Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Outrageous Idea of a Christian Literary Studies: Prospects for the Future and a Meditation on Hope. (Special Feature)

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Outrageous Idea of a Christian Literary Studies: Prospects for the Future and a Meditation on Hope. (Special Feature)

Article excerpt

At the beginning of the second fifty years of this fine journal, perhaps it is timely to look both back and forward by way of suggesting possible directions for the future of our joint mission as scholars of Christianity and literature. It is indeed a daunting task: to scan the broad expanse of recent scholarship, assess the symptoms and drift of our profession, and then offer up, as my title presumptuously puts it, some prospects for the future. However, that is the assigned task at hand, and so it is with genuine fear and trembling that I offer up these pages. I should also say that, when I must illustrate my points with specific literary examples, these will almost all be from my own field of American literature. I am certain that my colleagues in British and other national literatures in English could provide many more examples of whatever I may be describing; rather than attempt what I am simply not capable of producing, I will leave that task to others more knowledgeable than myself. Thus do I begin somewhat apologetically, begging the reader's kind patience.

I have subtitled this essay "A Meditation on Hope" taking my cue from the identical subtitle of Andrew Delbanco's excellent recent volume titled The Real American Dream, because I have been struck by the fact that what I am doing is most properly directed at the future of our enterprise rather than our present or past. Further, this hope is somehow tied in with the eschatological nature of all of our work, insofar as this or any work can be considered "Christian"--and insofar as work is by definition a cultural activity. Our work is, so to speak, directly related to the hope set before us--of God's Kingdom, or of Plato's eros, or of John Henry Newman's idea of a Christian university, or however we might like to configure it. This hope goes well beyond the mere appearance of such attitudes in literature. Thus my essay will range widely into the nooks and crannies of the mundane activities of our joint profession: our notions of teaching, curriculum, human character, grading, professional activities, and so on. All of these things, it seems to me, are tied together in making us the humans that we are--and so all of these things can become meditations on hope rather than, for example, despair.

I state all of this up front because any argument about the future of literary studies, if it is to be worth its salt, must draw upon, in Norman Vincent Peale's words, the "power of positive thinking." Why dwell on the negative? Why insist on a narrative of declension? An ancient philosopher even more profound than Peale said on some obscure occasion that "All things are possible," so I would like to make suggestions that could conceivably impel our profession onward to its truly high calling. In what follows I will break these meditations down roughly to cover the three traditional areas of our joint academic concern: teaching, research, and service. First of all, I will consider the best place of all to begin such a task, which is of course the end.


Mary C. Grey, in her recent book The Outrageous Pursuit of Hope: Prophetic Dreams for the Twenty-First Century, takes her readers all the way back to the Hebrew prophet Isaiah in fleshing out some sources for the hopeful look into the new millennium that her work purports to provide. Following her lead, I shall begin with the compelling claim that our work as professors of literature can be subsumed under a particular elaboration by the same prophet over 2,600 years ago:

1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

2 as when the fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, You came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, Who works for those who wait for Him. …

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