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.