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The Christian Imagination

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  • Edition: Revised
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2002-02-19
  • Publisher: Shaw Books

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Supplemental Materials

What is included with this book?


The Christian Imaginationbrings together in a single source the best that has been written about the relationship between literature and the Christian faith. This anthology covers all of the major topics that fall within this subject and includes essays and excerpts from fifty authors, including C.S. Lewis, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Sayers, and Frederick Buechner.

Author Biography

<b>Leland Ryken</b> is Professor of English at Wheaton College, where he has taught since 1968. He has published nearly two dozen books on various subjects including literature in Christian perspective, the Bible as literature, and Milton. His previous titles include <i>The Liberated Imagination, The Discerning Reader, A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, Words of Delight</i> and <i>Realms of Gold.</i>

Table of Contents

Preface to the Revised Edition xi
Part 1: A Christian Philosophy of Literature 1(60)
Christian Poetics, Past and Present
Donald T. Williams
Thinking Christianly About Literature
Leland Ryken
Perspectives on Art
Francis Schaeffer
Viewpoint: Annie Dillard, Literature As an Art Object
Viewpoint: C. S. Lewis, We Demand Windows
Viewpoint: Jacques Maritain, Christian Art
Reflections on an Understanding of Literature
Part 2: Imagination, Beauty, and Creativity 61(54)
The Christian Imagination
Janine Langan
Beauty and the Creative Impulse
Luci Shaw
Viewpoint: George MacDonald, The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture
Viewpoint: Clyde S. Kilby, The Bible as a Work of Imagination
Viewpoint: C. S. Lewis, Creating Narnia
Viewpoint: Denise Levertov, Work and Inspiration: Inviting the Muse
Reflections on Literary Composition
Part 3: To Teach and Delight 115(42)
Reading and Writing Worldviews
Gene Edward Veith Jr.
``Words of Delight'': A Hedonistic Defense of Literature
Leland Ryken
Viewpoint: Richard Stevens and Thomas J. Musial, Reading Fiction for Meaning
Part 4: The Christian Writer 157(38)
Novelist and Believer
Flannery O'Connor
The Advantages of the Christian Faith for a Writer
Chad Walsh
On Writing One's Place: Writing Bluesville
Reggie Young
Viewpoint: Walker Percy, On Being a Catholic Novelist
Part 5: The Christian Reader 195(42)
Religion and Literature
T. S. Eliot
Authors, Authority, and the Humble Reader
Peter J. Leithart
Viewpoint: C. S. Lewis, The Few and the Many: Good Readers and Bad
Viewpoint: Sven Birkerts, Reading as a State of Being
Reflections on the Joy of Reading
Part 6: State of the Art: Success and Failure in Current Christian Fiction and Poetry 237(42)
Christian Fiction: Piety Is Not Enough
Richard Terrell
Confessions of a Poetry Editor
Robert Engler
Viewpoint: Clyde S. Kilby, The Aesthetic Poverty of Evangelicalism
Part 7: Realism 279(38)
When a Spider Is Only a Spider
James Schaap
Three Faces of Evil: Christian Writers and the Portrayal of Moral Evil
Susan Wise Bauer
Viewpoint: John Ciardi, The Writer's Facts
Viewpoint: Larry Woiwode, The Superiority of Realism to Fantasy
Part 8: Myth and Fantasy 317(50)
The Gospel As Fairy Tale
Frederick Buechner
Myth: Flight to Reality
Thomas Howard
The Well at the World's End: Poetry, Fantasy, and the Limits of the Expressible
Robert Siegel
Viewpoint: Miriam Hendrix, Why Fantasy Appeals
Viewpoint: G. K. Chesterton, The Religious Meaning of Myth
Viewpoint: J. R. R. Tolkien, The Consolation of the Happy Ending
Part 9: Poetry 367(38)
On Poets and Poetry
Jeanne Murray Walker
The Poet as Hymn Writer
Timothy Dudley-Smith
Viewpoint: Wendell Berry, The Responsibility of the Poet
Viewpoint: Paul Steven Jones, Writing Hymns
Definitions of Poetry
Part 10: Narrative 405(58)
In Praise of Stories
Daniel Taylor
Is It Good Enough for Children?
Madeleine L'Engle
Redemption in the Movies
Brian Godawa
Viewpoint: C. S. Lewis, On Stories
Viewpoint: Amos N. Wilder, How Stories Interest Us
Once upon a Time: Reflections on Storytelling
Tell Me a Story: Reflections on Children's Literature
Acknowledgments 463

Supplemental Materials

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The New copy of this book will include any supplemental materials advertised. Please check the title of the book to determine if it should include any access cards, study guides, lab manuals, CDs, etc.

The Used, Rental and eBook copies of this book are not guaranteed to include any supplemental materials. Typically, only the book itself is included. This is true even if the title states it includes any access cards, study guides, lab manuals, CDs, etc.


Chapter One

Christian Poetics,

Past and Present

Donald T. Williams

* * *

The story of Christian poetics--that is, of Christians thinking consciously as Christians about the nature and significance of literary art--is the tale of a movement struggling almost in spite of itself to come to grips with its own doctrine that human beings are created in the image of God. The faith was born into a pagan culture and has survived into a secular one which shows signs of returning to paganism. The church has perforce used the languages, the markets, and the forms of the surrounding culture. It has transformed them and been transformed by them. In the West, as the faith and the culture grew up together, this process has at times made them all but indistinguishable. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" asked Tertullian; and the answers, while legion, have never been simple or easy.

    Specifically, Christians have struggled to apply to literature the general New Testament principle about being in the world but not of it (John 17:11-16). They were rightly wary of a culture based on idolatry--hence of literature in general. But they could not escape the literary foundations of their own origin, or the fact that they, and all humankind, were created in the image of one who expressed his inmost nature from the beginning as the Word. This tension gives rise to the seeming contradictions of their collective response: condemning literature as dangerous at worst and a waste of time at best, while producing some of the greatest poems the world has ever seen. And in the process, a few of them have found in the imago Dei the only coherent explanation of why the human race is, for better or worse, a tribe of incorrigible makers.

The Beginnings: Augustine

St. Augustine, the most profound and articulate of the early spokesmen, is in his own writings a microcosm of their larger, continuing discussion. As such he requires extended treatment. The negative side is more well known. In Book I of the Confessions Augustine seems to look back on his study of Virgil with nothing but regret for lost time. The exercise of imitating his poetic lies ( figmentorum poeticorum ) was "mere smoke and wind"; Augustine's time would have been better spent on God's praises in Scripture than such "empty vanities"; his labor on them was in effect nothing more than a "sacrifice offered up to the collapsed angels" (51). He had wept for Dido who killed herself for love, while staying dry-eyed over his own spiritual death, but now he thinks of his enjoyment of her fictional sorrow as madness (dementia) (39-40). In Book III he confesses that when he attended theatres in his youth he "sympathized together with the lovers when they wickedly enjoyed one another" (103). To enjoy in tragedy that which one would not willingly suffer in reality is "miserable madness" (miserabilis insania) . Literary experience does not lead to virtue because true mercy is practical. The emotional catharsis of the theatre, though, is a sham, for by it one is not "provoked to help the sufferer, but only invited to be sorry for him" (101).

    The complaints are the familiar ones which would be repeated again and again throughout history. The fictions of the poets are lies; they are a waste of time, distracting us from more profitable pursuits; and they are an enticement to evil. Yet even as we read these passages, we cannot believe that for Augustine they tell the whole story. Where, we ask, would the felicitous style of the Confessions have come from if he had never studied the classics from the standpoint of rhetorical analysis? And where would he have found such a perfect concrete example for his point about the dolors of Dido? Indeed, if we just keep reading, we find that there is more to Augustine's view of literature than at first meets the eye.

    Even in the Confessions we find hints of factors in Augustine's upbringing which help explain the vehemence of his negative statements and nuance our understanding of their significance. His education was rhetorical and sophistic; he was trained, in other words, to be a lawyer, a professional whose practice was to make the worse appear the better reason and to teach others to do the same. He was taught to scour the classics for examples of eloquence which could be used cynically to win court cases with no concern for the truth. And in this eloquence his "ambition was to be eminent, all out of a damnable and vainglorious end, puffed up with delight of human glory" (109). It is little wonder then that in his post-conversion reaction he felt compelled to toss out the baby of literature along with the bath-water of sophistry. Yet even the very terms of his rejection testify to the power of words well used.

    It is evident on every page of his writings that Augustine was impacted for the good by his classical reading in spite of his cynical teachers and his own scruples, and sometimes he is not unaware of it. The pagan Cicero's Hortensius was a major influence leading to his conversion to Christ. It "quite altered my affection, turned my prayers to thyself, O Lord, and made me have clean other purposes and desires." It has this effect, he interestingly notes, because he made use of it not to "sharpen his tongue" but "for the matter of it" (109f). He had then, moments in which he recognized something in literature which the abuses that also exist ought not to deter us from seeking. Elsewhere he expounds the principle implicit here and defines explicitly what the something is:

We [Christians] should not abandon music because of the superstitions of pagans if there is anything we can take from it that might help us understand the Holy Scriptures ... Nor is there any reason we should refuse to study literature because it is said that Mercury discovered it. That the pagans have dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue and prefer to worship in the form of stone things which ought to be carried in the heart is no reason we should abandon justice and virtue. On the contrary, let everyone who is a good and true Christian understand that truth belongs to his Master, wherever it is found. (Howie 350-351)

    Literature--even pagan literature--conveys truth and is therefore not to be despised. Unfortunately, the balance is provided by lesser-known treatises such as the Christian Education , leaving the negative impression of the Confessions unchallenged for most readers. Even in the Confessions , learning to read is a good thing, and even eloquence as such is admitted not to be inherently evil: "I blame not the words, which of themselves are like vessels choice and precious; but that wine of error that is in them" (Augustine 149). Clearly, the studies Augustine seems to reject have enhanced his ability to write the book in which he seems to reject them. The rationale for their use is worked out in the Christian Education.

Like the treasures of the ancient Egyptians, who possessed not only idols and heavy burdens, which the people of Israel hated and shunned, but also vessels and ornaments of silver and gold, and clothes, which on leaving Egypt the people of Israel, in order to make better use of them, surreptitiously claimed for themselves (they did this not on their own authority but at God's command ...)--similarly all the branches of pagan learning contain not only false and superstitious fantasies ... but also studies for liberated minds which are more appropriate to the service of the truth, and some very useful moral instruction.... These treasures ... which were used wickedly and harmfully in the service of demons must be removed by Christians ... and applied to their true function, that of preaching the gospel.

--Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana

    How can Christians make use of the products of an idolatrous culture? In pagan learning, error and superstition are to be rejected. But pagan learning also included the liberal arts, which are servants of truth: "Now we may say that these elements are the pagans' gold and silver, which they did not create for themselves, but dug out of the mines of God's providence." Therefore, it is proper for Christians to "take all this away from them and turn it to its proper use in declaring the Gospel" (Howie 364). Even the infamous art of the rhetorician (we should remember that through the Renaissance, poetry was considered a species of rhetoric) is in itself morally neutral and capable of being used in the service of truth; therefore, "we should not blame the practice of eloquence but the perversity of those who put it to a bad use" (360). This being so, Christians have not only a right but also an obligation to learn and employ the art of rhetoric. Since it is "employed to support either truth or falsehood, who would venture to say that truth as represented by its defenders should take its stand unarmed?" The result of Christians abandoning the field would be that falsehood is expounded "briefly, clearly, and plausibly," but truth "in such a manner that it is boring ... difficult to understand, and, in a word, hard to believe" (369).

    In spite of eloquently expressed doubts, then, Augustine articulates a defense of Christian appropriation of and production of literature on the model of spoiling the Egyptians (see Ex. 11:2-3; 12:35-36). It is a limited and pragmatic approach: literature is valued for the truth (probably, for Augustine, propositional truth) it conveys and for the ways in which it can help us understand the Scriptures and proclaim the gospel. But it is a place to begin, and it adumbrates possibilities which would be developed later. When Augustine says that art makes truth plausible and its absence makes it "hard to believe," it is difficult not to hear the phrase resonating with Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief which constitutes poetic faith" and to see C. S. Lewis' magnificent attempts to make Christian truth believable by making it imaginable looming on the horizon. We should not, of course, press Augustine anachronistically in this direction, but perhaps in retrospect we can see the seeds of later developments already embedded there.

Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Augustine set the terms of the discussion and defined the tension which would characterize much of it down through the years. In the Middle Ages, criticism was mainly practical, focused on grammar, the classification of rhetorical tropes, and so on. Meanwhile, Christian writers wrestled with the issues in practical terms, embodying their Christian vision of the world in concrete images and moving stories. The Beowulf poet struggled with the relationship between his Christian faith and his Teutonic heritage and made a grand synthesis in which the heroic ideal was enlisted in a cosmic war of good and evil. Dante and Lang-land created concrete images which incarnated Christian doctrines allegorically so that they could bid their readers, as Sackville put it, to "come and behold, / To see with eye that erst in thought I roll'd" (Rollins and Baker 273). Anonymous lyricists captured the emotion of their faith in musical lines of beauty and simplicity. Chaucer gave us a humane and sympathetic portrait of "God's plenty" and then felt obligated to retract most of it before his death in a passage which still embarrasses his admirers and shows the Augustinian tension to be yet unresolved (Robinson 265). By the time of the Reformation, some serious polarization had set in.

    Luther said that Reason was the devil's whore, but he also asked why the devil should have all the good music and noted that literary study equipped people as nothing else does to deal skillfully with Scripture. Calvin applied the new grammatico-historical exegesis to secular writing and Scripture alike and increased the number of quotations from Plato, Seneca and Cicero in the Institutes proportionally to the size of the work in each edition (Williams 78-103). Ironically, some of his followers would take Augustine's doubts about the value of secular literature, untempered by his more positive perspectives, and run with them to extreme and sometimes almost hysterical lengths.

I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters have declined and lain prostrate, theology, too, has wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate.... Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily.

--Martin Luther, Letter to Eoban Hess

    These objectors have been characterized, not entirely fairly, as Puritan. While Puritans took the lead in the drive to close the theatres, for example, not all who were sympathetic to the Puritan cause or the spiritual values they represented were in agreement with these objectives. Nor could all who raised them be classified, without anachronism, as Puritan. We find it as early as in that old humanist and gentle pedagogue Roger Ascham, who even as he praises the virtues of the (Greek and Latin) classics, inveighs against "books of chevalry," warning that "Mo papists be made by your merry books of Italy than by your earnest books of Louvain," and railing particularly against Malory's Le Morte D,Arthur , "the whole pleasure of which book standeth in two special points, in open manslaughter and bold bawdry." In Malory, "those be counted the noblest knights that do kill most men without any quarrel and commit foulest advoulteries by subtlest shifts" (Rollins and Baker 833).

    When the Puritans do sound this note, even their later, more moderate spokesmen such as the usually sensible Richard Baxter (seventeenth century) sound extreme. Baxter advises Christian readers to read first the Bible, then


Excerpted from The Christian Imagination by Leland Ryken. Copyright © 2002 by Leland Ryken. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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