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Can There Be Christian Literary Criticism?

May 19, 2020 Frontpage No Comments


Our current times have afforded Christians across America a rare opportunity to reclaim education from the mouthpieces of secular and liberal propaganda. Now Christians can ask themselves: What is the Christian’s relationship to literature and what should the Christian glean from literature? This may seem like a foreboding question to ask and answer, but it is one that is necessary and demands an answer. Can there be a Christian literary criticism to stand against the prevailing Marxist, feminist, and genderist theories that have polluted the well of our cultural patrimony?
Perhaps the best place to start is with St. Paul. As he wrote to the Romans, the human knowledge — or quest — for truth is integral to having been made in the image of God. But humans often forsake Truth for smaller and minor things, thus becoming confused and, ultimately, idolatrous in the process. Yet Paul hints at, as St. Augustine later explained in both De Doctrina Christiana and De Civitate Dei and St. Basil explained in “Address to Young Men on Greek Literature,” that truth wherever it is found belongs to God and that Christians should not be ashamed of drawing upon the truth of non-Christian culture while purging the harmful and superstitious aspects of it.
Most important, it cannot be forgotten that the most essential aspect of Christianity is the Incarnation and sacrifice of Christ; though we may often divorce the two out of post-Cartesian habits, the movement of the Incarnation to Calvary was integral and whole — it was, in a word, unitive.
The Incarnation and sacrifice of Christ exhibited God’s love for humanity. After all, “God is love” and Love became incarnate in human flesh and dwelt among men. Love, therefore, is the most essential aspect of Christianity and the Christian’s encounter with literature ought to focus on love in the two ways Christ most revealed His love for us: by revealing Himself from the hidden to the known and by sacrificing His life for us.
This is not to say that characters ought to die just to show love, but it is to say that the love Christianity understands as the only true form of charity is a sacrificial one — it is a love that is self-giving and freely given. The Christian’s encounter with literature therefore places the moral law of love above all other priorities. How can we see the moral law revealed, positively or negatively, in literature is the primary question Christians should ask.
This returns us to Paul. The moral law, as he says, is written on the hearts of humans. We therefore know, through divine Revelation and the Christian natural law tradition, what the moral law is and how it impacts human action and desire.
The moral law is summed up by Christ as to love God and love neighbor. To love God, who is Truth, Wisdom, and Love, is to be a disciple of the truth, of wisdom, and love. To love neighbor is to have concrete relationships with others absent of the lust to dominate. And as it relates to Christ’s Incarnation and sacrifice, we begin to understand what Christ taught us, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Thus we return to love as incarnational and sacrificial on behalf of others.
Since Christ revealed Himself in the flesh to reveal the penultimate magnanimity of love, so too does literature offer us this possibility. In the encounter with literature, we can encounter the Everlasting Man, to which all our lives ought to be directed to. As Christ instructs, literature instructs; and the best literature is that which instructs — however faintly or explicitly — the moral law of love and the desire of the heart’s ascent to relational, incarnational, and sacrificial love.
Take Sophocles, for example. Electra is one of his six surviving plays. It is a tragedy, to be sure, but within it there are moments of radiant light for Christians to see. Agamemnon was driven by the lust to dominate the world. This lust was so great that he was even willing to sacrifice his virgin and innocent daughter, Iphigenia, to procure safe passage to wage the destructive war that destroyed Troy and turned Ilium to ash.
In this act we see the false use of sacrifice for the purpose of self-gain rather than sacrifice for the salvation of others. Clytemnestra, out of rageful spite, conspires with a new lover (thus becoming unfaithful to Agamemnon) and murders him upon return. Destruction reigns.
Electra is so distraught over the disintegration of her family that she is in a miserable state of existence. She cries tears of pain upon the news of the death of Orestes, a death which Clytemnestra celebrates as she believes his death ensures her grip on power will remain. Orestes, as we know, is not dead.
Like the invisible Father of the Old Testament, Orestes comes in a form unexpected by Electra. Electra hugs his urn of ashes and weeps bitter tears, “O my poor dearest Orestes, you have snuffed my life out by your death.” Orestes cannot bear to see his sister like this and so reveals himself, in the flesh, to bring about her deliverance. “O day of bliss” she rapturously sings in the arms of her brother. “Pure bliss indeed,” Orestes answers as he comforts his grieving sister.
Electra reveals, irrespective of how conscious Sophocles was, of the great Christian truth that deliverance is a filial affair and how the disintegration of family love and fidelity leads to death and destruction. Indeed, much of Sophocles’ surviving corpus deals with filial piety, sacrifice, and how love — principally through the bond of the family — brings about salvation (in Electra’s case) or returns us to the law of life (in Cleon’s case, though the ending to Antigone is certainly far more tragic than the ending of Electra).
One might also look to Homer’s Iliad. The course of the epic is the movement from strife to love; more specifically, it is a forgiving love that heals a fractured world. Achilles is introduced in the opening song as a rage-filled killer.
Throughout the epic, Achilles is a disordered wreck. His rage boils over with the news of the death of Patroclus and he ventures forth and slaughters many Trojans. Lycaon, a royal son of Priam, throws himself as the feet of Achilles and begs for mercy. Achilles mercilessly cuts him down as his crimson blood drips onto his feet.
Achilles then proceeds to kill Hector and stows away Hector’s body in his tent as a war trophy — the ultimate reduction of human beings as objectified bodies for domination.
Priam subsequently braves the chaos of war and enters the tent of the enemy. Priam is moved by love to secure the body of Hector for proper funeral rites. Achilles holds the body of Hector as a testament to his lust to dominate.
But what happens in the tent is, arguably, the most powerful scene in Greek literature. Priam’s grieving love for his son sparks, in Achilles’ mind, the memories of his father’s love for him. Priam throws himself onto the feet of Achilles just as Lycaon had done earlier. Rather than slaughter the very sire of the seed which Achilles had just proclaimed he wished to destroy, he lifts Priam up in dignity and they weep in each other’s arms.
Achilles learned that love entails forgiveness and that forgiving love heals a broken world. There is nothing but truth and the moral law revealed in this healing and moving scene of enemies embracing each other in love because of the memories of a father’s love. The movement of the Iliad begins in rage but produces a metamorphosis that ends in peace. While we know what happened to Troy and the Homeric heroes, it is important to remember that Homer’s epic ends with peace brought forth by an act of forgiving love. Homer, here, is telling us how to procure peace in the midst of a chaotic world.
Christian criticism, then, is the instrument of literature’s deliverance and vindication. The Christian can see all that is good, true, and beautiful in literature — whether through negative or positive examples. The task of the Christian critic ought to be to sanctify that which is good and noble in literature while equally revealing the bad and ignoble.
The Christian critic can use all the tools afforded to him in this most essential enterprise of life. But unless the moral law stands over the heart of literary criticism, there can be no hope for the wellspring of love to flow through literature and nourish our hearts and minds. Christians have a long and noble history of Christian criticism, from the great saints of the Patristic era to more recent individuals like G.K. Chesterton, Dana Gioia, and Anthony Esolen.
We would do well to preserve and advance it in a dying and decadent culture which needs true love as witnessed in incarnational relationships, forgiveness, and sacrifice.

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