It would hardly be too much to say that literary culture in Europe, much of Africa and the Americas is inseparable from the culturally transformative power of Christianity. Two thousand years ago, textually preserved literacy and literature were substantially unknown beyond certain Mediterranean and Oriental cultures. Learning spread slowly. Chinese textual culture of the first century B.C. was largely restricted to matters of bureaucracy (politics and economics) and ancestral legend. Only a tiny elite, the chu-tzu, mastered and recapitulated fragments of pertinent oral tradition in textual form. In the Mediterranean and contiguous Middle East, this pattern was varied and enriched by the appearance of epic narrative (Homer), philosophical reflection (Plato, Aristotle), and religious drama (Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles) of the Greeks. The Romans were scions of their Greek stock but more managerial; under the administrative demands of empire, text-based literacy broadened somewhat. Then came the Christians.
It is to the Great Commission itself that we owe the myriad cultural transformations effected by the Bible. In most of Europe, as in Africa, South America, and in many other parts of the world, the birth of literacy and literature essentially, not accidentally, coincides with the arrival of Christian missionaries. Before the arrival of the missionaries, there had not been an effective means of writing in these cultures. Literature, as we think of it, was the province of oral culture only. Biblical translation and paraphrase was typically undertaken in the first or second missionary generation, providing for hundreds of languages the first instance of their written form. The second generation of texts, as is the case with Anglo-Saxon England, typically consists of creative works of Christian reflection and Scriptural formation. King Alfred the Great (d. 851), alone called "great" among the kings of England, earned his reputation not by his military exploits but by translating and introducing Christian classics to his people. Thus, in a barbarous Germanic culture—where once all power grew from spilling blood—it became increasingly possible to say, as Lord Lytton would put it later, "the pen is mightier than the sword."
King Alfred is an example of those who have, in every part of the world where the gospel has come, recognized that the power of Scripture to liberate increases proportionally with access to the text. Alfred thought learning to read was his own greatest early accomplishment. He also considered the most important obligation of his stewardship as king that of providing Christian literature translated into English (Scripture, commentary, spiritual counsel). He well understood that a capacity to read with discriminating and thoughtful intelligence was of incalculable value for one who would be faithful to the Word of God, and above all essential for anyone whose sense of obligation to the gospel included obedience to the Great Commandment. The new literacy allowed Christian teaching to grow exponentially. The capacity to read and write in each vernacular language spurred not only the preservation of old story, but also the creation or recording of new stories, narrative and poetry and wise reflection transformed by the Good News. This new literacy made possible a much more democratic education; shepherds and plowboys, once having learned to read the vernacular Scriptures, became as capable of rising to positions of leadership in the Church and the world as the offspring of landlords and noblemen. By the time of the Reformation and the invention of printing, this revolutionary effect of biblically sponsored textual learning had thus transformed cultural and political process as well.
It would be difficult to find a contribution of Christianity to world civilization more foundational than this—that Bible translation and paraphrase should have become midwife to so many great vernacular literatures. But there is more: traditions of textual commentary and exposition, as well as of theological reflection, had an effect almost as prodigious. Communities formed by a common text quickly develop cadres of trained readers.
The spiritual and intellectual capital of Christian textual tradition has likewise characterized the great themes of literature in modern civilizations. Most notable here is what is now most attacked by postmodernists: the "metanarrative" or grand story of liberation. The story of exile and pilgrimage toward the Promised Land—from Exodus to the Gospels on to the millenarianism of American Puritans like Cotton Mather and Timothy Dwight—has its mythic echo in the creation of numerous Christian epics and epic romances. In lieu of gory sagas of bloodthirst and power, these tales are resonant with the promise of spiritual emancipation. It is this hope for the Truth which sets us free that has charged the greatest poetry and prose of these two millennia since the dour historicism of Virgil and those dark and deterministic Nordic sagas. Dante's Divine Comedy, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Langland's Piers the Ploughman, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings—to name just a few—are all epic tales in which the old quest to affirm racial identity and justify conquest is transformed, metamorphosed into the story of an exile turned toward pilgrimage by means of conversion in the penitent heart. Two opposing cities, two very different notions of communion and community, as Augustine had foreseen in his City of God, came to characterize the fictional landscapes of Christian writers. That this world is not our home, that we are strangers and sojourners, by faith looking forward to the provision of a city not made with hands—this is the basis of a persistent freshness in these pilgrim tales.
But the Christian "grand narrative" has not only been the expression of community hope; it has been an encouragement to the emergence of countless stories of personal liberation. Versions of the song of the heart set free, from Bunyan's Grace Abounding, to the lyrical prayer diary of George Herbert, to T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, pattern redemption at work in the poetic imagination. In works as diverse as Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the great theme of God's providence enters into the sphere of the ordinary life to transform the experience of suffering.
It is clear that such stories are also capable of debasement. Through a narrowing secularization they can become merely phantasms of Emerson's "self-reliance," an elevation of practical achievements to the status of pseudofreedom. Joe's Luck by Horatio Alger, one such turn-of-the century American novel of the self-made man, is representatively a confusion of an original Christian form. Augustine's Confessions is here the lost model, an autobiographical account of liberation from enslavement to pride and disordered affections through repentance. It finds an authentic counterpart in great novels such as Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Francois Mauriac's Viper's Tangle, or even Wendell Berry's Remembering.
But there has been a persistent lineage also of usurpers, parodists of such stories of personal liberation (Rousseau's Confessions, James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Yet, in the end, even these are an ironic confirmation, a reflexive unbidden tribute to the genuine authority of the parent Christian genre. Refusal to repent, the rebel angels' non serviam, in the end makes the case for repentance and the human need of the gift of grace all the more compelling in its original form. The triumphalism of the rebel, whether in Joyce's Dedalus or William Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell," appears in the steady light of two millennia of great Christian literature the surest evidence of an unsuccessful evasion of our more persuasively liberating story. The Way of the Cross, on the other hand, continues to make a great Christian literature of spiritual transformation both emancipatory and, because morally more realistic, of enduring value to all kinds of readers, Christian and otherwise.
There is, in short, ample warrant for celebrating the magnificent contributions of Christianity to literacy and literature over the past two millennia. Since the time of the Reformation, and especially during the last two hundred years, the specific contributions of Christianity to Western literature have appreciably weakened—especially among evangelical Protestants. (In the English language, for example, Anglicans and Catholics have considerably greater presence in the list of great authors.) But happily, Two-Thirds World Christians forge ahead, producing writers who even now bid to extend the transforming power of the gospel into literary cultures with a future perhaps—on that account—brighter than our own. For literacy is notoriously easier to lose than to acquire. It is not guaranteed by wealth and technology, but by passionate commitment to a common story too wonderful not to tell and tell over again.
David Lyle Jeffrey teaches English literature at the University of Ottawa.
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