Ralph C. Wood on the theological threads in the work of P. D. James
Ralph C. Wood has been a welcome repeat guest on the Journal. His first outing with us was in 1993, when he consented to talk about the backslidden comedy of then-recently deceased novelist Peter De Vries. In subsequent visits, he shared insights about Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, and G. K. Chesterton. In 2002, we talked about the fiction of P. D. James (1920-2014), about whom Wood had written an article entitled “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide: An Essay on P. D. James’s The Children of Men.” Several years later, we recorded a reading of that article as one of our Audio Reprints. An excerpt from “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide” follows:
“The key to P. D. James’s fiction, especially her later work, is her Christianity. She regards our cultural malaise as having theological no less than ethical cause. The murder in A Taste for Death occurs in a church, for instance, and the murderer is not only a sadist but also a nihilist who revels in the god-like power inherent in the threat of death. He kills in order to prove that the cosmos is empty of divinity. Like Dostoevsky, James is determined to ask whether, if there be no God, all goodness is vacated and all evils unleashed. As a Christian, James knows that the answer is yes. But as a novelist, she has sought to make her faith implicit rather than overt. In interviews following televised versions of her work, James has pointed out that Adam Dalgliesh, her chief detective, is a confirmed skeptic. She does not want to confine her hero within her own convictions, nor to impose them on her readers. James is an artist whose moral instruction is conveyed indirectly through aesthetic appeal, not a prophet who seeks our conversion by directly declaring the divine Word.
“The artistic indirectness of James’s Christian vision is made most evident in Innocent Blood, the novel whose manner and matter most clearly resemble The Children of Men. Strictly speaking, neither novel is a detective story. There being no crime to solve, James focuses her earlier novel on a much deeper concern: the enormous subtlety of evil. Innocent Blood contains not one protagonist but three, and each of them surprises us in the capacity to do both wicked and generous things. No sooner have we begun to regard the novel's central characters as despicable people than James reveals their own secret pathos — a suffering so deep that, though it does not excuse their sins and crimes, it makes us understand and even pity them.
“Though patient with evil, James is impatient with those who deny its moral and spiritual complexity. The profoundest human horrors do not admit of ready resolution — as if, James once declared in an interview, Parliament could pass a law abolishing original sin. Innocent Blood features a sociologist named Maurice Palfrey who believes, in fact, that evil can be purged by governmental measures. Since we are creatures of our environment, he holds, we need only to improve environmental conditions in order to prevent crime and other social problems. It follows that Palfrey regards Christianity — with its stress on ingrained sin and transcendent redemption — as the great deceit.
“Palfrey offers a veritable litany of what he considers to be the major Christian offenses: the monstrous notion that there is a God who created us in the divine image (when it seems obvious that we have made God in our own likeness), the pathetic injustice of blaming people for inborn sin when they have no choice in the matter, and the laughable contradiction between the doctrine of the Virgin Birth and the sacramental view of sex as being so holy it must be confined to marriage. Most egregious of all is the doctrine of atonement, with its barbaric idea that the Son must ‘propitiate His Father’s desire for vengeance.’ Had enlightened folks like himself been present at the crucifixion, says Palfrey, they would have intervened to prevent such a grotesque injustice. ‘But the God of Love was apparently content,’ Palfrey laments, ‘to let it happen — indeed, willed it to happen — and to His only son. You can’t ask us to believe in a God of Love who behaves less compassionately than would the least of his creatures.’
“James’s wrath against such secular smugness is exceeded only by her impatience at the complacency and cowardice of her fellow Christians. Palfrey makes his assault on Christianity during a television debate with an Anglican bishop. Instead of replying that the sociologist has been appropriately scandalized by the offense of the gospel—by the good news that God transforms the worst human evil into the highest divine redemption — the bishop blinks. He is too benignly disposed, too timid and vacillating about his own Christian faith, to offer an untrammeled affirmation of it. And so James has a confessed murderess denounce the weakling prelate as he deserves: ‘Poor bishop! He could only win by saying things that he'd be too embarrassed to utter and which neither the BBC nor the viewers—especially the Christians—would in the least wish to hear.’”
In addition to our Audio Reprint of “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide” — a Theology Today article from which the above paragraphs are excerpted — Ralph C. Wood’s insights are also evident in two of our Conversations: Hillbilly Thomist: Flannery O'Connor & the Truth of Things and Maker of Middle-Earth, in which Wood is joined by Tom Shippey and Joseph Pearce to talk about J. R. R. Tolkien.
Eugene Peterson on reading as an art of chewing, savoring, and digesting
“The Oxford don, Austin Farrar, in his Bampton Lectures [published as The Glass of Vision (1948)], referred to ‘the forbidding discipline of spiritual reading’ that ordinary people have characteristically brought to this text [i.e., the book of Revelation] that forms their souls. Forbidding because it requires that we read with our entire life, not just employing the synapses of our brain. Forbidding because of the endless dodges we devise in avoiding the risk of faith in God. Forbidding because of our restless inventiveness and using whatever knowledge of ‘spirituality' we acquire to set ourselves up as gods. Forbidding because when we have learned to read and comprehend the words on the page, we find that we have hardly begun. Forbidding because it requires all of us, our muscles and ligaments, our eyes and ears, our obedience and adoration, our imaginations and our prayers. Our ancestors set this ‘forbidding discipline’ (their phrase for us it was lectio divina) as the core curriculum in this most demanding of all schools, the School of the Holy Spirit, established by Jesus when he told his disciples, ‘When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth . . . he will take what is mine and declare it to you’ (John 16:13–15; also 14:16; 15:26; 16:7–8). All writing that comes out of this School anticipates this kind of reading: participatory reading, receiving the words in such a way that they become interior to our lives, the rhythms and images becoming practices of prayer, acts of obedience, ways of love.
“Words spoken or written to us under the metaphor of eating, words to be freely taken in, tasted, chewed, savored, swallowed, and digested, have a very different effect on us from those that come at us from the outside, whether in the form of propaganda or information. Propaganda works another person’s will upon us, attempting to manipulate us to an action or a belief. Insofar as we are moved by it, we become less, the puppet of a puppeteer writer/speaker. There is no dignity, no soul, in a puppet. And information reduces words to the condition of commodities that we can use however we will. Words are removed from their originating context in the moral universe and from personal relationships so that they can be used as tools or weapons. Such commodification of language reduces both those who speak it and those who listen to it also to commodities.
“Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul — eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight. Words of men and women long dead, or separated by miles and/or years, come off the page and enter our lives freshly and precisely, conveying truth and beauty and goodness, words that God's spirit has used and uses to breathe life into our souls. Our access to reality deepens into past centuries, spreads across continents. But this reading also carries with it subtle dangers. Passionate words of men and women spoken in ecstasy can end up flattened on the page and dissected with an impersonal eye. Wild words wrung out of excruciating suffering can be skinned and stuffed, mounted and labeled as museum specimens. The danger in all reading is that words be twisted into propaganda or reduced to information, mere tools and data. We silence the living voice and reduce words to what we can use for convenience and profit.
“One psalmist mocked his contemporaries for reducing the living God who spoke and listened to them into a gold or silver thing-god that they could use:
Those who make them are like them;
so are all who trust in them. (Ps. 115:8)
“It's an apt warning for us still as we deal daily with the incredible explosion of information technology and propagandizing techniques. These words need rescuing.”
— From Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Eerdman’s, 2006). Eugene Peterson (1932–2018) talked with Ken Myers about this book and four others on spiritual theology in Dancing Lessons: Eugene Peterson on Theology and the Rhythms of Life, one of many MARS HILL AUDIO Conversations.
Marilyn McEntyre on engaging texts receptively
“I've come to believe that good reading is not possible without investment of the whole self. If this is what is given us to do — to be readers, writers, and speakers — then to ‘do it with our whole might,’ in William Robinson Clark’s phrase, means doing it with all our faculties — mind, heart, and gut. To read well is to enter into living relationship with another whole self. Even the most insufferable pedant comes to his or her work as a whole human being with investments, passions, defenses, and desires. As we read, we do well to remember the ‘who’ behind the ‘what.’ If we maintain that focus, dimensions of reading open up that don’t get much press in classrooms. . . .
“There are three very basic questions I like to ask students as they embark on a new novel. What does this work invite you to do? What does it require of you? What does it not let you do? Because the nature of literary engagement is not, finally, detached. We will be addressed and changed, if we read well. We will be challenged and confronted and convicted and offended, bothered, unsettled, and sometimes bored — and even boredom has its uses as preparation for a deeper level of engagement — though more often it’s a sign of sloth.
“All this is to say that the act of reading itself is not only intellectually and emotionally engaging, but morally consequential. How we choose to read, how we submit to or question or resist the terms set by the writer, are choices that shape the habits of our minds and the habits of our hearts. Those habits determine the degree to which we are open to truth in its various guises, and capable of discerning the difference between the ring of truth and the metallic clang of lies.
“Over the past few years, since I began teaching a course called ‘Contemplative Reading,’ I have found that the ancient Benedictine discipline of lectio divina offers an approach to many texts that may allow us to harvest their gifts in a way that frees us from what may have become deadening in classrooms, institutional schedules, and syllabi. Lectio, above all other approaches to reading I know, teaches us to take words personally.
“In lectio, which Benedictines practice in the daily reading of Scripture, you read the text slowly, listening for a word or phrase that speaks to you with particular emphasis. Then you re-read the passage, allowing the key word or phrase to be a point of contact, considering how it addresses the particular circumstances of your life. On the third reading you meditate on the text and on the words it has brought to your attention as gifts peculiar to the moment, considering what response it invites. Finally, on the fourth reading you rest in words as you hear them once more. As a devotional practice, lectio is reserved for sacred texts and sacred time. I recommended it on those terms to anyone seeking nourishment from sacred reading.
“On the other hand, what lectio can teach us about how to read responsibly, receptively, and fruitfully need not be reserved only for the reading of sacred texts. Poems, stories, personal memoirs, even news analysis and feature articles can be read with the prayer that in them we may be personally addressed and from them receive what Kenneth Burke calls ‘equipment for living.’ I have begun to tell my students — many of them victims of twelve years of schooling in which many have learned to resent ten-pound anthologies with unimaginative study guides and the overburdened teachers who ask plodding content questions — to ‘take it personally.’ Not simply to find what they can (to use their favorite verb) ‘relate to,’ but rather to read with an eye and ear out for words, images, scenes, sentences, and rhythms that evoke a felt response. To put a check in the margin when they are bothered or amused or offended or delighted or simply when something makes them think ‘Hmm.’ And then to go back to those places and ask what happened there. What associations were triggered? What reactions might they take time to articulate? What part of their comfort zone was invaded? To listen for direct address is to listen for an invitation and to make ready to receive precisely the gift one needs in precisely this moment of reading. On this particular reading of Moby-Dick it may lurk in the chapter on the whiteness of the whale. Next time, though, it may be in the little colloquy on Ahab’s pipe that one of my students decided was ‘the key chapter in Moby-Dick.’”
— from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, 2009). A second edition of this book will be released in May 2021. An interview with McEntyre about the original edition is included in The Worth of Words, one of many Anthologies available in our catalog.
William Cowper seeks retirement from worldliness, in a hymn and a poem
In our time, the best-known hymn by slaver-turned-abolitionist-priest John Newton (1725–1807) is “Amazing Grace.” But during the nineteenth century, his hymn “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” was much more popular. The hymn’s first stanza doesn’t address God, but “Zion, City of our God.”
The final stanza in the original hymn moved from describing the attributes of the Heavenly Jerusalem to discussing, in the form of a prayer, the characteristics that should be evident in the lives of citizens of the Holy City.
Savior, if of Zion’s city
I, thro’ grace, a member am,
let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy name;
fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion's children know.
Newton’s fellow hymn-writer William Cowper (1731–1800, and pronounced “Cooper”) seems to have been extremely alert to the distractions and temptations of the various pleasures of worldlings. One of the many hymns that he wrote — a hymn published in the Newton-edited collection Olney Hymns — expresses the desire to escape from the noise and distraction of worldliness. The hymn — usually named by its first line — was when originally published called simply “Retirement.”
1. Far from the world, O Lord, I flee,
From strife and tumult far;
From scenes where Satan wages still
His most successful war.
2. The calm retreat, the silent shade,
With prayer and praise agree;
And seem by Thy sweet bounty made
For those who follow Thee.
3. There, if Thy Spirit touch the soul,
And grace her mean abode,
O with what peace, and joy, and love,
She communes with her God!
4. There, like the nightingale, she pours
Her solitary lays;
Nor asks a witness of her song,
Nor thirsts for human praise.
5. Author and Guardian of my life,
Sweet Source of light divine,
And, all harmonious names in one,
My Saviour, — Thou art mine!
6. What thanks I owe Thee, and what love,
A boundless, endless store,
Shall echo through the realms above
When time shall be no more!
In his book The Hymnal: A Reading History (discussed on Volume 149 of the Journal and excerpted here), Christopher N. Phillips describes how the writing of hymns was the genesis of Cowper’s emergence as a significant English poet. So it is not surprising that one of Cowper’s longer poems (800 lines) develops in a more expansive mode some of the themes present in this hymn. That poem is also called “Retirement.” Below are some excerpts.
. . . conscience pleads her cause within the breast,
Though long rebell’d against, not yet suppress’d,
And calls a creature form’d for God alone,
For Heaven’s high purposes, and not his own,
Calls him away from selfish ends and aims,
From what debilitates and what inflames,
From cities humming with a restless crowd,
Sordid as active, ignorant as loud,
Whose highest praise is that they live in vain,
The dupes of pleasure, or the slaves of gain,
Where works of man are cluster’d close around,
And works of God are hardly to be found,
To regions where, in spite of sin and woe,
Traces of Eden are still seen below,
Where mountain, river, forest, field, and grove,
Remind him of his Maker’s power and love. . . .
Some minds by nature are averse to noise,
And hate the tumult half the world enjoys,
The lure of avarice, or the pompous prize
That courts display before ambitious eyes;
The fruits that hang on pleasure’s flowery stem,
Whate’er enchants them, are no snares to them.
To them the deep recess of dusky groves,
Or forest, where the deer securely roves,
The fall of waters, and the song of birds,
And hills that echo to the distant herds,
Are luxuries excelling all the glare
The world can boast, and her chief favourites share.
With eager step, and carelessly array’d,
For such a cause the poet seeks the shade, . . .
Luxury gives the mind a childish cast,
And, while she polishes, perverts the taste;
Habits of close attention, thinking heads,
Become more rare as dissipation spreads,
Till authors hear at length one general cry,
Tickle and entertain us, or we die.
The loud demand, from year to year the same,
Beggars invention, and makes fancy lame;
Till farce itself, most mournfully jejune,
Calls for the kind assistance of a tune;
And novels (witness every month’s review)
Belie their name, and offer nothing new.
The mind, relaxing into needful sport,
Should turn to writers of an abler sort,
Whose wit well managed, and whose classic style,
Give truth a lustre, and make wisdom smile. . . .
Religion does not censure or exclude
Unnumber’d pleasures harmlessly pursued;
To study culture, and with artful toil
To meliorate and tame the stubborn soil;
To give dissimilar yet fruitful lands
The grain, or herb, or plant that each demands;
To cherish virtue in an humble state,
And share the joys your bounty may create;
To mark the matchless workings of the power
That shuts within its seed the future flower,
Bids these in elegance of form excel,
In colour these, and those delight the smell,
Sends Nature forth the daughter of the skies,
To dance on earth, and charm all human eyes;
To teach the canvas innocent deceit,
Or lay the landscape on the snowy sheet—
These, these are arts pursued without a crime,
That leave no stain upon the wing of time.
Me poetry (or, rather, notes that aim
Feebly and vainly at poetic fame)
Employs, shut out from more important views,
Fast by the banks of the slow-winding Ouse;
Content if, thus sequester’d, I may raise
A monitor’s, though not a poet’s, praise,
And, while I teach an art too little known,
To close life wisely, may not waste my own.
Christopher N. Phillips on William Cowper’s suffering and (artistic) triumphs
On Volume 149 of the Journal, I talked with Christopher N. Phillips about his book, The Hymnal: A Reading History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). One of the things we talked about was the question of what distinguishes hymns from other forms of poetry.
Phillips points out in his book (and in our conversation) that Dr. Johnson, among others, established “something of a wall between hymn and poem.” In Samuel Johnson’s view, the “sublimity and perfection of religion and particularly the God it worshiped, could only defeat attempts to dress it” in any imaginative form. In Johnson’s words, “The topicks [sic] of devotion are few, and being few are universally known; but few as they are, they can be made no more; they can receive no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression. . . . Omnipotence cannot be exalted; Infinity cannot be amplified; Perfection cannot be improved.”
This view captures something of the impersonal austerity of eighteenth-century notions of the relationship between knowing and feeling, notions that the Romantic movement would challenge. Phillips notes that “even as Johnson developed his views [on this matter] . . . a new poet was emerging whose work would challenge Johnson’s assumptions.” That poet was William Cowper (1731–1800, and pronounced “Cooper”), whose work was discussed back on Volume 52 by English professor Daniel Ritchie, author of The Fullness of Knowing: Modernity and Postmodernity from Defoe to Gadamer (Baylor University Press, 2010).
Here is Phillips’s summary of how Cowper broke down the wall (allegedly) separating hymnody and poetry.
“A London barrister by profession, Cowper had written little poetry and published none by the time he met John Newton. Given to bouts of severe depression that would drive him to several suicide attempts, Cowper left his work to convalesce in the rural Buckinghamshire parish of Olney, where the already-famous Newton was curate. The slaver-turned-priest quickly formed a close friendship with Cowper, counseling him through the aftermath of a nervous breakdown and discovering a poetic gift in his ailing parishioner. Newton had for some time been composing hymns as meditations on Scripture to accompany his sermons; his church was a poor one, and many of his parishioners could not read, so the hymns gave them something to take home, reinforcing his weekly messages. He proposed that Cowper join him in producing a collection of hymns for the use of the parish, though Newton’s considerable fame owing to his popular memoirs made it likely that the collection would gain a wider audience. Cowper agreed. While the original plan was for both men to contribute an equal number of hymns, Cowper suffered another breakdown, limiting his contribution to sixty-seven texts compared to Newton’s 219 in Olney Hymns (1779). The collection included Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’ and texts such as ‘Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,’ which was much more popular than ‘Amazing Grace’ in the nineteenth century. Cowper’s texts were interspersed throughout, marked simply with a C to indicate his authorship.
“As James Montgomery asserted in an introduction first published in an 1829 reprint of Olney Hymns, hymnody produced Cowper the poet. Hymn writing was initially Cowper’s means to psychological recovery. Following the depression that disrupted his hymn writing at Olney, Cowper again turned to poetry at the suggestion of his friend Lady Austen to aid his recovery. The results of this new wave of writing amounted to a literary sensation. Cowper’s two-volume Poems appeared in handsomely printed London octavos in 1782 and 1785, the first mainly consisting of rhapsodic odes, the second nearly filled by his multicanto poem, The Task, still considered his most important work. New editions of Cowper’s works were frequent, especially after his death in 1800, and continued for decades, yet by far his most-read works were not The Task or his odes, but rather his hymns. ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way,’ ’O for a Closer Walk with God,’ ‘There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood’ — these hymns anticipated the individuality of the Romantic lyric as much as poems like Cowper’s ‘The Castaway,’ but their directness and relevance to Christian spirituality made them favorites in Anglican churches and Baptist revival meetings alike. For the first time, a writer at the poetic forefront of his day was also contributing substantially to churches’ sung repertoire across the Anglophone Atlantic.”
Book 3 of Olney Hymns — originally published as On the Progress and Changes of the Spiritual Life — includes the text of a six-stanza hymn by William Cowper called simply “Retirement.” It is not about the life of leisure following a long career of labor, but about the retirement enjoyed by those, for example, on spiritual retreat. The few hymnals that include this hymn identify it by its first line: “Far from the world, O Lord, I flee.” Cowper also wrote an 800-line poem called “Retirement,” in which he explored in great detail what his friend John Newton described as “the worldliness pleasure.” You can read the hymn and part of the poem here.