Unless criticism is so profound and stirring that it assumes the same plane as the artwork criticized, it will always be derivative.
Its secondary nature, however, does not entail that criticism is useless. Rather, in its finest forms, literary criticism opens up the world of literature and lays bare its subtleties, its nuances, and its difficulties. That is, it maps the terrain of a literary artwork and empowers the reader to reach higher and more refined levels of enjoyment.
Anthony Esolen’s Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literatureis just such a triumph of literary criticism. While navigating numerous works from Christian literary history, Esolen puts his delicate reading abilities and his careful eye for literary details on display. And in so doing, he articulates the depths to which the Christian worldview pervades thinkers like Dosteovsky, Shakespeare, and Dante.
Of course, Esolen does not spend all his time on the heavy hitters of Christian literature. Instead, he manages to strike an excellent balance between the familiar and the unknown by including works such as Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi and Francois Mauriac’s A Kiss for the Leper. As such, Esolen’s work is appropriate both for those whom are unfamiliar with many of the greats of Christian literature, and for those with some knowledge of the field.
Ironies of Faith is an exploration of the central ironies of the Christian experience: the ironies of time, power, love, and children. By starting with an exploration of literature, Esolen is able to point out the ways in which the literature he analyzes can only be understood through a distinctly Christian perspective.
Finally, Esolen’s prose is at points stunning in its elegance and edifying—“devotional” may be the more appropriate choice here—in its content. For example, he concludes his opening section with these words:
To believe in a world governed by an all-wise and loving Father, who demands justice but whose very act of creation was a condescension, an act of mercy, is to know that divine providence is endlessly rich, embodied in the exploding galaxy and in the grain of sand on the shore. It is a world brimming with consequence: allusions shooting like weeds, wonderful and lush; paradoxes hidden like thrush’s eggs in the tree-crotched nest; etymological parallels winking one to the other like the glaze of dewdrops on the first day. And as long as there are creatureslike us, once naked in the garden, wise and innocent—now wise in our own minds, therefore foolish and half-blind and huddled up in disguises—the play of irony will thrive. We now experience irony mainly as that cold splash that wakes us, when we thought we knew what we did not; a child would experience it rather as that warm and sweet moment of wonder, when something whose meaning he did not know suddenly assumes its surprising and self-displaying place in the garden of knowledge and love and time, the created garden of God.
Every Christian who wishes to understand the depths to which the Christian worldview pervades thinkers like Dante or Shakespeare or Dostoevsky would do well to start with Esolen’s masterful and enjoyable work. It is a masterful work that is always educational, but never dull.*
*Disclosure: This book was a complimentary review copy by the fine folks at ISI.
[…] Every time I am confronted with a scholar as careful and erudite as Anthony Esolen, however, the answer to how we should read becomes momentarily clear: “just like him.” His playful dexterity with literature is remarkable, which is why I take statements such as this one very seriously: Nowadays, typological reading is dismissed as childish by the professional Bible interpreter, who prides himself on what he calls, in a stunning bit of question-begging, his more accurate “history.” What can the bronze serpent in the desert (Num. 21:9) really, which is to say historically, which is to say according to a naturalistic interpretation of causes and effects, have to do with the death of Christ on the cross? But the typological reader is more historical than the historicist, because he sees the story in the history, while the historicist rules the story out from the start. […]