Here is a good example of what I spent a lot of time doing back in the day. Now I just enjoy books for their own sake. It's a better life.
If you get to the end, let me know. I'll owe you a cookie. And probably a drink or four.
When asked whether the world needed more Christian writers, C.S. Lewis replied, “No. We need more writers who are Christian.” This tongue-in-cheek statement belies a fundamental tension in the relationship between theology and literature (or theology and much of popular culture). Lewis points out that a work’s theological value does not necessarily stem from its creator’s explicit intentions. He succinctly uncovers a difficult question: What makes a work theologically valuable to a Christian reader? Or, in terms of popular fiction, what gives certain books more overall theological value than others? Can such determinations even be made? I will argue here that they can. First, I will explore the ways in which theology are communicated (whether it be intentionally or unintentionally, explicitly or implicitly) through literature. Secondly, I will borrow wisdom from the “secular” fields of literary analysis or the analysis of popular culture and use them as dialogue partners in a conversation between theology and literature to determine a work’s theological value. I hope to demonstrate that literature (especially popular fiction) is a field in which theological inquiry is necessary and fruitful.
Perhaps the best way to start exploring theology in literature is to look at works that make no attempt to disguise their theological intents. Such books borrow figures, places, sacred “objects,” and themes from religious traditions and use them as devices around which new plots are formed. In this way, authors seek to either make old stories new, reframing them in ways that let modern audiences understand their impact afresh, or they wish to add on to where ancient texts may have “left off.”
One such example of this use of (specifically Christian) theology in literature is the phenomenally successful Left Behind series. In this fourteen-book series, authors Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye share their vision of what the Book of Revelation would look like if it played out in the 21st century. I would argue that there is little doubt these sorts of books, those written by Lewis’ disparaged “Christian writers,” mean to be explicit in their theology. But what does this mean? What are they doing in being “theological” in the first place? James Nieman gives a useful working definition of what theology as whole seeks to do in his article Attending Locally: Theologies in Congregations. He says theology involves ultimate claims that offer support, renew traditions, sponsor institutions and produce impact (that is, the ideas seek to bring about some concrete change in the world). This is what Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are trying to do through their books. They make ultimate truth claims: there is a God, the Bible is the inerrant word of that God, and that when all that is prophesied therein comes to pass, and people living today could endure the consequences. The books reassert the importance of the Christian tradition, especially those parts of it that emphasize repentance and literally following the Bible’s commands. The Left Behind series seeks to build upon the traditional Christian Church (a specific definition of which would come from Tim LaHaye, as he is a minister himself) and wants to impact people so that they become (literally) God-fearing Christians.
There are two other ways in which a book can make ultimate truth claims that offer support, renew traditions and impact the world (but usually to a lesser extent, support institutions). Literature of this kind communicates an author’s own theological vision through intentionally allegorical story or a seemingly non-theological story that asks the reader to consider questions concerned with ultimate truth. C.S. Lewis is a prime example of an author of this type. Many scholars argue that his Chronicles of Narnia series was a blatantly Christian allegory, but Lewis himself did not see the books this way. Rather, he wanted to write about a world that was created perfect (as he felt all worlds were, since they were created by the God he knew through the Christian tradition) but then fell. Narnia was not Earth, it was not meant to “represent” Earth. Rather, it was another world entirely that shared the characteristic of being populated with beings with free-will. Humans (from Earth) ushered in the “fall” from perfection, but so too did they help restore peace and balance. Aslan, the Savior of Narnia, was not an allegory for Jesus per se. Rather, Lewis wanted to create an entirely different Savior, because an entirely different world would require such. Lewis was not trying to disguise the Christian story. Rather, he was trying to creatively explore themes of the fall, sin, grace, redemption, and the question of, “Who is God?” in a fictional world.
Lewis explored similar themes in other works like The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces, The Great Divorce and his Space trilogy. Lewis’ explicit intention to explore Christian theological themes, however, is not unlike other author’s implicit theological questions to readers. I think any writer who asks a reader to question to what is ultimate in creation, what is true about the world, how humans should treat each other and creation, what norms of authority shape how people live their lives, are doing something theological in their work. One does not have to have characters who are savior figures, devils, saints or angels to challenge readers’ worldviews. Just look at all of the books Oprah Winfrey picks for her powerful book club segments on her show, for example. From Maya Angelou to Elie Wiesel, from William Faulkner to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Oprah picks books that she feels will change how people view themselves and the world around them. She wants literature that will connect her loyal following with ultimate truth claims that offer support, renew or create new traditions, sponsor institutions (in this case, ones offered in the consumer marketplace) and offer impact (as Oprah’s “Angel Network” motto says: “Use Your Life!”).
It is not difficult to demonstrate that there is (and has been) theology in popular literature since the first scribe put stylus to tablet. What would the Psalms and Gospels be, if they were not also appealing poetry and prose? However, proving this or even establishing the different ways in which theological themes are used in such works is not enough. We must go further to determine how a person concerned with theology’s use in written examples of popular culture can find the theological value in a given work? After all, should the Left Behind series be equated the same theological merit as Augustine’s Confessions? Are Oprah’s book caucuses the new Councils determining a post-Biblical canon? Who is to say that secular society is not searching for some new written works with which to shape its core values? In answering these questions, it is useful to turn to the fields of literary and cultural analysis.
Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan have edited several books about religion and popular culture. They designate four ways in which one can view theology: theology in popular culture, popular culture in theology, popular culture as religion, and popular culture and theology in dialogue. We can extend these categories and substitute the word "literature" for "popular culture" here. The first step in theologically analyzing a literary work, then, is to decide into which category a work might fall. I would classify the Left Behind series as popular culture as religion (just check out Tim LaHaye's web site), whereas Oprah's book club is theology in popular culture (though Oprah's sway over the masses could give LaHaye a run for his copious amounts of money). Being able to put a book into one of these categories is in some way proving its theological importance. For a book to be a part of popular culture it must be, after all, popular. Even if the effects are subtle, the work is nonetheless affecting real change in the world. This thus falls under Nieman's definition of what makes something "theological" in the first place.
Further methodologies applied to literature by cultural analysis are diverse, but nonetheless have common bonds useful for the discussion here. Feminist literary theory, for example, would have much to say about Left Behind in concert with theology. One of the main tenants of feminist literary, especially in the work of scholars Maggie Humm and Mary Eagleton, is demonstrating the tendency of authors to show women as the “other,” and as dangerous extensions of untamable nature. The Left Behind series is quick to establish its premise that the “natural” state of the world is fallen. I believe Humm and Eagleton would argue that all of the female characters are treated as an extension of this natural, fallen world.
Women in Left Behind are cast into opposing categories—life-giver or the barren destroyer, virgin or whore. Men, on the other hand, are the complex beings created in God’s image, using their free-will first in thought, then action. Women are captive to sin like a volcano is—they erupt to one inevitable, unfortunate result simply because that is how they were created. Men can think and can therefore be sinners saviors. In the analysis the narrative, feminist literary critique would point out the flaws in painting women in such a negative, unrealistic light. After all, humans are rarely all demonic or saintly. If this view of women is intended as a theological one (which it is, if we continue to use Neiman argument that such a view tries to offer support, renew traditions, sponsor institutions and produce impact), it is a dangerous view—theological or secular—in relation to women (and the world!) indeed.
Literary criticism does not just help point out flawed theological thinking in works of fiction, however. On the contrary, giving a text a “deep read,” can often uncover subtle spiritual suggestions that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Postmodern literary criticism is a good example of this, especially because it tries to challenge the distinction between high and low culture and dissect texts that try to blend to the two. Oprah Winfrey’s book club regularly features books selections ranging from Bill Cosby to Leo Tolstoy; she practically is a postmodern literary theorist by meshing these choices into once “curriculum” for her viewers. All of Oprah’s book selections seek to explore the “loss of the real,” a term coined by theorist Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard shows how modern words take signs to represent reality, distort that reality, shows that there might not be a reality below for the signs to represent and then show signs bear no resemblance to anything actually “real” at all. Oprah believes this; her show tries to empower people to make their own reality. She wants to demonstrate that people have “real” spirits and there are “real” things in the world that can direct this spirit towards good (or even God). A postmodern literary analysis of (I would argue) all or Oprah’s book club suggestions would show that Oprah picks books authors who tell of characters who travel through Baudrillard’s four stages, but who then reconstruct their reality as the conclusion. Oprah’s authors reiterate the postmodern dictum that all reality is contextual (or that there is no “reality” per se), but they then make the theological claim that “signs” (like the Church, for instance) can be re-imagined to still offer support, renew traditions, sponsor institutions and produce impact.
Ultimately, it could be argued that none of this matters; maybe a book is written just to entertain or to tell a story that is not meant to be theological. Still, an author never knows what a reader will get from his or her book. So, any book can be critiqued from a theological standpoint (though I will admit that not all should). At the same time, a book can stand on its own in a reader's mind and challenge the quiet theological assumptions of a given religious institutions. Books can bring down empires. Books can save lives. And I believe some writings may be the inspired Word of God. Thus, the relationship between theology and literature may remain an uneasy one, but one with more power and potential than perhaps any other area of culture.