Tracing Faith: Literature with Theological Import

Zach Johnson

                  The Bible is one of the main aspects in the spread, practice, and underpinning of a Christian’s faith. Without the Bible, it is unlikely that Christianity would have grown to be one of the largest religions in the world. With the Bible as such an important feature of the Christian religion, it is a rather simple claim that changes surrounding the Bible, such as changes in interpretation, will in turn impact other aspects of the Christian religion, such as faith. If this claim is true, which is something that can be seen in differences between sects and their adherents, then changes pertaining to the Bible’s interpretation can be linked to the nature of one’s faith. Surely a traditional adherent of the Church during the Reformation viewed the Bible differently, and had a different kind of faith, as opposed to participants in the rebellious Reformation itself who adhered to the doctrine of “sola scriptura”. Not only did these opposing groups and individuals have different faiths, but as a result they became different kinds of religious people. But what kind of faith should one aspire to? Faith is crucial in guiding the lives of so many people, that analyzing faith and even suggesting new perspectives is a worthwhile task.

            The Bible and Literature, a reader edited by Jasper and Prickett, offers historical analysis in the field of literary criticism that lends supportive background to the idea that interpretation of the Bible shifts. Moreover, that such interpretations subsequently influence the faith demonstrated by religious people and even bolsters their ethical guides to behavior in same direction of said influence. Consequently, evaluating interpretations is a key starting point when evaluating faith. Consideration of the shift from an acceptance of figuratively interpreting the Bible and maintaining these ideas as divine truth, as in medieval critical theory, offers one view. Meanwhile, consideration of the rise of science amidst the romantic crisis and its fallout, in what Jasper and Prickett call separation and specialization in the understanding of the Bible as literature, gives a script for tracking changes in faith as well.

            In their section entitled “Medieval Critical Theory”, Jasper and Prickett capture the figurative approach to the Bible, certainly understood by people as truth, by explaining that an interpretation of the Massacre of Innocents was once made such that “… children of two years old and under were murdered, while those of three were presumably spared, is meant to teach us that those who hold the Trinitarian faith will be saved whereas Binatarians and Unitarians will undoubtedly perish.” (18)[1]. Such an understanding of religious literature, when combined with the premise that its implications are respected as true and forceful, would not be taken lightly by a religious person. This is exemplified by Jasper and Prickett’s quoting of Erich Auerbach, who explains that the figurative interpretation of the Old Testament was crucial in successfully converting nations to Christianity in medieval times. He says in reference to figurative interpretation that “Its integral, firmly teleological, view of history and the providential order of the world gave it the power to capture the imagination…of the convert nations.”[2] So, clearly, such an idea as expressed by the figurative interpretation of the Massacre of Innocents would be taken to heart and worked into a religious person’s faith. Maybe, after a life of exposure to such ideas, this would even work some seeds of fear into their ethics and character while also further enforcing one’s faith out of not only belief in assumed truths but in fear. It is this powerful nature of faith that warrants the idea of a possibly better form faith could take.

            Contrary to this faith in the figurative, and its assumed truth, came the rise of science. This rise resulted in what Jasper and Prickett describe as the romantic crisis. Albert Camus captures the consequences of this change on religion and faith by describing how the citizens in his novel, The Plague, chose sunbathing and movie-going over attending church. The ideas of Newton and Locke related to epistemology, physics, and improving understanding of human physiology left much, such as fluid and imaginative poetry, seeming strangely alien and arbitrary in a world that was now made up entirely of particles; where even color was no longer “truly real,” but a working of the visual system. These developments, which most people took as demystifying nature and looking behind the apparent world to the “true world” as explained by science, would have consequences that reverberated into literature and Christianity. This included the Bible and faith, ultimately posing problems for the assumed truth that had long underpinned figurative interpretations, and belief in religion in general, in a trend which continues to this day.

            An example of the impact of these developments culminating in a new perception, which shares a correlation with faiths changing as atheism began to rise, came through the work of Matthew Arnold. Not only was Arnold dismissive of the assumed truth of God’s existence that always rested behind the figurative medieval period of growth and expansion previously mentioned, but he also saw the Bible as a primarily literary work as opposed to a sacred work. The Bible and Literature summarizes Arnold’s position as insisting that the Bible’s language was literary and not scientific; early signs of disenchantment with religion that he was a part of: “’For us, the God of popular religion is a legend, a fairy-tale; learned theology has simply taken this fairy-tale and dressed it metaphysically.’”[3] A religious person who interprets the Bible in the way that Arnold has interpreted the Bible will be far different people, with much different faith, than people of the figurative medieval times.

            The theologically relevant question surrounding such a large change in peoples’ ideas of God and the states of their respective faiths, is essentially: With these drastic changes in our faith, where does faith stand and what kinds of faith are desirable, that is, if the pervasive faith characterized by the figurative medieval period has largely dissipated?

            Two types of faith, which have been characteristic of Christian religion since its conception, are faith out of fear of the unknown and faith out of fear and punishment. There is no shortage of both fear and punishment in the Bible and in the history of Christianity. Even the non-religious sometimes turn to religion and God in times of calamity or when nearing death, which is highly indicative of the relation between interpretation of religion, worldviews, and behavior. Two literary pieces that capture this chronological trend from the early in the Bible, to essentially present day literature, are the plagues of Exodus and Albert Camus’ work entitled The Plague.

            Ultimately, such a faith is negative and begs the question of whether a better type of faith can be reconciled with reverence for God. Towards this possibility, there a more positive orientation in regard to faith that seeks to surpass faith out of fear and punishment. Some brief history surrounding the sources is necessary. The Book of Exodus is the second book of the Old Testament. Within Exodus is the account of the ten biblical plagues, which are foundational examples of the wrath of God and so often a factor underlying faith throughout the history of Christianity. A modern revival of the biblical plagues is composed by Albert Camus, the French writer of philosophical novels and Nobel Prize winner, who wrote the novel entitled The Plague in the middle of the 20th century. Camus is known for respecting religion, as he was raised a Christian and immersed himself in the works of St. Augustine, but he refused the supernatural and posited that life is essentially absurd. Interestingly, he still placed faith in man as being able to wrestle with this existence. Fittingly, the priest in his novel refers to the ten biblical plagues in one of his sermons, which shows that the concept of God’s wrath, fear, and punishment, have permeated the past and present. To discuss a more positive kind of faith, we will use some of the ideas of contemporary philosopher of mind, Daniel Dennett, as a springboard towards a memorable activist: Archbishop Oscar Romero. 

            Now, Exodus sets the stage for our analysis. Though the event prompting God’s interaction with Moses and Aaron is the process of liberating the Hebrew people from Egypt, God is concerned with demonstrating his power to the Egyptians in the form of punishment for failure to acknowledge the Lord, and for disobedience in the face of the Lord. Chapter 8, verse 10 of Exodus in the King James Bible has God saying: “And he said, Be it according to thy word: that thou mayest know that there is none like unto the LORD our God.”[4]. All the plagues brought down on the Egyptians were punitive in nature, from the swarms of locusts and the ruining of water supplies to the killing of the Egyptian’s first born. Moreover, they are meant to be dominating and a display of absolute power to which man cannot resist. Though the Bible does little to describe emotional aspects of its characters, or much of the action that results from God’s will on, say, the citizens of Egypt, it is easy for us to infer that suffering the ten plagues would have been a harrowing and tortuous experience that forever changed the lives of the people afflicted. Clearly, punishment and fear are deeply rooted in Christianity.

            In The Plague, we see a similar dynamic begin to unfold when the unsuspecting city of Oran is struck by a wave of dying rats and a few early cases of sick individuals with symptoms reminiscent of the bubonic plague. No one, save for the narrator Dr. Rieux, is quick to suggest or take any action about such a grave and dangerous threat. Instead, nearly all people and institutions refuse to acknowledge the emerging signs of the plague, radically clinging to the everyday-ness of their existence as if they wore blinders. Individuals, newspapers, and the city government all fail to react appropriately even after dead rats flood the streets. Soon the plague has taken a strong grip on the city of Oran to the point where denial is untenable, outgoing mail service is shut down, and no one is allowed to exit the city due to the risk of spreading contagion. The respected priest Father Paneloux is prompted to give a sermon at the end of the “week of prayer” established by the churches of the city as a hope for reprieve.

            It is noted that in normal times, the people of Oran had not been very religious. Rather, Dr. Rieux’s narrations explain that sunbathing competed heavily with churchgoing on Sundays. But, with this dangerous shift in circumstance, a first confirmation of the idea that fear prompts an emergence of faith (though for some disingenuous) begins to manifest. Timid church attendance grew into what is described as a swelling congregation by the time of Father Paneloux’s sermon at the end of the week. To this congregation, Father Paneloux describes the plague as the wrath of God, making the analogy of a flail threshing the wheat from the chaff (which is to imply the good from the bad). He intensifies his argument by claiming, after referencing the hand of Lucifer, that “No earthly power, nay, not even – mark me well – the vaunted might of human science can avail you to avert that hand once it is stretched towards you.”[5] Immediately after the sermon, a new mood of widespread panic engulfs the town. Thus, greater gravity surrounding a biblical interpretation of events based on fear and punishment results in a change in the religious person, and their behavior. By impressing a position of helplessness at best, and doom at worst, upon the people of Oran, the effect of this combination of faith and interpretation was a negative and unproductive one.

            A particular exchange between Dr. Rieux, the man of science, and Father Paneloux characterizes their similarities and differences. With the negative interpretation and faith inspired by Father Rieux in mind, this exchange provides a rough outline of a superior kind of faith that could surpass what was inspired by Father Paneloux. Towards the end of the book, Father Paneloux and Dr. Rieux are often together in tending to victims of the plague. The plague soon starts to subside, but not before the two men must attend to a young child. Amidst the screaming and wailing in pain of the young boy and the family around him, Dr. Rieux is overwhelmed with both horror and frustration towards what is for him, at least, meaningless suffering inflicted on such an innocent victim. Dr. Rieux eventually storms out of the room. What follows is a conversation between Rieux and Father Paneloux, where the doctor adamantly rejects the idea of accepting the torture of innocent children, which is suggested by Father Paneloux’s idea that we should ultimately love such actions by God no matter what. Occurrences such as the child’s suffering, are simply beyond our understanding.

            Dr. Rieux’s sentiment clashes with the idea of such suffering being a meaningful or acceptable punishment. To the contrary of salvation, Dr. Rieux asserts that he is a champion of man’s health, and said health is his primary concern. Interestingly, Rieux goes on to say that “What I hate is death and disease, as you well know. And whether you wish it or not, we’re allies, facing them and fighting them together.”[6]. It is questionable whether this statement by Rieux is true, as Father Paneloux goes on to deliver a second sermon that puts forth an extreme all or nothing, martyr-like position of going down with the ship in the face of God’s indiscriminate wrath. But what, instead of this extreme version of the sentiment that first sparked panic and doom amongst the people of Oran, would it look like instead were Dr. Rieux and Father Paneloux truly allies?

            First, whether Dr. Rieux is a man of faith must be examined. Surely Dr. Rieux is not a man, at least not primarily, of theological faith. Rather, he places his faith in science even when his circumstances are absurd or futile. Dr. Rieux’s faith is also distinguishable from Father Paneloux’s because it is primarily active. Dr. Rieux was an advocate of swift and strong measures taken against the plague before the public accepted that the plague had truly spread amongst Oran. Though Father Paneloux travels with Dr. Rieux and bestows what help he can, his first and second sermon do not by any means lend themselves to people taking some constructive action. Father Paneloux’s faith is passive, if not fatalist. Whereas, one can imagine that if Dr. Rieux had access to the same number of people as Father Paneloux did in the beginning of the plague and was able to implement his ideas and knowledge, the story may have gone somewhat differently. Again, Dr. Rieux’s faith is beneficially scientific and active because it is faith that relies on demonstrable truths, that serves survival, and that affirms life. This idea of faith as a motivator, oriented towards activity and progress, shows how faith was not simply lost in secularization spurred by events prior to the romantic crisis, but also morphed into new forms.

            A similar conception of faith that has roots in science, survival, and affirmation of life is the conception of faith put forth by Daniel Dennett, which is simply put as faith in the truth. In the section of his piece entitled “The Priority of Truth” Dennett frames the evolutionary history of organisms on earth as a game of hide and seek played to escape danger and find what is life affirming, such as nutrition. In this case, “Getting it right, not making mistakes, has been of paramount importance to every living thing on this planet for more than three billion years, and so these organisms have evolved thousands of different ways of finding out about the world they live in…”[7] In this way, human beings have an inherent faith in the concept of truth, and the ways in which we obtain truth from our sensory perception to our minds. Moreover, Dennett puts forth science as the technology of truth in both its methods and its tools; two aspects in which faith has become very strong. To show how strong our faith in science is, Dennett notes that it is always the other attempts at attaining knowledge, from astrology to religion, that will champion scientific evidence that strengthens their cause. Yet, the contributions of astrology, religion, or numerology to science are scarce if they exist at all.

            This argument presents the idea that faith, specifically faith in the truth, is an evolutionarily inherent aspect of the human being from thousands of years ago, resulting from using sensory capabilities and culminating in the rise of modern day science. But the subtler point that can bring a different conception of faith to the theological discussion, is that this inherently human type of faith is by nature active and goal-directed.

            An active faith that carries itself out by moving towards goals, what is essentially faith on constant missions, is exactly what Dr. Rieux could have used and what Father Paneloux did not at all provide. We cannot simply and retroactively hold passive and paralytic faith against people in history. But the underlying notion that we are powerless against God’s wrath and ought to accept this fact, as was put forth in both Father Paneloux’s sermons, can be learned from and overcome. This is an important venture; similar passivity in people originally allowed for the plague to set in unopposed. Any vehicle that can break through passivity, fatalism, and hopelessness, is a benefit to human causes. Our most naturally human faith, faith in the truth, is an antidote to these destructive concepts. Does Christianity support this antidote despite all the fear-based, punishment-centric, and ultimately inactive faith that can be found throughout its texts and history? Even if Christianity does provide such an antidote, we might consider that a facilitation of this kind of faith would involve an acceptance of science into Christianity. Precedent for such an acceptance, which would have to be seen as a revelation, could be seen in the creation story from Genesis. This story promotes the idea that mankind rightfully rules over nature, and science aids in this lofty goal.

            There is a type of action, often taken from life into art forms such as cinema, that is characterized by the idea of motivation. There is a romanticized version of faith that shows itself on the frontlines of war films such as Braveheart or other iconic films, and if one can imagine the Crusades then the rallying of the troops under the auspices of God comes quickly to mind. Though this is a dramatic way to picture common faith, it is not so dramatic to see religion and its priests in a similar position to the inspiring commander if we understand these religious forces to be capable of inspiring action, which was noted in our opening paragraphs. This is a different interpretation that has been made throughout Christianity’s history, spread, and practice: God as a motivating force. Certainly, we can do this.

            One only needs to reflect on the Crusades, religious war in the Middle East, or the countless people inspired by religion to devote their lives to charity to find motivation for good or ill. Religion is no small force for many people, and we currently find ourselves in a 21st century that in many ways moves against religion. With this said, it would be beneficial to us as human beings and perhaps beneficial to religion itself, if faith can take its framework from nature and science by developing into a motivational and life affirming force in times of crisis as sometimes accomplished in its past. One might recall the “Last Sermon” of Archbishop Oscar Romero, where he implored the El Salvadorian army and government to stop repression, make peace, and allow for liberation from the terrible events of the 1970s and 1980s. By promoting this activist interpretation of religion, interpretation being what we first outlined as a guiding force for faith, we can improve the action faith facilitates.

Endnotes

[1] Jasper, David, Stephen Prickett, and Andrew Hass. The Bible and Literature: A Reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1999. (18)

[2] Jasper, David. The Bible and Literature: A Reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1999. (18)

[3] Jasper, The Bible and Literature, (35).

[4] "King James Bible." OFFICIAL KING JAMES BIBLE ONLINE: AUTHORIZED KING JAMES VERSION (KJV). http://www.kingjamesBibleonline.org/. Exodus 8:10

[5] Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Modern Library, 1948. (96).

[6] Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Modern Library, 1948. (219).

[7] Dennett, Daniel. "Faith in the Truth." Faith in the Truth. https://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/faithint.htm. (2).

Bibliography

Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Modern Library, 1948.

The Plague is a novel written by Albert Camus that is generally attributed to the Existentialist movement in philosophy during the 20th century. The novel offers commentary on a variety of topics from the nature of human experience to the religion and its role in society. In the paper the novel connects to biblical portrayals of faith and punishment.

Dennett, Daniel. "Faith in the Truth.” Accessed October 16, 2016. https://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/faithint.htm.

Faith in the Truth is a contemporary work in epistemology that takes the religious concept of faith and applies it to science and its processes while highlighting the different kinds of forms faith can take. In the paper this work builds off of conclusions based on Camus work The Plague and leads into the discussion of a potentially different kind of faith than what is inspired by fear and punishment.

Jasper, David, Stephen Prickett, and Andrew Hass. The Bible and Literature: A Reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1999.

The Bible and Literature is a comprehensive source of themes pertinent to religion, the Bible, and literature. For the paper, The Bible and Literature is used for its examination of shifts in the interpretation of the Bible. Analysis of these shifts places emphasis on the ideas that interpretation of religion and events have an impact on what kind of faith one demonstrates, and provides a theologically relevant introduction to faith as a concept with some plasticity.

"King James Bible." OFFICIAL KING JAMES BIBLE ONLINE: AUTHORIZED KING JAMES VERSION (KJV). Accessed October 16, 2016. http://www.kingjamesBibleonline.org/.

The King James Bible is the source of the passages in Exodus that are used as the introduction of the concepts of faith and punishment for the paper, specifically the wrath of God as demonstrated by the plagues sent upon Egypt. Importantly for the paper, the passages offer up the concepts of fear and punishment of being foundational and also consistent through to the present day.


Often times students, professors, and the public at large presume to know where to go in order to find theology—the Bible, theology textbooks, sermons, documents authored by religious leaders.  In the course “Theology in Literature” students are encouraged to read works of imaginative literature with theological eyes to discover theology in unexpected places.  In some works of literature religious themes are explicitly present; in other texts religious themes are implicit, or even hidden until a student draws them out through perceptive reading and analysis.  Sometimes the theology that literature contains would be recognized as traditional or orthodox, but other authors use literature to introduce unorthodox and critical treatments of religious belief and practice.  For this assignment, each student was asked to use three texts of the student’s choosing to compare and contrast the manner in which one aspect of theology is present in these works.  Zach Johnson’s ambitious essay examines how faith is present in the Torah, in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague.  He then uses the work of Daniel Dennett to note that faith is a concept that is defined very differently in religion and in science. -- Dr. Christopher Denny