‘Oh, you’re thinking of doing English at university? You’ll have to be careful about that. A lot of people lose their faith.’
I was seventeen. I had been a Christian for several years, and I had loved books for much longer. I was doing two English A-Levels and thoroughly enjoying them, and I had just moved past a period of crippling doubt in God – the first I had experienced – into a steadier, more confident faith.
So hearing the above, from an older friend at church, was jarring. It didn’t stop me pursuing my studies, but it was an attitude I’ve encountered more than once in the evangelical church. The academic study of literature is dangerous for the Christian: Christianity is a religion of the Book, but for some, really only the one Book is safe.
This can manifest simply as gentle warnings and raised eyebrows, which is all I faced, or – for others I’ve talked to – active discouragement from pursuing English at all. Related subjects such as philosophy and history often attract similar worries: I remember a peer’s loss of childhood faith being directly linked by other Christians to her study of philosophy.
The death of the Author?
Why is this the case? I don’t think the concerns stem simply from anti-intellectualism, though that is certainly something evangelicals have to reckon with. Distrust of academic literary study, where it is raised, seems to come mainly from anxiety about postmodern or relativist practices of reading, and the way these may undermine the Bible’s authority. The death of the author and the death of God, two memorable claims advanced by twentieth-century thinkers, are certainly linked, and for some Christians this is enough warning to stay well clear of the literary academy.
This concern is rarely stated explicitly. But it’s a problem. Not an urgent or even a major one, perhaps; Christian young people still study literature, and there are more believers in this section of academia than at first appears. But there is often a lack of support from their churches, partially out of ignorance of the nature of the work and partially from the anxiety I’ve discussed.
Bridging the gap
Christians in literary study can feel isolated, already a problem in a field not well suited to collaboration, and encounter few resources to help them integrate faith and work. If we believe Christ to be the Lord of all life, what can we do to foster more and better Christian engagement with the literary academy?
I have a few ideas on the church side of things:
- On an individual level, we can affirm and encourage young people with an interest in literature (and similarly ‘difficult’ subjects), making sure they hear positive reactions as well as negative or unsure ones.
- The church can acknowledge the power and value of literature that is not explicitly 'Christian': this can work out in lots of ways, but centrally I think it’s important to talk about, give, lend, and reference a wide variety of books in church contexts. (This will mean going beyond C. S. Lewis and other ‘safe’ fiction.)
- Ultimately it should be an integrated, public part of our witness, as individuals and churches, that academic life can and should be lived for Christ, including the ‘difficult’ parts of the humanities.
From the academic side, Christians in literary study can aim towards a greater willingness to integrate their faith with their academic field in an explicit way. We can model a commitment to doing it well in Christ which will be winsome both to unbelievers and to those Christians who are sceptical.
And we can do better at supporting one another – there are resources and initiatives available on specific issues relating to literature and Christian faith, and there are Christians faithfully doing literary work, but often these are not very well linked up. In the UK, the Christian Literary Studies Group is one forum for exploring this interface and also has a helpful list of resources and groups. I would love to hear in the comments about other ways that Christian literary scholars can connect with one another and with their churches, for everyone’s benefit.