Developing a Christian Interpretation and Critique of Literature for the Critical Research Paper

Many students are interested in the possibilities of a faith-based interpretation of literature. Part of the focus of this class is to explore what such a critical engagement might look like and hopefully to encourage students to take seriously the task of bringing their beliefs to bear on the experience of literature. I have also suggested some broad general stances that Christianity has traditionally taken to matters of culture under "Christ, Culture, and Academic Research." One of the challenges of this kind of integration of faith and learning is to learn how to sensitively and accurately investigate the demands of an academic discipline with Christian insight.

Often when we first attempt this, we find ourselves going about it with a hammer. We too easily dismiss or ignore the complexity of the text in question as we rush to make that specific Christian critique. Like many other areas of our spiritual pilgrimage, we have to learn to grow in discerning and practicing such analysis with skill and precision. It is essential that we strive to respect texts, not unlike we would respect persons. John Milton once wrote that "who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God's Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason it self, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye." Milton proposes that texts because they are expressions of human reason, emotion, and volition, are extensions of each human being's bearing of the imago deus, the image of God.

Writing a Critique

Here are some specific suggestions about how one might go about such a critique in the context of the research paper (Of course, be aware that these are only a few of the ways this might be practiced):

  • You might try comparing two characters, two plot lines, and/or two settings from two different texts, one pagan and one Christian. The goal would be to explore how the differing worldviews of the authors/texts result in contrasting outcomes. For example, I might look at how Augustine and Aeneas both discover their destiny through father figures, arguing that Augustine has altered the traditional Roman notion of the patria, the authority and socio-economic status of the father (and by extension, country) over his family and servants, to that of a spiritual patria, where Ambrose models the compassion and pedagogy of a bishop for his parishioners. To do an effective job with this approach, one would need to not only do a close analysis of both The Confessions and the Aeneid, one would also need to do a close study of secondary critics of both sources. In part, because it would be important to show what the worldview actually is that is present in both.
  • You might try pulling together a theological and/or biblical critique of the worldview of a particular literary work. This requires a thorough exposition of the ideas, story, or themes present in the text you will interpreting. It behooves that you look closely at some secondary sources that help you tease out the perspective of the text. And it also obligates you to faithfully look at theological sources and/or biblical commentaries to help support the position you will critique from. Such research is especially important when critiquing a Christian author who may have a different tradition and/or biblical understanding than yourself. For example, I could look closely at the idea of pietas in the life of Aeneas, the Latin belief that loyalty to one's country exceeds one's personal attachments. I might want to argue how Aeneas' choices not only illustrate the advantages of pietas but also its limits, even deceptions. To do this I could apply the biblical concept of faithfulness or covenant. To mention another example, if I were wanting to critique Dante's view of Purgatory from my Protestant perspective, I would need to keep two things in mind: 1) that Dante and Roman Catholicism also have a tradition of biblical interpretation on this matter. I would need to research and show my awareness of this; 2) that my critique helps better expand my audience's understanding of Dante. In other words, my goal would be by carrying out such a critique to show how the insights and limits of such an idea play themselves out in Dante's work.
  • You also might consider studying closely how certain Christian truths work are present in a text. This is, of course, easier when the author is Christian, but it need not be limited to this. For example, I could do a study of how John Donne's Holy Sonnets explore the gamut of faith and doubt, exploring how Donne as a believer moves through various stages in a love-relationship with God. Again, to do this well I would need to look at how Donne understood this essential Christian truth. Equally, I could argue for how the biblical concept of glory helps us understand the force, beauty, and sublimeness of The Odyssey. To do this, I would need to make careful distinctions between the Homeric worldview and a Christian one. I would need to clearly explain the theological truth I will be applying and explain how I intend to gather my evidence. This is especially important because to take this approach, you have to keep in mind that Homer did not intend for his style to mirror Christian truth, but if we recall that Christians believe that all people are created by God, then it follows that we may claim to recognize some aspect of their work, in this case aesthetics, that they themselves would not have been aware of.
  • Finally, you might consider a paper that closely examines the worldview of the critics of a work in order to show the promise or deadends that such criticism results in. Admittedly, this can be quite difficult because it requires that the writer can tell from the secondary critics' works what their perspective and methodology actually is. For example, I might argue that many critics, due to their materialist assumptions, overlook the spiritual and theological techniques of Dante in regard to Beatrice's mystical symbolism. And they are poorer for it. To do an effective job of this, I would need to cite passages from the critics that reveal their limitations, and I would need to offer a more thorough analysis of the passages from Dante that these critics read too reductively. In order to be balanced and fair, I would also need to show where the reading by these critics also succeeds in understanding Dante.