The metaphors we use in given situations show us more about our assumptions than we often realize. In politics, we speak of the “arena,” our “opponents,” or even “battle lines.” Our language betrays a hostile environment filled with warring parties. When we discuss education, we may refer to “values,” “costs,” or “benefits,” revealing economics as our lens for assessing learning.
The title of Richard Harries’s book, Haunted by Christ: Modern Writers and the Struggle for Faith, revolves around two contrasting metaphors for writers and religion. On the one hand, Christ is scary, unpursued, and ephemeral, haunting writers like a ghost. In the subtitle, though, the writers are active agents wrestling with an unknown entity, like Jacob with the angel, for the prize of faith. Harries explores both types of artists in his book, those who flee religion and those who chase it. He focuses primarily on those who lived in the 20th century, starting with 19th-century novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and ending with modern writer Marilynne Robinson.
The Pull of Religion
Harries chooses his 20 novelists and poets from those “who have meant a great deal to me over the years [and] for whom the pull of religion has been fundamental.” His book consists of revised talks on his chosen writers given over the course of a 30-year career. As a retired Anglican bishop of Oxford, he attends more to Oxford-based writers than American readers may expect. Each chapter begins with a brief biography, but key details are sometimes omitted (such as the writer’s homeland), and the pages are littered with misprints and dated references. (At one point, Harries describes a 1991 biography of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as “recent.”)
Because the list is subjective, there are a handful of idiosyncratic choices. For instance, the poet Edward Thomas had no particular religious leaning and is not much discussed, even in academic circles in America. Stevie Smith and Elizabeth Jennings were poets who grabbed prizes and accolades in the 1950s, but they are unfamiliar to 21st-century readers. They each receive a dozen pages, whereas the “big names” of Christian writing—like Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Shusaku Endo, and Evelyn Waugh—are all squished into one chapter.
Harries may feel he knows these writers so well that, for him, every debate about their work has been settled, allowing him to present his interpretation as the interpretation. For instance, on Dostoevsky, Harries writes, “Dostoevsky was not interested in philosophical arguments about whether or not God exists. For him religion was primarily a matter of deep feeling expressed in acts of gratitude or love.” This claim reveals more about how Harries defines religion than Dostoevsky, for the Russian novelist expends hundreds of pages trying to argue for and against God’s existence, over the course of five large novels. Love may be an answer for Dostoevsky, but love is not defined as “feeling” in his work: It is labor, fortitude, and involves practice over the course of a lifetime. He writes as much through the voice of the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. Harries excels only when he borrows from Rowan Williams, who has written one of the finest books on Dostoevsky ever composed.
Because Harries writes with affection for every writer that he chooses, he tends to baptize their faults. His defense of Emily Dickinson offers a case in point. Harries exalts Dickinson for her agoraphobia, casting her as a mystic who may have come to believe “in God or Christ … in and through this dialogue of self with self.” Overlooking the false either-or between God and Christ, I find the praise of inner dialogue problematic. Didn’t Ovid’s Narcissus show us the tragic outcome of a self reflecting on itself? It was not a discovery of the divine.
Moreover, Harries speaks of Dickinson’s faith superficially, counting 20 references to Jesus as his evidence. But these references only occur over the course of nearly 1,800 poems, meaning thousands of lines. By contrast, she refers to birds at least 300 times. On Harries’s logic, one could easily argue that she loved birds more than she loved Jesus. Most readers of Dickinson recognize her ambiguity about matters of faith, so Harries’s attempts at an apology sound hollow.
Harries’s biographical sketches are often engrossing. And the title of his chapter on great Catholic novelists, “Grace in Failure,” helps us consider the gap between worldly fame and heavenly success, both within works of fiction and in the writers’ own lives. Still, many of Harries’s observations struck me as well off the mark. For instance, in a chapter comparing C. S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, the agnostic author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, he describes one of Pullman’s characters, Lyra Coulter, as “the most rounded and alive person in all the books under discussion.” Yet Lyra’s goodness is marginal at best. She approves of a murderer, and by Harries’s own description she is a liar and a trickster. Despite her obvious lack of virtue, Harries persists in calling her a religious figure, “very alive and attractive.”
Skimming the Surface
Like the title of the book, which seems unaware of the tension between its two dominant metaphors, Harries is beset by unacknowledged assumptions about his audience’s view of religion. He is genuinely concerned that moral characters will be found boring, that quiet artists will be seen as weak, and that any stance for truth will reek of reductionistic thinking. Perhaps drawing from his British listeners’ skepticism regarding the significance of religion in daily life, Harries overemphasizes the seriousness and intellectual validity of these modern writers, as though the content of their minds mattered more than the movements of their hearts.
Despite Harries’ assertion that religious language has become “tired, stale and lifeless,” he rarely digs deeply into the language these writers employed. Nor does he deal explicitly with the theological questions posed by their narratives or poetry. He rarely refers to the differences between their faith traditions and seems unaware that the work of a 19th-century Russian Orthodox novelist might be shaped by different theological and aesthetic beliefs than the work of a 20th-century Anglican poet. Instead, Harries contents himself merely with ascertaining whether each writer made a profession of belief in God, good and evil, and basic doctrines of Christianity.
Taken together, the authors featured in this book—with their greatly varying perspectives on the relationship of faith and art—remind us that God’s choir may sing harmoniously, but never dully or monotonously. To imagine Dostoevsky, in heaven, bellowing out praises to God alongside figures like Shusaku Endo and W. H. Auden is quite a vision. This makes it all the more regrettable that Haunted by Christ manages only to skim the surface of what could have been a rich conversation between masters of faith and craft.
Jessica Hooten Wilson teaches humanities at John Brown University. She is the author of Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky (Cascade Books), Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence (Ohio State University Press), and Reading Walker Percy’s Novels (Louisiana State University Press).