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Modern Christian Fantasy

  • Colin Manlove

Abstract

While it may fairly be supposed that God did not as Nietzsche claimed, die in the nineteenth century,1 it must be admitted that much of the ‘mythology’ of Christianity, the supernatural stories recounted in the Bible, became increasingly open to question.2 The textual authority of the Bible had been in dispute long before the nineteenth century: one has only to look at Dryden’s Religio Laici (1678), for instance, to see that. But the empirical, scientific, investigative side of the late-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mind had long tended to practise a form of self-silencing when it came to matters of faith. It is only with the Romantics and the new ’mythophiles’, with their emphasis on the creative imagination, that we begin to find systematic questioning (such as Blake’s) of the visions of the prophets or apostles as subjective rather than literal,3 or come across a pioneering attempt (J. G. Herder’s Maranatha of 1779) to view the Book of Revelation as literature rather than a true record.4 The new German ‘liberal’ theology of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century found its most revolutionary statement in D. F. Strauss’s Leben Jesu (1835), in which the historical and human dimension of Christ’s life began to take on significance at the expense of his divine self and his ‘supernatural’ actions.5

Keywords

Creative Imagination Paradise Lost Unconscious Mind True Record Referential Purpose 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    God may have retired from literature, as J. Hillis Miller describes it in his The Disappearance of God (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963),Google Scholar
  2. but He stayed very much in the hearts of millions of ordinary churchgoers: see Owen Chadwick, A History of the Victorian Church, 2 vols, II: 1860–1901, rev. edn (London: A & C. Black, 1972) esp. chs 4–5.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    See also Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1974), which particularly emphasises the sources in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century German theology and philosophy.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Though of course there are earlier isolated instances of this, as in Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’Autre Monde (1657).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Bernard McGinn, ‘Revelation’, in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (eds), The Literary Guide to the Bible (London: Collins, 1987) II, 539.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, pp. 233–46; James P. Mackey, Jesus: The Man and the Myth (London: SCM Press, 1979) pp. 30–7.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983) pp. 14–17.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet, in The Works of Charles Kingsley, 28 vols (London: Macmillan, 1879–83) III, 411.Google Scholar
  9. Cf. George MacDonald, The Miracles of our Lord (1871), ed. Rolland Hein (Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw, 1980) p. 13, describing miracles as ‘a possible fulfillment of [nature’s]... deepest laws’.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    On the ‘immanentist’ emphasis of nineteenth-century and to some extent twentieth-century theology and Christian belief see J. S. Lawton, Miracles and Revelation (London: Lutterworth Press, 1958) esp. p. 142; and Chadwick, A History of the Victorian Church, II, 31.Google Scholar
  11. T. B. Tennyson, ‘The Sacramental Imagination’, in U. C. Knoepflmacher and G. B. Tennyson (eds), Nature and the Victorian Imagination (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1977) pp. 370–90, writes, ‘The pervasive appeal of [Keble’s] The Christian Year disposed many Victorian minds to view Nature as Keble and the Tractarians viewed it, as God’s book which he who runs might read as a means, for the rightly disposed Christian soul, of experiencing through the visible world that contact with the invisible one that is normally effected through the sacraments’ (p. 379).Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, Heaven: A History (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1988) p. 275.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Walter Taverner, ‘The Historical Antecedents of Rudolf Otto’s Concept of the Numinous’ (unpublished PhD thesis submitted to Edinburgh University Divinity Faculty, 1949).Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    See for example Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836)Google Scholar
  15. and Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850).Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    Evinced most signally in Arnold: see Stephen Prickett, Romanticism and Religion: The Tradition of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Victorian Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) pp. 213–17.Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    See Nathan Scott, Jr, Craters of the Spirit: Studies in the Modern Novel (London: Sheed and Ward, 1969).Google Scholar
  18. See also Ian Gregor and Walter Stein (eds), The Prose for God: Religious and Anti-Religious Aspects of Imaginative Literature (London: Sheed and Ward, 1973);Google Scholar
  19. Patrick Grant, Six Modern Authors and Problems of Belief (London: Macmillan, 1979).Google Scholar
  20. Recently there have been attempts by post-modernist ‘literary’ theologians to identify literary and ultimately ‘Christian’ experience: see for example David Jasper, The Study of Literature and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1989);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. and Robert Detweiler, Breaking the Fall: Religious Readings of Contemporary Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1989).Google Scholar
  22. 14.
    Letter to F. D. Maurice, summer 1862, repr. in Charles Kingsley: His Letters and Memories of his Life, ed. Frances E. Kingsley, 2 vols (London: Kegan Paul, 1978) II, 137.Google Scholar
  23. 15.
    Charles Williams, ‘He Came down from Heaven’ and ‘The Forgiveness of Sins’ (London: Faber and Faber, 1950) p. 97.Google Scholar
  24. 16.
    C. S. Lewis, ‘On Stories’, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966) p. 20.Google Scholar
  25. 17.
    On such stories in the nineteenth century see Margaret Maison, Search Your Soul, Eustace: A Survey of the Religious Novel in the Victorian Age (London: Sheed and Ward, 1961);Google Scholar
  26. and Robert Lee Wolff, Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England (London: John Murray, 1977).Google Scholar
  27. 18.
    This is what happens, if indirectly, with some of the writers of German Romantic fairy tale in the period 1790–1820. On the whole subject, Burton Feldman and Robert D. Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology, 1680–1860 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), is invaluable; see esp. pp. 303–4: ‘Romantic myth may in part be described as a revival in secular or idealist form of an older Christian hope.’Google Scholar
  28. See also M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1971) esp. ch. 1, section 6.Google Scholar
  29. 20.
    George MacDonald, ‘The Imagination: Its Functions and its Culture’, A Dish of Orts, Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakspere (London: Sampson Low, 1893) p. 28.Google Scholar
  30. 21.
    Charles Williams, The Greater Trumps (London: Faber and Faber, 1964) pp. 94–5.Google Scholar
  31. 22.
    Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (London: Pan, 1963) pp. 170–1.Google Scholar
  32. 23.
    D. H. Lawrence, A Propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ (London: Mandrake Press, 1930) p. 55.Google Scholar
  33. 24.
    J. R. R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (London: Allen and Unwin, 1964) pp. 51–8.Google Scholar
  34. 25.
    The term is Robert Reilly’s: see his Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien (Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 1971).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Colin Manlove 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Colin Manlove
    • 1
  1. 1.University of EdinburghUK

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