Results tagged “literature” from Reformation21 Blog

Literary Theological Imagination

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The function of the literary imagination is to incarnate meaning in concrete images, characters, events, and settings rather than abstract or propositional arguments. To use the formula of Dorothy Sayers, the imagination images forth its subject, and in turn it is a commonplace that what literature preeminently "images forth" is human experience.

Literature and theology are complementary ways of putting us in possession of Christian doctrine.  Neither is complete in itself. In this post, I propose to use the doctrine of justification as a test case of what I like to call the theological imagination--not the theological intellect but the theological imagination.

On the surface, justification might seem to be so thoroughly abstract that it resists being imaged forth. But it turns out that the theological imagination has done splendidly with the doctrine of justification.

Biblical Images of Justification

The first writers to image forth a given Christian doctrine are always the authors of the Bible.  I will start my survey of selected literary portrayals of justification with the fictional vision of a high priest in a tight spot, as narrated in Zechariah 3:1-5.  The story begins in medias res, as we are ushered in our imaginations into a process that is already underway.  The first thing we notice when the curtain is pulled back is an adversarial situation involving three agents, with an implied small group of courtroom onlookers.  The angel of the Lord stands as a judge who is on the side of the accused.  On the other side of the accused, who is belatedly identified as Joshua the high priest, stands Satan as accuser.

Thus we have a courtroom scene, with an accused, a prosecutor, and a combined defender and judge.  As the action unfolds, the images of justification start to multiply.  The angel of the Lord identifies Joshua as "a brand plucked from the fire."  Thus the imagery of rescue is part of the picture of justification.  The guilty status of Joshua is imaged forth in "filthy garments."  The command by the angel of the Lord to clothe the high priest with "pure vestments" and "a clean turban" can plausibly be interpreted as imagery of justification, since the change of garments is sufficient to banish the accuser from the scene.  In other words, the changed status of Joshua is imaged forth as a change in clothing.

This famous story presents justification not as an idea but as a drama and by means of images.  It is a product of the theological imagination (and we should note the word image is always present in the word imagination).  Furthermore, the story of the rescued high priest belongs to the genre of visionary writing and is thus a product of the fictional imagination.

My second biblical example also falls into the category of fictional narrative.  Jesus presents justification concretely in the famous parable of the Pharisee and tax collector:   "But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other" (Luke 18:13-14, ESV).)  "Went home justified:"  in a moment I will explore a famous literary example of a sinner who did not go home justified.  The ingredients in Jesus' parable are a sinner, God as judge, and divine mercy as the vehicle for the sinner's being justified.  This is nothing less than the biblical paradigm for justification.

I tell my students that the theology of the Bible is more precise in the expository parts than the literary parts, but that the compensating factor in the literary parts is the way in which literary images appeal to our imaginations and feelings and reach us at a subconscious level.  John Milton claimed that literary writing is "more simple, sensuous, and passionate" than expository writing.  Surely this is evident when we compare the vision of the justified high priest or the parable of the justified tax collector with the theological exposition that makes up the Epistle to the Romans.

As I turn to two extra-biblical examples of images of justification, I can imagine someone's asking, What can literary authors tell us about justification?   Isn't the Bible our definitive source on theology, and aren't literary authors a bit naïve as expositors of theology?  My answer is that literary authors can be useful in a manner akin to a good sermon or theological essay on justification.  In our circles we have an unjustifiable tendency to be dismissive of the theological acumen of literary authors.

Paradise Lost, Book 3

John Milton's grand design in Paradise Lost was to Christianize the motifs of classical epic.  One of those motifs was the council of the gods, in which gods and goddesses assemble to decide what will happen on earth, and then the human action follows according to this divine script.   Milton adapted this epic convention in the so-called dialogue in heaven at the beginning of Book 3 of Paradise Lost.  This dialogue is an intra-Trinitarian conversation between Father and Son to determine what will happen to the human race after Adam and Eve have succumbed to Satan's temptation in the garden.

The scene unfolds as a back-and-forth dialogue between Father and Son that assumes the nature of a weighing of the demands of justice and mercy in bringing about the salvation of the human race.  The dialogue reaches its climax when the Father says regarding Adam,

He with his whole posterity must die,
Die he or justice must; unless for him
Some other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.
Say heavenly powers, where shall we find such love,
Which of ye will be mortal to redeem
Man's mortal crime, and just the unjust to save,
Dwells in all heaven charity so dear?

The hinge between that challenge and the Son's offer to die for the human race is the epic narrator's comment, 

"And now without redemption all mankind / Must have been lost, . . . / had not the Son of God . . . / His dearest mediation thus renewed."  When I teach this passage in class, I quote Thomas Chalmers:  "What could I do if God ... did not justify the ungodly?"

What is Milton's angle on justification in his dialogue in Heaven?  The focus falls on the Son's substitutionary atonement as the event that enables God the Father to declare sinners just.  "Die he or justice must:"  in Christ, the sinner does die, and thereby the demands of justice are met. For readers who know Milton's dialogue in Heaven, it is a treasured literary image of justification.

The Scarlet Letter

I need to challenge a fallacy regarding Nathaniel Hawthorne.  That fallacy is that because Hawthorne was not part of the institutional Christianity of his day, and because he satirized the Puritans in his fiction, he was not a Christian writer.  In saying that I think Hawthorne is a Christian writer, I am not commenting on his state of soul.  I am commenting on his intellectual allegiance in his fiction.

Hawthorne's notebooks are filled with references to God, leading literary critic Joseph Schwartz to say that Hawthorne was "innately religious" and "more than any other writer of his time ... a God-centered writer".   Hawthorne's acquaintance with the Bible and reliance on it in his fiction was so thorough that his editor and publisher claimed that when he questioned Hawthorne about his use of a word, Hawthorne would almost always refer him to the Bible as his authority (James T. Fields).  Hawthorne's theology, claimed Austin Warren, was a "nameless and indisputatious" Calvinism or Puritanism, "arrived at by experience and insight."

The customary designation for the confession scene at the end of The Scarlet Letter is that it is a story of salvation, but I became intrigued by what would emerge if the confession scene were viewed through the more specific lens of justification.  It turns out that the terminology that Hawthorne used in composing the scene fits the criteria of justification very well.

The protagonist in the agon is surely the guiltiest sinner in the annals of American literature.  Arthur Dimmesdale is guilty on multiple counts.  He is the adulterous partner of Hester Prynne and father of the illegitimate daughter Pearl.  He is guilty of cowardice and a cover-up when he refuses to publicly acknowledge and confess the aforesaid sin.  He becomes the complete hypocrite as his congregation adulates him while he knows himself to be guilty of the sins I have named.  Dimmesdale has abandoned his daughter and her mother through seven terrible years of social ostracism for Hester and Pearl.  So we start this drama of justification with the premise of a guilty sinner.

The story, moreover, is the story of a guilty conscience and of consciousness of sin.  In fact, the great interior action that occupies the middle part of the story is consciousness of sin.  Everyone agrees that Roger Chillingworth, Hester Prynne's husband who becomes the housemate and confidante of Dimmesdale, is a satanic figure who fans the flames of Dimmesdale's guilty conscience.  In doing so, he serves the function of an accuser, and accusation against the guilty sinner is central to justification.  In the confession scene, Chillingworth is repeatedly called "old," that is, as old as Satan, and Dimmesdale also calls him his "tempter."

A dominant image of justification is the courtroom, and we find it here in the confession scene.  Just before Dimmesdale confesses his sins, the narrator tells us that "the clergyman . . . stood out from all the earth to put in his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice."  At a climactic point of the confession, Dimmesdale says, "Stand any here that question God's judgment on a sinner?  Behold!  Behold a dreadful witness of it!"

Justification is an escape from condemnation, and Chillingworth highlights this aspect of what is happening when he says to Dimmesdale, "Thou hast escaped me!" "Thou hast escaped me!"  In effect, Dimmesdale escapes the clutches of Satan.

And what is the agency of this escape from condemnation?  According to the parliament of heaven framework, God's mercy is the solution to the problem of the sinner's guilt.  That emphasis comes through in the confession scene in The Scarlet Letter. Dimmesdale says to Hester, "For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,...and God is merciful."  At the very beginning of the scene, Dimmesdale extends his hands and says, "Hester Prynne,...in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace at this last moment, to do what--for my own heavy sin and miserable agony--I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me!"

And in his very last speech, Dimmesdale says in reply to Hester's question whether the couple will "spend our immortal life together," "God knows, and he is merciful!  He hath proved his mercy most of all, in my afflictions.  By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast!  By giving me this dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat!  By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people!  Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever.  Praised be his name!  His will be done!  Farewell!"

The confession scene in The Scarlet Letter can be read as the confession of a justified sinner. Literary critic Darrel Abel writes that "the account of Dimmesdale's regeneration faithfully follows orthodox Puritan conceptions....The first event in a sinner's regeneration is 'justification.'  [Then quoting a Puritan source:] 'A change must be wrought in his status before any can be made in his nature'."  At the beginning of the confession scene, Dimmesdale says to Hester, "In the name of Him...so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what...I withheld myself from doing....Let [thy will] be guided by the will which God hath granted me." "Gives me grace." "The will which God hath granted me."

Why We Need the Theological Imagination

The Bible is the definitive word on justification, but it is not the only word.  If we benefit from sermons and theological articles on justification, we can benefit from literary portrayals of it.  Theological exposition enables us to know the truth about justification intellectually.  We experience that same truth when the doctrine of justification is embodied and incarnated in fictional images of justification.  After all, the biblical images of the reclothed high priest and the tax collector who goes home justified are literary and fictional images of justification, belonging to the same genre as the stories of Milton, and Hawthorne that I have surveyed.

Within the Bible itself justification is presented in the complementary modes of theological exposition and literary images.  I tell my students that it is possible to set up a profitable two-way street between the Bible and literature, with the Bible enabling me to see a lot in literature that I would otherwise miss, and literature enabling me to see and feel biblical truth better.

Ordinarily when we speak of "the Bible as literature" we mean the literary nature of the Bible itself.  My venture in this post provides another angle on the concept of "the Bible as literature."  I have explored what the biblical teaching on justification looks like when it is transmuted into works of imaginative literature--the Bible as literature, that is, as imaginative literature composed by extrabiblical authors.


Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) is Professor of English emeritus at Wheaton College. He has authored or edited several books, including The Word of God in English, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society and served as literary stylist for The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.


*This post is an adaptation of an article first published at Reformation21 in February of 2011.

For several weeks I've been intermittently reading Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach to my kids, while dabbling (as is my wont) in the news (typically the BBC), which, true to form, has generally born witness by one headline or another to the fallen estate in which we human beings find ourselves (cf. WSC 17). This strange juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction, of myth and non-myth, in recent weeks has engendered some thoughts on the concept of fiction or myth per se, and the way that we transmit, via stories, headlines news, and other means, a concept of what's "true" about our world to our children (while simultaneously reinforcing a concept of truth to ourselves).

At one level, of course, Roald Dahl's story of James and his rather unique adventure constitutes pure fiction -- pure human invention -- in contrast to the reality comprised in historical events, whether recent or remote. And at that level, Dahl's work and other pieces of fiction might be seen as a place of retreat from reality, a place to hide from the harsh truth of human interaction, replete with wars, rumors of wars, and other episodes of violence. At another level, Dahl's story (or other stories) might be seen as its (or their) own unique source of truth, truth that is thicker and deeper than the reality that not only confronts us in human events but seeks to conscript us into a narrative of fundamental hostility and hopelessness.

In defense of the latter perspective, I'm reminded of the conversation J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis had in 1931, a conversation that proved pivotal in Lewis's conversion to orthodox Christian faith. Lewis had by that time abandoned his juvenile atheism for belief in God, but struggled, as he confessed to Tolkein, to fully embrace Christianity's account of God the Son becoming man and living, dying, rising again, and ascending to the right hand of the Father as the basis of salvation for sinners. The whole thing, Lewis explained to his friend and colleague, seemed too closely akin to the stories discovered in Greek, Roman, and Norse myths. Tolkein famously responded not by seeking to distinguish Christianity's central (and true) claim regarding Christ's person and work from (false) pagan myths, but by showing how pagan myths (and stories of human invention more broadly) themselves communicate genuine, deep truth. Myths, which Tolkein branded "splintered fragment[s] of the true light," reflect in storied form human awareness that everything made has a Maker (i.e., creation) and that everything made is not currently conforming to its original design (i.e, the fall), as well as the hope at least of rescue (i.e., redemption) from the confines of fallen and therefore miserable existence and subsequent release into the freedom of a superior eschatological state (i.e., the consummation).

Christianity, according to Tolkein's line or argument, encapsulates the truth (or truths) that pagan stories, no matter their lack of historical verity, point towards, stories that points toward ultimate truth because their authors, as divine image-bearers, cannot ultimately escape the memory of their Maker and the hope of renewed fellowship with Him, even if they lack the resources to discover their Maker's proper identity and the path to renewed fellowship with Him apart from special revelation. Tolkein's argument helped Lewis overcome his obstacle to faith in Christianity's most fundamental historical claim, and, apparently, provided impetus to Lewis's own creative efforts to communicate truth in fragmented form (the Chronicles of Narnia).

Pursuing Tolkein's logic, one might argue that Dahl's James and the Giant Peach comprises its own splintered fragments of the true light, and so stands to teach us and our kids something more significant than our modern purveyors of truth and reality. At very least, the parallels between Dahl's work and the pivotal moments (creation, fall, redemption, consummation) of Christianity's essential narrative are intriguing (albeit, I'm guessing, unintended). James Henry Trotter, Dahl's protagonist, originally inhabits an Edenic existence in a house by the sea with his parents (creation). But the coincidence of an act of consumption by his parents ("James's mother and father went to London to do some shopping") and diabolical forces at work through the medium of a creature ("both of them suddenly got eaten up... by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo") brings that original, Edenic existence to a crashing halt ("in full daylight, mind you"), and James is subsequently subjected to the sin and misery of his aunts Spiker and Sponge (the fall).

James longs for rescue -- his heart aches with memories of the Edenic existence forfeited by his first (and only) parents -- but he lacks within himself the resources to engineer his salvation. Simply put, he is a slave to Spiker and Sponge (cf. John 8:34), the aunts who subject him to a decidedly wretched existence. Political institutions and/or initiatives prove equally unable to achieve the salvation for which James longs. Child protective services never comes knocking, and as such, though never actually named in Dahl's work, proves a false hope for victory (Psalm 33:17). In the end, salvation comes from the most unlikely source imaginable: a magic peach. It may seem a bit far-fetched (if not something worse) to press analogies between the magic peach (James's instrument of rescue) and our own vehicle of salvation (God incarnate living and dying for us), but surely James's means of rescue and our own share this in common: they are external (salvation comes extra nos) and surprising. Indeed, who but the true, eternal God could have conceived the salvation of sinners by the means that God actually employed for the same (the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Eternal Son)? A further point of affinity arguably emerges in the effectiveness of each means of rescue. James's rescue is complete. The giant peach flattens Spiker and Sponge en route to the sea and so removes any doubt about any ongoing claims they might make upon James. Similarly, questions about sin and Satan's ongoing claims are necessarily moot by virtue of Christ's perfect salvation (Hebrews 7:25).

James's rescue is both fully realized (justification) and ongoing (sanctification). His release from the dominion of Spiker and Sponge doesn't immediately usher James into his eschatological inheritance (New York City). A trajectory towards the same is set, but the path to glory involves trials and troubles (sharks, cloud men, etc.). But there is a consummation to James's story of original Edenic bliss, enslavement to Spiker and Sponge, and salvation via an unlikely source. James's story culminates not in simple return to his original home by the sea, but the greater eschatological end of life in New York City (think the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21), a city which does not descend from the sky, but is descended to by James and his companions.

My efforts to discover analogies between Christianity's fundamental narrative and Dahl's James and the Giant Peach are admittedly a stretch. Still, I can't help feeling like Dahl's story -- and for that matter, most other stories -- constitutes a greater ally than the evening news in my efforts to shape my children's understanding of and appreciation for the pivotal moments in a true concept of this world and our place in it: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. And perhaps Tolkein's notion of "splintered fragment[s] of the true light" lends some legitimacy to my efforts to supplement more straightforward means of communicating the Gospel to my children (for instance, catachesis) with creative interpretations of the stories they (and I) love.

Walker Percy on the Bankruptcy of Naturalistic Materialism

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About a year ago I took a solo road trip from Jackson, MS to St. Joseph's Abbey in Covington, LA, which is the final resting place of the Roman Catholic novelist, Walker Percy. It was an opportunity to pay my respects to one of my favorite authors.

Though Percy found fame (and a Pulitzer Prize) as a novelist, he also wrote several collections of essays. His book Lost in the Cosmos is among the great works of popular apologetics that most Protestants have never even heard of. It is a fictional handbook that bills itself as "The Last Self-Help Book."

I know many theologically Reformed friends who have a strong appreciation of the writings of Walker Percy, but I know even more who seem to have never heard of him, which is a problem that (in my opinion) needs remedying. What I hope to do is explain one aspect of Percy's thinking that will hopefully cause some to take notice of his writings. Specifically I want to focus on his criticism of naturalistic materialism.

Bankrupt on Two Accounts
For Percy, modern science, with its uncompromising naturalistic materialism is bankrupt on at least two accounts:

First, naturalism cannot provide humanity with meaning or direction. Percy points out that there is something deeply and unavoidably sick about humanity, and we can see it all around us. Yet the current scientific age is more lost than any age ever has been. Naturalism has taken the wheel, and yet all that naturalism can do is point out indicatives about what is observable. It can speak nothing to man's deepest needs beyond survival and physical comfort. In materialistic terms there is no such thing as a consistent "ought" statement regarding humanity's ultimate direction, essence, destiny, or purpose. "You live in a deranged age - more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing" (Lost in the Cosmos). If Percy were alive today, he would probably point to the increasing normality of transgenderism as one symptom of this lostness and confusion.

A purely naturalistic approach cannot with any consistency help man in his lostness--and yet for so many (especially in popular culture and academia) this has become the only option of seeking help.

Percy's second reason why naturalistic materialism is bankrupt is that it regards human beings as an exclusively material organism while expecting it to somehow, and in some sense, transcend said nature. He must be both animal and angel, simultaneously amoral and moral. The naturalistic materialistic age we live in expects homosapiens to see themselves as animals, while transcending that very nature. This transcendence is an unavoidably human need. Unfortunately, naturalism breaks man into constituent parts (angel and beast) but cannot account for a whole man nor harmoniously bring the parts together.

Unhappy People in Comfortable Places
Much of Percy's fiction depicts a confrontation between the comforts science has provided and mankind's inescapable unease in spite of it all. Percy helpfully exposes this unease near the beginning of Lost in the Cosmos:

Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments? Why did Mother Teresa think that affluent Westerners often seemed poorer than the Calcutta poor, the poorest of the poor? The paradox comes to pass because the impoverishments and enrichments of a self in a world are not necessarily the same as the impoverishments and enrichments of an organism in an environment.

Percy's answer to this very real dilemma, informed by his Christian worldview, is that man is a self, not an organism. He is a person, not a mere thing. Just because you input the right information or fulfill desires does not mean that a human being will respond appropriately. As Percy says, science has got man all wrong but due to self-imposed limitations it also cannot do any better. "The organism is needy or not needy accordingly as needs are satisfied or not satisfied by its environment" (Lost in the Cosmos). Now that man's needs are being met by science and commerce, why isn't he at rest and contented? Why are suicide rates so high in the most affluent areas of the world?

Percy's complaint against naturalism is expressive of C.S. Lewis' own insight (though in a slightly different context) when Lewis noted: "In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful" (The Abolition of Man). Naturalism has robbed humanity of the very thing God has given to ground human fulfillment and meaning. We want meaning, but now must find it without transcendence (a tall order indeed)!

It's as much a mistake for man to think of himself in distant, abstract, purely transcendent terms (Percy calls this tendency "angelism") as it is to think of man in animal terms. In his book Love in the Ruins, Percy's protagonist creates a device that heals mankind of his split problem of angelism and animalism. Speaking of his ability to heal this problem the main character says the following:

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man...Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.

There must be a balance between transcendence and immanence. "...the self can be as desperately stranded in the transcendence of theory as in the immanence of consumption" (Lost in the Cosmos). To overcorrect is still to miss the solution. Percy speaks in another way of this balance and need for God as the solution to this dilemma of transcendence and immanence elsewhere in Love in the Ruins: "Dear God, I can see it now, why can't I see it the other times, that is you I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels."

The naturalistic approach to man cannot strike anything resembling the needed balance. There is nothing resembling transcendence in the naturalistic approach to humanity beyond an unaccountable yearning for it. The Christian understanding of man is that he was formed of the dust of the earth but that he himself was created by God as a "living soul" (Gen. 2:7). The cosmos is filled animals and angels, but Humanity is neither; rather, he is unique among all the creatures of the universe--the fleshly bearer of God's image.

Percy's suggestion, of course, is that the Christian understanding of humanity is the answer to this particular dilemma. Humanity's true state, as revealed in Scripture, strikes the balance of transcendence and immanence. The materialistic solution is incapable of meeting mankind's need for transcendence. The mystical approach, similarly, is all transcendence and no immanence. Only in the Christian approach, given to us by revelation from God, do we find the answer to balance in mankind's understanding of himself.


Adam Parker is the Assistant Editor of Reformation 21. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Mdiv.) in Jackson, MS, where he lives with his wife and four children. He is currently looking for a call in the Presbyterian Church in America.

Review: "Pastors in the Classics"

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Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature
Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken & Todd Wilson
Baker Books, 2012, 192pp., paperback, $16.99
ISBN 978-0-8010-7197-3

This is an odd book. It is not a bad book, but it is hard to categorise. Divided into two parts, the first consists of twelve fairly detailed considerations of literary representations of pastoral ministry, drawn from a reasonably wide sweep. The second contains 58 précis of other such representations. It is difficult to gauge for whom and for what this book exists: from the blurb and endorsements one is clearly meant to come to the book as a pastor and here find prompts to profound self-awareness together with penetrating insights into the pastoral calling. Frankly, this was not my experience. For Christians (not least pastors) with a literary bent it might provide an interesting reading list or a stimulus for study and discussion. However, as a means of getting to grips with the challenges, demands and struggles of pastoral ministry, I think that there are far better lessons to be drawn from life than art: this is one area where reality trumps realism. I am not suggesting that this is a worthless book, but I think it will sit more readily in the literary theory than the pastoral theology section of the library.