"The Passionate Pursuit of the Real": Christianity and Literature in Our Time

Article excerpt

Editors' Note: With this issue a new chapter begins in the story of this journal, with new editors and a new home on the West Coast. Darryl Tippens writes from a dual position--as a long-standing member of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, but also as the university officer who has welcomed the journal's editorial offices to Pepperdine University. On this occasion, we invited him to reflect on the meaning of this transition for our journal, our conference, and our profession.

As I write these words I am mindful of the recent passing of Czeslaw Milosz, distinguished poet, Nobel laureate, and the 1999 recipient of CCL's Lifetime Achievement Award. As I think of the journal and its mission, Milosz comes to mind, not only because he was "[o]ne of the most widely respected thinkers of the last half-century [...] the model of the prolific writer engaged in wrestling with the major questions of his time" (Rourke and Thurber B14), but because he was a model of the kind of writer and intellectual that our journal celebrates. Milosz's works belong to us in a special way, I think. Christianity and Literature presupposes a living tradition and an ongoing conversation between that tradition and our times. No one in the field of literature better understood or illustrated the importance of the religious dimension in art and literature. He honored the Christian tradition and ensured its continuity by fiercely engaging contemporary culture and critiquing it in the light of his experience of faith.

Milosz embodied the commitments that have inspired our organization from the beginning--an integrity of spirit, an honest seeking, a devotion to truth, and a hopeful spirit. (1) He encountered the brutalities of the last century without descending into cynicism or despair. He sought truth, offered hope, and ventured the possibility of God: "In this world there is too much ugliness and horror. So there must be, somewhere, goodness and truth. And that means somewhere God must be" (qtd. in Rourke and Thurber B14). In his Nobel acceptance speech, he observed, "In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot." Professor Robert Faggan succinctly summarized the poet's mission: "He called poetry the passionate pursuit of the real, and he never rested from that pursuit [...]" (qtd. in Rourke and Thurber B14). Surely Milosz's calling is ours as well.

While the issues and ideologies with which we contend today may be significantly different from Milosz's, we share a common mission. He remembered, reported, and witnessed. Our vocation is equivalent. Through criticism, analysis, and dialogue about literature we also remember, report and witness. As scholars, we would do well to take courage and counsel from his example. A realist (who observed "a despairing cheerfulness") shaped by the Christian tradition, Milosz was able to discern the defects in the ideologies of his day. Despite the sinister trends of his times, he never lost his touch with the realities called truth, virtue, and beauty.

Beyond the death of this hero, other signs of transition abound, which suggest that our discipline, our conference, and our journal may be entering a new era. Denis Donoghue describes a new mellowness in the academy, a new "concessiveness apparent in a good deal of contemporary scholarship" (9), which Alexander Nehamas terms the "return of the beautiful" (393). Donoghue's Speaking of Beauty and Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just illustrate this significant turn. Though fundamentally different in approach and scope, both Scarry and Donoghue decry the recent banishment of aesthetics from the humanities, and they stand equally ready to welcome its return. In arguing for the importance of aesthetics, they invite the possibility of something more in the literary enterprise. Professor Scarry observes:

   Something beautiful fills the mind yet invites the search for
   something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same
   scale with which it needs to be brought into relation [. …