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New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Reading Theology with the Grain

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein

Reading Theology with the Grain

A number of critics challenge us to take theology at its own word.  Gregory Kneidel’s Rethinking the Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Literature: The Poetics of All Believers unpacks the ramifications of Pauline universalism—the question, in particular, of just who was saved by Christ’s sacrifice—for post-Reformation poetry.  Kneidel argues that we misread sixteenth- and seventeenth-century invocations of Paul if we understand them purely in terms of authoritarianism, rather than an attempt to negotiate among a world of competing and conflicting beliefs.  Similarly, Michael Davies’s Graceful Reading: Theology and Narrative in the Works of John Bunyan challenges readings of Bunyan that emphasize his supposedly crushing Calvinism, and argues instead that Bunyan’s works demand what he calls “graceful reading”—a practice that avoids literalist, legalist, or historicist readings of the Bible, and instead studies it through the light of salvation by God’s freely offered grace.  Again, although Adrian Streete’s Protestantism and Drama in Early Modern England draws on both poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theories, the real thrust of his argument lies in his willingness to take post-Reformation Protestantism seriously as a dominant discourse.  Emphasizing debates within Calvinist Christology, Streete finds that early modern Protestant subjectivity emerged in the sense of an insuperable distance between man and Christ, the object of his imitation, or mimesis.

This problematic relationship between religion and the creation of subjectivity recurs in Gary Kuchar’s Divine Subjection: The Rhetoric of Sacramental Devotion in Early Modern England, which analyzes how devotional poetry and prose (Catholic and Protestant) constructed early modern subjectivity through a poetics of “excess,” one that engaged with the “desacramentalization” of Reformation and post-Reformation English culture to imagine how audiences might come to “desire” divine love.  Taking a different approach to subjectivity, Molly Murray’s The Poetics of Conversion in Early Modern English Literature: Verse and Change from Donne to Dryden draws on both Protestant and Catholic examples to argue that the mutability of faith in early modern culture—the frequency with which people changed from one religion to another (and sometimes back again)—is also encoded in the formal properties of conversion poems.