The annual selection of the Book Award for the Conference on Christianity and Literature was made, in this fateful year, in the shadow of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. Following those events, we on the committee continued to review approximately thirty books published during the past year and nominated by their publishers for this award. As we worked, we realized that part of what was at stake in the terrorist attacks against America was our freedom to read these diverse books. What was threatened was the fabric of American intellectual life, the free life of the mind. And our freedom to engage in this work could no longer be taken for granted; rather, we were dependent upon the willingness of fellow Americans--our military and other branches of the government--to defend that precarious freedom. As the massive forces of war mobilized, our work gained a special significance: it was a small but important part of what made America worth defending.
Among the many goods making up the rich web of cultural life in America are the double strands of Christianity and literature. The reciprocity of the religious and the literary, in a free, uninhibited exchange of ideas and imaginings, is the glory of the American experiment in democracy. Collectively, the books nominated for the award this year demonstrate the continued wealth of religious and literary discourses as they enrich our common life. We on the committee were privileged to consider, among many excellent books, not one but two books by Denis Donoghue, who will be next year's recipient of CCL's Lifetime Achievement Award. We also read with appreciation new collections of poetry from both Walt McDonald and Kathleen Norris. One title that we found particularly timely was Tarif Khalidi's The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature. And, of course, this was also the year of Stanley Fish's monumental book of criticism, How Milton Works.
In surveying these and many other offerings of the past year, we found that our attention kept returning to a slim and modest work whose subject is, as the subtitle announces, The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England. That work, a first book by its author, is Ramie Targoff's Common Prayer, published by the University of Chicago Press, which we are pleased to announce is the winner of the Conference on Christianity and Literature's Book Award for 2001. As the committee members exchanged email comments, Diane Chambers of Malone College noted that Targoff avoids a style prevalent in too much academic discourse--a style that obfuscates rather than elucidates; instead, Targoff writes in a clear, crisp prose, a rhetoric that is careful, controlled, and lucid. Robert Siletzky, corresponding from Cairo, Egypt, where he works with the State Department, was drawn into the drama of the book's introductory chapter on "The Performance of Prayer." Here Targoff relates that on the eve of his execution King Charles offered a public prayer, for which he was sharply criticized by John Milton, taken from Pamela's prayer in Sir Phillip Sidney's Arcadia. Siletzky wrote that he then read Common Prayer as if he were reading a detective story, eager to find out why Charles chose that particular mode of prayer and whether Milton's criticism was valid.
Targoff's exploration of these issues covers much ground in her book's 155 pages--from Thomas Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer in 1549, through George Herbert's devotional poetry, to the Massachusetts Bay Psalm Book of 1640. …