Theology and Literature after Postmodernity
edited by Zoe Lehmann Imfeld, Peter Hampson, Alison Milbank
(Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015, 304 pages)
“Theology and literature” has become a very rewarding field of interdisciplinary study. As part of the series Religion and the University, this volume demonstrates some of those rewards. This collection of essays brings together some of the most important contemporary Anglo theologians, including John and Alison Milbank, Rowan Williams, and Graham Ward, to reflect on the connections between theology, literary theory, and specific works of literature.
One of the more interesting claims of the editors is that the book demonstrates “how literature can provide a space in which diverse theological approaches can honestly and hospitably converse” (3). Similarly, they articulate a unique understanding of the basis upon which theological and literary disciplines interact. They aim “to deploy theology hospitably in a reconstructive approach to contemporary literary criticism” (4). This emphasis on a theologically motivated understanding of hospitality sets the table for a conversation between disciplines that often conflict in terms of their methodologies and basic assumptions.
The essays are collected under two headings. The first, “Pedagogy,” focuses on the university context of theological and literary study. The second, “Theological and Literary Reconstructions,” explore the connections between literary and theological concepts and texts with a view to questions raised by postmodernity. In the second group, Graham Ward’s essay “Belief and Imagination” is particularly interesting for its claim that “exploring the divine is always an exploration into the imagination” (81). Ward looks to the novels of Graham Greene for a literary example of how the imagination shapes religious belief (though really he is investigating “belief” in a more general sense). John Milbank’s broad ranging “Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative” is also noteworthy for its exploration of Christianity’s particular valuation of childhood and its expression in children’s literature. This collection does much to demonstrate how a theological stance can contribute to literary criticism and to a better understanding of specific literary texts.