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Understanding Our Experience
A Christian understanding of literature is grounded in beliefs derived from the Scriptures and developed through the course of Christian history. These beliefs provide the foundation for our attempts to explain the nature of literature and what it is that we do when we read it. For centuries in the Western world, Christian reflection upon interpretation -- especially the "reading" of the Scriptures and of nature -- deeply informed the practice and theory of interpretation for all written works. With the dramatic growth of secular thinking in the past several centuries, the influence of Christian thought upon literary study has become less explicit, even though the careful observer may still discover beneath the surface of contemporary thinking deep Christian roots.
Nevertheless, whether contemporary beliefs about literature show the historic influence of Christianity or its present insignificance, the task for the Christian student of literature remains that of grounding his or her thinking in the history of Christian thought. And one place for the Christian to begin thinking about literature is with the conviction, held by Christians through the ages, that in a universe created and ruled by a sovereign God all things are meaningful. The Scriptures proclaim that, in creating the world, God gave order and purpose to it, that in the Incarnation be sent his Son to redeem our fallen state, and that at the end of the age he will judge the nations and disclose the meaning of history in its fullness.
The loss offaith in a God who creates, reveals, and redeems is no doubt a major source of the sense of meaninglessness one finds in much modern literature. It is this loss of meaning, for example, that the American novelist Herman Melville contemplates in a passage from Moby-Dick. In the novel, Captain Ahab is driven by a passionate desire to discover the truth about life by slaying a whale called Moby Dick. As an incentive to his crew, Ahab nails a gold coin to one of his ship's posts. This reward will go to the first person to spot Moby Dick. Ishmael, the narrator of the novel, reports that one day Ahab pauses as he passes the coin:
...he seemed to be newly attracted by the strange figures and inscriptionsstamped on it, as though now for the first time beginning to interpret forhimself in some monomaniac way whatever significance might lurk in them.And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are littleworth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by thecartload, as they do bills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the MilkyWay. (358)
In a Christian doctrine of Creation, the earth is much more than a cartload of dirt filling a hole in a corner of the Milky Way. In its abundance and complexity -- as the Psalmist, the Apostle Paul, and many through the ages have proclaimed -- the world gives evidence of having been the creation of God. God "has been pleased," wrote John Calvin in Institutes of the Christian Religion, "to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe.... On each of his works his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse" (1: 51).
The doctrine of the Incarnation also testifies to the significance of earthly life. Though we have all sinned, God has neither destroyed nor abandoned humanity. We are not alone in our sins, the Gospel assures us, and the events of our lives are not the products of a cruel fate or random process. "So the Word was made flesh, in order that sin, destroyed by means of that same flesh through which it had gained the mastery and taken hold and lorded it, should no longer be in us," explains the second-century theologian Irenaus, "and therefore our Lord took up the same first formation for an incarnation, that so he might join battle on behalf of his forefathers, and overcome through Adam what had stricken us through Adam" (Pelikan, 1: 144-145).
Thus, the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation affirm that human life is inherently meaningful. God has placed us in a world filled with order and hints of wonder, and through his acts of revelation and redemption he has entered into our history. As a result, although some things are obviously of greater importance than others, everything in our experience has significance, and our attempt to discern that significance -- as well as we can -- is part of our calling as God's servants.
If we are convinced that our world has meaning, then we may see that interpretation is not isolated from the rest of life but is at the very heart of our life. The English teacher who scours a poem for symbols is not an odd person obsessed with meaning, for every one of us is always "reading experience." The anxious student wants to know what her teacher means when he clasps his hands behind his head and stares off in the distance before answering her question; the job seeker tries to interpret the signals she receives from a potential employer during an interview; and the son tries to read between the lines of his parents' latest letter to him at college.
Symbols and Meaning
Many modern works of literature focus upon questions of meaning and understanding, as do a number of classics from the past. For example, though Shakespeare's King Lear was written almost four hundred years ago, it seems contemporary in its concern with interpretation and matters of meaning. The central character of the play, Lear, is an aging king who wants to finish his life in peace. To that end, be decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. In doing so, be hopes to avoid any conflict among his heirs after his death. Though be will relinquish authority, be plans to...
Literature Through the Eyes of Faith. Copyright © by Roger Gallagher. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.