of approaches from simplistic readings of texts to essays thick with impenetrable academic jargon.
Susan Felch has wisely avoided trying to give a survey of this field, and, instead, simply asked the contributors to take one text or aspect of literature and lay it alongside a religious approach in any way they liked. As might be expected, this has resulted in some very varied readings.
Rowan Williams begins with a characteristically perceptive discussion of three contemporary plays that have religion as their theme. He sees in all of them the challenge of how to speak about religion in a way that is not excluding of other perspectives and therefore tending towards to violence. Banish religion, however, and there is a lack; and it is not good enough, Williams suggests, for this to be seen in terms of religious nostalgia. What we need is a shared language that confronts us with our obligations and common humanity, and expresses a religion that brings about self-knowledge and humility.
Chapters on confessional and post-secular readings follow, and others with themes such as ethics, dwelling, imagination, and sacrifice. In this last one, Michon Matthiesen offers a defence of Flannery O’Connor’s emphasis on suffering from the criticism of feminists that it leads to submission and humiliation, and argues that O’Connor was familiar with the best Catholic thinking of the time. Matthieson might, perhaps, have distinguished more clearly between the kind of suffering that comes from the essential self-abnegation involved in any approach to God and the affliction that O’Connor had to endure from the lupus from which she suffered.
Susannah Monta looks not at an individual author, but at the place of repetition in bringing out the relationship to religion in three poems from the late-15th to the mid-17th centuries. Further essays consider how the world’s great religions are related to literature. The one on Islam, for example, contrasts an intense Sufi devotional poem comparing love for God with getting drunk with a modern text concerned with creating the right political order.
An essay on Eastern Orthodoxy focuses on the work of Papadiamandis, “The Greek Dostoevsky”, and the Romanian writer Nicolae Steinhardt. The final essay on world Christianity includes the work of a non-literate woman in eastern Ghana, which is not simply a hybrid of colonial and local culture, but very much in the tradition of praise poems in her oral culture.
As indicated, these chapters cover a broad range of literature, and offer very different approaches on how the relationship of religion and literature is to be understood; but there is stimulus for thought in all of them. It reinforces a view that encourages readers to open their minds to what religious dimension or aspect there might be present in all forms of literature rather than try to pin the relationship down to criteria that seek to conform to the norms of academic respectability.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK, 2016).