By Philipp Reisner
Research in religion and literature has become increasingly diverse in recent years, with specializations extending well beyond classical fields such as Christian metaphysical and Islamic Sufi poetry. Many of the texts published between 2015 and 2019 can be grouped loosely into the subfields of “Poetry,” “The Bible,” “Other Sacred Texts,” and “Literature.” In each of these categories one finds a wide range of studies, and the categories themselves exhibit overlapping themes: apologetic works that approach literature from denominational perspectives, often appealing implicitly to theology (more prevalent among poetic works and, to a lesser extent, in literary works); reception histories of religious texts, and studies of sacred scriptures that focus on language and literary structures; comparative literature studies of texts with religious dimensions; research into the premodern relation between religion and literature, including contemporary views of literature and the sacred texts later regarded as scriptural; and literary scholarship on religious language and motifs.
Poetry is of special relevance to the field of religion and literature. An excellent example—from a Catholic perspective—is Kevin Hart’s Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry. Here, Hart revives an old tradition of interpreting poetry phenomenologically, while developing a uniquely Catholic version of this approach in readings of Christian poets of Catholic backgrounds including T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Geoffrey Hill, Eugenio Montale, Judith Wright, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Reviewer Peder Jothen sees “the rethinking of the experience of revelation” at the center of Hart’s project, and that Hart is bent on making the experience of transcendence concrete and imminent. Jothen uncovers the common impetus of faith behind Hart’s poetic and theological work.
In Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age, Peter O’Leary contrasts contemporary poetry with the secularism of contemporary Western societies. He traces a poetic genealogy that begins with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, can be found in the works of Robinson Jeffers and Robert Duncan, and in that of contemporary writers such as Nathaniel Mackey, Pam Rehm, and Lissa Wolsak. In this depiction, O’Leary sheds light on an often obscured—but still central—spiritual impulse that has shaped the production and imagination of American poetry. He argues that religion has an important place in poetic expression. By devoting each chapter to the work of a single poet, O’Leary demonstrates how poets draw on a variety of traditions, including Catholicism, Gnosticism, the Kabbalah, and diverse forms of mysticism. Comparing this work to Philip Sidney’s 16th century Defense of Poesy, reviewer David Marno concludes “[w]hile Thick and Dazzling Darkness may not challenge anyone’s concept of religion or secularity in a historical or conceptual sense, it goes a long way in teaching us how to recognize a religious poem when we see one.”
Christina Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith is Emma Mason’s recent contribution in Oxford University Press’s new series Spiritual Lives, edited by Timothy Larsen, which offers perspectives on the somewhat neglected religious dimensions of the lives of famous figures of modernity. Mason examines the religious impulse driving the ecological dimensions of the oeuvre of Victorian poet Christina Rossetti. This study may be representative of a shift in scholarly biographies with regard to religion that has also marked recent publications in various fields in the humanities. Reviewer Eric Bontempo points out that Mason makes an important contribution not only to Rossetti scholarship, but also to scholarship on “feminism, animal studies, ecopoetics, ecotheology, and even posthumanism.”
In her collection of essays, The Baptized Muse: Early Christian Poetry as Cultural Authority, Karla Pollmann analyzes pedagogy and myth in the history of Judaism and the New Testament by surveying strategies used by late antique poets to establish authority and convey theological messages. The volume contains ten of Pollmann’s essays—some of which were previously only available in German—on late-antique Christian poetry composed in Latin, with a particular focus on questions of authority. Reviewer Michael Kochenash finds “little to contest in this erudite volume.”
In Imagine Romes: The Ancient City and Its Stories in Middle English Poetry, author C. David Benson addresses a crucial lacuna in the scholarship of Rome in the medieval imaginary, and provides fresh perspectives on the work of four of the most prominent Middle English poets. Benson analyzes the variety of ways that Rome and its citizens—both pre-Christian and Christian—are presented in a range of Middle English poems, from lesser-known anonymous works, to the poetry of John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, and John Lydgate. A review by Sean Ryan is forthcoming.
Editors J. Blake Couey and Elaine T. James have assembled fifteen essays in Biblical Poetry and the Art of Close Reading focusing on the Hebrew Bible, especially the Psalms, Proverbs, and Prophets. They invite readers to discover for themselves the presence of the Hebrew Bible in literature. In her review, Rebecca W. Poe Hays points to Couey and James’s observation that lingering over the biblical texts “constitutes a decidedly counter-cultural activity in our present cultural moment.” Hays concludes that “those willing to linger with these texts will readily see the fruit of such a project.”
Biblical poetry is also treated from other perspectives, most notably, in Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on its Own Terms. Here, Jacqueline Vayntrub demonstrates the significance of thinking about the generic characteristics of the biblical text itself, opening new facets in our understanding of oral literature, poetry, and history as they present themselves in Scripture. She shows how biblical poetry has worked as a mirror, reflecting each era’s own self-image of verbal art. Caley Smith is reviewing this title.
It may be a testimony to the vibrancy of the field of poetics that some authors even suggest establishing new academic disciplines, such as Francesca Bugliani Knox and David Lonsdale in their edited volume, Poetry and the Religious Imagination: The Power of the Word. The editors claim that the religious imagination is a new field emerging from our attempt to understand the ongoing dialogue between poetry and religion, and literature and theology, especially in the areas of philosophy of religion, and the history of Christianity. They have gathered fourteen essays that were presented at a 2011 conference aimed at generating a text-based discussion about how theology and literature may come into dialogue while retaining mutual autonomy. The book engages major literary figures such as Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, St. Ignatius, Thomas Stearns Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke, Denise Levertov, and Henry Constable. According to reviewer Charles G. Conway, the intent is to “establish that these poets, explicitly or implicitly, evince a religious imagination, even touching on mysticism and devotional prayer on occasion,” although he questions “whether sufficient distinction is drawn between religion as the primary, antecedent symbolic system and theology as the consequent intellectual reflection on the former.”
Too seldom does the field of religion and literature reflect upon the poetic nature of other sacred texts. An exception is The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India—a 3-volume set edited by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton in the Oxford University Press series on South Asia Research focusing on the arduous task of translation by offering a new rendering of the literary Sanskrit of the entire Rig Veda into English. The third volume contains a detailed bibliography and a tabulation of different hymns and poets. The editors’s emphasis on the hymnic quality of the text offers ample opportunity for comparative work as well as further translations. According to reviewer Swami Narasimhananda—a monk of Ramakrishna Math and Mission—this work will remind scholars “to work on more accessible and legible translations of the Rig Veda. As far as this text is concerned, the translations have to be more, if the readings are to be merrier.”
A significant number of recent poetry studies and editions have dealt with medieval India. In The Flight of Love: A Messenger Poem of Medieval South India by Venkatanatha, Steven P. Hopkins focuses on the South Indian poem Haṃsasandeśa, which can be used to explore societal views on emotions, relationships, and location. This new translation and commentary offers an example of the growing scholarship on Sanskrit literature, poetry, and sacred landscapes. The piece, which is heavily rooted in South Indian tradition and the legacy of the Sanskrit epic poem Ramayana, inspires love, devotion, and theology. According to reviewer Anjeanette LeBoeuf, this poem provides “a clear view into a specific messenger poem that is full of fanciful and lyrical depictions that makes it much more than merely a long-forgotten poem.”
In Religious Devotion and the Poetics of Reform: Love and Liberation in Malayalam Poetry, George Pati examines the poetry emanating from the bhakti tradition of devotional love in India—as both religious expression and a form of resistance to hierarchies of caste, gender, and colonialism. Pati argues that the declarations of love and piety found in this poetry can simultaneously represent efforts towards emancipation at the spiritual, political, and social levels. Through a close study of Naḷini (1911), a Malayalam lyric poem—as well as other poems authored by Mahākavi Kumāran Āśān (1873–1924), a low-caste Kerala poet—Pati demonstrates how Āśān employed a theme of love among humans during the modern period in Kerala that was grounded in the native South Indian bhakti understanding of love of the deity.
In a recent addition to the series Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs, Rembert Lutjeharms’s A Vaiṣṇava Poet in Early Modern Bengal: Kavikarṇapūra’s Splendour of Speech presents an overview of the late medieval to early modern period (1400–1600) in north and eastern South Asia focusing on the devotional group that developed around the Bengali religious leader Caitanya (1486–1533). Lutjeharms challenges Sukumar Sen’s critique of the poet as overusing certain stylistic features and therefore branding him a scholastic writer as opposed to a literary figure. Bestowed on him by Caitanya, Kavikarṇapūra’s title “The Ear-Ornament of Poets,” illustrated the ways in which he uses poetic ornaments and style rather than explicit theological reasoning to bring his audience into the affective textures of his religious vision. As reviewer Jeremy Hanes makes clear, appreciating the powerful argument made in this book, “Lutjeharms argues for Kavikarṇapūra’s significance to a separate Bengali lineage of the Gauḍīya theology and aesthetics far removed from the practice and textual production of the Gosvāminsin Vraja—now in Braj—Uttar Pradesh in North India.”
In Language between God and the Poets: Ma‘na in the Eleventh Century, a new addition to the Berkeley Series in Postclassical Islamic Scholarship, Alexander Key examines how 11th-century Arabic scholars were intensely preoccupied with the way that language generated truth and beauty. According to Key, their work in poetics, logic, theology, and lexicography defined the intellectual space between God and the poets. Key argues that ar-Raghib al-Isfahani, Ibn Furak, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani shared a conceptual vocabulary based on the words ma‘na and haqiqah. They used this vocabulary to build theories of language, mind, and reality that answered perennial questions: how to structure language and reference, describe God, construct logical arguments, and explain poetic affect. Ali Altaf Mian’s review is forthcoming.
Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr is the first authoritative translation of the Arabic poetry of Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, an early Sufi mystic. Despite his execution in Baghdad in 922 and the subsequent suppression of his work, Hallaj left an enduring literary and spiritual legacy that continues to inspire readers around the world. In Hallaj, Carl W. Ernst offers a definitive collection of 117 of Hallaj’s poems expertly translated for contemporary readers interested in Middle Eastern and Sufi poetry and spirituality. Scott Kugle is reviewing this title.
In a further contribution to the growing field of Sufi studies, Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition, Omid Safi “collects and translates a diverse range of ecstatic and sensual Sufi poems in his effort to disentangle the Western Academy’s representation of Islam as a dry and legalistic religion.” As reviewer Ilma Qureshi concludes, “Radical Love is a fresh and welcome addition to currently available translations of Islamic mystical literature and amongst a handful of translations available to the general public that highlights the Islamic roots of Sufi poetry … unique in its form and method, it is a delightful read and beautiful foray into the Islamic mystical tradition.”
The two Muslim poets featured in Scott Kugle’s comparative study When Sun Meets Moon: Gender, Eros, and Ecstasy in Urdu Poetry, lived separate lives during the 18th and early 19th centuries in the Deccan region of southern India. Here, they meet in the realm of literary imagination, illuminating the complexity of gender, sexuality, and religious practice in South Asian Islamic culture. Shah Siraj Awrangabadi (1715–1763)—known as “Sun”—was a Sunni who, after a youthful homosexual love affair, gave up sexual relationships to follow a path of personal holiness. Mah Laqa Bai Chanda (1768–1820)—known as “Moon”—was a Shi‘i and courtesan dancer who transferred her seduction of men to the pursuit of mystical love. Both were poets in the Urdu language of the ghazal, or love lyric, often fusing a spiritual quest with erotic imagery. Kugle argues that Sun and Moon expressed through their poetry exceptions to the general rules of heteronormativity and gender inequality common in their patriarchal societies. Their art provides a lens for a more subtle understanding of both the reach and the limitations of gender roles in Islamic and South Asian culture, and underscores how the arts of poetry, music, and dance are integral to Islamic religious life. Integrated throughout are Kugle’s translations of Urdu and Persian poetry previously unavailable in English, thus continuing the work begun in such collections as M.A.R. Habib’s An Anthology of Modern Urdu Poetry: In English Translation, with Urdu Text (The Modern Language Association of America, 2004). Arthur Dudney’s review is forthcoming.
Early modern poetry continues to provide a fruitful ground for scholarship; it performs crucial functions in the transition to modernity at the intersection of aesthetics, politics, and theology. Several recent publications make this point clear. In Conflicts of Devotion: Liturgical Poetics in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England, Daniel R. Gibbons contributes to the burgeoning field of studies on the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer as does Brian Cummings with his recent addition to the Oxford University Press series Very Short Introductions, The Book of Common Prayer: A Very Short Introduction. Whereas Cummings gives a general overview, from its beginnings in 1540 to the present, of a text that is today a global, cultural symbol, Gibbons investigates the rhetoric of communion and mourning in 16th– and 17th-century post-Reformation British poetry, examining the accommodating and excluding rhetoric of the Book. Focusing on the metaphysical poets, Gibbons demonstrates—as reviewer Laura Ketrine Skinnebach notes—that rhetorical strategies were “integrated and absorbed into the matrix of liturgical poetics.” Despite the differing denominational views of the poets selected, Gibbons argues that confessional categories such as Protestant, Catholic, Puritan, and Anglican were porous. A his review of Cummings’s text, reviewer Tanner J. Moore claims that “Cummings does an excellent job placing The Book of Common Prayer within its historical context.”
Beyond the historical, liturgical, and denominational aspects of their writings, the metaphysical poets continue to be a reference point in our understanding of religion and literature, for their work displays exceptional aesthetic refinement, and offers insight into devotional practice. Constance M. Furey examines early Protestant poems by the metaphysical poets in which a single speaker describes a solitary search for God. In Poetic Relations: Intimacy and Faith in the English Reformation, she points to the intimate relation between poetry and prayer that continues to mark most contemporary poetry of the sacred. Stephanie Seery-Murphy is reviewing this title.
In Secular Chains: Poetry & the Politics of Religion from Milton to Pope (Oxford University Press, 2016), Philip Connell shows how poetry—from John Milton to Alexander Pope—was a contested discursive category in its own right that reveals much about religion during a period defined by political and ecclesiastical unrest. The study takes its title from Milton’s 1652 condemnation of the “secular chaines,” which the revolutionary church used to impose religious forms on the free conscience. This book focuses on historical revisions of the period around 1700—a period that, while generally neglected, is significant for the political dimension of poetically inflected religious expression.
Recent publications reaffirm that early modernity continues to be a significant pivotal moment for studies on the Bible, including both its translations and its reception. The Bible on the Shakespearean Stage: Cultures of Interpretation in Reformation England, edited by Thomas Fulton and Kristen Poole, is an example of the renewed interest in the biblical dimension of William Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The renowned scholars who penned articles for this volume examine the omnipresence of the Bible in Shakespeare’s world, including its influence on the Elizabethan stage. They also analyze the interplay of biblical forms and other genres such as the theatrical enactment of biblical hermeneutics and social ritual. Philipp Reisner’s review is forthcoming.
An even more voluminous study touching upon this crucial period of biblical reception is the reference work, The New Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 3: From 1450 to 1750, edited by Euan Cameron. This third of four volumes contains contributions from both established Renaissance and Reformation scholars, touching upon humanism, Bible translation, early modern commentaries, catechesis, homiletics and liturgy in the context of confessionalization, early modern science, colonialism, and culture. A review by Marvin Sweeney is forthcoming.
The fourth volume of this work, The New Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 4: From 1750 to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2015), edited by John Riches, begins with a treatment of the production and distribution of the Bible. It discusses publishers, printers, text critics, and translators, as well as presenting new methods of studying the text, including historical, literary, social-scientific, feminist, postcolonial, liberal, and fundamentalist readings. In twenty-eight chapters, the volume surveys the reception of the Bible in modernity with a focus on geography and denominations. Volume 4 offers an overview of the Bible in relation to literature, art, film, science, as well as other disciplines, demonstrating that, in spite of challenges to the Bible’s authority in Western Europe, it remains highly relevant and influential, not least in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
In The Hebrew Bible As Literature: A Very Short Introduction, Tod Linafelt offers a much more condensed study, focusing on the reception of the biblical text in literature as well as the literary aspects of the biblical text itself. He introduces his readers to the Bible’s two primary literary modes—narrative and poetry—foregrounding the nuances of plot, character, metaphor, structure and design, and intertextual allusions, thus providing readers with tools to fully experience and appreciate the Old Testament’s literary achievement. Kevin Scott is reviewing this title.
Other Sacred Texts
In recent years it has become clear that there is a need for more publications in English on other sacred texts. It will be exciting to see how scholars of other traditions take on this daunting task, and to what extent instrumentalizations of Asian traditions by Western Christianity will be supplanted by English-language scholarship from outside the Christian realm.
In Reciting the Goddess: Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism in Nepal, Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz presents the first critical study of the Svasthānīvratakathā—the textual tradition of the Hindu goddess Svasthānī—offering an English translation, as well as the original text in the appendix. Dolores Zoé Bertschinger points out in her review that Birkenholtz’s philological approach is textual-historical as well as ethnographic, “encompassing the many faces of one of the most popular religious traditions in Nepal.” The Svasthānīvratakathā and its ritual tradition “serve as a lens through which Birkenholtz explores the making of modern Hinduism in Nepal, especially its propagation as a ‘Hindu Kingdom’ vis-à-vis Hindu identities elsewhere in the region.”
Princeton’s new series—Lives of Great Religious Books—showcases a balanced selection of sacred texts from East and West, including The Talmud, The Song of Songs, The Book of Revelation, The Book of Exodus, and The Koran in English (though misleadingly juxtaposing Western Christianity to a non-Christian East). For example, Donald S. Lopez, Jr. examines The “Lotus Sūtra”: A Biography, tracing the global reception of this Buddhist sacred text from South Asia. According to reviewer James A. Benn, the readers are “in the hands of a skilled and knowledgeable storyteller” who succeeds in presenting this important text to a non-specialist audience. Lopez shows that “the story of the Lotus Sūtra in Europe and North America is just as complex as its reception history within Asia.”
Ann A. Pang-White’s The Confucian Four Books for Women: A New Translation of the Nü Sishu and the Commentary of Wang Xiang presents the first English translation of the Confucian classics, Confucian Four Books for Women, with extensive commentary by the compiler, Wang Xiang, and introductions and annotations by the translator. Written by women for women’s education, the Confucian Four Books for Women spanned the 1st to the 16th centuries, and encompass Ban Zhao’s Lessons for Women, Song Ruoxin’s and Song Ruozhao’s Analects for Women, Empress Renxiaowen’s Teachings for the Inner Court, and Madame Liu’s (Chaste Widow Wang’s) Short Records of Models for Women. Pang-White’s work thus makes a substantial thematic group of Confucian texts available in English for the first time. A review by Sarah A. Mattice is forthcoming.
A Feast of Nectar of the Supreme Vehicle: An Explanation of the Ornament of the Mahāyāna Sutras by Jamgön Mipham Asanga and the Padmakara Translation Group, with a foreword by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, offers access to this Indian Buddhist classic, written by one of the great luminaries of Tibetan Buddhism in modern times, Mipham (1846–1912). Mipham has had a dominant and vitalizing influence on the Nyingma School and was an important member of the Rimé tradition. Due to his brilliance and versatility as a scholar, his translated works are eagerly anticipated by English-language readers. As reviewer Edward Arnold concludes, “given the importance of the root text, the volume is a must-read for students of Mahāyāna Buddhism.”
As reviewer Kate Hartmann makes clear, Andy Rotman’s second volume of translations of the Divyāvadāna, Divine Stories: Divyavadana, Part 2 (a work of the northern Buddhist tradition), is a “treasure chest of lucid and entertaining stories that will be of great use and enjoyment to scholars, students, and general audiences alike. The stories in this Indian Buddhist collection were likely used to teach monks and laypeople for centuries, and artistic depictions of the narratives can be found as far afield as Kizil in China and Borobudur in Indonesia. While scholars have long known that these stories are important, Rotman is the first to make most of them available in a European language.”
Mark Z. Christensen contributes to The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies with his text on The Teabo Manuscript: Maya Christian Copybooks, Chilam Balams, and Native Text Production in Yucatán, a 19th-/20th-century manuscript from the town of Teabo, on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, made available for the first time. According to reviewer Catherine Nuckols-Wilde, who joins a series of positive reviews of this work, “from the structure of the book to the analytical execution, Christensen has done an excellent job of allowing the Teabo Manuscript to speak for itself and tell the story recorded within it.”
Beyond these specialist studies, editions, and new translations, efforts to think more generally about the status, roles, and functioning of scripture are underway. In Scripturalectics: The Management of Meaning, Vincent L. Wimbush introduces the new concept of “scripturalectics,” constructing and modeling a new transdisciplinary project using “scriptures” as cultural phenomena and dynamics. This volume constitutes the second entry in Wimbush’s planned multi-volume project centering on reimagining the study of scriptures and cultures as a “critical project in historical social formation, using African diaspora experiences and expressivities and politics to think with.” As reviewer Davina C. Lopez points out, “Scripturalectics offers a rigorous proposal that refocuses attention from texts to power relations, from disciplinary exegesis and apologetics to interdisciplinary interrogations of worldview formation, and from affirming the stability of textual meanings and practices to noticing ruptures in knowledge construction and reification.”
The first two titles in the following overview reveal the tension characterizing the field of religion and literature (in contrast to poetry): here, studies oscillate between close readings at the expense of a larger perspective—or only deploy a vague vision of religion and the Bible to start with—and readings that instrumentalize literature for broad cultural and political histories. The future of this field will depend on intelligently bridging this divide requiring, to some extent, an emancipation of philology and theology from cultural (and political) history.
In Arabic Thought Against the Authoritarian Age: Towards an Intellectual History of the Present, editors Jens Hanssen and Max Weiss assemble sixteen contributions on the role of Arab intellectuals in 20th-century culture, political dimensions such as culture and ideology in the shadow of authoritarianism, and recent liberation movements such as the “Arab Spring” in the face of contemporary neoliberalism. Focusing on popular and political culture, the essays deal with diverse topics such as poetry, intellectual history, political philosophy, religious reform, and cultural resilience throughout the Arab world, from Morocco to the Gulf States.
Douglas E. Cowan surveys the well-known religious and existential themes of a bestselling author in America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King. In reference to works such as Carrie, The Dead Zone, Misery, and The Shining, Cowan explores the religious imagery, themes, characters, and, most importantly, questions that haunt King’s horror stories, revealing a writer skeptical of religious belief. Describing himself as a “fallen away” Methodist, King is less concerned with providing answers to questions, than challenging both those who claim to have answers—and the answers they proclaim. According to reviewer Melissa Schmeltzer, Cowan “correctly sees King exploring questions that religion attempts to answer about the nature of reality, the relationship between the seen and unseen world, managing the forces of good and evil, the nature of faith, and the function of ritual.”
In Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us about Evolution, Michael Ruse argues that Darwinism should be understood as a secular religion. Reviewer Erkki Vesa Rope Kojonen points out that Ruse avoids the “difficult analytical task of giving a universal definition of ‘religion.’” Instead, he argues that there exists a religious perspective on Darwinism, and its influence can be studied by analyzing literature.
A significant number of studies have been published recently on the work of C.S. Lewis (who also figures in Ruse’s study, albeit as an antagonist), thus testifying to the lasting significance of his work—both for evangelical Christianity in particular, and Western spirituality in general. In Reading C.S. Lewis: A Commentary, Wesley A. Kort attempts to define Lewis’s overall aim as a critique of modernity from the point of view of Christian theology. As reviewer Elissa Cutter makes clear, this work is directed at an American audience, as Kort focuses on Lewis’s reception in the US and discusses ways in which Lewis’s views contrast with modern American perspectives.
Focusing on Lewis’s reception in Britain, Stephanie L. Derrick recounts the author’s childhood to the present in The Fame of C.S. Lewis: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America. In C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”: A Biography, a recent addition to Princeton’s Lives of Great Religious Books, George M. Marsden chronicles the lasting significance of Lewis’s most famous and influential work on religion. Reviewer Mark S.M. Scott concludes that, “as a convert from atheism to Christianity, Lewis’s story perennially resonates with new generations of skeptics, spiritual questers, and apologists,” while “his wartime exposition of the faith, Mere Christianity, continues to stimulate conversation and controversy.” Lewis’s impact on theology—similar to the impact that German theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann have had—is undeniably linked to the experience and interpretation of wartime experiences.
The Art of Bible Translation is Robert Alter’s latest work in the field of biblical translation. He presents an updated survey of his personal experience during the two decades it took him to complete his own translation of the Bible, noting the powerful and subtle literary style of the biblical Hebrew that is essential to religious communication. His work is essential reading for those both interested in biblical studies and literary translation. Jonathan Homrighausen is currently reviewing this title. Alter’s biblical translation, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018) has since been published in a 3-volume edition that seeks to recreate the literariness of the original texts while offering detailed commentary on the text and the translation process. Whether or not it is ultimately a success, this one-person translation endeavor is certainly a remarkable literary feat, offering a contrast to the famous collective translations that accommodate more critical perspectives on translation.
Angelika Neuwirth presents a summa of her work on the Qur’an previously only available in disparate sources in Scripture, Poetry and the Making of a Community: Reading the Qur’an as a Literary Text. Some of the essays gathered here have been translated from the German for the first time. Neuwirth deals with questions of Qur’anic origins, tracing the history of this broad field of research, the understanding of sin in the Qur’anic community, and the meaning of Mary and Jesus to the early Muslim world. The interactive communication process between Muhammad and these groups brought about an epistemic turn in Arab Late Antiquity: with the Qur’anic discovery of writing as the ultimate authority, the nascent community attained a new “textual coherence” where Scripture, with its valorization of history and memory, was recognized as a guiding concept. It is within this new biblically imprinted worldview that central principles and values of the pagan Arab milieu were debated. This process resulted in a twin achievement: the genesis of a new scripture and the emergence of a community. Two great traditions, the biblical, transmitted by both Jews and Christians, and the local Arabic, represented in Ancient Arabic poetry, appear to have established the field of tension from which the Qur’an evolved; both Scripture and Poetry have produced and shaped the new Muslim community.
As reviewer Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger notes, in Jewish and Christian Voices in English Reformation Biblical Drama: Enacting Family and Monarchy, Chanita Goodblatt “argues that biblical drama from early modern England—specifically, plays based on narratives from the Hebrew Bible—responded interpretively to exegetical cruxes in the scriptural text. The plays themselves, she argues, offer interpretations which were linked to a newfound Protestant interest in the literal meaning of scripture, as opposed to older dramatic presentations (such as medieval mystery plays) which highlighted figurative interpretations of scripture.” Focusing on The Enterlude of Godly Queene Hester (1529–30), The Historie of Jacob and Esau (1552–53), and The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe (1594), Goldblatt examines their “intertextuality,” an approach that Harkaway-Krieger finds “under-theorized.” Nevertheless, she concludes, “Goodblatt’s efforts will be useful for those interested in the study of literature and religion more broadly, as it helpfully demonstrates the complex ways in which texts from different religious traditions and varying genres can be linked.”
Cia Sautter highlights the importance of religious drama in popularizing faith, and reflects on its social dimension, in her short study The Performance of Religion: Seeing the Sacred in the Theatre. By examining the Elizabethan stage, Sautter argues that the burgeoning field of performance studies has much to contribute towards correcting mistaken views of (early) modern secular culture, for which new research on the religious functions and dimensions of theater will play a decisive role. As reviewer Claire Maria Chambers concludes, “Sautter succeeds in formulating an adaptable vocabulary for discussing the heady and chaotic intersections between performance and religion by offering ‘sacred values’ as a framework that can support the many colorful facets of living experiences, and she clearly articulates that the question of sacred values as performed in culture and the arts is a necessary and powerful one.”
In Rāja Yudhisthira: Kingship in Epic Mahabhārata, Kevin McGrath contributes to the history of Hinduism by bringing his comprehensive literary, ethnographic, and analytical knowledge of the epic Mahabhārata to bear on the representation of kingship in the poem. The Mahabhārata (Sanskrit: Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty) is one of the two Sanskrit epic poems of ancient India (the other being the Rāmāyana). McGrath shows how the preliterate Great Bharata song depicts both archaic and classical models of kingly and premonetary polity and how the king becomes a ruler who is viewed as ritually divine. A review by Brian Campbell is forthcoming.
Love’s Subtle Magic: An Indian Islamic Literary Tradition, 1379–1545, by the late Aditya Behl (1966–2009), and edited by Wendy Doniger, discusses the little-understood genre of Sufi literature to redraw the map of the evolution of Indian culture during the earliest period of Muslim domination in India. Reviewer Ali Altaf Mian contextualizes the work in a group of recent accounts trying to convey a different picture, concluding that “the communalist discourse of colonial India posited Hindi and Urdu as the national languages of Hindus and Muslims, respectively. According to this essentialist linguistic schema, modern-day Hindi is an indigenous language rooted in Hindavi but Urdu is a foreign tongue rooted in Persian and Arabic. Behl’s meticulous study debunks this linguistic schema, for he takes us to a time and place when Muslim poets spoke and composed in Hindavi and utilized indigenous motifs and symbols from the rich cultural-religious landscape of North India. In similar ways, Audrey Truschke’s Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Moghul Court (Columbia University Press, 2016) and Rajeev Kinra’s Writing Self, Writing Empire: Chandan Bhan Brahman and the Cultural World of the Indo-Persian State Secretary (University of California Press, 2015) challenge the linguistic essentialism besetting Muslim/Pakistani and Hindu/Indian nationalist historiographies.”
Tony K. Stewart’s Witness to Marvels: Sufism and Literary Imagination (University of California Press, 2019) is an examination of the vast body of literature in Bengali on fictional Sufi saints, and the complex mythological world of Hindu gods and goddesses. Dating to the 16th century, the stories—pir katha—are still widely read and performed today. These stories provide insight into how Islam habituated itself into the cultural life of the Bangla-speaking world. In Witness to Marvels, Stewart unearths the dazzling tales of Sufi saints to signal a bold new perspective on the subtle ways Islam assumed its distinctive form in Bengal, challenging our understanding of how the religion spread in the region.
The Islamic Lineage of American Literary Culture: Muslim Sources from the Revolution to Reconstruction by Jeffrey Einboden serves as another example that, within the field of Sufi studies, the impact of Sufism on American culture and literature is in a special phase of transition. As reviewer Irfana M. Hashmi emphasizes, this work “encourages readers to revisit the works of iconic American writers” such as Ezra Stiles, William Bentley, Washington Irving, Lydia Maria Childs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—although she deems the links forged between these authors forced at times—and “consider the enduring legacy of Muslim sources on American literature.”
The story of Mulian rescuing his mother’s soul from hell has evolved as a narrative over several centuries in China, especially in the baojuan (precious scrolls) genre. This genre, a prosimetric narrative in vernacular language, first appeared around the 14th century and endures as a living tradition. In exploring the evolution of the Mulian story in Many Faces of Mulian: The Precious Scrolls of Late Imperial China, Rostislav Berezkin illuminates changes in the literary and religious characteristics of the genre. He also examines material from other forms of Chinese literature and from modern performances of baojuan, tracing their transformation from tools of Buddhist proselytizing to sectarian propaganda to folk ritualized storytelling. Ultimately, Berezkin reveals the special features of baojuan as a type of performance literature that had its foundations in multiple literary traditions. Randall Nadeau is reviewing this title.
According to reviewer Miranda Arocha Smith, in Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet, Holly Gayley offers an “accessible and gripping account of the correspondence and activities of eminent tantric couple Khandro Tāre Lhamo (1938–2002) and Namtrul Jigme Phuntsok (1944–2011), who, along with a nexus of Nyingma leaders, helped to spearhead the revitalization of Buddhism in Golok from the 1980s forward. Gayley offers a welcome gendered intervention to Tibetan sources and Western scholarship, which tend to overlook the contributions of Buddhist women to Tibetan history. Grounded in feminist impulse, Gayley foregrounds Tāre Lhamo in her analysis, calling attention to gender in representations of agency, and recovering female contributions to the revitalization of Buddhism in the post-Mao era.”
Tim Frandy, a member of the Sámi American community who has been active in Indigenous cultural revitalization movements in North America and Scandinavia, offers the most comprehensive collection of Sámi oral tradition available in English to date in Inari Sámi Folklore: Stories from Aanaar, a rich multivoiced anthology of folktales, legends, joik songs, proverbs, riddles, and other verbal art. Collected by August V. Koskimies and Toivo I. Itkonen in the 1880s from nearly two dozen storytellers in the arctic Aanaar (Inari) region of northeast Finland, the material reveals a complex web of social relations that existed both inside and far beyond the community. First published in 1918 only in the Aanaar Sámi language and in Finnish, this anthology is now available in a centennial English-language edition for a global readership. Frandy has added biographies of the storytellers, maps and period photos, annotations, and a glossary. Pasi Enges’s review is forthcoming.
In Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman presents his version of the great Norse myths. Reviewer Kat Eason, however, is critical: “if you are a fan of Neil Gaiman, or a collector of Norse myths, you may want Norse Mythology for your collection. But for a reader who wants a comprehensive collection of Norse mythology, or even a good introduction to the breadth of material, there are more satisfying, accurate, and interesting versions of the myths available.”
In Invisible Reality: Storytellers, Storytakers, and the Supernatural World of the Blackfeet, Rosalyn R. LaPier offers an account of the Amskapi Pikuni people, and their transition from traditional life precipitated by Western incursion into the northern Great Plains in the latter 19th century. In this award-winning book, LaPier demonstrates that Blackfeet history is incomplete without an understanding of the Blackfeet people’s relationship and mode of interaction with the “invisible reality” of the supernatural world. Religious beliefs provided the Blackfeet with continuity through privations and changing times. Reviewer Robin Nurnberger commends LaPier’s contribution to ethnobotany given that “previous ethno-botanical volumes published by Western scholars have failed to document the range of plants known to the Blackfeet and their methods of collection, storage, and use.”
Beyond these specialist studies, editions, and personal accounts, several collected works surveying the field of religion and literature have appeared recently, for example, Susan M. Felch’s The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Religion. According to reviewer Larry D. Bouchard, the sixteen contributions on reading practices—on general topics such as “imagination,” “sacrifice,” and “repetition,” and on various traditions of faith “guide us into a vast interdiscipline.” Bouchard finds it “most companionable” that each essay examines mainly one literary work, even as they, on the whole, “both encourage and caution literary-religious traveling.”
In Literature and Religion in the German-Speaking World: From 1200 to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2019), editors Ian Cooper and John Walker have assembled a more specialized and focused, yet no less important, collection of essays on the special relationship between literature and religion in German. As the editors note, this relationship is unique in the European tradition, is essential to German, Austrian, and Swiss cultural identities in both the Protestant and Catholic traditions, and crucial to our understanding of what has been called the “special path” of German intellectual life.
An even more specialized study is Lisa O’Connel’s Origins of the English Marriage Plot: Literature, Politics and Religion in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2019), in which Connell analyzes why marriage became central to the English novel in the 18th century. As clandestine weddings and the unruly culture that surrounded them began to threaten power and property, questions about marriage became urgent matters of public debate. Resistance to the Marriage Act of 1753, according to which Anglican church weddings were the only legal form of marriage, fuelled a new kind of realist marriage plot in England, and helped to produce political radicalism as we know it. O’Connell traces this development in works by authors from Samuel Richardson to Jane Austen.
Also focusing on the 18th century is Matthew H. Pangborn’s Enlightenment Orientalism in the American Mind, 1770–1807 (Routledge, 2018). Pangborn eruditely introduces his readers to German history, biblical studies, and modern nationalism while engaging with the emerging field of energy humanities. He provides close readings of several early American oriental-observer tales, which enabled Americans to critically assess new ideas of identity, history, and nationality that accompanied protoindustrialization and a growing consumerism. The tales express a complex self-reflection during a time when America’s exploitation of its energy resources, and its engagement in a Franco-British world system, were transforming the daily life of its citizens. Pangborn argues that the genre of the oriental observer presents glimpses of a nation becoming strange in the eyes of its own inhabitants.
In Imagining Religious Toleration: A Literary History of an Idea, 1600–1830 (University of Toronto Press, 2019), editors Alison Conway and David Alvarez come to the conclusion that current debates on religious toleration have come to a standstill. In investigating the 18th-century novel, they shed light on what literature can say about toleration, and how it can produce and manage feelings of tolerance and intolerance.
Kierkegaard, Literature, and the Arts, edited by Eric Ziolkowski, sheds light on the broad—and often underappreciated—work of the 19th-century Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard. The fifteen essays explore Kierkegaard’s relationship to literature (poetry, prose, and storytelling), the performing arts (theater, music, opera, and dance), and the visual arts, including film. A comparative section considers Kierkegaard in juxtaposition with William Blake, Arnold Schoenberg, and Bob Dylan. As reviewer Patrick Derdall emphasizes, “devotional literature is Kierkegaard’s commanding model,” an attitude that resonates throughout the diverse perspectives taken in this collection.
In Transfiguration: The Religion of Art in Nineteenth-Century Literature Before Aestheticism (Oxford University Press, 2016), Stephen Cheeke explores the works of John Ruskin, Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Walter Pater, treating in particular the ways they engaged with Christian motifs in art, and, in Pater’s case, how the art of Christianity was contrasted with classical sculpture.
Adam Kirsch offers an equally diverse exploration of the work of significant authors and contemporary poets such as Stefan Zweig, Isaac Deutscher, Christian Wiman, Kay Ryan, and Seamus Heaney in his collection of thirteen essays Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? And Other Essays, exploring the ethics and politics of Judaism. His final essay asks “Is There Such a Thing as Jewish Literature?”
In a similar vein, in Passing Fancies in Jewish American Literature and Culture, Judith Ruderman takes on the fraught question of who passes for Jewish in American literature and culture. Looking at a carefully chosen set of texts from American literature, Ruderman elaborates on the strategies Jews have used to “pass” from the late 19th century to the present—nose jobs, renaming, clothing changes, religious and racial reclassification, and even playing baseball. While traversing racial and religious identities has always been a feature of America’s nation of immigrants, Ruderman shows how the complexities of identity formation and deformation are critically relevant during this important cultural moment.
In The First Book of Jewish Jokes: The Collection of L.M. Büschenthal, Elliott Oring asks what formed the basis for our contemporary notions of Jewish jokes in a publishing landscape that abounds with works on Jewish humor. In this edition, with translations by Michaela Lang, Oring introduces us to the joke collections of Lippmann Moses Büschenthal (1784–1818), an enlightened rabbi, and an unknown author writing as “Judas Ascher.” Originally published in German in 1812 (in Elberfeld as Sammlung witziger Einfälle von Juden. Als Beiträge zur Charakteristik der Nation) and 1810 (in Leipzig as Der Judenfreund: oder auserlesene Anekdoten, Schwänke und Einfälle von den Kindern Israels), these books include jokes and anecdotes that play on stereotypes. The jokes depict Jews dealing with Gentiles bent on their conversion, Jews encountering government officials and institutions, newly propertied Jews attempting to demonstrate their acquisition of artistic and philosophical knowledge, and Jews engaged in trade and moneylending—often with the aim to defraud. In these jokes we see the antecedents of modern Jewish humor, and in Büschenthal’s brief introduction we find perhaps the earliest theory of the Jewish joke. Jennifer A. Caplan is reviewing this title.
Amos Goldberg’s Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing During the Holocaust reads Holocaust diaries as “life-stories.” According to reviewer Amy Simon, “this book provides a compelling and exciting new reading of Holocaust diaries that presents new insights into the deepest question posed by Primo Levi: ‘If this is a man?’” She relates that Goldberg “describes the fundamental principle in autobiography studies, which suggests that authors who write autobiographies strive to create their identities through the language and narrative structure of their writing, but argues that this was not the case for Holocaust diarists. Unlike those free to write in other circumstances, these authors faced traumatic threats to their individual humanity that often resulted in the opposite: a ‘radical and undermining helplessness … and internal disintegration that shook the identity of the victims to the point of threatening to nullify their very human existence.’ Trauma theory is the primary axis around which this book is based, and Goldberg relies primarily on the writings of Jacques Lacan, Sigmund Freud, Paul Ricœur, Giorgio Agamben, and secondarily on the works of Dominick LaCapra, whose style of intellectual history Goldberg’s book resembles.”
Moving further into the 20th century, Lesleigh C. Stahlberg and Peter S. Hawkins have co-authored The Bible in the American Short Story (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). Here, the essays examine the relation between the Bible and the American short story following the Second World War. Following three chapters on general features of this relation, there are nine chapters dedicated to single authors, including Flannery O’Connor, Tobias Wolff, Bernard Malamud, and Nathan Englander.
Overall, while the burgeoning field moves and branches out in various directions, this survey illustrates how much can be gained for the field of literature by paying closer attention to religious matters. There are still many open questions concerning the relation between religious history and church history, denominational and political perspectives, and there is still need for greater terminological clarity and theoretical reflection on the definition of religion itself. Moreover, religious scholarship is becoming increasingly complex through the rise of fields such as intertheology and intercultural theology. Given the unique challenge that religion and church history poses to scholarship, it is important for scholars to be open about their own denominational background and the influence their background may have on their scholarship. Only in this way will they succeed in uncovering the many ways in which religion and theology influence individual and collective authorship of scripture and literature.
Philipp Reisner is Visiting Lecturer in American Studies at Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf.