The Shape of Things to Come: Toward an Eschatology of Literature

Article excerpt

Elie Wiesel, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, has characterized the twentieth century as a century in desperate need of hope. What began in a spirit of optimism brought on by economic prosperity, technological advances, peace, and good will ended with death camps, bombs, and, for many, a sense of despair. "When I look around the world," writes Wiesel in one of many books on the Holocaust, "I see nothing but hopelessness" (qtd. in Schuster and Boschert-Kimmig 63). Andrew Delbanco, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, sees a crisis of hope as the defining feature of postmodernism. In his book The ReaIAmerican Dream: A Meditation on Hope, Delbanco contends that society has lost faith in any transcendent vision of the future, whether it be commitment to the Christian God, with its communal ethic of loving one's neighbor, or commitment to citizenship in a "sacred" nation. "While we have gotten very good at deconstructing old stories," Delbanco worries, "when it comes to telling new ones, we are blocked" (106). In today's consumer culture "instant gratification is the hallmark of the good life" (96), and "hope has narrowed to the vanishing point of the self alone" (103). Though Delbanco does not write from a Christian viewpoint, his insights are pertinent to my purpose here, which is to present a perspective on story that is grounded in Christian eschatology, appropriately defined by German theologian Jorgen Moltmann as a "theology of hope." According to Moltmann, "if it is hope that maintains and upholds faith and keeps it moving on, if it is hope that draws the believer into the life of love, then it will also be hope that is the mobilizing and driving force of faith's thinking, of its knowledge of, and reflections on, human nature, history, and society" (Theology of Hope 33). Commenting on this passage, Oxford theologian Alister McGrath observes: "It is therefore imperative that Christianity rediscovers [sic] its eschatology and realizes [sic] its enormous importance to a world which is longing for hope, and seeking hope outside the Christian tradition. Only by rediscovering its own theology of hope can the [C]hurch hope to gain a hearing in a secular culture" (Christian Theology 565). Could this be true in literary studies as well? By defining and making central a Christian theology of hope that pertains to the study of literature, might Christian scholars offer something hopeful to those who have lost faith in the meaningfulness and value of literature? In the pages that follow I want to consider an approach to literature that foregrounds Christian eschatology, an approach that does not "follow [...] after the Zeitgeist and bear [...] its train," as Moltmann says, but carries a torch before it, enkindling and enabling hope (Experiment Hope 46).

Connections between eschatology and literature have been the focus of several studies, including two recent books by Paul Fiddes: Freedom and Limit: A Dialogue between Literature and Christian Doctrine and The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature. Fiddes analyzes modern and postmodern theorists Frank Kermode, Northrop Frye, Jacques Derrida, and Paul Ricoeur to enrich the emerging dialogue between theology and literature. What these theorists have in common, according to Fiddes, is a growing awareness that all narrative is to some degree eschatological (Promised End 5). To approach a literary text eschatologically means to consider whether and to what extent the narrative ending organizes the whole (Kermode); expresses a desired world (Frye); disperses, defers, or unravels meaning (Derrida); or opens up hope (Ricoeur) (Promised End 55). The endings of humanly created stories may or may not have anything in common with the "promised ending" of the Christian story. Obviously many stories today deal more with despair than hope. While postmodern theory emphasizes indeterminacy and openness, Christian eschatology offers varying degrees of openness and closure, but in either case provides a coherent and hopeful "sense of an ending. …