Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Stephen Platten, ed. Ink and Spirit, 2000.

This book, a collection of four essays that attempt to make some sense of a connection between faith and literature, is the written form of the Launcelot Fleming Lectures of 1999.

Platten's introduction to the collection is a survey of major poems that treat with faith: he spends time with Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, and R.S. Thomas, among a few others, as he describes the shift from a Victorian engagement with both faith and literature to a far more skeptical twentieth century that also attempts to eschew literature. His essay attempts to locate the conversation between religion and literature as it exists and has existed in poetry.

David Scott's piece is entitled "Religion, Literature, and the Third Millenium." He starts with one of the earliest English poems, Caedmon's hymn, and the story from Bede that surrounds its creation. Scott argues that as poetry often needs a midwife to help the poet, so can the Church be such a place, as it was for Caedmon and, at the end of his career, Hopkins. He feels that the tradition of the pastor-poet, a la George Herbert, has fallen by the wayside, but can be recovered: not just from pastors as poets, but from all following a few simple rules. He starts with Mayakovsky's rules for what a poet needs to be of service to the state (existence of a social task that can be accomplished only through poetry, exact knowledge, materials/words, means of production, habit of elaborating words), and adds a few of his own:
"I would add to that, time to be still and let the poems make their journey from out there, into your mind and heart, and through to your hand; a good, no, a brilliant, no, the best library in Western Christendom to let you feed on the tradition; colleagues who understand and use you for what you can do and not for what you can't; the opportunity to keep in touch with poets of all cultures, religions, and nationalities." (49-50)
If these things are provided, Scott suggests, the Church can help to bring forth poetry that speaks to all peoples that have ears to listen.

A.N. Wilson's "Christianity and Modernity" offers a far bleaker view than does Scott. Wilson argues that Christianity is not reasonable, and is dying. As such, literature that is an expression of Christianity will die too. He attributes this death to a loss of common symbols: the Roman Catholic abandonment of the Latin mass, and the Anglican Communion's churches' move from the BCP. Because of the loss of common symbols, there "will be Christians in the next generation, but we can be sadly certain that there will be no Christian literature--that came to an end with the generation of T.S. Eliot." All we have left to look forward to is the rise of an unadulterated religion--one whose symbol is not the cross but the crescent moon, in Wilson's view.

Penelope Lively's essay, "Religion and the Rise of Fiction," was perhaps the most interesting to me of the four in this book. She believes--and I fully agree--that fiction is exciting because it's a place to offer truth and to raise questions. As such, it's an almost ideal vehicle for faith. (She excludes poetry completely from her survey, and I think poetry can do the same thing, but that's a separate issue.) She's also happier about tradition than is Wilson. Her almost Frygian view, that all fiction depends on other fiction and stories, and that we can produce things that are "new" only insofar as we have processed what is past, is one that celebrates what is past. The very richness of past stories ensures the richness of stories yet to be told--and these coming riches will offer us new places, ideas, and methods for offering truth and raising questions: for learning and growing in faith.

The concluding essay, by Richard Marsh, is a single-poet piece called "David Jones and the Elusive Memory." Marsh traces the development of Jones's poetry, primarily as it investigates and tries to make sense of what it is to believe after the Great War. This development coincides with David Jones's conversion to Roman Catholicism, and his conception of what myth means and what its use is. In Jones's conception, "humanity's very nature involves the making of things," and that through "this making, this assembly of signs and symbols, humanity stretches out of itself from the material and visible world towards reality, the ground of which is divine" (109). Central to the making of signs is the Eucharist: worship and poetry together participate in encountering the divine.

The afterword, by Ronald Blythe, is a fairly weak piece that recaps--much as I've just done--the arguments of the four essays and the introduction, and tosses in some deserved praise.

Though I violently disagree with Wilson's polemical essay, each piece in this collection offers interesting insight, and at the very least points to new things to spend some time reading. This book doesn't quite do what I had thought when I bought it, sight unseen: I had expected a more coherent overarching approach to the study of the interaction between faith and literature. Instead, it does something more interesting still: it offers starting points and questions, and will leave me thinking for quite a long time about one of those things that I find terribly interesting.