Tag Archives: literature

Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic

Today we continue a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.


“Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic” is a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde confession. In the same man there exists two persons. The first is a “historian and polemicist of literary theory, who could speak with passion, without noticeable impediment about literature as a political instrument.” (59) This man could murder a piece of literature and expose show how literary texts are devious acts of power. The second is a man who simply enjoyed the pleasures of reading good literature. One might imagine that the second man is Dr. Jekyll, a polite, composed, model citizen and that the first man is Mr. Hyde, a ruthless villain, robbing people of the pleasures of life. Although many non-academics might see things this way, the fact is that in the academy – specifically literature departments – the second man is the one who is paraded as a model to be emulated and the first is deemed to barbarous to roam the halls of the elite institutions of academia. Such a man is called “non-literary.”

In explaining his experience of living as a literary critic and a lover of literature Frank

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Frank Lentricchia

Lentricchia exposes some of the absurdities of the sort of literary criticism practiced by various approaches to the study of literature, including (but not explicitly named) the New Historicism. He explains that at one point he was convinced that as a literary critic he could “be an agent of social transformation, an activist who would show his students that, in its form and style, literature had a strategic role to play in the world’s various arrangements of power” and that all literature was “either in opposition to or in complicit with the power in place.” (60) However, Lentricchia eventually came to believe that this sort of approach to literature, which is standard in literature departments is misguided. He now believes that literary criticism is “a form of Xeroxing.” (64) Literary critics a live in an echo-chamber, when they speak of the imperialism, homophobia, sexism, etc. hidden in a literary text, they are simply voicing their own ideological concerns. Instead of being concerned with the “power plays” supposedly voiced in literary texts, Lentricchia now contents himself with simply trying to “describe what is on the page.” (67) And thus, it seems that for now Lentricchia’s Mr. Hyde, the lover of literature, has eclipsed Dr. Jekyll, the literary critic.

Analysis

This essay does a fine job of exposing the fact that literary criticism can serve as a form of political activism. The literary critic, by exposing the supposed ideologies present in great works of literature, believes she can shape and mold her audience towards pursuing a better world. There is something noble about this. However, Lentricchia, rightly in my mind, exposes the fact that in their desire to make the world a better place, some critics can read things into texts that are not actually there simply because the critic is driven by a particular agenda. This is what he calls “Xeroxing.”

The act of “Xeroxing” is a danger that is not just present for the literary critic but the historian as well. Its too easy to read sexism or racism, issues which a historian is right to be concerned with, into historical texts which are neither sexist or racist. “John Calvin did not allow women to take the pulpit in Geneva, therefore he is a sexist.” “Peter Martyr Vermigli never attempted to teach outside of Europe, therefore he is euro-centric.” These are potential examples of “Xeroxing” in the discipline church history. Lentricchia is right, we should attempt to allow our “texts” speak for themselves instead of imposing our own judgements upon “texts” for issues that “texts” are not even concerned with.


See, Frank Lentricchia, “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic,” Lingua Franca 6/6 (September/October 1996): 59-67.

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Christians Must be Readers & Writers

Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University and Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, begins each semester by exhorting her students to see the connections between the life of the intellect and the life of faith. She makes a sharp case for why Christians must be readers and writers.

Even in a world supposedly driven by pictures and sounds, books continue to be one of the most important ways we shape culture.  Here are three highlights from this article:

1) Christianity is a religion of the written word. Christianity gives a primary place to the word over the image: God’s highest form of communication with us is through the written word (from the Ten Commandments to Holy Scripture to Jesus as the Word); God cautions us about the power of visual images or “graven images” (see Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death), and the Protestant Reformation reinforced the primacy of words over images); Christianity is responsible for preserving and disseminating the written word and literacy throughout the world as the invention of the printing press was motivated by the desire of Christians to get the Bible into the hands of the people. The word both spoken and written is central to our faith in countless ways.

2) When we take delight in literary creations, we imitate God. God took delight in his creation in looking upon it and declaring that “it was good.” It is good to take pleasure and enjoyment in our good creations, including literary ones.

3) Literary Christians are better equipped to engage a postmodern culture. Postmodernism is characterized by an emphasis on language and “story”; for many today the aesthetic experience has replaced the religious experience. Christians who understand this can more effectively engage the current culture.

You can find the rest of the article here.

Book Review – Clear Winter Nights by Trevin Wax

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t read a ton of fiction, but I recently read Cornelius Plantinga’s Reading for Preaching and I became convinced that as a preacher I need to read more fiction. So when I came across Trevin Wax’s Clear Winter Nights I knew I should pick it up. I knew Trevin was a blogger and really enjoyed reading his blogs but I had no idea what to expect from him as a fiction author, lets just say I was delightfully surprised.

Clear Winter Nights

Now this book is no masterpiece. It is no Gilead (even though it has an old pastor imparting wisdom to a young family member), but hey I didn’t really expect it to be. What I was expecting though was a story about dealing with doubts. It’s a story of dealing with the type of doubts many young Christians face coming out of college. Trevin portrayed these doubts pretty well. I do college ministry and I have had to walk through these types of questions and doubts with many students over the years.

Summary (No Spoilers)

It’s the story of Chris, a young college graduate who is dealing with “questions.” He really has the world ahead of him: ministry opportunities, a great fiancé, and a heritage of faith; but something has happened to him. Doubts have began to creep in. He no longer knows what to believe, or even if he still believes. He has grown tired of faking like he has it all together. He wants to finally let his guard down, but he doesn’t feel safe doing so. That is until he spends a weekend with his grandpa, Gil, who used to be the pastor of a Baptist church. What follows is a weekend of honest questions (both Chris and Gil are asking the questions) and honest answers.

Pro’s

  1. It’s compelling & realistic – Chris deals with all sorts of questions ranging from Christian hypocrisy, the crusades, homosexuality, anti-intellectualism, and even the nature of the gospel. If I had a nickel for every time a college student brought up one of those questions to me I would have many nickels…. I love the fact that Trevin Wax really seems to have a pulse on current objections and hesitations that a college aged student would have about Christianity.
  2. It’s a great apologetics handbook – I don’t know if Trevin Wax was trying to write up an apologetics handbook, but that is sort of what he did. They say that one learns best by watching others do that thing, well in this book we get to watch Pastor Gil doing apologetics for his grandson Chris. On pages 74-78 you see Pastor Gil in action defending the Christian claim to exclusivity.  On pages 101-113 you get a lesson on apologetics and homosexuality. I didn’t expect to learn from this book, but I definitely did.
  3. Its full of great quotes – Here are a few: “The greater your acknowledgement of your sinfulness, the greater your appreciation of God’s grace.” (68) “Fix the worship problem, and evangelism starts coming naturally.” (78) “Don’t be true to yourself. The self you’d be true to is rotten to the core.” (112) And there are many more great quotes, but I will let your read them yourself.

Con’s

  1. Its too clean – I don’t mean I want profanity and sex and violence, I mean that the resolution is too clean. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I don’t really believe the end of the book.
  2. Chris lacks depth – Let me explain. There are some characters in certain books and movies that are utterly predictable. They are walking stereotypes. Chris is one of those characters. Pastor Gil on the other hand is not. He is a character with flesh and blood. Pastor Gil has “depth” so to speak. Usually in a fictional story you want the main character to be the 3D character and the other supporting characters to be 2D, but in this book it seemed as though the main character had less depth than the supporting character.
  3. It starts off like a typical Christian film – Some of you might not think that is a bad thing, but trust me it is. I have seen many Christian movies that start off like this book: attractive young college guy takes a walk with his cute petite blonde girlfriend, he expresses his doubts about the faith he grew up with, she cries, and he goes on a journey to rediscover his faith. That’s the typical first scene of many Christian films, thankfully Clear Winter Nights departs from that cliché script after the first few pages.

Conclusion

I was not disappointed by this book but maybe that is because I didn’t have very high expectations. Nevertheless I do recommend this book with one caveat…

Let me just end with two things:

  1. If you are looking for a great story with a lot of depth, you won’t find it here. The story is predicatble and the characters aren’t very deep. All that to say, I can’t recommend it as a great story or a great work of fiction.
  2. If you are looking for good theology in story form, read this book. A lot of people have been talking about doing theology as narrative lately, Trevin Wax takes his shot at it, and is quite successful. He treats many theological topics, and puts them into dialogue form. For that reason I recommend this book, its useful for anybody dealing with the sorts of issues that Chris is dealing with in this book.
I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review, and was under no compulsion to write a positive or negative review.

This Paycheck’s Book Purchases (November 22nd)

My time is running out, marriage is a few short weeks away and I will never be able to buy a book again. Here are the ones I bought with this pay check

Jonathan Edwards’s Bible: The Relationship of the Old and New Testaments by Stephen Nichols

I love Jonathan Edwards. I love typology. I love studying the New Testament use of the Old Testament. I also love Oliver Crisp. Having said that you should probably know by now why I bought this book. It is a book on Jonathan Edwards’s understanding typology and how the NT relates to the OT, with a forward written by Oliver Crisp. Enough said.

Here is the Wipf & Stock book description: New England colonial pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) was well aware of the threat that Deist philosophy posed to the unity of the Bible as Christian Scriptures, yet remarkably, his own theology of the Bible has never before been examined. In the context of his entire corpus this study pays particular attention to the detailed notes Edwards left for “The Harmony of the Old and New Testament,” a “great work” hitherto largely ignored by scholars. Following examination of his “Harmony” notes, a case study of salvation in the Old Testament challenges the current “dispositional” account of Edwards’s soteriology and argues instead that the colonial Reformed theologian held there to be one object of saving faith in Old and New Testaments, namely, Christ.

Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga Jr.

I preach about 1/2 of the sermons at the college ministry I serve at. Over the years my preaching has gotten better (hopefully). I know I have a pretty intuitive grasp of scripture & I always try to make my sermons point back to Christ. All to say, the content good. However the packaging of my content isn’t so great. I think it can feel stuffy & a bit over-academic. My sermons don’t have much flare. Depending on who you are, that might not seem like much a problem, stick to the text use no illustrations, blah blah blah. But I don’t think that is the best route to take. You don’t want your people to doze off before you give them the real meat of the sermon.  This book offers an argument for how reading, especially non-theological works can make your preaching better. Plus anything written by Cornelius Plantinga is solid gold.

Here is the Amazon description: Plantinga — himself a master preacher — shows how a wide reading program can benefit preachers. First, he says, good reading generates delight, and the preacher who enters the world of delight goes with God. Good reading can also help tune the preacher’s ear for language — his or her primary tool. General reading can enlarge the preacher’s sympathies for people and situations that she or he had previously known nothing about. And, above all, the preacher who reads widely has the chance to become wise.

Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking by T.F. Torrance

I recently raided Archives bookstore at Fuller Seminary, snatching up a bunch of Torrance for a really good price. As I mentioned before I will probably do some further research on Torrance in the future (Th.M or Ph.D) so I want to get a jump on Torrencian literature. On Amazon this book goes for $30, but I bought it for $5.

The description on Amazon isn’t very descriptive though: Biblical scholar, former professor, and author Thomas Torrance suggests that great preaching today not only includes a faithful presentation of the Christian gospel, but that such presentation be expressed in ways that can be appreciated within the modern scientific understanding of the created universe upon which God has impressed his Word.

My Reading List for June Through July

For those of you who are curious, here is my reading list for the rest of June through the month of July:

Theology

  1. Karl Barth – Evangelical Theology
  2. Athanasius – De Incarnatione

Philosophy

  1. Marcus Pound – A (very) Critical Introduction to Zizek

Literature

  1. C.S. Lewis – On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature
  2. Paulo Cohello – The Alchemist

Ministry

  1. Alan Fadling – An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest
  2. Jimmy Siebert & Larry Kreider: The Three Loves
  3. Ajith Fernando – Jesus Driven Ministry
  4. Spiritual Parenting – Michelle Anthony