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New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Reference Works

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein

Reference Works

Rebecca Lemon et al.’s The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature is, as the editors explain in their introduction, targeted at an undergraduate audience, and therefore deliberately limits itself to major authors and topics in the English tradition; as a result, there are very few self-identified Catholic authors after the medieval period, and virtually no Jews.  Each historical period is prefaced with a brief overview of major developments in theology, trends in Bible reading, and, as applicable, Biblical scholarship.  Individual essays introduce students to some of the core debates about interpreting the role of the Bible in each text, down to the problem of which Bible or Bibles the writer might have accessed; moreover, they also demonstrate how Biblical genres, and not just Biblical quotations, should affect our readings of these works.  Andrew Hass et al.’s The Oxford Handbook of English Literature and Theology overlaps notably with the Blackwell Companion.  Despite David Jasper’s celebratory account of literature and religion’s new openness to multicultural, postcolonial, and popular texts, the essays themselves largely cover major authors and familiar literary-historical stops.  The editors divide the collection into seven sections, covering such topics as historical overviews, major authors, and key themes.  As one might expect, the handbook devotes considerable time to English Bibles, including both a general overview and an entire section of ten essays devoted to the Bible as literature.

Although the subtitle of Nancy M. Tischler’s Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Fiction: From C. S. Lewis to Left Behind may make readers suspect that the book is devoted to pop Christian fiction, the contents cover a wide and sometimes unexpected range of authors: Dan Brown and Thomas Kinkade coexist with Robert Olen Butler Jr. and Toni Morrison.  The entries consist of biographical details, an overview of the author’s major works, reception history, any prizes, and primary and secondary bibliographies.  As Tischler admits in her introduction, some of the authors have only a tenuous connection to the Christian tradition, if that.  The two-volume Encyclopedia of Catholic Literature, edited by Mary Reichardt, is also catholic in the other sense, featuring essays on everyone from Catherine of Siena to Denise Levertov.  Reichardt includes Anglo-Catholics like Christina Rossetti  and T. S. Eliot under the “Catholic” rubric; as she explains in her preface, “Catholic” refers to the work itself, and not necessarily to the author.  Multiple tables of contents allow the reader to search by date, gender, and genre.  Each alphabetically arranged entry, usually from ten to twelve pages in length, focuses on one work, prefaced by a biographical overview and followed by a short reception history.  At times, the assessments veer well over to the hagiographical, as in the entry on Hilaire Belloc’s The Path to Rome, and there is no effort at comprehensiveness.

R. Chris Hassel Jr.’s Shakespeare’s Religious Language: A Dictionary, part of the “Athlone Shakespeare Dictionaries” series, is a sacred counterpart of sorts to Eric Partridge’s profane (and famous) Shakespeare’s Bawdy.  Most of Hassel’s definitions of religious terms and proper names come in three parts: a definition of the term; an analysis of its varied manifestations in Shakespeare’s works; and a set of primary and secondary sources, ranging from the Church Fathers to Stephen Greenblatt.  Hassel’s efforts to contextualize his entries extend the work’s usefulness beyond its immediate target.