Written by Ben Porter
In my last post I enlisted T.S. Eliot to help us think about how to read modern poetry as Christians. I will continue to draw on his essay entitled “Religion and Literature” for this post as well. He begins by showing how two forms of literature written by Christians have ironically secularized the way we read poetry. These include devotional poetry and apologetic fiction. He argues that these forms have had a damaging effect on our imagination and therefore the way we read. I covered devotional poetry last time.
What does Eliot have to say about apologetic fiction?
Eliot characterizes this type, somewhat shockingly, as propaganda. Beware, this term doesn’t have the same implication as it does today, post mid-century communism. He’s probably thinking about Russian artists who, in his day, were being forced to carry water for Marxist government officials with paintings and poems that transparently furthered Lenin’s political purposes. In other words: art for movement’s sake. For Eliot, apologetic literature harnesses literature as a tool to accomplish something other than what literature usually tries to accomplish, using books and poems like tracts to further the Christian mission. Again, his use of the term propaganda is not epithetical. In fact, he refers to books like G.K. Chesterton’s Man Who Was Thursday or Father Brown as “delightful,” saying “no one enjoys these more than I do.” In reality, he is taking aim at “zealous persons of less talent than Mr. Chesterton…”
In any case, Eliot’s problem with this type of literature is that it “assumes[s] that religion and literature are not related.” In other words, apologetic literature by nature adds something to literature, namely the explicit message of the gospel. It is skeptical of what fiction can accomplish on its own. Apologetic literature hinges on the concept that it’s characters appear “in a world which is definitely not christian,” and therefore plays fast and loose with the project of literature in general. The result is a work of literature, and therefore a readership, not looking to books for what they provide as art. Rather, they are using books, using fiction and poetry, to further separate agenda altogether. This trains Christian readers to look past Beauty, past aesthetic quality, and search for the “message.”
It’s equivalent to looking at the ceiling of The Sistine Chapel for the theology only. Imagine if Michelangelo only painted it to give us information— not because he had a beautiful vision.
Eliot sees the malfunctions of religious poetry and apologetic fiction from a historical perspective: “Bunyan, and to some extent, Defoe, had moral purposes… But since Defoe, the secularization of the novel has been continuous.” This slow and ironic process away from specifically Christian literature had three stages. Stage one involved “taking the faith… for granted, omitting it from the picture of life. Fielding, Dickens, and Thackeray belong to this phase.” Literature in the second phase “doubted, worried, or contested the Faith. To this phase belong George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy…the third phase, in which we are living…is the phase of those who have never heard the Christian faith spoken of as anything but an anachronism.”
Therefore, Eliot argues: When Christians read modern literature, they are imbibing a purely secular product that, to some extent, Christians helped to create with devotional and apologetic literature. This is dangerous because, “the author of a work of imagination is trying to affect us wholly, whether he knows it or not, and we are affected by it, as human beings, whether we intend to be or not.” He calls upon us to remember that “our current reading matter is written for us by people who have no real belief in a supernatural order…” who consider our worldview to be “backward, or so eccentric” that it should not be believed.
It is at this point in Eliot’s argument that we find our situation defined, but not remedied. What are we to do?
Literature is dangerous. Check. Christians have contributed to its danger. OK. Eliot says we can’t fix the problem when we read only about religious things (devotional poetry). Nor can we fix it when we read fictional critiques of the world with our literature (apologetic literature), a la Chronicles of Narnia or the Left Behind series. Eliot explicitly warns us against “two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the Pagan world.” What then do we read? Eliot’s solution is simple but deeply rooted in Christian thought. He encourages us to be
“…acutely aware of two things at once: of ‘what we like,’ and ‘what we ought to like.’ Few people are honest enough to know either. The first means knowing what we really feel: very few know that. The second involves understanding our shortcomings; for we do not really know what we ought to like, unless we also know why we ought to like it, which involves knowing why we don’t like it yet. It is not enough to understand what we ought to be, unless we know what we are; and we do not understand what we are, unless we know what we ought to be. The two forms of self-consciousness, knowing what we are and what we ought to be, must go together.”
When considering what to read, Eliot encourages the reader to see the problem differently. We are not to see two different literatures, one for the world and one for the church. Rather, we are to see two different selves, who we are now and who we ought to be. We must recognize that we like things that are not written for the Christian mind. However, we must also realize that we should not like all of it. We must, like our Scottish Presbyterian forefathers, come to the meeting house with both a stool and sword, prepared to give both our attention and our fist, all in equal measure. Eliot is encouraging the Christian reader to be discerning. The word of God is our aid, and we must use it as a scalpel, “piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” But to do so we must be honest with ourselves. John Calvin agreed in Book 1 of the Institutes when he said, “Our wisdom consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and ourselves.”
It’s important to note that this method helps us avoid two errors.
The first is only valuing the former half of Eliot’s instruction: knowing what we ought to be. This error will result in not only legalism, but very bad literature. As any American Christian who survived the 1990’s (and managed to hold on to their faith) will tell you, moralizing art has low stakes, devalues craft, and hurts the mission of the church. The latter effect is especially pernicious as it paints Christ and his followers as shallow and puritanical— a pathetic stand-in of the truth. Perhaps the worst effect of this kind of literature is that it decreases the pixel count of our imagination, which has a far reaching effect on Christian theology, cultural production, moral wisdom, and acts of justice.
However, as maleficent as this agenda is, Eliot’s warning guards us from an equally dangerous threat: only valuing the second half of his instruction: knowing what we like. Perhaps this is what St. James warns us against when he describes the man who “…looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” How many of us bathe in the golden light of Sunday morning service only to bathe in the blue light of Netflix Sunday night? We consume art — we do not engage with it. Eliot says that our problem is not taking art too seriously, but rather, not taking it seriously enough. It changes us, raises and lowers our emotions, teaches us empathy, wisdom, philosophy, history— if we only follow our nose with no thought as to what it is we are smelling, we’ll end up like Jeremiah’s donkey.
Like Eliot, I wish you to explore deeply postmodern poetry and literature, “reading the best of its kind.” But remember, these authors aren’t all your friends. They harbor ideas hostile to yours. I urge you, eat the food at the cafeteria, just make sure to check the expiration date on the milk carton. I wish to commission you as Christ did, crafty as serpents, innocent as doves, or better yet, like St. Gregory who sent his missionaries with instruction not to tear down the pagan altars, but turn them into tables for the Lord’s Supper. But beware, those pagans won’t be welcoming.
It’ll take a lot to teach them table manners.