Tomorrow, John Brown University will host the Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature. The question guests and keynote speaker Randy Boyagoda will be answering: “Has Literature Lost Its Faith?”
Expressing some thoughts trying to answer that very question, Professor Jessica Wilson hasn’t seen an absence of Christian literature. Rather she has seen Christians around her choosing not to read literature.
“When I ask my friends in the church what they are reading, inevitably I hear a list of novels that seem like secular romances in Christian dress: couples participate in sexual tension instead of intercourse, and they use youth-minister-approved curse words like ‘crap’ in place of other expletives,” Wilson said.
She added, “If Christians are reading fiction, and I stress if, it seems they are not reading literature.”
The problem then, according to Wilson, is not a lack of solid Christian literature, but a Protestant hesitancy to read what they deem unsafe.
If we look back we see examples such as Flannery O’Connor, C. S. Lewis and Dostoevsky, as well as present authors: Jeanne Murray Walker, Brett Lott, Kathleen Norris and Leif Enger. She noted that violence in O’Connor’s work makes some Christians uneasy.
She responded to a recent essay by Boyagoda published in First Things, and said, “Boyagoda may be sick of O’Connor and Percy, but I would be happy to live in a world where at least Christians en masse were reading them, where preachers quoting Dostoevsky didn’t raise eyebrows, and where Eugene Peterson’s recitations of Hopkins didn’t make parishioners blink in confusion.”
The last time the conference came to the university, Charles Pastoor directed the event and brought in author Kathleen Norris.
Regarding this year’s topic, Pastoor said, “I think a general, cultural decline in religious faith and observance is reflected in contemporary literature.”
Professor Brad Gambill will be presenting his paper this weekend, as well as other JBU faculty members. He is looking forward to the grounding of perspective a conference like this always brings, centering on seeking God’s truth through literary texts.
Gambill is also excited to see JBU students interact with Christian scholars, “I’m wanting my students to be exposed to and maybe even wrestle with those characteristics and habits that characterize scholarship in general and Christian scholarship more particularly. In short, I want them to engage, reflect, and make plans based on this encounter with other scholars.”
Regarding the conference question, Gambill said that he isn’t sure literature can rid itself of faith entirely.
“As long as literature is about falling short of an ideal and uses language to communicate, we can never escape the role that faith plays in both the writing of and the reading of literature,” Gambill said.
He continued, “No one talks more about God than atheists, and that’s not a jab at them. It’s just that they are simply more aware than most of us that we can’t make meaning without referencing an idea. In general, writers [and readers] are after truth, and God is Truth.”
To Gambill, the necessary idea behind meaning is God, and that inevitably comes through in literature.
The conference begins at 9 a.m. on Friday and will continue through Saturday evening. Students and faculty may find a full schedule online: www.jbu.edu/hss/conference/schedule/