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Notes Towards a Definition of Orthodox Christian English Literature

Andrew Stephen Damick

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For The Fellowship of Saint Caedmon

"The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide."
T.S. Eliot,Thoughts After Lambeth

Orthodox Christian Literary Theory?

In considering the notion of whether there can be a theory of Orthodox Christian literature in the English tradition, it is first useful to remark upon the current state of literary theory in the English speaking world. At this point in the history of literary study, university English departments are awash with various theories of reading and writing literature -- Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Queer Theory, New Historicism, Deconstructionism, Structuralism, and Post-Structuralism, to name a few. Each of these theories to a greater or lesser extent is borne out of a particular hermeneutic ideology, often political. Some professors still teach literature without any specific critical theory in mind, though these are becoming fewer.

It is my opinion that these critical theories often do more harm than good, but the essential assumption which underlies them all is, I think, correct. That is, there must be something which the reader brings to his reading which informs him in his reading. How he interprets with he reads will to a significant extent be shaped by who he is when he begins his reading. The same holds true for writers, to be sure.

Therefore, if we are to set about forming an Orthodox Christian sensibility for literature in the English language tradition, we must be aware of that which we bring to the table. Many different things make up our own influences and experiences, but the common experience which we as Orthodox Christians bring to our literary work is our Orthodox faith, the faith handed to the Apostles by our Lord Jesus Christ and then passed on in tradition from them to their disciples and so on throughout the centuries.

An Aim Worth Pursuing

Before embarking upon this task, we must first understand that it is in fact a task worth undertaking. Why is it of any importance to read and write literature as Orthodox Christians? Do we not already have a rich heritage in the liturgy of our Church, ready to answer any poetic need we may have? Is it not the case that the English tradition, being largely in the hands of Roman Catholics and Protestants, has been so co-opted that it is mostly irredeemable for the Orthodox? The answers to these and other, related questions will be presented in the remainder of this paper, but first let us set out why it is worth pursuing this subject.

The Orthodox faith is incarnational. That is, we as living, breathing, blood-pumping human beings are seeking intimate communion, both physical and immaterial, with the Holy Trinity Whose Second Person became a man and dwelt among us. As such, even though we seek to fill our lives with formal liturgical involvement by worshipping together as the Church Body and by worshipping privately at home before our own icons, we do not tend to fill every moment of our time awake with liturgy except perhaps in a mostly metaphorical sense. Indeed, we do other things, such as eat breakfast, wash our hands, listen to the radio, or go to work. These other things which we as Orthodox Christians do, along with our formal liturgical life, make up our culture. Without that culture, we reduce our faith to a mere set of ideas which we claim deserve assent. If we were to disengage our faith from our culture, then we would be sinning against the very heart of that faith -- the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Christ's incarnation made real the possibility of our salvation, and the scandal of God becoming a man was so thoroughgoing that He even took part in a religious and cultural life. Our Lord's time on this Earth did not solely include prayer and meditation on the truth of God. Rather, it was a time of active engagement in and with culture -- real human beings doing real human activities. It is this incarnational approach to faith that I would submit is at the heart of our desire to do literary work as Orthodox Christians. Let us therefore fill every moment with a culture transfigured by the Gospel, whether it be in icons, chant and Holy Mystery or in literature, cooking and child-rearing.

Two Things to Avoid

As readers and writers, we encounter numerous topics in literature, some\ which are explicitly spiritual and some which are not. Just as our Lord did and said things in His earthly years that were clearly spiritual, He also must have at least once asked someone to pass the bagels. Even if we achieve sinlessness, we will not every moment be explicitly pursuing some outwardly religious thing. We must occasionally pass the bagels. I choose this mundane image to make this point -- even though the action we are taking may not at this very moment be clearly Orthodox and Christian, we are still Orthodox Christians who are doing it. When Jesus ate with His disciples, there may not have been an angelic light surrounding His meal, but He was still the God-man.

What this means is that even though it is now common to attempt to create numerous niche markets for all manner of spiritual tastes, we as incarnational Christians do not need to work to create one more little market. We should have no desire to take a seat at the table of our liberal democracy's ideologies to offer up one more "option" for literary study and creation. Orthodoxy has never rightly had any such parochial visions, anyhow -- the Church has always sought to embrace in her catholicity all of mankind, not to create a new brand available for sale to those who happen to enjoy "that sort of thing."

With all this in mind, I would suggest that we as Orthodox Christian students of literature avoid two things. First, we should avoid the creation of an Orthodox niche for the market to take into its commercial grasp. Now, that does not mean that we should not try to market our work (should we be writers) nor even to seek out Orthodox publishing houses as hosts for it. What it does mean, however, is that our sensibility must be catholic -- that is, we must embrace the whole of mankind with our work rather than simply trying to corner the market on some particular new literary bauble.

We do not have to try to "make" our work Orthodox. It should flow out of and be informed by the mind of the Church, to be sure, but we should not try to make it distinctly Orthodox by making sure that we include enough Easternisms other such things to distinguish it from other Christian art or even from art in general. If I write a poem about a flower, it does not necessarily have to include in it a theology of icons nor even any particular recognizable theology at all. My flower poem may possibly just as well have been written by a Pentecostal or a Buddhist. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with a poetic work meditating on the flower as an icon of Christ. What we must avoid is trying to be self-consciously Orthodox in our literature. The effect would, I think, be artificial rather than sublime.

The second thing for avoidance, very much like unto the first, is ideological theories of literature. I began this essay by mentioning a number of literary theories which still find currency in English departments, and each are designed to appeal to a certain sensibility or political ideology. The last thing we as Orthodox Christians need is yet another rationalistic theory of literature, and even more dangerous for us is the formation of ideology. The formation of literary theory is not in itself a problem, but if such theory becomes elevated to ideology, we tread on spiritually dangerous ground. As has been mentioned before, our faith is incarnational. Therefore, our life in Christ is not a systematized series of rational models and dialectics machined to logical perfection. Down that way lies our enemy of totalitarianism. Any time an ideology is elevated over real, incarnate persons, damage is done to mankind. The apotheosis of ideology has rendered to the Church more martyrs than any other perpetrator. We thank God for the martyrs, but we do not rejoice in the sin of their murderers. If we would not murder our own formation of Orthodox culture, we should not subject it to ideology.

Even Biblical hermeneutics in the Orthodox tradition has never been able to be pigeonholed into a particular method or ideology. Though one can point to certain tendencies in Orthodox hermeneutics (i.e. typology), there is no "Orthodox Christian hermeneutical method." Neither should we feel the need to offer up allegiance to a literary theory, either new or old. Surely, there are good things to be found in such things, but to accept them wholesale would, I believe, lead to some serious error and distortion.

The English Tradition

While Orthodoxy in the British Isles was largely wiped out in the aftermath of the Norman Invasion in A.D. 1066, there existed for hundreds of years before an English literary tradition deeply influenced by and soaked in the Orthodox Catholic Christian faith. We as English speaking Orthodox Christians can claim this heritage for our own. In the lives and writings of these saints we find a genuinely Western Orthodoxy. We can venerate the icons of these holy men and women, ask them for their prayers, and benefit from their writings just as we would any other Orthodox saint.

Further still we may rejoice that the very Father of English Poetry is an Orthodox saint, Caedmon of Whitby. The Venerable Bede (another English saint) relates that Saint Caedmon was a layman cowherd living near the famed monastery of Whitby in the 7th century. His hagiography indicates that he knew nothing of poetry or music and was always embarrassed when called upon to join in community music-making. At one point when he had once again left such a gathering because of his inability, Caedmon fell asleep in the stable where he was wont to rest. During his sleep, a voice came to him in a dream and bid him sing. He replied that he knew not how to do so, but the voice then instructed him that he would begin to sing a song of creation. He then began to sing a beautiful hymn on Old English (Anglo-Saxon), known today as "Caedmon's Hymn" and being the first known poetry written in the English language. Afterward, he wrote many such verses and songs in praise of the Creator.

Some academics will say that Saint Caedmon's hymnody follows traditional Germanic verse forms and so must have been learned solely from human tradition rather than as a divine gift. They are right in that his verse reflects the Germanic poetic tradition, but that by no means precludes an inspiration of divine origin, as well. Indeed, their observation regarding his prosody serves to bolster our own argument, namely, that God inspires art through the very incarnate means of tradition passed through human hands. Yet, God is both the inventor of language and the baptizer of culture, and if we cooperate with Him, we become participants in His sanctification.

From this saint's life we understand that language is truly a gift from God, passed to us primarily in tradition through our parents but also sometimes more directly from our Maker. In the ancient English literary tradition, poets came to be understood in two sense: as blessed and as makers. Their blessedness is a result of God's gift to them, not only in terms of His common gift of language to all mankind but also in terms of a particular gift of eloquence that He has given to certain people. As a maker, each poet is called upon to be a shaper of words, with his incarnate being to work out the sense of his blessing into words fit for their subjects. Therefore, the Orthodox Christian writer must understand himself both as one who seeks the blessing of God for his work and also as a diligent craftsman who perfects what he is given.

After the Norman Invasion, religious life in the British Isles was replaced fairly rapidly by the spirit of the continent -- just as the aristocracy was replaced with Norman nobles, the native Orthodox clergy were displaced in favor of Roman Catholic ones. A revolution occurred liturgically and spiritually in the British Isles, and Orthodoxy in its Western form seemingly died for the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic peoples.

Although we as Orthodox Christians can point to those events as being the schism of the British Church from Orthodoxy, it would be incorrect to say that suddenly all truth died out in Anglo-Celtic life and literary tradition. Just as we can see commonalities between our own faith and that of heterodox Christians, the truth can also be found in the English literature of the post-Invasion period. Though the search for truth in the study of this literature can be a bit of an archeological undertaking at times, one can still see the face of Christ in much of the work of its writers.

As has been said many times, all truth is God's truth. Saint Justin Martyr in the 2nd century said something to the effect of "That which is true is ours." If Saint Justin can find the truth of Jesus Christ in the pagan philosophy of Plato, how much more can we do so in the writings of other Christians? All of creation is to be baptized and transfigured, and so therefore can the English literary tradition be redeemed. Therefore, from Chaucer to Sidney to Shakespeare to Herbert to Coleridge to Keats to Whitman to Eliot to Lewis to Tolkien, let us revel in the beauty and truth which are available throughout all times in English literature.

No Formal Dogmatics

Because we have an existing and vibrant tradition in English literature, writers of English should seek to know that tradition, to draw from it and to be informed by it. Although it has been nearly a millennium since the development of English literature was informed by an Orthodox Christian sensibility, much of what has been accomplished has shown how best English may be used aesthetically. Various meters and other forms have been developed over the centuries which best lay hold of English's peculiar rhythms and diction, shaping them to beauty and sublimity.

If we are to respect this tradition, does that mean that in composing new works of literature, we must not seek to innovate in terms of form? Certainly not! We are not all called to write sonnets or versified plays, but even in composing some daring new bit of avant garde verse form, we should at least know that such things exist and be shaped by them. We should know why such forms developed and what is good (and bad) about them. There is, after all, a real reason why iambic pentameter has been so popular among English poets for centuries -- it is not because they were forced to write with that meter but rather because it actually works well in English. Even if we do not wish to use iambic pentameter in our own work, we should have some sense of it being the literary tradition of our fathers and of ourselves.

While the liturgical arts in the Orthodox Church have some very demanding aesthetic and technical requirements, those strictures have never been dogmatized. Neither should we seek to dogmatize our own forms in non-liturgical art. I do believe, however, that as we steep ourselves more deeply in the Church's liturgical life, we will find its words and actions to be an inspiration to us. It is of no coincidence, therefore, if we find ourselves emulating some of those kinds of forms. We will, of course, form preferences for particular kinds of forms, but never should any specific form or set of forms be declared to be the only truly Orthodox one.

No Content Dogmatics

We should not be afraid of any topic in our literary work. Even the Holy Scripture covers everything from the mundane to the gruesome to the sexual to the sublime, sometimes with little or no distinction between them. Our choice of topics will be informed by our culture, and so perhaps tendencies will exist to shy away from from certain areas. We should not be worried, however, what people might think should we wish to write a poem of beauty with sexual imagery in it -- after all, if King Solomon the Wise could do it, why can we not?

We also should not dogmatize a desire only to write literature which is recognizable as distinctly and exclusively Orthodox. We covered this issue earlier in this paper, but it's worth examining again. The Gospel (which is to be our reason for living) reaches out to all mankind and seeks to bring them into the Body of Christ. We should never, therefore, make it a rule that our work should be appreciable only by Orthodox people. Such writing can become a sort of code language which only the esoteric elite can decode if they happen to have the right Cracker Jacks prize toy. Once again, that does not mean that we cannot write literature that will likely only be appreciated by Orthodox Christians, but we should not make it an exclusive rule. Such a parochial attitude is a sin against the Church's catholicity.

If there is to be some central message that we are pursuing, it is the Kingdom of God breaking through into this place in time. It is that the Incarnation is real and powerful, that God became man that man might become god. We should not fall into the easy trap of Puritanical moralizing, but rather our writing and reading should be uplifting, bringing about the salvation of ourselves and all of mankind. That could mean an epic poem on the life of Saint John Chrysostom or a paragraph of prose on cooking well. All things that we write are to be to the glory of God, Who is everywhere present and fills all things.

Literature as Community

Another essential element of our incarnational faith is that its working out proceeds from and within community. All that we do as the Body of Christ is with the other members of the Body in mind. So, too, should our literature be. The image of the Orthodox Christian writer should not be of a solitary wrestling with his muse but rather of the musician learning the family music.

It is also manifestly the case that language itself assumes a relationship. While there must be a speaker, there must also be a listener. Language has inherent to it the quality of creating connection and communion between persons.

Therefore, out of communal relationship flows literary work and literary work flows into it and shapes it in return. What we are looking to form is an Orthodox Christian culture of which literature is an element. Culture by definition has no existence independent of the life shared by incarnate human beings.

The Transfiguration of Culture

History shows us that where the Orthodox Christian faith takes root and holds, the local culture becomes slowly filled with the light of Christ. It takes on its own peculiar flavors and styles but is ever ringing true with the one faith of our Fathers. The Church's sanctification of culture does not proceed from a sensibility of replacement, eradicating previous culture and supplanting it. Rather, the Church saturates a culture, transfiguring it and baptizing all things within it, purifying and sanctifying the whole of it.

Our incarnational faith calls for nothing less of us. We are all called to be the priest's of God's creation, taking that which He gives us and offering it back up to God as a sacrifice. He sanctifies it and returns it to us, filled with Himself. Our work as writers and readers is nothing less than this common priestly vocation. We therefore seek to participate in God's sanctification of the English language, bringing it to Him for His blessing and then with it openly proclaiming the Incarnation to all.

Andrew Stephen Damick has a B.A. in English Language and Literature from North Carolina State University, and has recently published a book of poetry written to reflect the Orthodox Christian faith and the English poetic tradition. He begins study for the priesthood in Fall, 2004 at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary.

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Posted 3/14/03

Revised 3/18/04

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