Christianity in Twentieth-Century Literature
Christianity in Twentieth-Century Literature
Christianity, encompassing the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant faiths, asserted a tremendous influence on the literature of the twentieth century. However, there were social, scientific, philosophical, economic, and cultural changes that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that inspired a wide schism in how Christian beliefs were portrayed in fiction. Christianity was the predominant religious belief system of Western Civilization in 1901. While society at large still strictly adhered to fundamentalist Christian beliefs at the beginning of the century, literature challenged those beliefs with works reflecting the philosophical writings of such writers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Arthur Schopenhauer, who rejected Christianity in favor of worldly intellectual pursuits. Literature of the nineteenth century, including work by Romantics and Transcendentalists, promoted nature as a fitting object of worship, while twentieth-century movements, including naturalism and modernism, tended to place religion behind such scientific, political and psychological theories as evolution, historical determinism, and Marxism. At the same time, modern warfare began to employ the mechanized weapons of mass destruction that ultimately caused many writers' to question the nature and convictions in the existence of God and Christ. Christian forgiveness and understanding gave way to the cynicism prevalent in fiction such as Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929), which presented the view that war was destructive and futile. Additionally, the Russian Revolution found in all religion the method with which society subjected its followers to passive slavery, a sentiment that was echoed among African American writers of the twentieth century. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), William DuBois wrote of his opinion that the church reinforced the characteristics that made African Americans ideal candidates for slavery by preaching the need for humility and submission in the face of God. Later in the century, drawn up during the National Black Economic Conference, the Black Manifesto (1969) also pointed to Christianity's perpetuation of the exploitation of blacks by virtue of its passive stance on slavery. Agnosticism and atheism became more widespread and began to challenge Christianity as the prevailing belief system. Following World War II, the Beat movement further rejected Christian religions by adopting an American hybrid of Eastern religions that included Zen Buddhism and Confucianism. The work of postmodern writers questioned whether that Jesus Christ was worthy of religious worship. Despite the challenges Christianity faced in the twentieth century, many writers adhered to traditional Christian beliefs or adapted those beliefs to their own personal style of worship. Many Christian writers maintained that adherence to the Christian faith served to preserve Western cultural traditions and protected civilization from further despair and decadence. Writers such as C. S. Lewis embraced the Christian faith with fantasies rooted in Christian allegories. Prominent Roman Catholic writers of the century include novelists Graham Greene, G. K. Chesterton, and Evelyn Waugh, as well as Dorothy Sayers, who translated Dante's The Divine Comedy (1307-21) into English and authored the drama The Man Born To Be King (1942). Christian themes prevailed in the poetry of the twentieth century as well. One writer who adopted no organized Christian religion but is still considered to be a Christian writer is W. H. Auden, whose poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (1944), relies heavily upon the Nativity story in an attempt to reconcile modern man with the foundations of Christianity. Poet Allen Tate utilized religious imagery in his poem The Cross (1932), which depicts a modern man's intellectual dilemma.
W. H. Auden
For the Time Being (poetry) 1944
Go Tell It on the Mountain (novel) 1953
Notes of a Native Son (essays) 1955
Death Comes for the Archbishop (prose) 1927
Not Under Forty (essays and criticism) 1936
G. K. Chesterton
The Man Who Was Thursday (novel) 1908
The Ball and the Cross (novel) 1909
The Flying Inn (novel) 1914
Le soulier de satin, ou le pire n'est pas toujour sur (play) 1929; also published as The Satin Slipper 1931
The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (novel) 1903
T. S. Eliot
Journey of the Magi (poetry) 1927
For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (essays) 1929
Ash-Wednesday (poetry) 1930
Murder in the Cathedral (play) 1935
Four Quartets (poetry) 1943
The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1929
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby (novel) 1925
The Heart of the Matter (novel) 1948
The End of the Affair (novel) 1951
The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926
A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929
To Have and Have Not (novel) 1937
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “The Twentieth Century,” in A Reader's Guide to Religious Literature, Moody Press, 1968, pp. 155-79.
[In the following excerpt, Batson examines key authors of twentieth century literature, concluding that their works are God-oriented.]
The twentieth century is an age marked by global conflict, social revolt and a growing reliance upon science and technology. Each of these three characteristics has brought with it an incalculable number of influences upon human thought and expression.
Literary artists during this century have been keenly aware of the kind of world in which man finds himself. The great novelists, poets, and dramatists have been deeply concerned about the social, economic, intellectual and political problems and about the hope and destiny of confused man. And in the words of the historian, Edward McNall Burns:
… they were disillusioned by the brute facts of World War I and by the failure of the victory to fulfill its promises. Many were profoundly affected also … by the probings of the new psychology into the hidden secrets of the mind. Instead of being created by God just “a little lower than the angels,” man seemed now to be a creature just a bit higher than the apes.1
A major depression and a second world war, combined with fearful dread of a third, have also had...
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SOURCE: “On Bridging Modern Literature and Religion,” in Renascence, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Autumn, 1973, pp. 15-23.
[In the following excerpt, Simonson discusses the distinctions between the literary and the religious experience in modern literature, suggesting that an effort to bridge the two may be impossible.]
In the early 1960s the students at Columbia College demanded that a course in modern literature be introduced into the English curriculum. Acceding to this demand, the English Department reacted strongly: “Very well, if [students] want the modern, let them have it—let them have it, as Henry James says, full in the face. We shall give the course, but we shall give it on the highest level, and if they think, as students do, that the modern will naturally meet them in a genial way, let them have their gay and easy time with Yeats and Eliot, with Joyce and Proust and Kafka, with Lawrence, Mann, and Gide.” So remembers Lionel Trilling in his essay, “On the Teaching of Modern Literature.”1
Why, you may ask, were Trilling and his colleagues reluctant? They clearly were not questioning the value of the literature itself. Their doubts referred instead to the “educational propriety” of studying this literature in college. A strange kind of doubt, you may say. Strange indeed—and an even stranger kind of “despair” came over Trilling when he anticipated teaching...
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Criticism: Christianity And Twentieth-Century Literature
SOURCE: “Religion: A Focal Point in French Literature,” in Renascence, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Fall, 1963, pp. 42-7.
[In the following excerpt, Cismaru contends that twentieth-century French literature is deeply involved in religious issues, whether its aim is to affirm or deny the existence of God.]
The appeal of theological concepts and Christian values to the post-war reading public in France is evident in the widespread acceptance of such writers as Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, Simone Weil, Gabriel Marcel, and, of course, Claudel, Bernanos, and Mauriac. The continuing popularity of these authors is also evidence that they have captured the prevalent but often underscribed mood of a contemporary society whose almost Cartesian attachment to rational evidence and relentless logic is accompanied by a constant sense of God's presence in history and in individual human beings. Jacques Maritain's Art and Scholasticism (1920), Frontiers of Poetry (1943) and Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953) have had an impact upon philosophers and men of letters throughout the world; with Gates of Heaven, Raïssa Maritain has established herself as one of the genuine mystical poets of modern France. Simon Weil's Weight and Grace (1947), Supernatural Knowledge (1950) and Problems of the Working Class (1951 reveal, the first intuitive understanding of religious...
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SOURCE: “Allen Tate's ‘The Cross,’” in Renascence, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Spring, 1966, pp. 156-60.
[In the following excerpt, O'Dea explains that Allen Tate's “The Cross,” while possessing religious subject matter is not a religious poem.]
There is a place that some men know, I cannot see the whole of it Nor how I came there. Long ago Flame burst out of a secret pit Crushing the world with such a light The day-sky fell to moonless black, The kingly sun to hateful night For those, once seeing, turning back; For love so hates mortality Which is the providence of life She will not let it blessed be But curses it with mortal strife, Until beside the blinding rood Within that world-destroying pit—Like young wolves that have tasted blood, Of death, men taste no more of it. So blind, in so severe a place (All live before in the black grave) The last alternatives they face Of life, without the life to save, Being from all salvation weaned—A stag charged both at heel and head: Who would come back is turned a fiend Instructed by the fiery dead.
Allen Tate's “The Cross” is a much admired, rarely explicated, and seldom understood poem. Even critics as careful as Yvor Winters have considered it to be a religious poem. It is not, and the cautious reader might suspect as much since Tate places the poem in section v of his collected poems, grouping...
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SOURCE: “Sacremental Symbolism in Hopkins and Eliot,” in Renascence, Vol. XX, No. 2, Winter, 1968, pp. 104-11.
[In the following excerpt, Milward compares and contrasts Hopkins and Eliot, concluding that both are representatives of Catholic Christianity though their poetic sensibilities are completely different.]
The question of the contribution of Christianity to modern English Literature is an exceedingly complex and difficult one to answer. The simplest and perhaps most satisfactory way of dealing with it is to show how the Christian faith unites the work of two poets who seem to have little in common beyond their faith and their influence on the present generation. I refer to Hopkins and Eliot, the Roman Catholic priest and the Anglo-Catholic layman. Considering that both may be regarded as representatives of Catholic Christianity, and that they are contemporaries, if not in life, at least in literary influence (the first two editions of Hopkins' Poems were more or less contemporary with Eliot's Prufrock and Ash Wednesday), it would seem only natural to look for some resemblance, if not inter-dependence, between them. But this tendency has been discouraged by Eliot himself with his disparaging remarks on Hopkins in After Strange Gods (1934). Here he openly confesses his inability to “share the enthusiasm which many critics feel for this poet.” Moreover, it must be...
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SOURCE: “Christianity and Black Writers,” in Renascence, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Summer, 1971, pp. 198-212.
[In the following excerpt, Grumbach discusses the views of certain black authors on Christianity, concentrating on the Black Manifesto and its central point of the tremendous wealth of the white Christian Churches and synagogues in America.]
Churchmen in America were astonished when, on May 4, 1969, James Forman arrived at Riverside Church in New York City armed with a copy of the Black Manifesto, drawn up some months before by the National Black Economic Conference in Detroit. It was a shocking document, and the aim was to thrust it upon religious America in a shocking manner. Forman tried to break into Reverend Ernest T. Campbell's communion service, creating high indignation both for the irreligious act and for the uncommon, unexpected demands.
Central to the Manifesto's point is the tremendous wealth of the Church in America, white-Christian and Jewish, and the role it has played in what the Manifesto calls “the colonization of the black race.” The New York Review of Books (July 10, 1969) quoted at length from the document: “We are not unaware that the exploitation of colored peoples around the world is aided and abetted by the white Christian Churches and synagogues. This demand for $500 million is not an idle resolution or empty words. $15 for every black...
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SOURCE: “‘Postmodern’ Thinking and the Status of the Religious,” in Religion & Literature, Vol. 22, Nos. 2 & 3, Summer-Autumn, 1990, pp. 47-61.
[In the following excerpt, Kee examines how postmodern critics address the historical traditions that bear witness to the mystery of the divine-human relationship.]
For many literary critics interested in the relationship between religion and literature, the theoretical developments of the last twenty-five years have appeared threatening. So-called “postmodern” critics have challenged the historical criticism which sought to establish the continuity of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature with Christian humanism and, indeed, with the Western Christian tradition conceived as a whole.1 They have offered philosophical and political critiques of new-critical formalism, which found analogies between the paradoxes of literary language and those of religious language. Styles of criticism that were rooted in the assumptions of Arnoldian clerisism have even been criticized by some of the former high priests (see Bloom 60). The threat to the religious that is posed by these forms of thinking has usually been felt tacitly: many postmodern critics have not engaged religion directly because they have assumed that the critique of religion has been accomplished decisively by Enlightenment critics, by Feuerbach, by Marx, Nietzsche, and...
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Criticism: Christianity And Twentieth-Century Fiction
SOURCE: “Christian Myth and Naturalistic Deity: The Great Gatsby,” in Renascence, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Winter, 1962, pp. 80-9.
[In the following excerpt, Guerin examines Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, focusing on the novel's two patterns of symbolism wherein Fitzgerald contrasts both the East with West and Christian myth with naturalistic deity.]
Although two patterns of symbolism carry the major portion of the theme of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, only one has received adequate attention. That pattern contrasts the American East with the West and Mid-West; the other concerns a grail quest in a waste land, over which presides a deity-like figure. Although the two patterns are closely related, each can be treated separately. Critics such as Arthur Mizener and Milton Hindus have already considered the East-West motif—understandably, for Nick Carraway frequently compares, often explicitly, the two areas. East Egg, Long Island, where the Buchanans live, and West Egg, where Nick and Gatsby live, are part of the contrast. For Nick the West and Mid-West represent goodness, solidarity, security, family; the East, with some allusions to Europe, is ambition, sin, drunkenness, a “meretricious beauty.” Even Chicago's evil seems to emanate from Wolfsheim and Gatsby in New York. Upon this contrast, Fitzgerald bases his sociological theme. Near the end of the novel Nick says, “I...
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SOURCE: “The Viper's Tangle: Relative and Absolute Values,” in Renascence, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1963, pp. 32-9.
[In the following excerpt, Denommé examines Mauriac's The Viper's Tangle, contending that it is not a novel concerned with relative values but rather a work concerned with absolutes and ideals.]
When Jean-Paul Sartre published his critical appraisal of François Mauriac's La Fin de la nuit (The End of Night) in the February, 1939 issue of La Nouvelle Revue Française, he berated the novelist for restricting the freedom of his characters by assuming the role of the omniscient author. Because Mauriac imposed a fixed order upon his fictional creation, he seriously impaired the ability of his characters to respond freely to a world which has become increasingly committed to relative values. The result could be disastrous:
Why? Why has this serious and conscientious author not achieved his aim? I believe it is because of a sin of pride. He wanted to ignore, like the great majority of our authors, that the theory of relatively applies wholly to the fictional universe, that, in a real novel, no more than in the world of Einstein, there is no place for the privileged observer, and that in the novel, no more than in any physical system, there exists no experience which allows us to decipher whether this system is in...
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SOURCE: “The Look of Religion: Hemingway and Catholicism,” in Renascence, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter, 1964, pp. 77-81.
[In the following excerpt, Hertzel discusses how Hemingway's extensive knowledge of Catholicism can be found in his work even though his fiction has no supernatural dimension.]
No one can deny that Ernest Hemingway writes of modern despair. Cleanth Brooks in The Hidden God, a recent study of modern writers, says: “The Hemingway hero finds in the universe no sanctions for goodness; he sees through what are for him the great lying abstract words, like glory, patriotism, and honor; and he has found that the institutions that pretend to foster and safeguard the traditional moral codes are bankrupt.”
Yet Hemingway has also used the Catholic tradition extensively in his fiction, a fact that heretofore has received very little attention from his critics. Catholicism is an element of some importance in all of the longer narratives except The Torrents of Spring and The Green Hills of Africa, and appears frequently in the short stories. As one might expect, many of Hemingway's Italian, Spanish and French characters are Catholics: Colonel Cantwell's Renata in Across The River and Into the Trees, the Spaniards in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the priest in Farewell to Arms, and the fisherman, Santiago, in The Old Man and...
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SOURCE: “Faulkner's Vestigal Christianity,” in Renascence, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Autumn, 1968, pp. 44-54.
[In the following excerpt, O'Dea proposes that Faulkner's Christianity is seen through his emphasis on Christian virtues rather than in dogmatic statements or symbols.]
In the dark woods of the modern novel, Faulkner is one of the few novelists who writes from a perspective of hope. He writes of violence, of human stupidity, of cruelty, of greed, of a brooding sense of evil in the universe, but in the midst of all this dark turmoil gleams a light, a hope that although most men fail, yet they are not doomed to failure and that in spite of all their petty vices and stupidities they will prevail. It is, perhaps, this ray of hope in Faulkner that moves so many critics to construct from his writings some sort of justifying Christian ethos, although they are often hard put to do so. Nor are the critics alone in this struggle to justify their approval. The general reader who fights his troubled way through the dense maze of turgid prose, through retractions and qualifications and denials, finishes the novel with a vague and indefinable admiration for Faulkner. If the reader is literary, comparisons to Dostoevski, Shakespeare, Dante, Sophocles will come to his mind. He may, like the critics, be unable to justfy his comparisons, but he will, nonetheless, make them. The first or the twentieth shock of encounter...
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SOURCE: “The Subjective Theological Vision of Graham Greene,” in Renascence, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1970, pp. 3-13.
[In the following excerpt, Houle argues that Graham Green's theological fixation weakens his novels and short stories.]
In his essay on Henry James in The Lost Childhood and Other Essays, Graham Greene writes: “In all writers there occurs a moment of crystallization when the dominant theme is plainly expressed, when the private universe becomes visible even to the least sensitive reader.” In 1953, when interviewed by reporters from the Paris Review, Greene made a similar remark about himself: “Every creative writer worth our consideration … is a victim: a man given over to an obsession.” During the interview Greene referred to what he wanted to express in his novels as “my fixations.” He explains in the essay on James the importance of such a “ruling fantasy” to a writer: even a superior talent is inadequate to sustain an achievement, “whereas a ruling passion gives … to a shelf of novels the unity of a system.”
The following pages attempt to analyze the nature of Greene's work in terms of his ruling fantasy or fixation. For this reader his fiction is permeated with a subjective theological vision, which does indeed give to Greene's work that “unity of system” he considers so important. It will be argued here that...
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SOURCE: “Catholic Science Fiction and the Comic Apocalypse: Walker Percy and Walter Miller,” in Renascence, Vol. XL, No. 2, Winter, 1987, pp. 95-110.
[In the following excerpt, Young compares and contrasts the work of Walker Percy and Walter Miller, contending that both have authored science-fiction novels in the sense that science fiction deals with the effects of science on the human condition.]
According to one prominent science fiction writer, science and technology together constitute the “dominant” object of worship of the modern world. “To put it simply,” he remarks, “science is a god-thing: omniscient, omnipotent, master of that terrible trinity of hope, fear, and power” (Sturgeon, 99, 100). This portentous utterance adds a certain gravity to the familiar quip, “Science fiction is the religion of atheists.” There is something surprising, then, in the realization that science fiction can be the mode for novels of profound Christian vision, not only in a work that is expressly and unblushingly a product of the usual science fiction publishing channels, but also in a work which seems purely “mainstream” in its literary credentials. Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz has long been recognized as one of the major accomplishments of science fiction—a book that is regularly cited as evidence for the literary respectability of the science fiction mode. Yet, although...
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SOURCE: “Undenominational Satire: Chesterton and Lewis Revisited,” in Religion & Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 33-57.
[In the following excerpt, Kantra examines G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, concentrating on their roles as religious satirists and Christian apologists.]
The intricate affinities of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis are nowadays often mentioned though still undefined. In the always unfinished business of literary theory, among proponents of religion and literature, and between religion or literature, Chesterton and Lewis can be seen to provoke much dysfunctional sympathy. I have been pondering anew what looks like an amorphous and not altogether agreeable “Chesterlewis” that is crowding out Shaw's “Chesterbelloc” and looming large as a cultural artifact since mid-century. Especially apparent in the literary industry of Christian apology, its point of origin is Lewis's autobiographically expressed indebtedness to Chesterton regarding his religious conversion (Surprised by Joy 213, 223, 235). Much less attention has been given heretofore to other kinds of Chestertonian influences on Lewis, and on Lewisiana also; that influence and the literary heritage behind it are rather more extensive than seems to me to have been acknowledged, or understood. This essay addresses an imbalance of appreciation regarding GKC and Lewis precisely as...
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SOURCE: “Willa Cather and the Literature of Christian Mystery,” in Religion & Literature, Vol. 24, No. 3, Autumn, 1992, pp. 39-56.
[In the following excerpt, Murphy discusses Willa Cather and her belief in literature filled with mystery, free of “literalness.”]
Contemporary literary climates seem alien to what I have to say about the writings of Willa Cather. There is a presumption of universal disbelief. The author of a recent book I was asked to review on rhetorical strategies of reticence in selected women novelists begins with the premise that the notion of silence as “a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours … has about it a ring of pious mustiness, the ring of a voice out of the past. And the reason for this is not trivial,” this “rhetorician” assures us. “It has to do, in part, with the shift from belief to disbelief that there is anywhere there beyond the point of our own furthest speech” (Stout 6). In a recent issue of Modern Age Charles A. Moser offers a handy if somewhat biased summary of our half century's progress in literary criticism: “First, the study of literature reaches a stage at which it is felt to require a ‘theory’: the New Critics met that need. Second, one maintains that in theory an author cannot assign objective meaning to a text, and that a reader is entitled to discover … meanings which may never have occurred to the author. …...
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Brooks, Cleanth The Hidden God: Studies in Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot, and Warren. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963, 136 pp.
Examines the implicit and explicit acknowledgement of Christianity in the works of five twentieth-century authors.
Gunn, Giles B., editor Literature and Religion. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971, 238 pp.
Contains essays by Amos N. Wilder, Vincent Buckley, Walter J. Ong, S.J., R. W. B. Lewis, Erich Auerbach, Louis L. Martz, Richard P. Blackmur, Erich Heller, and others.
Jasper, David and Crowder, Colin, editors. European Literature and Theology in the Twentieth Century: Ends of Time. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1990, 191 pp.
Contains essays on Thomas Mann, D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Malcolm Lowry and Samuel Beckett.
Killinger, John. The Failure of Theology in Modern Literature. New York: Abingdon Press, 1963, 239 pp.
Presents an overview of Christian themes in twentieth century, encompassing such authors as T. S. Eliot and Albert Camus.
Mahoney, John L. Seeing into the Life of Things: Essays on Literature and Religious Experience. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998, 364 pp.
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