Balm in Gilead

Let me come right out and say it: sometimes I loath the work of literary scholarship. With a master’s degree in literature (and the thesis to prove it) and more graduate school ahead of me, sure, I love doing research, I love reading novels, and I even love puzzling over the right way to turn a phrase or compose a bibliography. But there are times in which I run into a monograph on a particular topic — be it a novelist or an era of novelists — and I feel as though an original, beautiful, glorious thing has been reduced to a pile of worthless words on a page. I feel obliged to note that this is common in one of my specific fields, George MacDonald scholarship (there are, thankfully, exceptions to this).

To do written work that both critically excavates the powers of a narrative work whilst preserving its unique character is extraordinarily hard, and this becomes all the harder when one feels the temptation to tilt a narrative towards one’s own ideological goals. The novels and essays of Marilynne Robinson, writer of such masterworks as The Death of AdamThe Givenness of ThingsGileadHome, etc., are magnificent, radiant, and unique works of literature, and this volume, Balm in Gilead, faces the unenviable plight of discussing her works while preserving their radiance.

Thankfully, it is successful in that nigh-impossible task.

Theology and Narrative, Embodied

There are many excellent essays to parse through to make the case of this volume’s particular successes, but two stand out as especially worthy of attention:

First, there is Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner’s delightful essay on the homiletics of Gilead and its preacherly protagonist, the Rev. John Ames. Here the topic of homiletics leaves its lofty, intensive home at the seminary to embed itself within the particularity of weekly preaching practice. Ames, famously, has a large collection of his former sermons piled end to end in his attic, which he hopes his wife will burn someday. “They mattered,” he thinks, “or they didn’t.” Winner, a preacher as well as a professor, notes the significance of this throwaway line to the everyday pastor — how much energy and work goes into producing a single subsection or illustration of an overarching theological treatise that nevertheless, somehow, has to manifest for the common good, and then how often Sunday’s sermon goes unheard, forgotten, deemed unimportant.

Others have discussed (see Part III of Hauerwas and Wells’ Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, for instance) the relative unimportance of the every week sermon compared to the weekly practice of listening; but Winner highlights, using Ames’ as her case-study, the surprise significance of these throwaway sermons. Who knows when a turn of phrase or line might land in just the right way? Those who preach weekly (or who have done the practice) will recognize the depths of wisdom elucidated here by both Winner and Robinson.

Balm in Gilead

Another delightful treat is the essay from Joel Sheesley, professor emeritus of art at Wheaton College, where he takes a very serious aesthetic approach to Gilead, comparing Robinson’s work with a theological brand of landscape. As opposed to, for instance, Romanticism’s sublime or modernism’s nihilism, Sheesley uncovers Robinson’s aesthetic [narrative] theology that turns the everyday into a veil through which shines the glory and beauty of God. Here Robinson’s poetics, more than her thought, is at the forefront, and we see a kind of cooperation between form and function, style and substance. Alongside this, Sheesley’s addition of landscapes as plates to the collection is very welcome and goes alongside it all quite nicely.

I could go on, as most of the essays gathered here are of a high-caliber quality: there are discussions on the shared Protestant heritage of Ames and Wheaton College which, while a bit over-particular (and thus a little un-useful, academically speaking), frame the collaboration between Wheaton (an evangelical institution) and Robinson (a mainline layperson) in a broader complex of American Protestant history. There is a metaphysical discussion from Keith L. Johnson that is very intriguing, sparking some Protestant-Catholic tensions regarding the nature of grace in a much-discussed review.

Plentiful Grace (for the Readers!)

As if the essays of the interlocutors were not enough, the volume includes three especially delightful works at its end that feel almost as an appendix, except for the fact that all three works are worth the price of admission!

One is an essay from Rowan Williams discussing the nature of Grace and that tenacious (and difficult) word “inclusion” from the standpoint of Robinson’s novels. The second is Robinson’s own reflection on the essential character of Protestantism — its freedom of conscience, its ever-reforming reformations. These are both precisely what a reader expects from these two intellectual and rhetorical giants.Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Wiliams

But the special treat is immediately after: the whole collection is concluded with an in-depth interview, first of a discussion between Robinson and Williams, and the second with Robinson on her own. The discussions begin with reflections on the character of fictional works in doing theology, in creating communities, and then move on its role in democracy and society at large. Then in Robinson’s solo interview, she handles her biography, her formation through the works of Jonathan Edwards (et al.), and, as always, her reflections on the centrality of grace.

Final Thoughts

With a collection as thorough and robust as this one, handling so articulate an author as Marilynne Robinson, I feel that my review is a very poor etching of what is an extravagant painting. The collection, however, has done that work with exceptional skill, ease, and clarity, leading to some of the best writings on Gilead (etc.) that I have seen. For fans of Marilynne Robinson and Christian literary scholars seeking some guidepoints for how to do the work of literary scholarship, I heartily recommend this volume.

Balm in Gilead
ed. Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson
IVP Academic, 2019. 218pp.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

Literature as Witness

Literary criticism is an unregulated wilderness full of a wide variety of intellectual on-ramps for successful engagement. One could, for instance, consider the social criticism that Charles Dickens’ makes in his works and logically extrapolate its consequences and interrogate his consistency, or, as another direction, one could propose a study of social criticism of Charles Dickens’ works, diagnosing his insufficiencies and failures. A novel could be read for the sake of proposing a new exegesis of a particular detail, or take an established reading to new heights, or consider it for the sake of its narrational substrata, and so forth and so on. But the overriding principle of criticism, in all its varied forms, is that a proposed line of inquiry must be interesting.

Now, to be clear, “interesting” in academic work does not necessarily equate to “well-written” or even “riveting prose.” It is not a genre that intends itself to be for primarily entertainment purposes. What “interesting” implies for the academic study of literature is that the scholarly work in question — whether article or monograph — proposes a new avenue of thought that advances, in some way, the scholastic discourse on a work or idea. Put more directly, “interesting” literary criticism must be a note in a conversation, from a certain group of people (or field of study) to another certain group of people (or field of study). Literary scholarship is a communication. It is an appeal from the midst of an academic community to that same community (or others) that a thing once understood as X should instead / also / with slight variation be considered as / with Y. And “interesting” would be work that succeeds, in some degree, at proposing a question that would accomplish such a communication.

With those definitions of literary scholarship aside, Literature as Witness stakes for itself far too broad a thesis with far too narrow a discussion, two problems that challenge its ability to be effective literary criticism. The thesis, taken from the introduction (but repeated throughout), is that “In every case [e.g. the narratives discussed] that code is Christianity [sic].” I share the quote to observe the odd formulation this thesis takes. At the end of the introduction, it stands on its own as if testament to some monumental discovery. It proposes itself, whenever it pops up in the book, as a significant thesis.

But it is the content of this thesis that is most baffling. To paraphrase the thesis, the author seems to be asserting that what binds the five works he has chosen to discuss together is that they share a commitment to the Christian faith, in some degree. Two questions immediate arise from such a formulation: In what degree does this thesis propose to investigate its question (are they committed to a Christian ethics? if so, what category of ethics is discussed? etc. etc.), and why these representative works taken from such a vast array of genres and periods? This is not, as it could have been, a historicizing work that took Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser together to make a case for some claims regarding Christianity in 16th/17th century England. For some reason, Hawthorne and Dostoevsky have been tossed into the mix. Nor does the work attest some genre consistency such that we are discussing only novels, as we have an array of prose, poetry, and drama collected here.

Literature as Witness

So what binds them together? Perhaps the linking matter is Streiter’s familiarity with the texts, allowing for his extended exegesis that makes the bulk of the work. He is, according to the articles I found of his from JSTOR, a professor interested in the art of teaching, so these texts have likely been chosen after four decades of student engagement. It certainly cannot be (at least, I hope not) that he chose these texts because he felt they best exemplified the “Christian code” that he claims to be investigating — after all, pretty much any Western narrative up until secularism really takes hold would qualify, and then our question begins again “why these five?” But either way, the monograph seems to take on the forced character of chance association, like when my students write a comparison between Pan’s Labyrinth and Moonrise Kingdom simply because we watched them one after another in my film class.

The book, thus, strikes me as highly contrived and surprisingly unacademic, coming from a forty-year-plus veteran of the professorial career. I’m not entirely sure if the author’s goals were well-asserted in his introduction — is this intended to be original research (a “study” as the back of the book claims) or an introduction to great literature for Christians (a suggestion made nowhere, but would make sense given the writing within)? If there is a fatal flaw here, I vacillate between seeing it as the lack of a central (and highly specific) thesis or the lack of a broader conversation with the literary criticism world. Both flaws are present, unfortunately, turning the monograph into a simple collection of five exegetical essays discussing Christian themes in famous works of literature and saying nothing especially “interesting” beyond what has already been said on those works.

Literature as Witness
Aaron Streiter
Wipf & Stock, 2018. 205pp.

I would like to thank Wipf & Stock for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

Book Review: George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles

George MacDonald in the Age in Miracles
Timothy Larsen
IVP Academic, 2018. 142pp.

As a book reviewer, it has been typical for me to present books that “caught my eye,” that have some kind of special spark or significance to me, and then present them as I have found them to be, with all their strengths and imperfections. Some meet or exceed expectations and others have fallen woefully low.

But I must put this present fare from Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor Christian Thought at Wheaton College, in another book-review category altogether. As a lifelong admirer of George MacDonald, as a member of a grad school Bible study who called ourselves “The George MacDonald Fan Club,” and as someone who has spent considerable intellectual energy on MacDonald over the past three years, I picked up this volume knowing that my response to it would be emotionally and intellectually charged. There is simply too much at stake for us MacDonald-ites to write in the conventional “unbiased uninvolved” manner. I knew when I requested it for review that this would either be a work of academic excellence or it would fall into a deep vat of mediocrity.

Refreshing, Invigorating Scholarship At Its Best

One reason why such a book could be so dichotomous has been the absolute horrid state of MacDonald scholarship in the preceding decade. For every quality essay or article or book section entry, there are at least ten more that are poorly-written, poorly-researched, and poorly-implemented. This is not unique to MacDonald, of course; it is symptomatic throughout the literary scholarship on fantasy writers in general. One sees the same few threads, the same few arguments, repeated ad nauseum, until the literary scholar begins to question: Is it worth continuing to study fantasy at all? Often it can feel like the study of certain fantasy writers (including MacDonald alongside Carroll or Lewis or Tolkien, etc.) has gone as far as it needs to be and that there is nothing worthwhile to ask anymore.

Timothy Larsen, however, brings some incredible new resources to the conversations surrounding MacDonald. Working from the angle of a historian of Victorian religious culture, Larsen unfolds three accounts for how MacDonald’s thought — explicitly stated in his Unspoken Sermons and private letters; implicitly deployed in his fictions, fairy tales, and fantasies — engages and contends with the broader socio-theological context of Victorian England. The MacDonald who emerges from this historicizing framework is a more robust, more realistic, and more human figure than the one most MacDonald-ites are familiar with (e.g. the Christ-like MacDonald of Lewis’ The Great Divorce).img_2889

For the first time in my experience reading MacDonald scholarship — and, for full disclosure, I wrote a full-length master’s thesis on the man! — I actually felt re-invigorated to do more research, more reading, and more investigating. Whereas so many scholars in MacDonald’s field take him and his words at face-value, Larsen’s studies here really uncover the subtext and context of MacDonald’s life and work in such a way that makes his writings come to life in an even more vigorous fashion.

Re-enchantment in a Secularizing, Victorian World

The format of the book follows a series of three lectures, with respondents, written by Larsen for the Hansen Lectureship Series at Wheaton College. Each lecture takes on a theme of Victorian culture and follows that theme in MacDonald’s writings. The themes here should seem pretty familiar to us, as they are themes that have recurred throughout modernity: the tension between Redemption and Incarnation; the conflict between Faith and Doubt; and, lastly, the need for Re-enchantment in a Dis-enchanted world. These lecture-essays constitute something like a Charles-Taylor-in-miniature. In fact, setting aside the need for a thoroughly-philosophical account, I’d recommend Larsen’s essays here as a suitable (and more readable) replacement for A Secular Age.

Timothy LarsenLarsen’s familiarity with Victorian culture allows him the ability to comment on MacDonald with verve and context, constantly reminding readers that the Christianized Victorian world of our Dickensian memories is an illusion at best. MacDonald is pictured as an artful enchanter in a world where the Industrial Revolution’s cultural upheaval has brought to question the assumptions of Christian Britain. Various theological crises of the day and age are put under the microscope. I especially enjoyed the interplay of the Evangelical movement’s newfound (at that time) love for the doctrine of the Incarnation in contrast to their previous dedication to the doctrine of Redemption. MacDonald’s deep love for Christmas, privileging it beyond Easter, fits in a broader socio-theological conversation debated in Victorian Evangelical (and Nonconformist) churches.

Final Thoughts

I have a lot more to say about this small book. The respondents’ short essays are each worth the read, especially when they “improvise on the theme” rather than simply extrapolating from Larsen’s lecture. Even though a respondents’ essay is considered a “minor” work in academic circles, I’d commend each of these three essays as quality MacDonald work and more interesting than most of the academic work already done on him. Larsen’s emphasis on the realist work of MacDonald — David ElginbrodAdela CathcartWhat’s Mine’s Mine, and Thomas Wingfold, Curate — fills out a field of MacDonald discourse that is often neglected, while his historical perspectives put MacDonald’s works on the imagination (from A Dish of Orts, etc.) in conversation with his context, something I personally think crucial for understanding his writings. There are even some surprises in store for long-time MacDonald fans (for instance, Larsen refutes Greville MacDonald’s assertion that his father was removed from the ministry for his theology).

Altogether, while I especially recommend this collection for MacDonald scholarship, it is a good read for MacDonald-ites of all shapes and sizes. Whether a reader has an academic or personal interest in MacDonald, they’ll find that Larsen’s lecture-essays bring a new depth, breadth, and vibrancy to a writer whose work is already deep and mysterious.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.