Christianity in Twentieth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.