A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Curse Ye, Zwingli?

I don't normally go out of my way to pick on foundational theologians from other people's traditions, but in this case, someone from the Reformed community has done it for me. Peter Leithart has written a very intriguing article on why there is no great evangelical literature. The answer: because modern-day evangelicals see symbols as separate from reality. Whereas a sacramental imagination sees symbols as things which act on the world -sacraments being ways grace acts in our lives- a Reformed perspective sees symbols as something which only point to or gesture towards something else which acts. The result is that characters and plot elements in Protestant fiction merely stand in for something: they aren't things which act in and of themselves, as they are in the works of Flannery O'Connor, who serves as Leithart's example of a great Catholic author.

Of course, there's a catch. I'd love to claim that O'Connor is a fair representative of Catholic literature, but that's just not so. To compare O'Connor to someone like Frank Peretti or Janet Oke would be vastly unfair. It would be like comparing Gerard Manley Hopkins to . . . well, pretty much anyone. Felicia Hemans, maybe? But even that comparison would not be allowable, because Hemans (to the best of my recollection) was a Church of England author, and in Leithart's view, Church of England writers don't count as evangelical, because they are influenced by the very sacramental Book of Common Prayer. But wait! Hemans wrote before the Tractarian Movement forever changed the landscape of the Anglican Communion. . . so perhaps she does count as evangelical? Are you confused yet? So am I!
Suffice to say that Leithart may be forgetting that the Church of England was not always as Catholic-lite as it is today. It may not be fair to assume that whatever good has come from writers raised in the Church of England came from their sacramental sensibilities, given that those sacramental sensibilities didn't really crystalize on a wide scale until the second half of the nineteenth-century.

Still, even with that caveat, it seems that many of the best (or most prominent) religious writers from the Church of England have leaned in the High Church direction- Christina Rossetti and T.S. Eliot both come to mind. As a proud proponant of the sacramental worldview myself, I can't deny that I think that there is a connection between artistry and sacramentality. I do think, therefore, that Leithart is on to something. But is it the case that a strong view of the sacraments must precede good religious writing? Or is it, rather, that a good writer will naturally gravitate towards a more sacramental theology, simply because he/she comes to understand better the role of symbols? Hopkins and Eliot were, after all, both converts to High Churchism. Did they write well because they had embraced a sacramental view, or did they embrace a sacramental theology because, as good writers, they already saw the world a sacramental way?

If I had an answer to such questions, I might have a topic for the hypothetical book I'll write after my dissertation is hypothetically finished. But alas, I do not. Perhaps we'll find out in Heaven. . . unless it turns out that Janet Oke was the greatest Christian author to walk the planet.

Thanks to People of the Book for the link to this article. And thanks to Dorian Speed for linking to People of The Book. And thanks to all the kittens of the world for being so cute. This one's for the kittens! View them here.


Blogger Leopoldtulip said...

So from a sacramental worldview, do kitties act like the Lion of Judah? Or do they merely symbolize Him?

12:07 AM  
Anonymous Becky said...


12:08 AM  

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