The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Religion

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Susan M. Felch
Cambridge Companions to Literature
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , September
     306 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Cued by the title of the Cambridge Companions series, Susan Felch hopes the important essays in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Religion will indeed be “a companion for those who want to read literature and religion within the same intellectual and affective frame” (1). Take her at her word. Good traveling companions give directions without dictating the itinerary, sketch the lay of the land without mapping the whole territory, and warn of obstacles while suggesting significant places to linger. These authors companionably guide us into a vast interdiscipline.

There are introductions to Reading Practices: theological (Rowan Williams), confessional (James Matthew Wilson), and postsecular (Zhange Ni). Five chapters identify Intersections, where literature and religion meet in ethics (Felch), dwelling (Julia Reinhard Lupton), imagination (Matthew Potts), sacrifice (Michon M. Matthiesen), and repetition (Susannah Brietz Monta). Others explore Traditions: Hinduism (Cleo Kearns), Buddhism (Richard K. Payne), Judaism (Susan Handelman), Eastern Orthodoxy (Lorie Branch and Ioana Patuleanu), Roman Catholicism (Paul J. Contino), Protestantism (Willie James Jennings), Islam (Mustansir Mir), and World Christianity (Susan VanZanten). This organization is oriented more toward beliefs and practices than critical or social theorizing. Most companionable is how each essay closely examines at least one “literary” work.

Why the scare quotes? The essayists realize that literature and religion are contested constructs that do invite theoretical questions. For example, VanZanten asks whether oral literature makes meanings as inscribed texts do. Secular and postsecular are also constructs. Ni speaks for all the writers in arguing that binaries like religion and secular, or secular and postsecular are misleading when not simply wrong. They overlap, often ambiguously. Ni reflects on the sacralization of the secular state and the individual conscience in Susan Collins’s dystopian Hunger Games novels. Another binary would be confessional versus disinterested. “All readings, including the most avowedly secular,” writes Felch, “are confessional, in that they proceed necessarily on the basis of prior assumptions” (6). This view is more hermeneutical than confessional, but it allows Wilson to treat Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray as a “manifesto for modern aestheticism” (35), which excludes much of human experience by confining aesthetic value to sensuous surfaces or forms. Most of the authors are confessional in another sense: they give literature attentions cultivated by traditional beliefs and practices, including attentions supposedly excluded by disinterested, “universalizing” reason. However, their different takes on confession give rise to insights and questions.

Williams locates ethical and spiritual matters that secular ideologies may “prohibit us from saying” (31), but which secular imaginations may well register—as in three recent London plays. One evokes William Tyndale and dilemmas in Bible translation (David Edgar’s Written on the Heart); another confronts conversion (Mick Gordon and A. C. Grayling’s On Religion); while a third treats conflicts over obligations, principles, and “apocalyptic clarity” (Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Faith Machine). These plays neither affirm faith nor nurse hostility to it, “although the nexus of religion and violence is consistently invoked” (30); each is nostalgic for clarity while wary of commitment. For Williams, theology can appreciate this reticence: faith should resist certitude when discerning the depths of relations with persons or with God. Faith and poetry are “ultimately not about what the audience has requested,” but express “a world of obligations we have not chosen.” Yet religious language reaches beyond most poetry to affirm how “obligations and relations” can be an “effective source of absolution or healing” (33).

If Williams affirms with a light touch and critical humility, other confessional approaches seem more “robust” (7). Wilson requires trinitarian aesthetics to see dimensions in art and reality that Wilde cannot. Branch and Petuleanu read works grounded in, and illuminated by, Eastern Orthodoxy, seeking places where finite love rises into eternal love (theosis). With them, Contino identifies “incarnational realism” in Augustine, Dante, Dostoevsky, and contemporary Catholic fiction. Another dimension that secularisms cannot readily imagine is redemptive sacrifice. Mattheisen acknowledges feminist critiques of sacrificial suffering, though her readings of Flannery O’Connor do not really address the terms of such objections. A temptation in confessional reading is special pleading; the great virtue is glimpsing what secular criticism, and indeed our own confessions, miss.

In Love’s Knowledge Martha Nussbaum proposes that to know life, one life is not enough. Nor is one tradition: literature lets us see more life, through different confessional visions. Mir presents medieval and modern poems by Umar al-Farid and Muhammed Iqbal that, while varied in subject and tone, reflect the beauty of the Qur’an. We can appreciate the aesthetics of Indian dramatist Kalidasa through maya (illusion), moksha (release), and self-identity with the divine, ideas attractive to modernist poets; Kearns also insists it may be as orientalist to downplay unitary themes across Vedic traditions as to name them “Hinduism.” Payne confesses chagrin to remember misunderstanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead—until his grandmother’s death taught him that the Book comprises liturgical practices for the deceased, not mind-expansion techniques for readers. Yet I wonder if Payne’s early, naïve love led to his analysis of the Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi-tantra, calculated to daunt generic views of “Buddhist literature” and “religion.”

How do we cross comparative bridges to such remote destinations? Monta recommends attending to linguistic practices as well as themes. Her readings of fifteenth through seventeenth-century liturgy-oriented poems show how performative language and syntactical repetition provide “point[s] of convergence” in secular and sacred art and thought (132). Lupton makes an alliance between the late Heidegger and pieties of gratitude when writing on precarious “dwelling” in Jonah, Shakespeare’s Pericles, and the global environment. Dwelling also figures in the most beautiful-while-complex chapter: Handelman parses plural rabbinic explanations of Moses hiding his face after encountering God. Gaps in the Exodus narrative are recapitulated in midrash, which allows space wherein our own interpretive activity may dwell. “This activity has an inextricably ethical dimension in helping us, too, ‘illumine our faces’ and sanctify the ways we treat others” (199).

Ethics is cautionary. Our hearts desire integrity, purity, as in the medieval “Pearl” poem, but Felch shows the dangers of purity in Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” and in Mary Gordon’s novel, Pearl. While Potts affirms imagination as an integrative element of theology, he notices its ambiguities in Beloved. His startling interpretation—is Beloved’s redemptive ending cruelly sacrificial?—jibes with things Toni Morrison has said of imagination and memory. The most provocative chapter is Jennings’s critique of Protestantism and some ironies accompanying Tyndale’s individual, private reader. Literature is “affected by the long reach of colonial history. The emergence of the Protestant vernacular Bible …  coincides with the emergence of colonialist nationalism and the formation of racial consciousness” (250)—evident in the British jingoism of Isaac Watts’s rendering of Psalm 147. Will the indigenous Christianities VanZanten celebrates in Fua Kuma’s praise-poem, Jesus of the Deep Forest (Ghana, 1970s), and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Purple Hibiscus (Nigeria, 2003)—with its ambivalent perspectives on church folk—answer Jennings? Take that as a hopeful question. Our companions both encourage and caution literary-religious traveling.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Larry D. Bouchard is professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Susan M. Felch is director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship and professor of English at Calvin College, Michigan. Her publications include The Collected Works of Anne Vaughan Lock (1999), Bakhtin and Religion: A Feeling for Faith (coedited with Paul Contino, 2001), The Emmaus Readers (coedited with Gary Schmidt, 2002–9), and Elizabeth Tyrwhit's Morning and Evening Prayers (2008), for which she won the Josephine A. Roberts Scholarly Edition Award. Her Elizabeth I and her Age (coedited with Donald Stump, 2009) won the Teaching Edition Award from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women.



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