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Our turn now? Imitation and the theological turn in literary studies.

 Under a starry sky I was taking a walk,
 On a ridge overlooking neon cities,
 With my companion, the spirit of desolation,
 Who was running around and sermonizing,
 Saying that I was not necessary, for if not I, then someone else
 Would be walking here, trying to understand his age.
 Had I died long ago nothing would have changed.
 The same stars, cities, and countries
 Would have been seen with other eyes.
 The world and its labors would go on as they do.

 For Christ's sake, get away from me.
 You've tormented me enough, I said.
 It's not up to me to judge the calling of men.
 And my merits, if any, I won't know anyway.

 --Czeshw Milosz, "Temptation"

The call for papers that initiated the 2007 MLA seminar on "The Turn to Religion in Literary Studies" was worded to elicit a variety of possible responses. Yet the brief prompt also seems in its language to offer a partial reading of the "turn to religion"--a greater openness to the study of religious aspects of texts as religious--as well as a comment on the positions of Christian believers within literary study during recent decades:
 Seminar papers are invited that explore ways in which Christian
 scholars can participate in the "turn to religion" by strengthening
 a critical sensibility that weighs the delicate registers of belief
 and unbelief; by developing more vigorous theoretical paradigms
 that take religion seriously; and by demonstrating that Christian
 commitments can lead to greater interpretive clarity.

An invitation for papers about how Christians "can participate" in a turn to religion seems in part to suggest that the turn has been undertaken primarily by scholars who do not define themselves as Christian believers or who expressly avoid relating their religious commitments to scholarship. The comparative language searching for more strength, more vigor and seriousness, and greater clarity may indicate a conflict between the "Christian scholars" designed as subjects of the papers, and those assumed to already be comprising the turn.

Such ideas are not uncommon in already published pieces that either propose or characterize religious turns in critical theory and literary studies. For example, Jenny Franchot's 1995 piece "Invisible Domain: Religion and American Literary Studies," even while castigating the discipline for seeming to assume that believing and thinking are mutually exclusive and calling for a greater focus on religion, suggests that a neglect of religious subject matter may reflect "how unimportant religion is in the lives of literary scholars" (840). Franchot observes in her article that fear of being cast in "the wrong light" means that scholars consistently translate or demystify the religious ideas of the writers they study (840). Seeking to calm the fears of those who worried that the study of religion would compromise their scholarly position, she insists that there is no requirement that "scholars must themselves adopt the religious insights or practices of those they study" (841). She instead suggests the treatment of religious questions as religious with impartiality and without fear of contagion. Franchot suggests that more and better work on religion ought to be done in Americanist literary studies, though she admits "we rarely study things we don't like, let alone consider ourselves responsible for conveying accounts that are as impartial as possible" (840).

The "wrong light" Franchot hints at may be one she casts on earlier scholars: a label marking their work as driven by "hagiographical or polemical impulses that used to characterize some work on religion" (838). Beyond American literary studies, other critics and theorists have worried about the (potentially negative) effects of religious commitments on the integrity of scholarship. In Ken Jackson and Arthur Marotti's 2004 piece "The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies" in Criticism, for example, the authors declare that accounts of religion in Early Modern England were compromised by "literary scholars ... driven by confessional biases" (170). For the authors, the turn underway in Early Modern English studies separates itself from and, indeed, corrects, the practices of "a much earlier and more naive generation of Whiggish ethnocentrists or Catholic apologists ... with belief systems governing the selection of evidence, those choice of texts deemed worthy of attention, and the results of interpretation" (182). With the specter of discarded and discredited critical matrices lingering, Jackson and Marotti seek to exorcise the haunt of scholarly religiosity in whatever guise it may appear. They find even the generally worthwhile theological turn at work in critical theory (with its interests in radical alterity via Levinas and Derrida) and in New Historicism (with its interest in representation of culture) is more "religious" than it ought to be, "even," they assert, "in our most secular of critical methodologies" (179). For these authors, the key to maintaining a kind of scholarly integrity is neither wholesale dismissal of religion nor motivated and tactical embrace of it. They suggest instead that that a scholarly approach toward religion in literary texts has to reside in what may be thought of as a kind of agnosticism: "an irreducible space between religion as anthropological residue and as something absolutely other" (182). Similarly, Arthur Bradley, in his 2006 article "Derrida's God: A Genealogy of the Theological Turn," has argued that interpretations of a turn to religion (e.g., those by John D. Caputo or John Milbank), whether greeting such a turn positively or negatively, have been often rightly suspected of "attempts to smuggle a theological agenda into philosophy by the back door" (22). For Bradley, even Derrida's use of the messianic tradition (independent of how other scholars have read it) leads away from the absolutely necessary empirical present and ought to be rethought as deconstruction moves forward.

The more-than-decade-long assumptions that a scholar will not, need not, or ought not be a believer to study religion in texts, assumptions that more or less explicitly pepper published essays, have led Christian believers within intellectual cultures to periodically seek recognition and legitimacy. Most recently, The Decline of the Secular University by C. John Sommerville calls for the university to allow "religious scholars ... to be themselves in their academic roles," in order that the marginalization of the university in contemporary culture (which he attributes to secularized values) might be reversed (123). Sommerville continues and broadens a polemical argument made almost a decade earlier in George Marsden's The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship for "the opening of the academic mainstream to scholarship that relates one's belief in God to what else one thinks about" (Marsden 4).

In a literary studies context, scholars have responded to arguments such as Marsden's by noting the marginalization of religious scholars and calling for religious scholars to map out how religion as subjectivity and subject might contribute to academic endeavor. Harold Bush, in "The Outrageous Idea of a Christian Literary Studies, Prospects for the Future and a Meditation on Hope," claims that the sorts of dismissals of believing subjectivity that we see in the above articles represent a double standard. He writes,
 feminist and Africanist and Marxist and psychoanalytic critics lie
 awake at night dreaming up intriguing and original angles on their
 fields of study. These critics are not shy about asserting the
 continued relevance of their own particular subjectivities to
 literary studies.... Christian identity has very much to contribute
 to these theoretical areas, and aspects of postmodernism support
 the fundamental right to claim as much. (88)

Bush's piece asserts the value of a self-consciously Christian scholarly presence in historical criticism, theory of culture, and theory of literature.

In a sense, the conflict described above is a conflict over territorial rights to "the turn," a conflict between those who argue--even off-handedly--that religious belief is neither necessary nor helpful in a reconsideration of religion, and those who argue--even passionately--that religious identity can be fundamentally helpful in the task of interpreting how religion functions in literary texts. Given that scholars' livelihoods depend at least a little on their share of the intellectual market, this conflict is not one with small stakes. Whose turn is this? Whose values get to shape what counts as valid or interesting in the study of a religion in texts? It is perhaps no wonder that the language that has framed the relationship can tend, from religious quarters at least, to seem territorial and even war-like.

Philosopher Rene Girard's ideas about the origins of violence in mimetic desire have been widely applied to literature; the field of literary study--and in particular the only sometimes subtle territorial struggle over the turn to religion in literary study--may well be illuminated by these ideas as well. In "Mimesis and Violence," the best known of Girard's introductions to his own thought, Girard shows how rivalry and eventually violence result from the human condition of appropriative imitation. When two individuals "reach together for one and the same object," "they become rivals for that object" (9). He writes that "if the tendency to imitate appropriation is present on both sides, imitative rivalry must tend to become reciprocal; it must be subject to ... positive feedback.... Each becomes the imitator of his own imitator and the model of his own model. Each tries to push aside the obstacle that the other places in his path" (9). Such a mimetic doubling can be discerned in the relationship between the positions outlined above.

Franchot, Jackson, and Marotti seem to assert that one necessary goal of a revitalized study of religion in texts is that religious questions and issues in texts not be read solely as functions of other forces (e.g., race, class, and gender), but as nonreductively religious. Franchot describes this as "an encounter not simply with another [writer's] argument but with the creative silence of another's sense of divinity" while Jackson and Marotti use Derrida's term of "hauntology" to gather a sense of the nebulousness of religion as religion (or religion without religion) (Franchot 841, qtd. in Jackson and Marotti 182). It could be argued that the goal of encounters with senses of divinity and with the haunts of various texts are to an extent goals to acquire or imitate the experience of believers who have a sense of divinity or an "extra-rational sector of experience" (Jackson and Marotti 182). To put it crudely, it may be that those participating in or calling for the turn seem to want to be able to read belief as if they believed and could understand belief, but without necessarily believing, which seems to suggest a sort of imitation.

Meanwhile, one argument made by Christian scholars is that aspects of a postmodern academy are what justify and frame the right to claim religious identity as fundamental to the study of religion. To the extent that Christians in literary study follow the seat-at-the-table argument for equality with other sub-disciplinary theoretical commitments (e.g., those of race, class, and gender), they seek the territory of religion in texts under what might be termed the imitative impulse as well.

For Girard, this mimetically-based rivalry would be understood as rooted in the basic system of teaching and learning, whereby the imitating disciple becomes rival of master and then master with student. In Girard's reading of culture and religion, this, like any other acquisitive, appropriative mimesis, breeds violence that is regularly solved only through sacrificial, scapegoating rituals. Yet Christian religion, Girard would assert, has distinct responses to the human condition of mimetic struggle that seek to expose and nullify its power. In Girard's non-sacrificial reading of the crucifixion, Christianity refuses to forward Christ's death as a sacrificial scapegoating situation, and thus, by refusing to play by the violent system, exposes and overturns the sacrificial system. And Christians, he would argue, escape the cycle of violent imitation by imitating the Christ who was instrumental in overturning the power of mimetic violence:
 (Christ) offers not the slightest hold to any form of rivalry or
 mimetic interference. There is no acquisitive desire in him....
 With him, we run no risk of getting caught up in the evil
 opposition between doubles.

 The Gospels and the NT do not ... claim that humans must get rid of
 imitation; they recommend imitating the sole model who never runs
 the danger--if we really imitate in the way that children
 imitate--of being transformed into a fascinating rival. (Things
 Hidden 430)

In Girard, we are to imitate Christ's non acquisitive love: "the Gospels tell us that to escape violence it is necessary to love one's brother completely--to abandon the violent mimesis involved in the relationship of doubles" (Things Hidden 215).

Perhaps in light of Girard's understanding of Christ's nonviolent, nonsacrificial, nonrivaling love, Christians in literary study ought to give up the mimetic competition, or perhaps, turn from claiming the territory of "the turn" toward something else. Yet wouldn't that suggestion seem to leave the Christian scholar in just as much of a bad place as before? The demands for increased participation, legitimacy, and recognition for the believer-scholar already may have indicated that Christians in literary study were bereft of the methodologies and theoretical paradigms needed in such enterprise, that the believer tends to be isolated and marginalized in the academy. If Christians are also forbidden from the process of having models to imitate in the field, we are left with little but the poor resources of an individual, which, as Eric Miller points out in "Alone in the Academy" is indeed poor consolation. But as Girard points out, imitation is fundamental to humanity, and the scripture too, outlines ways that examples may provide a means for imitation to be redeemed from its violent ends. 1 Cor. 1:11 most efficiently states how this works, when Paul states: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (RSV). There is not space in this short study to investigate whether the imitation sought in 1 Corinthians 11 is of the victimization and chosen weakness of Christ as Robert Hammerton-Kelly asserts in "A Girardian Interpretation of Paul: Rivalry, Mimesis and Victimage in the Corinthian Correspondence" or an imitation of Christ's and Paul's refusal of violence which may be reconstituted as love-for-the-other.

The longer paper on which this small essay is based, however, argues that closely examining models--in that paper, models comprised of the published work and interview comments of several Christians in Americanist literary studies, including Harold Bush (cited above) and others--can elicit theological and theoretical paradigms that may have seemed, in the rhetoric of the territorial struggle over "the turn," to have been missing. In particular, three relational elements stood out: the need for the critic to efface his or her own interests in order to let the spiritual dramas of individual texts speak authentically; the need to cultivate sympathy and seriousness as scholarly sensibilities in order to defend, recover, and correct the wrongheadedness arising out of anti-religious or anti-spiritual bias; and the need for the critic to put her person into the positions of contradiction and tension in order to provide a platform for non-combative witness.

These paradigms may not lead to the particular distinctiveness or innovation that seem to be desired in the "Christian schools of thought" desired by Marsden and others, but they do, I think, offer a turn of their own (Marsden 6). As they turn toward hope in Christ's promises and toward others in love, they show us how to turn from the trap of acquisitive mimesis in academic cultures--as the expert in reading law learned from the parable of the Good Samaritan--to "go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37, RSV).

Wheaton College


Bradley, Arthur. "Derrida's God: A Genealogy of the Theological Turn." Paragraph 29.3 (2006): 21-42.

Bush, Harold K. "The Outrageous Idea of a Christian Literary Studies, Prospects for the Future and a Meditation on Hope." Christianity & Literature 51.1 (2001): 79-103.

Franchot, Jenny. "Invisible Domain: Religion and American Literary Studies." American Literature 67.4 (1995): 833-42.

Girard, Rene. "Mimesis and Violence." The Girard Reader. Ed. James G. Williams. New York: Crossroad Herder, 1996.

--. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1987.

Jackson, Ken, and Arthur F. Marotti. "The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies." Criticism 46.1 (2004): 167-90.

Marsden, George. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Miller, Eric C. "Alone in the Academy." First Things Feb. 2004: 30-34.

Sommerville. C. John. The Decline of the Secular University. New York: Oxford, 2006.
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Author:Kriner, Tiffany Eberle
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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