A long time ago, in an undergraduate degree far, far away, I studied Doris Lessing’s short story “To Room Nineteen.” I was in the first bloom of being a newly minted English major, and was quite taken with the story, if in a fairly simplistic manner. For those who don’t know the story, it is, as the opening line highlights, a story about the failure of a certain kind of intelligence. Susan and Matthew Rawlings are a progressive, reasonable couple, who live in what reads like a suburban version of Eden. Despite having done everything “right,” however, and being ever so enlightened about “insignificant” matters such as marital affairs, Susan’s life begins to unravel from the inside, to the point that she invents a fake lover to hide from her husband the fact that, when she sneaks off during the days, she is really sneaking off to sit silently and obliviously in room nineteen of the seamy and generically titled quarters of Fred’s Hotel. At the end of the story, when her husband (being “enlightened”) suggests that they should meet each other’s lovers, she instead goes to room nineteen and turns on the gas, killing herself on account of the vague and mysterious “thing” that has driven her from her family and that haunts every inch of her life.
My first interpretation of this story focused on the historical context. This is what happens in “progress,” when humans think they can best everything with an enlightened reasonableness, and think they can simply slough off real human urges, such as the urge to be angry when one’s spouse cheats on one. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my first thoughts were along the lines of those of Pope John Paul II when he described the modern world as a culture of death; it is no surprise that a world stripped of transcendence and meaning should end in a self-imposed gas chamber of a tawdry hotel room gauded by the stains of habitual lusts that had no wherewithal to become love.
To a certain degree, I still feel this is what the story is about. Yet, when I taught it the other day, a good ten years after first encountering it, I noticed something else – everything that I had once attributed simplistically to moral decline in culture and the overarching master rhetoric of postmodernity could be equally attributed to depression. It is even accurate as a description of depression down to the smallest details; it knows, for instance, that those in the deepest depression never feel sad – sadness would be a mercy. No, they feel blank. And it is that blankness that is held in room nineteen.
I will not here get into the complications of what causes depression – it really is all sorts of things, such as environment, biology, relationships, etc. etc. – so one cannot entirely discount the idea that part of this depression is in fact induced situationally; unrealistic ideas about the ideal and “perfect” intelligent life have led to a break with reality. And yet, if this is a factor, I think I may have been mistaken when my younger self saw this as the only thing going on in the story, because things, it turned out, were more complicated than this. Figuring out the world was not simply a matter of showing up an instance of despair that one could then, in the margins of the pages, patch up with Jesus. This is what I had initially assumed, but the reality is more complex.
My assumption of this for the most part came out of something that I imagine many of my readers will be familiar with, a school of thought that approaches Christian thinking as a process of identifying various “worldviews.” The various worldviews are then assessed by the degree to which they do or do not match up with the so-called “Christian worldview.” By doing this, one could see how various cultures, literatures, etc. were implicitly protoevangelia, pointing up the failure of non-Christian worldviews and gesturing toward the truth of the Christian worldview.
And of course there is a sense in which a Christian can’t believe anything other than this; if the fullness of truth is found in Christ and His Church, it makes sense that those means by which we engage the world around us would analogically point back to these, as per the old idea of the “Book of Nature.” However, you will notice a slight difference between what I just said and the “worldview” perspective I presented prior, and that is that “Christ and His Church” are a good deal different than a “Christian worldview.” Both of the former are mysteries, insofar as, while they can be understood sufficiently, they cannot be circumscribed in their entirety by human reason. But a Christian worldview, it seems to me, comes across more as a neatly packaged set of instructions, a little like the programs we install on our computers – install the right software, and things will be good, but install the wrong software, and there will be problems.
And this brings us right up against the problem with worldviews. Worldview thinking too easily permits us to construct a narrative of the world wherein deep depression – like that found in Lessing’s room nineteen – is a problem that can be magicked away if one just replaces the nihilism with the right “worldview.” In many ways, it is the intellectual version of the prosperity gospel: think rightly – have a Christian worldview – and things will go well. Get the wrong worldview, and things will be dismal. It is something very comforting to imagine for those who do not get depressed or who have not experienced deep suffering. For those who have – and here I think of the book of Job – it is like acid poured on an open wound.
And this is what I realized as I taught the story the other night, something I have been learning for a long time now but that very much crystalized in this experience: a Christian worldview is no talisman against sadness and deep incomprehensible suffering, and those who spoke as though it were, largely had, for the price of a messless world, underestimated the deep suffering of their Christian brothers and sisters who do have Christ and who also know the inexplicable hollowness that can simultaneously occur within their hearts. The recognition of this, though, raises another question: if this hollowness is not dealt with simply by an easy adjustment of one’s worldview, how is a Christian to deal with it?
It was at this juncture in my thinking that I thought of the recently published book on Mother Theresa, Come Be My Light. My reason for recalling this is that what she describes – a deep spiritual darkness that haunted her for much of her life – is a little like what Lessing identifies in room nineteen. The circumstances are of course very different; Susan Rawlings is a suburban wife in an “intelligent” and “progressive” family, whereas Mother Theresa gave her whole life to serve the poor of Calcutta. But their experiences have in common a certain terrifying darkness and a particular kind of incommunicability – of the relatively few things we know about Theresa’s darkness, one is that she sometimes found it impossible to explain to others, leaving her often feeling even cut off from her confessor. Thus, the life of Mother Theresa puts the lie to the kind of thinking that suggests a change in worldview is all we need to guard against such darkness. Theresa knew Christ – and that did not keep her from also feeling the confusing frustration of his apparent absence so palpably that she could barely speak it.
Such darkness is indeed terrifying to us, unprotected as we are from it by our faith in Christ. Yet I think it is in the midst of such darkness – in the lives of those who experience it, such as Mother Theresa – that we see a Christian alternative to a simplistic worldviewish read on this hollowness. What we find in the life of Mother Theresa is that her practice was to consecrate this internal darkness as a sacrifice for Christ, to make this internal blank itself a marker for her faith, and a prayer to the One in whom she trusted. This it seems did not make it any easier for her – and it would in fact by definition not be such deep darkness if this approach magically took it away. But it does suggest to me what a real Christian approach to Lessing’s bleak enigma might look like. What it looks like is the figure of a woman willing to offer room nineteen to God as a house of prayer. It does not take away the tawdry blankness or soften the seamy scents of ruined lust, the unholy sacrifices of other inhabitants. But it does allow us to rest in the – I don’t want to call it knowledge, but something in fact beyond knowledge – that this space in our hearts so little understood can in fact become the central altar of the temple of ourselves, our bodies. It can be lifted up to God, if not triumphantly, at least in faith, and it can become – even if not seen by ourselves – a testament to the love of God. It can mean that even for those who feel their legacy is darkness – when they trust in Christ – there is even hope for them. And it finally means that there are other options than denial or turning on the gas. We can withdraw into our closets – into the seedy and disreputable room nineteen of our hearts – and pray to our Father Who is unseen. And He who sees what is done in secret will reward us; he will turn our darkness into prayer.
Common sense would seem to suggest that the more one loves one’s subject, the easier it should be to teach it to others. I imagine there are some people for whom this is true. However, I find it exactly the opposite. The more I love my subject, the more difficult it is to teach it to others.
Why is this? I think the best explanation is that when one loves something very deeply, one comes to marvel at it in its whole complexity, at least as far as one can understand it. For instance, if we were to compare, say, pieces of literature to ornate castles, the ones we love best would be the ones in which we are thoroughly familiar with the cracks, passageways, and secret catacombs – the normal, the anomalous, the beautiful, and the vulgar all lumped together; to see any part of it is to see the whole; even the smallest part is the mystic’s synecdoche, bringing before one’s eyes the entirety with which one is so familiar.
And this is exactly the problem for teaching. It becomes hard to remember what it was like to encounter the thing originally, piecemeal – a bit here, and a bit there – and so one forgets that newcomers need a tour. When so many parts of a great and complex work of literature strike one speechless with awe, one forgets that, without help, these parts might seem confusing or meaningless. Our deep love for the thing strikes us speechless, but from the outside, that speechlessness can look like ignorance or indifference. And so I find that those works I have studied most deeply and love most thoroughly come across in exactly the opposite way I intend. I stutter because I am in awe – because I do not want to meddle with the perfect complexity of the thing – but very often this comes across as confusion or disorganization. Poets often speak of love as a kind of madness, and here it is maybe true; deep love for something makes us bad teachers.
Conversely, it is far easier for us to codify and categorize those things we are less attracted to or know less about. For those things we know less about, we become students alongside our students and so make the journey together. For those things we are less attracted to, there may only be a few bits (if any) that are compelling, and so we find it easy to put these subjects in fairly simplistic boxes.
What has this to do with being a Christian? Everything, I think, and I think this because I am in love with Christ and His Word and His Church and the Tradition he has given her and the Holy Spirit etc. And this is precisely why I find it so hard to communicate my faith – the life of my Beloved – to others. It is not something that will be reduced so that it fits in a portable handbag that I can then shuffle off on others. Rather, it is in my flesh and blood, in my very bones. And to communicate it without stuttering and stammering – the thing that actuates my every breath – is as impossible an act as standing outside myself. I find myself in the dazzle of a dynamic silence that probably looks like boredom to those on the outside.
I should be clear; I do not say this with the pretense that this makes everything in my life lovely or bearable or joyful – it doesn’t. Even less do I mean to flaunt this as some kind of spiritual ideal that everyone is called to; different people are called to different things. What it does I hope help explain, maybe, is my awkwardness and silence. I do not speak when I ought to, and I sometimes speak at the wrong time, and it is all haunted by a deep and abiding clumsiness. If you have experienced this, please forgive it if you can as the awkwardness of one who loves deeply, abashed and in awe of Reality and the One who made it. And when you do not hear me shouting words of praise, it is not because I do not wish to praise – it is simply that words are inadequate.
The term “brony” describes a male (often adult) fan of the recent TV childrens’ series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. When I first heard about brony culture, I was just a little unsettled. Men of my generation have trouble growing up – much to the chagrin of many eligible women I know who have suffered at the hands of their prolonged adolescence – and to me this sounded like another instance of immature infantilism; I won’t exactly say that I was ready to pull a Mark Driscoll and tell them to “man-up,” but I will say that it made me wish there were more sensible guys around, if not for my eligible women friends, at least for the dignity of our sex. I may not have been ready to tell such men to man up, but I could at least insist that they grow up. To a certain degree, I still think this. But I have come to see that the actual process of growing up may be more complicated than I initially thought. Perhaps growing up is not simply a matter of becoming serious. Perhaps it is also a matter of becoming (as George MacDonald famously put it), not childish, but childlike.
You see, while I would not call myself a “brony” per se, My Little Pony happens to be my five year old son’s favorite show. As most parents will know, this means I have been witness to almost all the episodes multiple times. And the conclusion I have come to is that, at bottom, what appeals to a certain kind of male about the show is its representation of the kind of story we no longer tell. By this, I mean the fairy tale that does in fact entertain some idea of innocence.
In modern culture, we love fairy tales, but we always insist on digging up in them very dark twists and sub-themes. Almost all of them (we presume from psychoanalytic theory) are about sex. Hansel and Gretel must be witch hunters. That Prince Charming cannot be the protagonist has become something of a modern cliché. Snow white becomes a sexualized vampire figure. Etc. I do not mean of course to say that we should have no revisionist fairy tales; in my opinion, the recent Snow White and the Huntsman film did quite a good job of adapting the tale. But it is perhaps tragic when a film like Shrek – that was so humorous to us who were brought up on the original stories – can no longer be understood in a generation that no longer has these stories. Irony and complexity can only work when the basic building blocks are grasped, and we seem unable or unwilling to pass these on to our children. All we can see are the sarcastic adult versions, and even when we encounter an original, we still think that it masks something far more sinister than its literal vehicle suggests.
What I want to suggest, though, is that there is in us not only a deep desire and need for complexity, nuance and treatment of a sinister reality; there is also in us the desire for something beautiful, something innocent – older writers would call this an Edenic impulse. And what I want to suggest is that My Little Pony is popular among males precisely because they have no other cultural referent pointing them back to a certain kind of fairy-tale innocence that they were created to need.
The reason the show does this so well, I suggest, is because it is pagan in the best possible sense – it is a classical pagan story. I am not here using the word pagan pejoratively, but rather descriptively. As in classical philosophy, friendship in the series is one of the highest goods. The ideals – the seven elements of harmony that figure prominently in the show – are reminiscent of the classical cardinal virtues, with a nod to the theological virtues thrown in via the number seven. There are composite beasts that look like they could come from a classical or medieval bestiary, and dragons are penalized for their hoarding capacities. There is even a nod to the classical grammarian in us all, that insists on pluralizing “pegasus” as “pegasi” (this, by the way, is a far greater “take-home-message” than the ones I see on most childrens’ shows).
Considered all together, these elements make for a show that, in an imaginative desert, stands out as a mythopoeic beacon. It is sad, of course, that we are not at a historical point where children are being fascinated by the really great mythopoeic stories – the ones that held the likes of Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkien, and MacDonald in their thrall. Nonetheless, we must work with what we are given, and even if My Little Pony will not exactly outlast the Grimm brothers, it is a significant pointer in our culture back to the childlikeness for which my generation – and particularly the males of my generation – are starved. At least, culturally speaking, there is still some kind of space wherein girls can appreciate real mythopoeic innocence (or at least I feel it may be easier – but am willing to be corrected); in male culture, though, such innocence appears as “girly” against the backdrop of a hyper-violence channeling all the ferocity of past epics with none of the wisdom or the reasons these epics provide for fighting.
I think when we understand this we may be able to evaluate so-called brony culture in a different light. Rather than understanding it as a stunt or stutter in the “serious” development of an adult, perhaps instead we should understand it as a transitional space in culture for those on their way to becoming childlike. And such childlikeness is to be by all means encouraged, for it in fact involves a maturity and wisdom beyond the stiff and unimaginative thing we think of as adulthood. As T. S. Eliot liked to remind us (channeling I think Heraclitus), “the way up is the way down,” and perhaps we will find this true of the young men that we simply want to “man up”; maybe the problem is not that they have become children, but that they have not become children enough.
I am thankful for friends who raise difficult questions, because it forces me to answer them. Then again, it is difficult. It is difficult precisely because, while I would like to simply agree with what Chinglican has said in defense of Anglicanism, the matter lies too close to the heart of the issue. If what he says is true, there would not be that much point in becoming Catholic – I would be Catholic already as an Anglican. And so, while I want to answer as irenically as possible, my response might be shocking and kind of offensive because the matter is too pressing a question to be dealt with sensitively. So I request the forgiveness of those I offend.
Basically, Chinglican argues that there are two churches in the Anglican church, the political and the literary. The political is not really very justifiable. But the literary has been there time and time again to raise the thorny theologies that imperialism would suppress. In many ways, this read on Anglican history seems about right, which is probably why I became an English major. Early on, I realized that some of the most profound theological things happening in the English milieux were works of literature. Literature, for Chinglican, plays for the Anglican church the function the pope is supposed to play for the Catholic church – to call kings to account.
I will not get into the history of this, as such would be tedious and could be reckoned in many and various ways. I could imagine an interpretation that sees literature as theological protest, as well as an interpretation that sees literature as a political flunky. But the one thing I would point out is that the capacity of literature to fulfill its critical function is directly dependent on its connection to real theology. Donne could be what he was because he was so deeply indebted to pre-Tridentine Catholicism. And the political split did not immediately destroy all theology. It did not take away the wealth of things that had gone before.
But I can’t help wondering how sustainable this might be. I would certainly agree that, in the Early Modern period, literature is a form of theological protest and critique, seen particularly in someone like Milton. But by the Victorian period or so, I’m not so sure. The Blakean romantics have run off with sola emotion, and the Enlightenment types have run off with reason (see Pope’s Essay on Man). Literature gets appropriated by various movements and finds itself left without a theology, and all we have left is poor Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice to defend us from the monarch. What I am getting at is that, if English literature has in the Early Modern period the protesting character Chinglican sees in it, this has significantly cooled by the time the Victorians come around with their state-embedded church. There are of course exceptions to this. But if Chinglican can truncate history, so can I. What I am getting at is that English literature can protest just to the degree that it has in its cultural memory a kind of faith that can protest against the state, the kind of faith seen in Thomas More and (dare I say) Guy Fawkes? But amnesia sets in, and the church is integrated nicely with the state.
And I suppose this is my difficulty. I imagine I would find it much easier to be an Anglican (actually, the term Anglican is anachronistic here) in the Early Modern period – that is, if I didn’t lose my head for some reason or other. But now, the church is so far removed from that root that I imagine to actually be the kind of Anglican that wants union with Rome – that weeps proportionate tears and longs for the radix, the root – would be emotionally devastating. I am all for mourning. But the level of mourning required here would kill me and make me unable to function. Put another way, it seems to me that far too many Anglicans claim to want unity, but in fact are quite happy going about their merry lives without a pope. And this leads me to the question of orientalism.
Because in a very real way, I think the thing that annoys me about many Anglo-Catholics is that they are Anglicans discovering a Saidean orient in the Catholic church. I have a friend working on the French as the “other” to English “normalcy” – the other both exotic and dangerous – and I kind of think that a similar thing occurs with Catholicism. It is the deeply dangerous thing we all have to fear – reading some of the English indictments of Catholicism are a little like reading some of the modern indictments of terrorism (though again, there was a Guy Fawkes, who seems to have been both). But the Catholic church is also fascinating in all its gaudy dangerousness. Shakespeare’s attractive “Catholic” fool Feste is counter-posed to the “Puritan” Malvolio. It is no surprise that Oscar Wilde, when he becomes increasingly interested in faith near the end of his life, is interested to Catholicism. Like good Englishmen, we are attracted with Charles Ryder of Brideshead to the many exotic sins of Catholicism. The Catholic church is the foreign woman that both threatens and mesmerizes England.
But I will go one further: we are all, whenever we encounter anyone or anything, orientalists, that is, original sinners. We all of us will always initially encounter the other like this. The real question is what we do with this encounter. Do we keep the exotic as a pet, to pleasure us and remind us of our own superiority by turns? Or do we in fact engage – try to get past this impression and encounter the other on terms other than our own? Because this for me is the real question. Am I appreciating Catholic theology as an ornament or pet of my own individuality, or am I in fact in the state of knowing what it means to be fully Catholic, that is submitting to the Magesterium? Many Anglo-Catholics critique the highly individualistic appropriation of Scripture in Evangelical circles, but isn’t Anglo-Catholicism just the flip-side of the coin, an individualistic interpretation of Christian tradition ultimately unguided and undisciplined by the authority of the Church?
I realize that what I am saying here will anger many, but I can’t help feeling this way. If I am going to preach Catholicism, I want to know the pain of being Catholic, rather than preach something that I can leave at the door when I go home at night. Because I am not content manipulating a Catholic orient. No, I want the Catholic church.
I am now deeply satisfied. After reading part 2, Churl is now wanting me to perform some sort of ‘theological magic’ to enact a ‘Houdini-like escape,’ as ‘digging one’s grave very deep makes rising from it that much more spectacular.’ Moreover, after the previous Wong Fu diversion, he is now commending my Anglican theological acumen:
“It’s kind of complicated. Let’s talk about something else for a while and maybe it will go away.” I gotta say, Chinglican certainly knows how to do Anglican theology – and I mean that of course in the most loving and Christian way possible.
He knows, after all, that I really can’t live up to the order of the Resurrection; after all, that declared a wandering rabbi the Son of God, produced what Karl Barth called a ‘krisis’ of the powers that styled themselves as godlike, and started a church whose complex history we have been exploring. Moreover, the question of whether Anglicanism can rise from the dead? is likely territory where even angels fear to tread. While the Lord Jesus promises us that we will do greater works than those he did (cf. John 16:12), I unfortunately do not wish to presume that I can give life to whomever I wish (cf. John 5:21).
So I won’t try.
My question is more modest: why do I stay Anglican? Picking up on Churl’s question about ‘theological magic,’ today’s answer comes to us first by way of Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest.
Because The Tempest was the obsession of my Catholic creative writing mentor in high school and the first thing I ever read in university, I’ve come up with a reading of The Tempest that will make all the people who think that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic very happy (apparently, this hangs on a reading of Hamlet, but that’s another post).
Here’s my read: Prospero is a Protestant Anglican. Of course, it might be tempting to read Prospero as a Catholic: he has control of the winds and the waves, the spirits on the island, the book of magic that perhaps the pope has.
But this reading doesn’t quite work if, at least as I was taught, The Tempest is at heart Shakespeare’s ultimate parable about modern science and political sovereignty, making apparent what has long lain hidden in his theatrical oeuvre. For cryin’ out loud, the guy’s on an island, controlling the spirits (like Ariel), kicking the monsters around (like Caliban; yes, I read Prospero as a racist colonizer and Caliban as a post-colonial cry for liberation; that’s another post too), and micromanaging his daughter (Miranda) worse than any stereotypical tiger parent (sorry, had to throw that in there; I am a Chinglican, after all). Prospero is no church controlling the world; he is the state subjectifying his citizens, including their spirituality.
Here’s the comedic twist, though. Spoiler alert: at the end of the play, Prince Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda, and the brothers who usurped Prospero’s throne back in Milan are reconciled with him. Once this happens, Prospero breaks his staff and drowns his book of magic. He’s done with the magical subjectification of everything on the island under his sovereignty. He lets go of the establishment he invented. He is ready for reconciliation.
I’m sure that Shakespeare never intended The Tempest to be taken as a parable for Anglicanism. But it certainly can be received that way. After all, on a cursory reading of the play, one might think that Shakespeare is pro-Prospero: Prospero’s brothers stole his throne, Miranda is over-protected and rebels with Ferdinand, Ariel complains too much, and Caliban is a deformed asshole (can I say that on A Christian Thing?). But that Shakespeare makes Prospero give up the new establishment at the end of the play signals that he might be critical of Prospero, that is, critical of establishmentarian politics, as he is in many of his plays.
Shakespeare is thus providing a re-reading of Anglicanism. A non-establishmentarian reading.
Which brings me to the central proposition of this post: blessedare the English majors, for theirs is the Anglican portion of the kingdom of heaven.
I say this completely without guile, because I was never an English major. I am in fact a social scientist.(I need to put that in bold in case anyone wants to challenge my reading of English literature: yes, I am ignorant, untrained, uncouth, and make pronouncements on things beyond my discipline. Deal with it.)
But I wanted to be an English major in high school, so much so that while my Catholic high school required us to take at least one English course per semester, my junior and senior years were filled with at least two per term, partly because I liked literature so much and partly because I didn’t want to do home economics (imagine my regret when they cooked rotisserie chicken, though). That all changed when I got to university. I’m frequently told that I took the smarter, more lucrative way out of things: rejecting my recruitment into an English honours program because the history honours program had no exams and lectures, I did my undergraduate degree in history, after which I defected in graduate school to the social sciences. We’ll talk more about the social sciences in part 5 (so stay tuned!), but while I suppose the stuff that i do in the social sciences is more ‘relevant,’ ‘scientific,’ and ‘secular’ (though the social sciences are also chafing under budget cuts), English majors and graduate students seem to have it the worst these days. They’re often told that they were fools to choose literature as a major or graduate specialization because of the putative death of the humanities in the academy. Become an English major, and throw away your entire career. After all, look at Anne Hathaway’s character in the often-panned Valentine’s Day (though my wife and I love this chick flick, partly because we quite uncritically love all chick flicks, and are proud of this ethic). Spoiler alert: we discover that Anne Hathaway’s character moonlights on the side as a phone sex escort because, as she explains, ‘how else is a poetry major going to pay back all her college loans?’ As the English graduate students on this Thing have also described it, the job market in literature is one that doesn’t value what they do, leading Lelbc43 to describe it even as a ‘theodicy.’ If English majors are indeed in such a state of poverty, it would be ‘very meet, right, and our bounden duty always and everywhere’ to acknowledge that they are poor not only in spirit, but in material means, and that their mourning will be comforted and that because of their meekness, they will inherit the earth, including the academy.
But poor as English majors are, the English majors will also inherit the Anglican portion of the kingdom of God because the English canon with which they wrestle stands as a crypto-theological critique of the modern Anglican establishment. Which leads to our second beatitude: blessed are those who ponder the English canon while hungering and thirsting for justice, for they will be filled.
St. John’s College. I wanted to go here once upon a time, but nobody would let me. Wah.
Of course, the moment I bring up the word ‘canon,’ I realize that I’m in very hot water. So even though I am a social scientist, let me say that I’m aware that I will be slowly boiled alive. I understand that what purports to be the ‘English canon’ is in fact the invention of American universities’ ‘Great Books’ programs from the University of Chicago, Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, and is now enshrined in the core curriculum at St. John’s College. I know full well that the canon has been used to construct a sort of ‘Western civilization’ approach to the world, one that is firmly pro-establishment and works against my post-colonial tendencies. I appreciate immensely the assaults on a fixed canon as a bastion of work written by dead white men (erm, Jane Austen? George Eliot? the Brontë sisters?) that is purportedly anti-feminist, pro-establishment, homophobic, exclusionary of subaltern voices, and discursively propping up an epistemic era in which (as Foucault would say) ‘man’ has become an object of intense scientific scrutiny. And so I fully take the point that in the English-American canon, it would seem that the ‘subaltern’ voices never seem to be heard, and everyone who’s worth reading are dead white men because those are the heroes of the establishment.
But allow me to protest by saying that this is a pro-Prospero reading of the canon. If we are trying to take apart modern Anglicanism from the inside-out, the canon is a remarkable gift. (I know that the One Ring of Power was too, but that’s different.) Because the function of the canon in elite universities has often been used to form a political class with critical civic faculties, you could say that the canon has often been used in the service of the state.
By canon, then, what I mean to refer to is that very loose collection of English-language books, many of which were written by British authors usually from Shakespeare onward to the nineteenth century (with some American inclusions for American state subjectification purposes and pre-modern works, usually of a Greco-Roman imperial nature, just to be well-rounded with the politics of pagan antiquity), that is often taught to us as ‘the classics.’ What I mean to say is this: if I start discussing a book that’s not in your canon, please don’t skewer me. Instead, it just proves my point that this is a ‘very loose collection of English-language books.’
I’d like to co-opt this (very loose) canon for our own purposes. Let’s move the canon back from its service to the state to the service of the church.
And thus, completely ignoring the canon debate because it really is a very state-centric conversation, let’s think about an alternate ecclesial way forward: let’s read the canon as Anglican theology.
In so doing, what we might find is that there is something in the canon that predates the modern Anglican establishment, something perhaps even akin to a Shakespearean critique of Prospero’s magical subjectification strategies. Indeed, let’s co-opt philosopher John Searle’s assertion that the reading of the canon inculcated a ‘critical attitude’ that ‘served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie’ and thus ‘once served an unmasking function.’ For us, the task of canon reading is not to be formed into an American political elite, although I’m sure that we’d all be better off as critics of American imperialism once we’ve read the canon. Instead, if we read English literature as Anglican theology, we might find that what has ended up in the canon isall the stuff with a tense relationship to the state establishment. In other words, the canon may well be the seeds that lead to the dismantling of Anglican church-state entanglement.
Here’s where some critical theory might actually be helpful. As a social scientist, I’ve found the notion of the ‘public sphere’ as a circulation of literary, artistic, and theatrical works particularly helpful. The go-to guy here is critical theorist Jürgen Habermas, who says that around the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there arose (particularly in England) a bourgeois public sphere, which was located between the authoritarian Enlightenment state (it behooves us always to remember that the first iteration of Enlightenment monarchy was the ‘divine sovereign,’ even in the British Isles…or did you forget to read Hobbes?) and the governed masses. The public sphere emerged as a conversation among a liberal, property-owning middle class about how the state represented itself. Starting out by portraying the state’s court, these comedies and dramas in art, theatre, and an increasing amount of literature became texts through which the bourgeois could critique the state. As people like Habermas as well as Michael Warner show, what we now call the ‘canon’ was instrumental in creating this buffer zone between the state and its citizens, between the establishment and the masses. And in time, of course, this public sphere became a vehicle for the state, what we now call modern democracy.
Hauerwas probably just laughed.
While theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and William Cavanaugh have often knocked democratic movements for being overly state-centric and otherwise nihilistic (and indeed, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the church functions as just another democratizing institution in the service of the democratic state), I’d like to join someone like Nicholas Wolterstorff in saying that the language of democracy, human rights, and justice predate modern democracy. Following that, I’d like to suggest that if the canon can be read as sowing the seeds for the relativization of state authoritarianism, all of this might imply a sort of Anglican impulse that predates the establishment of modern Anglicanism, one that finds itself constantly in tension with the state establishment, one that is ultimately concerned with the human person and his or her mystical communion with the living God as the critique of state subjectification. It’s that impulse that I am arguing is more properly called Anglican Christianity, one that functions constantly as an undercurrent of critique to the modern Anglican establishment that is so embedded with the powers of the state.
And thus, walking onto territory that is definitely more properly Churl’s and Lelbc43’s than mine, I’d like to suggest that what is needed is a reading of the English literature prior to the Anglican establishment that remains in continuity with what comes afterward. In other words, let’s read the canon as Anglican theology. Put another way, let’s read Shakespeare’s critique of Prospero as a continuous thread through the canon. (Just so you know, I’m going to be very selective here. As in, you may come away from this survey very dissatisfied that your favourite author didn’t get covered. I apologize for two reasons. First, I am running out of room. Second, I’m a social scientist and thus incompetent to discuss everybody competently. In fact, if you see any incompetence in what follows, please feel free to laugh.)
And let’s start precisely where I should not, that is, by colonizing Churl’s territory and saying that something like Sing Me Hwaethwugu is what I am calling a ‘crypto-Anglican blog.’ Let’s re-read Beowulf and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples. Of course, by including these in the Anglican canon (heh, see what I did there), I’m saying that the ‘Anglican canon’ doesn’t need to start with the old pagan Near Eastern and Greco-Roman imperial ‘classics’ (as most canons go), as if those were really necessary for full catholicity (Augustine basically says that they’re nice to critique in The City of God, that is, except for Plato; Augustine kinda likes Plato). Let’s start instead with the Anglo-Saxons.
Heh. Just something to tick Churl off.
If we read Beowulf and Bede with an Anglican eye, we might find that much of what has been construed as ‘Celtic Christianity’ in our popular Christian parlance is more properly described as ‘early Anglican Christianity.’ After all, this was the point of the Gregorian missions: to evangelize the Angles, a job that St. Augustine of Canterbury discovered was much harder than Gregory imagined because the British isles were the site of all kinds of tribal warfare as well as already-existing monasteries that had to be brought into full catholicity with Rome (hence the need for the Synod of Whitby). This evangelization brings out a central theological point that arguably runs throughout medieval Christendom: the state can really only do so much against the forces of evil. From Ambrose excommunicating Theodosius to Gregory VII excommunicating Henry, the point is that the church always relativizes the powers of the king. Beowulf recognizes this limit. As the hero of the Danish court, Beowulf goes out to fight with Grendel and Grendel’s mother and wins a great victory for the Danes. But he’s outclassed by the dragon, whom he does slay, but he ends up getting killed himself. So too, the whole point of Bede’s book is that the Gregorian missionaries came to the British Isles, and, finding the tribes at war, they relativized the powers of the tribal leaders (sometimes even calling down curses upon them), and as peace came to the Isles, they relativized the independence of the Isles altogether by making the church there conform to an Easter date. In short, the church always says to the state and its proto-state ancestors, Your powers are limited. When they get too big, they cause all sorts of violence. Recognize your relative power. (This point is arguably also in the Arthurian legends, especially when we compare Galahad to Lancelot. But I’m running out of room!)
Forgive me the next anachronistic move (I’m going to combine a few centuries that I know that I shouldn’t; this blog post would never get past a peer review, which is why it’s a blog post!): this is why I think we should read Anselm and Chaucer together. After all, Anselm was an Archbishop of Canterbury in tension with the state: trying to bend William and Henry to submission to the pope (and arguably to Canterbury) even while those two kings were trying to consolidate their state power, Anselm got the the boot twice from England. In turn, Chaucer was writing about Canterbury pilgrims grappling with the murder of another Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, arguably by the state (and by another Henry) because he tried to resist Henry II’s consolidation of state power. After his assassination, Henry went and prayed at his tomb in penance, which is nice because that relativizes the state too.
Here we see that when the church tells the state that its powers are relative, the state sometimes wants to exclude the church, often to its own detriment. Read this way, and Anselm’s ‘debt’ atonement theology makes a lot of sense: after all, as he’s writing Cur Deus Homo in exile (well, he started it at Canterbury, and then got the boot), he’s probably thinking that William and Henry have a lot of debts to pay and a lot of divine wrath to satisfy for their actions. So too, as Chaucer concocts The Canterbury Tales, everyone–especially clergymen and monks out for their own power and pleasure–gets wickedly skewered in bawdy comedy, which suggests that in the tension between the church and the state, the struggle of the powers produces plenty of fodder for hilarity. Indeed, we learn something new from Chaucer: as the church vies for power with the state, as if the church should engage the state on its own terms of power, the church becomes no better than the state and should thus also be subjected to comedic critique. Struggle for power, Chaucer says, and the joke’s on you.
It’s that hilariously critical hermeneutic that becomes veiled from Shakespeare onward. By the time that one gets to early modern English literature, especially after the Elizabethan settlement, it becomes easy to read the canon as pro-establishment, trying to subjectify citizens with moral virtues that are conducive to their participation as agents of the state. After all, Henry VIII was somewhat successful: in Henry, you could say, the struggle of church against state in the British Isles culminated with the state eating the church.
Marianne: Is he done yet? Elinor: No, but my Edward always preaches short sermons.
And so, it’s now really easy to read British literature through a sort of Anglophilic, pro-establishment way. In fact, this is how I grew up. I was told that because I read Dickens, Austen, Trollope, etc. in late elementary, junior high, and high school, that I was a nice conservative child. To some extent, I believed it. I read ‘classical literature’ (Austen and Dickens as classical? Hm.), listened to ‘classical music’ (you mean to tell me that Bach and Elgar were classical?), and watched period movies and ‘classical’ plays (Shakespeare as classical?) because I was that kid. Not just the nerdy Chinese kid (as you may recall, the stereotype usually has more to do with math and science than with English), but the kid with character, the kid with virtue, the kid who was superior to all of his Chinese church and Christian school pleb friends because he was classical.
When I discovered that I was in Selina Kyle Anglicanism, I realized that it was precisely the canon–the same canon that I had read as a sort of pro-establishment conservative child–that in fact undermined the modern Anglican establishment. In other words, while the canon can be used for the purposes of state subjectification through the academy and the church, the works in the canon actually posit a tension between what the establishment is trying to do and what it means to be truly human as a critique of the establishment. (I suppose this is true of the biblical canon as well.)
In other words, read as Anglican theology, the English canon works to dislodge the church from state ideology. I don’t have time to now go back and re-read Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens (a non-Anglican who wrote an awful lot about Anglicans), among others, with you. But I trust that with this hermeneutic, you’ll find out why despite the best-laid plans, the Austen characters working through their comedy of manners always wind up with the least-expected guy. You’ll re-think the whole plot of Jane Eyre as a not-so-subtle critique of Anglican colonizing missions and its impulse to subjectification, ironically finding in the ‘establishment’ of Mr. Rochester the seeds of the colonial state’s relativization. You’ll get your aha moment when reading Middlemarch and finding out that Eliot’s critique of the Anglican establishment is in fact a relativization of the powers of the church co-opted by the state for the sake of political gain. And you will laugh incessantly (as I do) every time a beadle shows up in Dickens’s novels.
As I read the canon as Anglican theology, then, I have great hope that the oppressive modern establishment that styles itself as the face of Anglican Christianity can be dismantled, and the true Anglicanism that predates modern Anglicanism can once again be known as Anglican Christianity. In fact, I know it must be dismantled because of the conclusions of yet another literary scholar, René Girard.
If we were to read the founding of modern Anglicanism through a Girardian lens, we would find that much of what modern Anglicanism purports to be was founded on a series of original murders, namely the long consolidation of Tudor England as a culmination to the War of the Roses. But what if we take those founding myths and posit them not as foundational, but as merely an episode in the ongoing tension between church and state in English Christianity? What if we take the long view and see that since the Gregorian missions, and arguably before that, the church has always been in tension with the state? What if we see in English Christianity that the church co-opting the state and the state co-opting the church, and both of them being subjected to literary ridicule, is business as usual? What if we say that Henry VIII founded nothing, that Elizabeth I settled nothing, and that Anglican Christianity does not actually hinge on the state’s actions because of the long ecclesial literary tradition that predates it? In other words, what if we stop thinking that the state won its battle against Canterbury in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that we still remain in an ever-unfolding story of Anglican church-state relations?
OK, that was the best tabloid I could find. For the record, Islamophobia sucks. But that’s another post.
This is precisely what’s so fascinating about the very people who should be the face of modern Anglican Protestantism over the last fifty or so years. Since Michael Ramsey, there has been an increasing recognition on the parts of Archbishops of Canterbury, especially Rowan Williams and Justin Welby, that the church should not be tied to the crown, or indeed, to a construction of what British identity(courtesy of the state) should mean. This, I submit to you, was the point of the whole poobah when Rowan Williams came out and said that shari’a law should be recognized in the United Kingdom. Williams was taking apart the whole notion of an established British identity, saying that the United Kingdom needs to understand that the Isles have always been a complex space with many different groups and that it’s pointless to impose one law on all people, especially if there are fellow Muslim citizens. The response to Williams was outrage: how can an Archbishop of Canterbury say such a thing about British identity? Here’s how: by not believing that the founding myths of British sovereignty are true and by disentangling the church from its modern role as the arm of the state, returning it to its original, pre-modern tension with the powers. (Ditto Welby’s comments on the banking system. Ditto the weird game that Welby and the English bishops are playing on the same-sex marriage bill.)
Sorry, Newman, this probably annoys the hell out of you.
I recognize that this argument for a pre-modern/post-modern Anglicanism sounds dangerously close to some of the arguments in the Oxford Movement, and particularly that of John Henry Newman. If there’s something that predates the schism and thus de-legitimizes it, then shouldn’t we all hop over to Rome? Maybe, and so, people like Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins did.
The only thing, though, is that Newman and Hopkins lived during the height of the British Empire. We live in the wake of its collapse, a crisis that affords us Anglicans who do not believe that Henry VIII’s state-eats-church move was legitimate an opportunity to do something unheard of: work for Anglican-Catholic home reunion from the Anglican side of things.
Michael Ramsey and Paul VI. Good times.
Indeed, you could say that the reason there have been so many good and interesting Archbishops of Canterbury since William Temple forward (yeah, actually, Ramsey can’t take all the credit) is that they were all too clear that with the dissolution of the Empire, it made the church’s entanglement with the state look increasingly like nonsense and madness. With the advent of Vatican II, this disentanglement has been coupled with serious dialogue with Rome and the Orthodox Church, particularly in the conversation that Michael Ramsey started with Paul VI that has led to the very interesting work done by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), who have released statements that basically say that despite different theological language being used for the sticky theological issues between the two communions, Anglican theologians basically concur with their Catholic counterparts on the primacy of Rome and the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is the sticky issue of women’s ordinations and consecrations, as well as the status of LGBTQ+ populations in the communions, but I look forward to what ARCIC will do on this in years to come.
In other words, when I say that I’m staying in the Anglican Communion and when Churl says that he’s leaving for the Roman Catholic Church, we are saying pretty much the same thing. Churl is following Newman: having realized that the entire modern Anglican enterprise is basically a secular one, he is ready to jump ship into a Church where (as Charles Taylor points out) a real, full-bodied sacramental ontology is to be found. This is good and fair. But having read Newman, I’m not convinced that every Anglican who becomes convinced of what Churl has been convinced of must jump ship to Rome. If that were the case, I might ask: then how would the Anglican Communion keep being able to produce figures like Michael Ramsey, Rowan Williams, and Justin Welby? What we see is that in the English canon, Anglicanism has its own internal resources for undermining its own establishmentarianism. As this becomes undermined, the central question behind the Anglican-Roman Catholic schism will sound increasingly more ridiculous, and that is: can a state’s sovereign exert his rule over the church and her claim to channel one into mystical participation in the life of Christ? Of course not!
Francis: Hey, he’s giving away our secret. Justin: Don’t worry. The place I’ve reserved for him is secret too.
Then OK, if that’s so, then why continue the schism? Put another way: why can’t the Archbishop of Canterbury finally come home to Gregory? (Let me note that this is precisely what Justin Cantuar said to Pope Francis last week.) And put a final way: Churl and I are doing the same thing: we are working for the undermining of schism in different ways to which the Lord has called us. He will likely be going over to Rome; bless him. I will stay here in the Anglican Church. We both protest the notion that what is known as Anglicanism is founded on schism because, as the literary tradition suggests, this simply is not true. It is a state ideology. It should be disentangled from the work of the Body of Christ.
And thus, as we work for the truth on both sides of the Anglican-Roman Catholic conversation, who knows what will happen? I do not dare to predict the future. But know this: I’m an Anglican because I refuse to believe in schism. And since Anglicanism has its own resources for undermining schism, I’ll side with the long tradition of the Archbishops of Canterbury from Augustine to Justin who undermined the powers of the state (I forgot to say this earlier, but Cranmer also met a pretty ugly end when he finally ended up opposing the state). As a social scientist who loves his literature, I’ll also keep reading the canon that pokes fun at Anglican power wherever it rears its ugly head. I’ll stay right where I am and milk those traditions to the full, all in the hope against hope that one day, Anglicanism will cease to be a schismatic, self-referential modern identity and recognize its unique and vital contributions to the church catholic and the life of the world. Indeed, as I have suggested, this is already happening. It’s incumbent on me to join in.
So shouldn’t you go up for ordained Anglican ministry,then? Absolutely not. I’ll explain in Part 4. I might do some magic there too.
One of the strangest aspects of Dante is that his hell is not made up solely of types or famous exemplars or figures, but rather local no-names; even those who were famous in Dante’s time are usually not famous enough to be remembered by the average reader. Similarly, the text is entangled in a politics that now feels obscure – the pressing issues for Dante have become historical footnotes that most of us only know in fact on account of reading the Comedy. This can be annoying for readers; these matters can feel like the inside joke that alienates those not in the know. It is no wonder that such alienated readers have been put off by the text and accused Dante of bringing his own petty concerns into a theological system that ought to be treated as so much “higher”.
But I feel like there is something more than this that discomfits readers – or at least me – upon encountering Dante’s organization of hell. Simply put, I think that, if Dante’s purpose were simply to get catharsis by putting his opponents in hell, he would sound much more like Swift in his more embittered moments. Swift had good reason to be embittered, and much of it was turned to good use, but there are moments when, reading him, we find ourselves cringing at his unabashed spite in some of his caricatures. Dante is different though. We cringe for different reasons.
Particularly, I think we cringe because our encounter with Dante’s figures and politics drives home our own proximity to sin. Modern readers are manifestly comfortable with types and symbols and such because they can remain just that – one can imagine a manifestly proud person, or an unfaithful person etc. while at the same time making excuses for oneself regarding one’s own relation to such vices: “Clearly the Satanic arch-figure is evil, but in my case there are extenuating circumstances and things are so much more complex – there is environment and upbringing and genes etc. to account for…” What makes us uncomfortable about Dante though is that he does not offer us figures that can be magicked away into irrelevant ether. We (post)moderns are polite and non-judgmental in our approach to the characters in the Inferno, but I think this approach is not always so altruistic as we think: We judge not lest we realize that our neighbours might be sinners, which means that we too might be sinners too. This is something we don’t like to think about because, whether secular or Christian, we prefer to hide behind a mask of ostensible morality, and this often involves denying, even to ourselves, the extent of our sinfulness. This I think is not hard to see in Christian circles, what with the many scandals etc. that one encounters in which people have been seemingly living multiple disconnected lives. What I don’t think we as readily notice is that the same thing happens with whatever other so-called values we adopt in society: multiculturalism, environmentalism, liberty, equality, fraternity etc. Society becomes a self-justifying system such that it needs to destroy whatever threatens its facade of progress and good values – and the things that threaten it just happen to be sinners, that is, all of us. In making this claim, I am not I hope simply inventing charges, for it comes out of direct experience I have had with societal treatment of mental health. We are far more interested in demonstrating that we are helpful, and getting the attached funding and accolades, than we are in actually being helpful.
This of course leaves us with the question of what to do about all this muck that Dante dredges up in us. The answer is simple and swift in its striking:
In my second last post, I talked about the problem of imagination in Evangelical circles; in this post I want to talk about someone who is doing something to redress it, a modern English poet, priest, and scholar by the name of Malcolm Guite. Guite was brought to my attention about a month ago at a concert by Canadian singer/songwriter Steve Bell. At some point after the concert, I looked him up, and was duly impressed with what I found. He dares to write sonnets in the 21st Century. He has written a book on theology and imagination (which I need to order), and includes a discussion of Old English poetry. His work that I have thus far become most familiar with is his CD, “The Green Man.”
This CD has a lot of good things going for it, both from a literary and theological point of view. The title track is – at least I would argue – an oblique reference to Gawain’s green night interpreted as a synthesis of Christ and the personified fertility of nature (a little like Chesterton’s Thursday). Like Gawain’s Green Knight, this “green man” cannot be beaten no matter how careless his human foes are; the chorus states “If you cut me down, I’ll spring back green again.”
Guite’s reference to the green knight is typical of the rest of the album. He inhabits Biblical and literary phrases but puts his own slight enough twist on them to ensure they don’t become preachy or cliched. Though he lacks the cultural and politico-religious fabric from which poets such as Donne and Herbert wove their work, he nonetheless attempts to follow in their footsteps. “New TV” is a brilliant satire of modern society (no matter where you plug it in, you won’t get any love from your new TV), while “Our Lady of the Highway” takes Marian devotion to Highway 61 – and includes a good chunk of quotation from the Magnificat. “Open Door” is reminiscent of something Rich Mullins might have written, an infinite riff on the Biblical image of Christ as the door to heaven. “Angels Unawares” discovers grace in the midst of humble earthy romance, and “Texas Farewell” includes some treats for C. S. Lewis fans (I’ll let you discover those for yourself).
It is encouraging to me that people such as Malcolm Guite manage to exist somehow in the modern world; it is encouraging to see someone daring to imagine things outside of both secular narrowness and its cloned Evangelical narrowness so often found in Christian singer/songwriters. It is encouraging to find someone who measures time by liturgical seasons and sings about nature, whiskey, and God like some kind of Johnny Cash turned celtic. And it is in the hope of encouraging others that I share his website.
Dr. David Lyle Jeffrey was in Edmonton earlier this year serving as the keynote speaker for the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith’s conference on “The Humanities and the Christian Faith.” Dr. Jeffrey, a widely acclaimed scholar and Distinguished Professor of Literature and Humanities at Baylor University, is the author of such books as People of the Book and (with Dr. Gregor Maillet) InterVarsity Press’ 2011 book Christianity and Literature.
Dr. Jeffrey spoke on “the central role of Scripture and Scripture study in the formation of the Western humane disciplines and, in that way, the formation of western universities and colleges.” So, if the relationship between the Christian faith and the humanities is of interest to you, this is a video worth watching.