The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 2 (Summer 2015)

The Witness of Literature: A Genealogical Sketch

Alan Jacobs

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 2)

My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes Himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually. —Frederick Buechner1

Long ago at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing—an enormous biennial gathering of writers, would-be writers, and passionate readers, most but not all of them Christians—I had a curious and memorable experience. The featured speaker that year was Frederick Buechner, a novelist and memoirist whose general fame was greatest at the beginning of his career, in the 1950s, and who, since then, had produced a series of well-reviewed but not especially popular books. His 1981 novel Godric was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction; this is as close as he has come to winning a major literary award. Yet among those attending the Festival of Faith and Writing, Frederick Buechner was simply a rock star.

My wife and I had known Buechner for many years, and we arranged to meet him for coffee and a talk, before having dinner later in a larger group. But this private meeting proved difficult to arrange. So many people wanted to see him, to thank him, to get him to sign their often-reread copies of his books—it was more than Buechner, or anyone else, could handle, and he had to be kept out of sight. So we were ushered in cloak-and-dagger fashion to a small, out-of-the-way room where the author was ensconced, so we could recall old times and catch up a bit.

An awkward situation ensued. The kind and efficient people running the festival clearly expected us to have five minutes with the great man and then depart; Buechner equally clearly expected to spend some time chatting. So when another visitor came in and we rose to leave, Buechner insisted that we sit back down. As it turned out, then, we spent most of the afternoon there, having our conversation regularly interrupted by new visitors. Some of these were other festival speakers—for instance, Alfred Corn, the distinguished poet and critic, dropped by, and he and Buechner compared notes for a few moments on shared friends and acquaintances in New York—but most were simply lovers of Buechner’s work who had managed through some means unknown to us to gain brief admission to his presence. And almost all of them told the same story: Your writing has meant everything to my Christian faith. I don’t think I could be a Christian without your books.

Throughout that afternoon—rising to greet strangers, then sitting down and striving to remain inconspicuous as they poured out their hearts—I couldn’t help reflecting on the sheer oddity of the situation. These were people, by and large, who knew the Bible, who attended church, who had the benefits of Christian community. Yet they testified, almost to a person, that Christian belief would have been impossible for them without the mediation of the stories told by Frederick Buechner. I know literary history fairly well, especially where it intersects with Christian thought and practice, and it seemed to me that such radical dependence on literary experience would have been virtually impossible even a century earlier. But I also knew that Buechner’s role was anything but unique, that other readers would offer the same testimony to the fiction of Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor or C.S. Lewis.

How did such a state of affairs come about? How did literary writers come to be seen by many as the best custodians and advocates of Christian faith? It is a question with a curious and convoluted genealogy, one worth teasing out.

* * *

HUMANITIES: grammar, rhetoric, and poetry…for teaching of which, there are professors in the universities of Scotland, called humanists. —Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768)

Cicero, in his Pro Archia, refers to the studia humanitatis ac litteratum: humane and literary studies. This phrase caught the eye of some early Renaissance scholars, especially the Tuscan Coluccio Salutati, correspondent of Petrarch, and his student Leonardo Bruni; it encapsulated their understanding of what education at its highest level should be. In the Italian universities of the fifteenth century, one who advocated this model and taught according to it was known as an umanista—an inevitable coinage, since a teacher of jurisprudence had long been known as a jurista, a teacher of canon law a canonista, and so on. So the term humanist, from which humanism in turn derives, was originally the product of student slang.

As Paul Oskar Kristeller explained long ago in what remains a useful treatment of the history, in the early modern period and especially in Italy, “the studia humanitatis came to stand for a clearly defined cycle of scholarly disciplines, namely grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy,” pursued primarily by reading the greatest Latin writers, though eventually, in a secondary way, the major Greek figures were also included. Other philosophical subdisciplines that had their own professors, such as logic and metaphysics, played no part in the humanists’ project. The studia humanitatis therefore were “concerned…neither with the classics [as such] nor with philosophy [as such]”; their focus “might roughly be described as literature. It was to this peculiar literary preoccupation that the very intensive and extensive study which the humanists devoted to the Greek and especially to the Latin classics owed its peculiar character, which differentiates it from that of modern classical scholars since the second half of the eighteenth century.”2

Kristeller’s use of “peculiar” twice in that last-quoted sentence is a stylistic infelicity, but a telling one. The umanistas were doing something unprecedented in keying the search for wisdom—including, as we shall see, specifically Christian wisdom—to the study of literature. This was, to put the point mildly, not in keeping with the dialectical approach of the medieval scholastic tradition, which they scorned. How this literary approach to the moral and social education of young men emerged is not, I think, perfectly understood, but some of the groundwork for it may have been laid by Boccaccio, writing in his Life of Dante in 1374. In the passage that follows, Boccaccio uses the term “theology” to mean “Holy Scripture”:

The subject of sacred poetry is divine truth, while that of the ancient poets is men and the gods of the pagans. They are opposite in so far as theology proposes nothing that is not true; poetry supposes certain things as true which are most false and erroneous and contrary to the Christian religion.… I say that theology and poetry may be said to be almost one thing when the subject is the same; and I say further that theology is nothing else than the poetry of God.… The sense of our Comedy…whether you call it moral or theological…is, at whatever part of the work most pleases you, the simple and immutable truth, which not only cannot receive corruption, but, the more it is searched, the greater odor of incorruptible sweetness it emits to those who regard it.3

It is hard to imagine a scholastic dialectician not being utterly scandalized by Boccaccio’s claim that “theology is nothing else than the poetry of God”: Literature, and not philosophical theology, becomes the foundational genre of God’s revelation. And of course poetry demands to be read as poetry, not as philosophy. So if Boccaccio is right, then a wholly different intellectual toolbox from that provided by Scholasticism is required for the one who seeks Holy Wisdom.

If I am right in thinking that the Life of Dante was a key text in the emergence of literary humanism, it is noteworthy that Boccaccio makes his case for the wisdom-giving power of poetry through a recent text written in the Italian vernacular—after all, this is not the direction the umanistas would take. But soon after he wrote about Dante, Boccaccio worked on a far larger and more ambitious project, the Genealogia deorum gentilium, or Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, in which he showed that the then-standard model of biblical exegesis—with its identification of four distinct levels of meaning, the literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical—could usefully be applied by the Christian interpreter to pagan myths. So, for example, the story of how Perseus killed the Gorgon Medusa and then flew away on winged sandals becomes, on the moral level, “a wise man’s triumph over vice and his attainment of virtue”; on the allegorical level, “the pious man who scorns worldly delight and lifts his mind to heavenly things”; on the anagogical level, “Christ’s victory over the Prince of this world and his Ascension.”4

Boccaccio thus shows in his Life of Dante how a great Christian writer can use poetry to convey to us “the simple and immutable truth,” and in his Genealogy of the Pagan Gods how shrewd Christian readers can use interpretative methods originally developed for the study of the Bible to liberate the wisdom hidden in pagan texts. It is a strategy encompassing the Christian and the non-Christian, the writerly and the readerly.

Boccaccio died in 1375; twenty years later, another important development in this story was marked by the election of thirty-two-year-old Jean Gerson as chancellor of the University of Paris. In a superb work of scholarship on Gerson and—in the words of the book’s subtitle—“the transformation of late medieval learning,” Daniel Hobbins shows how the French academic gradually distanced himself from scholastic dialectical procedure and sketched out a new direction for Christian intellectual writing. Gerson was himself formed by scholastic education, and warmly commended its emphasis on sound logic: “We can never speak truly and properly without correct use of logic.” But he also came to believe that the ways the scholastics deployed their logic had become stultifyingly rigid, and he constantly sought alternative means of organizing and presenting ideas. Some of Gerson’s devices, Hobbins acknowledges, “may seem puzzling or contrived to modern tastes, but they are evidence of a creative mind at work striving for new forms of presentation.” It is noteworthy that in the many dialogues Gerson composed for varying contexts, including even sermons, an especially prominent character is Studiositas speculatrix (Earnest Investigator), whose questions seem never to end. How to satisfy this relentless inquirer—this is a problem Gerson thought the traditional scholastic models failed to solve.5

Gerson was especially frustrated by the scholastic habit of addressing a disputed question merely by piling up citations to authorities, a habit already mocked by his older contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales—for instance, in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” where Chaunticleer the rooster uses a barrage of references to out-argue his consort, Pertelote: “Oon of the gretteste auctours that men rede/Seith thus.… And certes, in the same book I rede/Right in the nexte chapitre after this.… Lo, in the lyf of Seint Kenelm I rede.… And forther-moore I pray yow looketh wel/In the olde testament of Daniel.” It is far too easy, Gerson came to believe, for the point of the discourse to be lost in the apparatus. Hobbins again: “Abandoning unnecessary citations and ‘coming to the point and the heart of the matter as it seems to me,’ as he says in a French sermon—this direct and personal approach is perhaps the most distinctive trait of Gerson’s style.”6

For Gerson, the problem was that the scholastics had paid but lip service to rhetoric as one of the foundational disciplines of the artes liberales: “We write, but we give no weight to our sentences, no number and measure to our words. Everything we write is flaccid, coarse, and sluggish. We write not new things but old, and when we try to pass them off as our own by recycling them, we deform them and render them absurd.”7

It might appear that Gerson is merely another of the umanistas discussed earlier, with whom he was roughly contemporary, but he differs from them in certain significant ways. First of all, he retains far more respect for dialectical method and logic than they did, which is precisely why he soon became a marginal figure and was almost forgotten after his death: For the umanistas he was too scholastic, for the schoolmen too humanistic. He tried to be a mediating figure in a time of intellectual war. But second, and more important for my purposes here, Gerson’s approach to rhetoric is not driven by a reverence for the unique greatness of classical authors, but rather by a desire to reach and move his audiences, whether in pastoral or academic contexts. Rhetoric for him is not a matter of conformity to incontrovertible Ciceronian norms, but rather the concern to find words that will stir people’s hearts as well as their minds. Hobbins notes Gerson’s great reverence for the Italian theologian and philosopher Bonaventure, who a century earlier had written in his Collationes in Hexaemeron (Talks on the Six Days of Creation) that “not through hearing alone but through heeding [observando] is one made wise.”8

If we combine Boccaccio’s insistence on the theological power of poetry with Gerson’s desire to find a rhetoric that will move hearers and readers toward godly obedience, we end up with something like the argument Sir Philip Sidney makes in one of the great documents of the English Renaissance, An Apologie for Poetrie (c.1579)—which nevertheless is to be distinguished from those predecessors in important ways as well. At a crucial stage of his argument, Sidney places his apologia within a general account of the purposes of education:

This purifying of wit, this enriching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceit, which commonly we call learning, under what name soever it come forth, or to what immediate end soever it be directed, the final end is, to lead and draw us to as high a perfection, as our degenerate souls made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.

What studies can bring about the “perfection” of which Sidney writes, can help our souls acquire “true virtue”? Sidney answers that though “some…thought this felicity principally to be gotten by knowledge,” they disputed which knowledge was the most valuable: astronomy, natural philosophy, metaphysics, or music. Sidney rejects all of these as “but serving sciences,” only truly useful if they “serve” the greater end, “the mistress knowledge, by the Greeks called architektonike, which stands, as I think, in the knowledge of a man’s self, in the ethic and politic consideration, with the end of well-doing, and not of well-knowing only.” In the art of moving men to “well-doing,” “the poet is worthy to have it before any other competitors.”

Here is a strong commendation, but again, although Sidney’s identification of literature’s power to move its audience to “virtuous action” echoes some of the beliefs of Boccaccio and Gerson, surely both of them would have found his formulation woefully lacking in theological specificity. And so as Renaissance humanism comes into its pedagogical and literary maturity, it simultaneously sheds its distinctively Christian character; it seeks a language that transcends—or, some might say, evades—theological detail. Surely this was a natural enough response to a century that had seen the rise of violent religious controversy that would not subside for many more decades.

This process of moving beyond—or away from—theology was not smooth and unruffled. Almost a century after Sidney, John Milton would strive for a more distinctively Christian account of what education should do: “The end then of Learning is to repair the ruins of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection” (Of Education, 1644). It seems likely that Milton’s definition is meant to extend and correct Sidney’s: While Sidney speaks of “degenerate souls” in “clayey lodgings”—a formulation more Platonic than Christian—Milton identifies our problem in the specific terms of the biblical narrative, according to which Adam and Eve brought “ruin” into the world through disobedience. Sidney’s model of education is ethical and in a certain sense spiritual, but there is nothing specifically Christian about it, and it may even run counter to Christian orthodoxy, even though Sidney himself was an earnest Christian.

So in the transition from Boccaccio to Gerson to Sidney, we see an intellectually powerful, literarily sophisticated Christian humanism arise, only to clip its own wings lest it contribute to a continent’s discord. Milton’s rearguard action, in his verse as well as his prose—Paradise Lost would form the last great monument of early modern Christian humanism—had little chance of achieving great influence. Paradise Lost is as theologically and biblically specific a poem as one can imagine, but its great fame in the two centuries following its publication in 1667 was perpetuated by many a poet who either ignored Milton’s theology or, as William Blake famously did—“Milton was of the Devil’s party without knowing it”—set it at odds with the poem.

* * *

There in the desert I lay dead,
And God called out to me and said:
“Rise, prophet, rise, and hear, and see,
And let my works be seen and heard
By all who turn aside from me,
And burn them with my fiery word.”
—Alexander Pushkin, “The Prophet” (translation by D.M. Thomas)9

It would seem, then, that the story of Christian humanism was effectively over, especially given the general decline of orthodox (or even unorthodox) Christian belief among the learned in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But with the advent of Romanticism, matters took an interesting turn, not because the Romantics were (by and large) either Christian or humanist in the senses in which I have been using those terms, but because they provided, whether they meant to or not, a new way in which a reconstituted humanism, simultaneously Christian and literary, could reform itself.

The “way” I speak of here is a literary one, but it is not the only such point of reentry. A distinctively philosophical Christian humanism also arises in the nineteenth century, largely at the instigation of Pope Leo XIII in his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, which led to the enthronement of Thomas Aquinas as a model of Christian thought and the subsequent claim, made by many Catholic thinkers, most notably Jacques Maritain, that Christianity is the only genuine humanism. That new philosophical humanism overlaps with the literary one to some degree—certainly Maritain tries to draw them together, as does Flannery O’Connor in her frequent references to Aquinas in her correspondence—but, practically speaking, they develop as largely separate trends.

The renewal of a literary Christian humanism is illustrated by a highly representative Victorian book, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (1882). Recounting an episode from his university days, the author writes,

But one day in my third year, a day I remember as well as Paul must have remembered afterwards the day on which he went to Damascus, I happened to find amongst a parcel of books a volume of poems in paper boards. It was called Lyrical Ballads, and I read first one and then the whole book. It conveyed to me no new doctrine, and yet the change it wrought in me could only be compared with that which is said to have been wrought on Paul himself by the Divine apparition.

“Mark Rutherford” is the pseudonym of William Hale White, an English civil servant who had been raised in a Nonconformist home and studied to become a Congregationalist minister, but abandoned that plan when he lost his faith. It was William Wordsworth who restored that faith—or gave him a new one: White’s rhetoric is richly ambiguous on this point, as we can see by continuing to read from the same passage:

God is nowhere formally deposed, and Wordsworth would have been the last man to say that he had lost his faith in the God of his fathers. But his real God is not the God of the Church, but the God of the hills, the abstraction Nature, and to this my reverence was transferred. Instead of an object of worship which was altogether artificial, remote, never coming into genuine contact with me, I had now one which I thought to be real, one in which literally I could live and move and have my being, an actual fact present before my eyes. God was brought from that heaven of the books, and dwelt on the downs in the far-away distances, and in every cloud-shadow which wandered across the valley. Wordsworth unconsciously did for me what every religious reformer has done—he re-created my Supreme Divinity; substituting a new and living spirit for the old deity, once alive, but gradually hardened into an idol.

On the one hand, White wants to say that Wordsworth gave him “no new doctrine”; on the other hand, he claims to have had a dramatic road-to-Damascus conversion from “the God of the Church” to “the God of the hills.” The God of the Church had become an idol; now, thanks to the poetry of Wordsworth, White has a living God to whom he can give true worship. This is a step significantly greater than the one White’s older contemporary John Stuart Mill took when he supplemented the dry rationalism of his Utilitarian upbringing with the reading of Wordsworth’s poems: That had merely been, as Mill put it in his Autobiography (1873), “a medicine for my state of mind” insofar as those poems “expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of.” Mill takes pains to insist that this encounter with Wordsworth did not change in any fundamental way his commitments or practices: “I never turned recreant to intellectual culture, or ceased to consider the power and practice of analysis as an essential condition both of individual and of social improvement. But I thought that it had consequences which required to be corrected, by joining other kinds of cultivation with it. The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties now seemed to be of primary importance.”10 White, by contrast, was given not just a renewed “culture of the feelings,” but a divinity whom he could truly worship.

It is noteworthy that White’s mediator is Wordsworth, because Wordsworth’s friend and sometime collaborator Samuel Taylor Coleridge had also articulated, in his Biographia Literaria, a theological defense of poetry—but had done so in a more emphatically orthodox manner, in implicit and sometimes explicit dissent from Wordsworthian devotion. When Coleridge writes, “The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,” he is drawing a very clear line between poetic making and the biblical God—the one who says to Moses, “I AM THAT I AM”—not “the God of the hills.”11 Coleridge’s linkage of poetry and divinity was often accepted in his time and after, but his orthodoxy was generally deemed optional or undesirable.

In light of this history, we might compare White’s self-accounting to one made some years later by William Butler Yeats, who wrote, “I am very religious, and deprived by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested, of the simple-minded religion of my childhood, I had made a new religion, almost an infallible church, out of poetic tradition: a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, a bundle of images and of masks passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters with some help from philosophers and theologians.” The dogma of this church Yeats states in these terms: “Because those imaginary people are created out of the deepest instinct of man, to be his measure and his norm, whatever I can imagine those mouths speaking may be the nearest I can go to truth.”12

Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall are often referred to as atheists, inaccurately: Huxley coined the term “agnostic” to describe his position, and Tyndall never specified his religious views. But both of them insisted that the claims of religion had to be subordinated to those of science—that only science was productive of knowledge, although religious faith could be a strong support of morals. In any event, to the arguments of Huxley and Tyndall against traditional religion, Yeats had no answer—just as William Hale White had no answer to the doubts that assailed him—until literature and the other arts came to the rescue. But what they rescued was something very different from Trinitarian Christianity, or any such “simple-minded religion” that a poet might associate with childhood.

We have come a long way here from Boccaccio and Gerson and even Sidney, and yet there are genuine continuities to be noted and accounted for. In the aftermath of Romanticism, with its cult of intuition and imagination as reliable pathways to truth, and its skepticism about the desiccating effects of reason as defined by the chief figures of the Enlightenment, we hear an echo of the humanist reinstatement of rhetoric, first as supplemental to and then as superior to dialectic. Only now, it is the aesthetic that complements (in Mill) and then transcends (in White and Yeats) the narrowly rational. The access to religious truth that philosophy and science seal off is re-enabled by aesthetic, and especially literary, experience.

This development seems to happen throughout Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is responsible for the founding of Browning Societies even during Robert Browning’s lifetime, based largely on the belief that the true religious spirit might be breathed in, with unique ease and comfort, through poetry. In a typical passage from the early papers of the London Browning Society, an admirer wrote, “I must claim for Browning the distinction of being pre-eminently the greatest Christian poet we have ever had. Not in a narrow dogmatic sense, but as the teacher who is as thrilled-through with all Christian sympathies as with artistic or musical.”13 It is striking how strongly this assertion resembles the claims made in Russia for the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky—claims that Dostoevsky himself endorsed by linking himself with Pushkin’s poem “The Prophet”—even though the history of Christianity and Christian thought in Russia is so dramatically different from its English counterpart. Thus, Vladimir Solovyev, in a eulogy delivered just after Dostoevsky’s death in 1881, wrote that “just as the highest worldly power somehow or other becomes concentrated in one person, who represents a state, similarly the highest spiritual power in each epoch usually belongs in every people to one man, who more clearly than all grasps the spiritual ideals of mankind, more consciously than all strives to attain them, more strongly than all affects others by his preachments. Such a spiritual leader of the Russian people in recent times was Dostoevsky.”14 The Victorian era was one dominated by sages of all kinds, but this is an especially peculiar one: the poet as prophet, as comforter, as vehicle of the sacred.

* * *

No eye his future can foretell
No law his past explain
Whom neither Passion may compel
Nor Reason can restrain.
—W.H. Auden, libretto to The Rake’s Progress

For Victorian intellectuals, the versions of the Christian faith that could not be taken seriously were those of the previous generation: The faith of one’s parents, whether biological, intellectual, or aesthetic, will inevitably seem “simple-minded.” But children eventually become parents. The early-nineteenth-century Russian liberals whom Peter the Great had done so much to create, who looked back with scorn on traditional Orthodoxy, themselves came to seem absurdly naive to Dostoevsky, who satirized them mercilessly, especially in the character of Peter Verkhovensky in Demons (also known as The Possessed). Something similar came to befall the English Victorian advocates of an enlightened religion, or no religion at all.

Consider, for example, a story related by C.S. Lewis, who lost his faith in early adolescence and then went on to be tutored for some years by “a ‘Rationalist’ of the old, high and dry nineteenth-century type,” a man named Kirkpatrick. “At the time when I knew him, Kirk’s Atheism was chiefly of the anthropological and pessimistic kind. He was great on The Golden Bough and Schopenhauer.”15 But while Lewis was studying with Kirkpatrick, something happened: He started reading the fiction of George MacDonald, who, though a Victorian and not by every standard orthodox in his theology, was nevertheless the kind of person Lewis called “a thoroughgoing supernaturalist.” Lewis’s account of this experience is extremely telling:

What Phantastes [MacDonald’s 1858 novel] actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize…my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men. But when the process was complete—by which, of course, I mean “when it had really begun”—I found that I was still with MacDonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was now at last ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting. But in a sense, what he was now telling me was the very same that he had told me from the beginning.16

We might usefully compare this with Lewis’s recollection of encountering, a few years later, the essays of G.K. Chesterton: “I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me,” since, Lewis wrote, “my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment [should] have made him to me the least congenial of all authors.” But without agreeing with Chesterton (“I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it”), the young Lewis was “charmed” by him. He concludes this account by commenting, “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for.”17

To grasp the import of this statement, one must take it literally: Lewis did not know what he was letting himself in for. What he had acquired was not knowledge of or even mere knowledge about Christian belief and practice, but, rather, a disposition to openness, a willingness to be charmed. This is why he says that reading MacDonald baptized his imagination: Baptism is the Christian rite of initiation, the beginning of new life in Christ, and, in Lewis’s Anglican tradition, something that typically happens to infants. Through MacDonald, he had been initiated into habits of aesthetic experience that would later make him receptive to Chesterton for reasons he could not then have stated: Only later (“when it had really begun”) would come the knowledge that enabled him to give an account of what had happened to him when he read those books.

A quarter-century after Lewis underwent his imaginative baptism, a Frenchwoman of Jewish parentage but no religious upbringing would have an experience that bears notable structural similarities to his, but through an encounter with a seventeenth-century poet rather than a Victorian writer of fantasy. In 1942, Simone Weil wrote to the priest who had become her informal counselor—informal because she refused to be received into the Catholic Church—that in 1938 she had spent Passion Week at the monastery of Solesmes, where she attended services every day. There, she met a young Englishman whose face seemed to register some extraordinary experience when he received Communion, and who “told me of the existence of those English poets of the seventeenth century who are named metaphysical.” George Herbert’s “Love III”—a kind of allegory of the Lord’s Table—struck her with particular force, and she memorized the poem. Weil told her counselor, Father Perrin, that “often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines.” But she did not know what she was letting herself in for by reciting such a poem. “I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”18

Here again, the imaginative or aesthetic experience precedes and paves the way for intellectual understanding. The way of reason is not rejected—indeed, the opposite is true—but the reason has to be released from its bondage in order to function properly. To borrow language from the philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age (2007), the buffered self must become in some respect porous, and the most vulnerable buffer is the one that protects the imagination.

To use the language of “imagination” is to employ a post-Romantic concept, one that Boccaccio or Gerson or Sidney would have found baffling. (In early modern translations of the Bible, the word “imagination” is, without exception, used in a highly pejorative way: “Yet they obeyed not, nor inclined their ear, but walked every one in the imagination of their evil heart,” from Jeremiah 11:8, is typical.) The twentieth-century British thinker Owen Barfield best understood the recuperation and elevation of the term: Its rise marks “the transition from a view of art which beholds it as the product of a mind, or spirit, not possessed by the individual, but rather possessing him; to a view of it as the product of something in a manner possessed by the individual though still not identical with his everyday personality.”19 My imagination, then, is not identical with my conscious mind—it works in some sense on its own, independent of my volition—but it does not come from without, it does not and cannot possess or (in older senses of the term) inspire. But it is precisely because imagination does not present itself as transcendent, and therefore does not put up the buffers, raise the shields, that it can become a vehicle of the transcendent. It constructs a back door to God.

I should note that imagination creates this door for readers more than for writers, at least in some cases. Writers may indeed dissent from the model of reception I have described. Flannery O’Connor, a lifelong Catholic rather than a convert or returnee like Weil, Lewis, and Coleridge, placed dogmatic belief front and center in her own thinking: “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing”20—a point of view rather different from the one that makes imagination the light by which dogma is seen, and recognized as desirable. But the key point for the reader is not how the writer sees but that the writer sees. All those who are led to and strengthened in religious faith by writers must believe that writers have, at the very least, superior powers of perception enabled by superior imagination. Percy Shelley’s claim that “poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration” merely states in extravagant terms what all believers in the salvific witness of literature must affirm.

For this reason, it is typically sufficient that the writer reveal the conditions against which he or she dare not and need not preach. O’Connor again: “We are now living in an age which doubts both fact and value. It is the life of this age that we wish to see and judge.”21 Likewise, Walker Percy, a physician by training, found commonality between the doctor and the writer in the act of diagnosis: “To the degree that a society has been overtaken by a sense of malaise rather than exuberance, by fragmentation rather than wholeness, the vocation of the artist, whether novelist, poet, playwright, filmmaker, can perhaps be said to come that much closer to that of the diagnostician rather than the artist’s celebration of life in a triumphant age.”22 The diagnostic novelist or poet—Auden comes to mind as a poet with this kind of forensic and etiological temperament—certainly “judges,” but judges by portrayal and implication. And this is certainly for the best, if one would avoid triggering the powerful buffers and shields of modernity.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson famously counseled, and throughout the long and meandering history of Christian humanism we see an increasingly strong preference, among a certain kind of reader, for the slanted truth. A defense of the powers of poetry (what we would call “literature”) to carry Christian truth faithfully and vividly—a defense that arose in a period when dialectical method dominated European universities—underwent a series of transformations that seemed, at one point, to culminate in the victory of a Wordsworthian “God of the hills,” a deity composed wholly of affect. At the end of the Victorian era, few could have imagined that in the next century literature would become, for many readers, not just the preferred but the only vehicle for conveying and commending a strongly traditional form of Christianity. But that is precisely what occurred. When institutional Christianity came increasingly to be despised, when preaching acquired a largely negative connotation, stories and poems took both their places. Perhaps no one from Boccaccio to William Hale White would have known quite what to make of this. I confess that I myself do not know quite what to make of it, especially since I do not see any obvious heirs to Buechner—who himself is both less orthodox and far less popular than Lewis, O’Connor, or Percy. Perhaps the kind of thing I witnessed that day at Calvin College—Your writing has meant everything to my Christian faith. I don’t think I could be a Christian without your books—will prove to have been merely a local and temporary phenomenon, a curious sideshow in twentieth-century Western Christianity. I hope not.


  1. Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 30.
  2. Paul Oscar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains (New York: Harper, 1961), Chapter 1.
  3. Boccaccio, Life of Dante, trans. G.R. Carpenter (New York: Grolier Club, 1900), 142.
  4. Boccaccio on Poetry: Being the Preface and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Books of Boccaccio’s Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, trans. and ed. Charles G. Osgood (Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts, 1956).
  5. Daniel Hobbins, Authorship and Publicity before Print: Jean Gerson and the Transformation of Late Medieval Learning (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 106.
  6. Ibid., 109.
  7. Ibid., 120.
  8. Ibid., 120.
  9. Cited as the epigraph to Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871–1881 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
  10. John Stuart Mill, Autobiography (1873), Chapter V; Accessed March 23, 2015.
  11. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), Chapter 13.
  12. The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Vol. III: Autobiographies, eds. William H. O’Donnell and Douglas N. Archibald (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
  13. The Browning Society’s Papers, Parts 1–3 (London: Browning Society, 1881); Accessed March 23, 2015.
  14. Quoted in Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 756.
  15. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), 139.
  16. C.S. Lewis, Preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). Originally published 1946, xxxviii.
  17. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 191.
  18. Simone Weil, “Spiritual Autobiography,” in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001), 27. Originally published 1951.
  19. Owen Barfield, Speaker’s Meaning (Middletown, CT: Weslayan University Press, 1967);
  20. Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 91.
  21. Ibid., 117.
  22. Percy, “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise,” Signposts in a Strange Land: Essays (New York: Macmillan, 2000), 206. Originally published 1991.

Alan Jacobs is a distinguished professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University. A prolific essayist, reviewer, and blogger, he is the author, most recently, of “The Book of Common Prayer”: A Biography (2013) and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.2 (Summer 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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