Christianity in Twentieth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

W. H. Auden
For the Time Being (poetry) 1944

James Baldwin
Go Tell It on the Mountain (novel) 1953
Notes of a Native Son (essays) 1955

Willa Cather
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

Paul Claudel
Le soulier de satin, ou le pire n'est pas toujour sur (play) 1929; also published as The Satin Slipper 1931

William DuBois
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

William Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1929

F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby (novel) 1925

Graham Greene
The Heart of the Matter (novel) 1948
The End of the Affair (novel) 1951

Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926
A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929
To Have and Have Not (novel) 1937
For Whom the Bell Tolls (novel) 1940

Langston Hughes
Not Without Laughter (novel) 1930

C. S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet (novel) 1938
Perelandra (novel) 1943
That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grownups (novel) 1945
The Screwtape Letters (novel) 1961

Walter Miller
A Canticle for Leibowitz (novel) 1959

Francois Muriac
Le Desert de l'amour (novel) 1925; also published as The Desert of Love 1929
Le Noeud de viperes (novel) 1932; also published as Viper's Tangle 1933
A Mauriac Reader (contains A Kiss for the Leper,Genetrix, The Desert of Love, The Knot of Vipers, and A Woman of the Pharisees) (novels) 1968

Walker Percy
Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World (novel) 1971

Dorothy Sayers
The Man Born To Be King (drama) 1942

Allen Tate
Poems: 1928-1931 (poetry) 1932

Evelyn Waugh
Holderlin's Madness (poetry) 1938
Poems, 1937-1942 (poetry) 1942
Brideshead Revisited (novel) 1945

Charles Williams
War in Heaven (novel) 1930
Three Plays (includes The Witch, The Chaste Wanton, and The Rite of the Passion) (play) 1931
The House of the Octopus (play) 1945.
Seed of Adam, and Other Plays (plays) 1948

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Beatrice Batson (essay date 1968)

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...

(The entire section is 8727 words.)

Harold P. Simonson (essay date 1973)

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...

(The entire section is 4376 words.)