Christianity in Twentieth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Christianity in Twentieth-Century Literature

Introduction

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.)

Criticism: Christianity And Twentieth-Century Literature

Alfred Cismaru (essay date 1963)

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...

(The entire section is 2900 words.)

Richard J. O'Dea (essay date 1966)

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 entire section is 2419 words.)

Peter Milward, S.J. (essay date 1968)

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...

(The entire section is 3694 words.)

Doris Grumbach (essay date 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 6598 words.)

James M. Kee (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 5760 words.)

Criticism: Christianity And Twentieth-Century Fiction

Wilfred Louis Guerin (essay date 1962)

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...

(The entire section is 4745 words.)

Robert T. Denommé (essay date 1963)

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...

(The entire section is 3980 words.)

Leo J. Hertzel (essay date 1964)

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...

(The entire section is 2087 words.)

Richard J. O'Dea (essay date 1968)

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...

(The entire section is 5255 words.)

Sister Sheila Houle, B.V.M. (essay date 1970)

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...

(The entire section is 5403 words.)

R. V. Young (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 6460 words.)

Robert A. Kantra (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 10716 words.)

John J. Murphy (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 7819 words.)

Further Reading

BIOGRAPHY

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.

CRITICISM

Jasper, David and Crowder, Colin,...

(The entire section is 471 words.)