Why I No Longer Apologize for Reading With Faith
[T]o think of a book as a thing is to commodify it in ways that deny it human significance: Conversely to think of it as a gift, as a human activity, may create confusion—How can a book be a person? How could we think of a fictional character in the same way that we think of that character’s author?—but it is a productive and enabling confusion. (Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, 78)
Students have been eager to discuss the religious dimension of literature. They ask tough questions. And it is they who have often prompted me toward more loving readings of a text.
The phrase “reading with faith” can have diverse meanings in the study of literature. For me, one strand involves the teaching of explicitly religious texts—John Donne’s Holy Sonnets or Graham Greene’s Roman Catholic novels like The Heart of the Matter. How exactly is one to do this genuinely, let’s say in a contemporary secular university? The second revolves around the question of faithful reading more generally. Is it time again to read with faith (in the author, in the characters, in our own emotional or intuitive responses to the books), after several decades of reading with suspicion, of using the techniques of deconstruction and the ideas of post-structuralism? This second point need not be explicitly tied to religion of course, but for me it is. As a Christian, faith, hope, and charity are supposed to be part of my standard equipment. For a number of years, in the discipline of literature, it was unfashionable to read with either kind of faith. I began my teaching career with no models for introducing religious literature into the classroom. But year by year, the honesty and profundity of my students’ responses to religious poetry and fiction—and their hopeful attitude toward literature more generally—dissolved my reserve.
I used the word “genuinely,” above, to describe a certain kind of Christian pedagogical approach to literature that I feel I had to invent. To an extent this is because I so rarely saw it done. In grad school even the overt references to biblical ideas in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land were held at arm’s length by my professors, or treated as just another topic, whereas for Eliot, even before his conversion, religion was never just another topic.
Similarly, the joy of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” is not distant to many of my students; it is not a relic of a time of assurance that has been lost.
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour, adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
The poet’s excitement, his delight in realizing God’s delight in the diversity and strangeness of creation—for certain students, this is a current event. This must be, you might say, because I now teach in a Christian university. But I see no remarkable difference between my former students in secular classrooms and those in my current Christian environment. In each case, students usually have been eager to discuss the religious dimension of literature. They ask tough questions. And it is they who have often prompted me toward more loving readings of a text.
THE CHARITABLE READER
Love is the surprisingly simple yet challenging idea behind Alan Jacobs’ A Theology of Reading, a book that helped me to articulate what students were showing me—that there is a place for sympathy, for benevolence in literary criticism. Jacobs, an English professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, has this to say about the place of charity in literary analysis:
The charitable reader offers the gift of constant and loving attention—faithfulness—to a story, to a poem, to an argument, in hope that it will be rewarded. But this hope involves neither demand nor expectation; indeed, if it demanded or expected it would not be hope. (89)
For the Christian student, it is easy to see the purpose of reading a poem by George Herbert, even if that poem is one like “The Collar,” in which the speaker carries out a rather insolent argument with God, or one like “Love (3).” In that poem, a “quick-eyed” figure “sweetly” offers, rather like a lover, to serve a Eucharistic meal to the hesitant speaker, someone who clearly feels (and is) unworthy. Students may feel uncomfortable thinking of Christ in this romantic, even erotic way, but they cannot deny that there is a long tradition of such ideas. Or consider the late sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with their anguished sense of being estranged from God. It is distressing to read of Hopkins’ “cries countless, cries like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away,” as he says in “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day,” but there is no doubt that the experience should be a deeply relevant one for any Christian, or indeed for anyone who has ever suffered. However, Jacobs leads us beyond these discomfiting literary experiences that are explicitly Christian, to somewhere far more difficult.
We have all had the experience of encountering a book that disturbed us to the point where we wondered if it was moral to even read it, a disturbing character who shook us, who prompted even revulsion. For me, the fiction of James Joyce, one of the premier modernists, can be a disheartening experience, yet Joyce is someone I have to teach, because modernism is one of my areas of specialization. For a few of my students over the years, the poetry of Margaret Atwood, with its mordant wit and insistent probing of issues like violence against women, just goes too far. Alan Jacobs, however, as a Christian, encourages us not to reject that which disturbs us, but instead to practice “charitable reading.” Unlike much literary criticism, charitable reading cannot be schematizing, totalizing, or commodifying. It cannot be argumentative or suspicious for its own sake, although certainly it must be penetrating and discerning. Jacobs asserts that it is possible to reject the hermeneutics of suspicion that has commanded so much attention in our field in recent years. I first encountered Jacobs’s book at a 2004 session of the Christianity and Literature Study Group of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE). I have never seen a group of academics so relieved as the people in that group, busily recommending the book to each other.
Jacobs advises the Christian literary scholar to attempt to demonstrate a daunting array of attributes: attentiveness, humility, hopefulness, justice, responsibility, constancy, and of course critical intelligence. We should be aware of the giftedness of literary creation, preserve difference peacefully, and continually practice being in dialogue—with books, with their authors, with other readers. Reminding the Christian reader that “the sovereign Christian virtue is charity” (49), Jacobs says that we must wish the “best” for the book we are reading. I am not sure Jacobs shows exactly how to go about charitable reading: his theoretical discussions are interspersed by helpful interludes of close reading (of Shakespeare, Auden, Dickens) that are, however, too short. I doubt that it is possible to design a plan for “a hermeneutics of love,” given that a refusal to schematize is inherent in the definition. Jacobs does point to a way of reading with faith that one need not be ashamed of, even though he reminds us of the risks we take: “Charitable interpretation [will] scarcely be welcome in the academic practice of criticism, given its unpredictable and disruptive character” (147). Yet however tense our “disruptive” relations with institutional scholarship, the human side of things can often be unexpectedly and blessedly affirmative. Ultimately this is what matters. There are trends in theory, but not so markedly in the instructor-student relationship. Students desire that we speak honestly, that we are relevant, that we laugh with them at religious foibles and mourn with them at the world’s cruelties.
A WRITING EXERCISE
For several years I taught at the University of Winnipeg, and one of my initial activities in first year classes was to assign a brief assessment exercise, not for marks, that would get writing skills limbered up for the year. I took students to Bryce Hall to look at the Theology window (called by the university’s Public Relations department the “Rose Window”), and asked them to write their impressions of it. It is a colorful and lovely thing, created in 1892–93 by Henry Holiday. It is nearly impossible to see from the outside, while from the inside of the university you come upon it by accident, as its location is obscure.
The “Rose Window” at the University of Winnipeg. (Courtesy of University of Winnipeg)
I expected my students to be surprised and refreshed by the window’s beauty, on a campus with a fairly utilitarian design. They were. I also thought that at least some of them would note the irony of a window that portrays Theology as “the queen of learning,” the central figure under whom history and philosophy, science and arts must range themselves subordinately.
I used this assignment several times, and each time when I read the students’ responses I was surprised to find general acceptance of the messages inscribed on the Theology window. These are, in Latin, “When that which is perfect shall come, that which is imperfect shall pass away” (1 Cor. 13:10) and “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways” (Isa. 55:9). Although some students provided resolutely practical and earthbound interpretations of those scripture verses, the overall conclusion I drew from their compositions was: Yes, the study of God and God’s relation with humankind is the center of effective learning. I decided then that the students had a relationship to works of art and to authority that was too uncritical and passive and that I had my work clearly laid out for me for the next year. It would be my task to prompt them to ask harder questions about ideas in circulation about them. Surely they must be aware, I thought, of how isolated the study of Theology is within the academy, or of how irrelevant or even inimical religion now is to received notions of what is central in public universities in Canada.
For example, at the University of Winnipeg, the coat of arms is based on those designed in the late nineteenth century for the originating colleges, Methodist Wesley College and Presbyterian Manitoba College, and includes a cross, a lamp, a book, and a cluster of grapes. The official explication of this coat of arms includes the statement that the cross is “the symbol of sacrificial service in the interest of humanity,” and the book “symbolizes knowledge in a general sense, although it may carry overtones of the Holy Scriptures in a more limited interpretation” (“The University of Winnipeg Coat of Arms”). I assumed that my students would be in step with the institution’s desire to distance itself from its overtly Christian roots, that the university’s motto “Lux et Veritas Floreant” (Let Light and Truth Flourish) would be for them stripped of transcendence. But no, many appeared to be comfortable with the idea that God, and the study of our relationship with God, is central to the university.
The final time I used the stained-glass window exercise, I sorted the responses systematically. Out of fifty-two compositions, about one-third (sixteen) of the students discussed the window’s meaning from a position of faith, enthusiastically appreciating and explicitly agreeing with its meaning. One half (twenty-seven) reported their responses to the window neutrally, describing it objectively, without committing themselves either for or against the window’s meaning, although they were eager to commit to an aesthetic appreciation. (Five of these commented on gender representation in the window.) Four students did place theology’s heyday in the past, noting (sometimes in passing) that religion in the university now seems more separate from other subjects than it was in the nineteenth century. One student admitted to feeling “nothing” about the window’s religious meaning and another was “less able to relate” to the spiritual meaning than the educational one. Only one student declared herself definitely uneasy with the notion that Theology could be at the center of the university experience (and she concluded her paper with a resolution to try to think about Theology without distaste, to achieve more balance).
I am under no illusions that my exercise demonstrates anything very conclusive. It is entirely possible that a certain number of students wrote to fulfill what they imagined were the professor’s expectations. But I am persuaded that far more students expect and desire their university experience not only to include faith but indeed to be founded on faith than is generally realized. The Mennonite audience may not be surprised by this, but the general audience will be. As Reginald Bibby has reported in Restless Churches, the media have been claiming for years that religion is in steady decline, even though his own studies have challenged that assumption (7), and the general public takes it as a given that religion and education have little to do with each other.
READING WITH COMPASSION
I am not always entirely easy about the intersection of faith and education. Over twenty years ago, the late Edward Said, a scholar who made a very humane enterprise out of what he called “oppositional criticism,” published The World, The Text and the Critic. In it he encouraged literary scholars to adopt secular criticism as their mode of operation, rather than religious criticism. And his justification was—and is—convincing. Religious discourse, wrote Said, often serves “as an agent of closure, shutting off human investigation, criticism, and effort in deference to the authority of the more-than-human, the supernatural, the other-worldly” (290). Significantly, his definition of “religious criticism” was very wide: any ideology or methodology that employs a private and esoteric language decipherable only by an elite can be gathered under this heading, and thus even certain practitioners of psychoanalytic criticism, for example, or semiotics, or cultural criticism (Said’s own field) could fall under his indictment. Yet if there really is a “religious turn” occurring in the academy, one to accompany the apparent “turn to ethics” that has been reported of late, I do hope that this turn is a healthy one, even as we remain vigilant about our responsibility to welcome difference and pursue knowledge widely.
When considering how to go about reading with faith, how to be less suspicious during the act of literary interpretation, I think about the 1857 novel Madame Bovary. Gustave Flaubert’s biting condemnation of the vacuous middle class existence of his protagonist has been a source of contention in several courses I have offered on The Novel. Emma Bovary conceives of herself as a victim of fate. She has beauty and charm, she is full of longing, but she never gets enough of what she thinks she needs—material possessions, the slavish adoration of men. Although the novel is not written in the first-person, Emma’s view of herself as tragic infiltrates the reading experience of many students. I expect that my students will be able to “get” Flaubert’s point—that if Emma is a martyr, then she is a martyr to consumerism or lust. Her suicide is a horrific scene, a blackly comic travesty of the notion that death might be meaningful. She is responsible for her own downfall.
Yet in their essays, my students tell me that Emma is “imprisoned,” that she “is destined to suffer.” They feel sorry for her. Part of the reason for this is, I think, that Flaubert is such an accomplished stylist. Although Emma has little depth, Flaubert’s prose certainly does, and it can sweep the reader along. This occasionally happens also when my students read Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady or George Eliot’s Middlemarch, keystones of the nineteenth-century novel, books that work certain blends of moral, psychological, and social realism to a kind of perfection. Students can become so seduced by the style of these novels that they begin to speak with the same language as the protagonists. When the protagonist is James’s Isabel Archer or Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, I too feel the pull of sympathy. But in all these cases I have counseled students to stand further back, to maintain critical distance.
Finally, a couple of students took me on. They said that Flaubert was condescending to Emma Bovary, “dragging her through the mud,” using his much-vaunted realism as an excuse to present her as foolish. Was I not harder on Emma than on more loveable or intelligent characters? Another student insisted that “Emma Bovary needs to be appreciated and understood before being assessed.” So many students insisted on reading Madame Bovary with compassion and sorrow that I had to rethink the way I read.
The title of a previous version of this paper, written for the “Faith, Freedom and the Academy” conference at the University of Prince Edward Island, included the phrase “Our Pathetic Martyrdoms.” At the time I was working out my stance as a Christian in a public university, and feeling not exactly oppressed but just “upside down for Christ,” out of step with most of the academy. What is the Christian scholar in the public university supposed to do about humility? I want to be able to admit, happily, that my interpretations of literature are provisional, fallible, but this does not align with the rhetoric of combat that we are encouraged to adopt from graduate school onward (note how we must “defend” our dissertations). The academy prefers that we pretend our understanding is solid. I will not presume to speak on behalf of Muslim colleagues, but wonder if they feel similarly. Islam means “surrender.” The academy is organized around achievement. How can these ideas be reconciled? This is what I meant by “pathetic martyrdom”: no real suffering is involved, just uneasiness. Compared to the suffering of Christ, niggling worries about how to be Christian in a public university are pretty minor. Interestingly, the word “pathetic” has fallen in stature, rather like religion has in the typical university. Once my little dilemma might have evoked “tenderness, or sorrow”; now to be “pathetic” is to be “ridiculous.” Yet being ridiculous can be disheartening, and those of us established in Christian institutions need to remember that for Christian faculty on the “outside” there can be some tough and insidious situations.
If we look to what our students can teach us, some of the discomfort can be dispelled. Paul writes these famous lines in 1 Corinthians 13:13: “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide; these three; and the greatest of these is love.” I only know in very small part how to love Emma Bovary. If I ever figure out how to read the fiction of James Joyce with faith and hope, my feelings for his characters will probably always be in a different degree than the way I feel about one of my favorite characters in literature, Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. She is real to me, as she visits with her friend Hugh, “oddly conscious at the same time of her hat. Not the right hat for the early morning, was that it?” (6).
But I need to go beyond those it is easy to love. Students worry about a lot of things, but apparently the place of faith in the classroom is not one of them—so I am trying to learn from the example of their confidence. I have a responsibility to use fairness and discernment, to be rigorous, but slowly I have accepted that I also need to be honest about what I believe. As Alan Jacobs has said: “Love, like the Cross—but then Love is the Cross, and the Cross Love—can be nothing but foolishness in the eyes of the world, and we laugh at foolishness. We laugh mockingly, or we laugh warmly—according to our disposition—but we laugh, because laughter is the natural human response to incongruity” (151). While we laugh, we need to remember our brothers and sisters in classrooms across the educational spectrum, and never take it for granted that their institutions assume faith and reading to be compatible.
A version of this paper was presented at the Faith, Freedom and the Academy conference, University of Prince Edward Island, October 2004.
- Bibby, Reginald. 2004. Restless Churches. Toronto: Novalis/Wood Lake.
- Herbert, George.  2006. “Love (3).” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. B. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton.
- Hopkins, Gerard Manley. [1518, 1522] 2006. “Pied Beauty” and “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. E. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton.
- Jacobs, Alan. 2001. A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. Boulder: Westview.
- Said, Edward. 1983. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
- “The University of Winnipeg Coat of Arms.” University of Winnipeg Convocation Program. 15 October 2006.
- Woolf, Virginia.  1992. Mrs. Dalloway. London: Penguin.