Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Larry Woiwode on the Christian as Active Reader

During a brief e-mail exchange with Susannah Clements, we discussed whether any Christian literary theory exists today. Clements explained that “Among Christians themselves, there's some controversy over whether the theory approach is the best way of dealing with literature at all.” Christian criticism has focused on close reading and exegesis; theory, Christian critics believe, is too constraining.

I wondered whether I really believed this, until I discovered Larry Woiwode. Poet and novelist, Woiwode turns his hand to criticism in Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture. And he proves that, to an artist, Christianity provides more than a tool to dismantle others’ work. Christianity gives us a vantage point from which to examine the larger world, one informed by a spirit of hope and clarity.

In ten essays, ranging from five to forty pages, Woiwode reads the world around him like a prophet, charged to uphold the admirable and disparage the inexcusable. This gives him a hard edge that may bother some readers, but it also gives him a real position, which I appreciate after years in academia, where equivocation has become necessary. Woiwode is refreshing because he actually stands for something.

And, unlike other bold Christians I've read recently, Woiwode opens doors without falsely attempting to close them. He takes sides, but does not believe (with one exception) that his positions conclude the debate. For Woiwode, Christianity and literature provide twinned opportunities to explore a larger and more exciting world than the alternative can provide.

Woiwode turns an impressive range of insight onto a range of subjects. Some, like John Updike and John Gardner, deal in areas which critics have exhausted. Gardner, whom Woiwode admits he knew and admired, merits two essays, one a sweeping remembrance, the other an in-depth examination of one novel so esoteric that most critics won’t touch it. Woiwode treats even such well-handled subjects with fresh vision.

Other topics seem more surprising. Comparing Bob Dylan and CNN as newsgatherers, he finds conventional journalism wanting in terms of speaking the truths that undergird events. He draws attention to a nearly forgotten aspect of novelist Reynolds Price’s corpus, innovative and sagacious translations of the Koine Gospels. And, in examination of America’s firearms culture, he finds this lineage as rich for examination as any literature.

Covering three decades in the author’s life, these essays provide a shifting intellectual biography, as Woiwode moves from his straightforward description of Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, through a more aggressive stance on public education, to a remarkably mature and nuanced rumination on the truths inherent in Shakespeare’s tragedies. But these changes aren’t merely incidental. Woiwode’s development urges us to season our own thinking, too.

As a Christian, Woiwode approaches criticism not supposing that we should grasp literature in its own right, but that literature can throw light on its readers and their calling. We can understand ourselves in relation to our neighbors and our God through the lens of great reading. Therefore he reads literature with intent to illuminate humans in culture, just as he reads culture as a manifestation of humanity’s better angels.

Don’t misunderstand the word “Christian.” Woiwode is broad-minded and inquisitive. In his discursion on Bob Dylan, he seems more interested in Dylan’s younger, more insurrectionary period than his later “Born Again” doldrums. He feels no need to discuss the highly moralistic John Gardner’s serial marriages. Woiwode would rather engage with God’s world than condemn those living in it.

This Christianity does get somewhat high-handed when he addresses the public sphere. Woiwode adopts the siege mentality that afflicts certain Evangelical churches, and occasionally lets it infect his criticism. He insists, for instance, that John Updike never won the Nobel Prize in part because of his professed Christianity. The Academy’s longstanding anti-Americanism seems a more likely explanation.

But that’s small beer. In only one essay does Woiwode let Christianity conflict with lucid thought. In “Deconstructing God,” an exhortation against secularization in public schools, he doesn’t seem to recognize his stated contradictions. If both 19th Century pietism and 20th Century secularism authorized public prejudices, why should we believe reenrolling God will aleviate the problem?

Besides, we know that nothing dampens students’ ardor for a topic like making it mandatory.

That limitation notwithstanding, Woiwode provides a good model for how the Christian engages critically with the word and the world. His curiosity and insight, leavened with dry humor, make reading him both educational and pleasant. If more critics, and more Christians, wrote like this, criticism might attract a broader, brighter audience.

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