Literature and Criticism -- By: Harvie M. Conn

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 23:1 (Nov 1960)
Article: Literature and Criticism
Author: Harvie M. Conn


Literature and Criticism

Harvie M. Conn

The quest for a Christian approach to literature continues to pursue its odyssey through the pages of contemporary writing. But in recent times it has lost its epic proportions and begins rather to resemble a meandering through fairy-tale woods. Like HÄnsel and Gretel, the Christian critic follows a trail of bread crumbs through the forest looking for the way home. All he finds is a gingerbread house, and he is stuffed, principles and all, into the fiery furnace by the wicked witch whom he had thought was his saviour. Where does the course lie?

In recent literature the witch has coated not only her house but herself with sugar. The values of art are determined by the frosty-coated platitudes we may discover in the work before us. In a recent issue of Christianity Today (III, 10 (February 16, 1959), pp. 16f), Virginia R. Mollenkott of Shelton College applauds the work of art for the awareness of values which it gives and the knowledge of world views it presents. We must, therefore, read Hemingway because he stretches our analytic thinking and widens our streak of sympathy. In a similar spirit are the admonitions of Dr. Miriam E. Fackler offered in the Gordon Review for February 1957 (III, 1). Among other things, Fackler sanctions the reading of secular literature because it assists in the understanding of the Bible. Literary criticism is conceived as the handmaid of theology or ethical theory, an assistant in the expounding of theology and morals. To answer the problem in such terms, however, is to confuse two separate disciplines, to judge the functioning of a sovereign, God-given sphere of labor by the laws of another, to give to Caesar the things that are God’s. Such thinking can succeed only in imposing upon the scene what one writer has likened, in the theological field, to a “condition of low visibility”.

We are asked by these same voices to put our faith in the

critics. Mollenkott tells us we may depend on reliable guides to lead us through Grimm’s forest. They are familiar with the trails, we are told, and can “probably” get us home in safety. They know the woods and can tell us the landmarks and “that which is worth our while”. They, we must presume, are familiar enough with standards of judgment to point out the worthy, the classics, that which will stand the test of time. The Christian, we are advised, must rely on these arbiters of taste and judgment to provide him with those works of art on which he may pin his good conduct medal, his “well done, thou good and faithful art form”.

The solution, however, is not so simple. For even the guides are not sure of the trail. If the present ...

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