Shaping a Christian Poetics for the 21st Century

Among Winter Cranes
The Quarterly of the Christian Poetics Initiative
Vol. 2 Issue 2
Spring 2019

Shaping a Christian Poetics for the 21st Century
By David Mahan

Much of what needs to be said about this topic from the outset revolves around not answers but questions, ones that arise from the very title of this panel: What do we mean by ‘Christian’? What all does ‘poetics’ include? Can we effectively distinguish something called ‘Christian poetics’ at all? Does it even need to be?

Moreover, however formulated, how would something we call Christian poetics be received in our larger literary-critical discourses? What would it bring? What promise does a Christian poetics hold for literary scholarship (not only for Christian literary scholars)? Does it apply mainly to works that are identifiably ‘Christian’ or have distinctively Christian elements, or to any work of literature? What forms might it take?

When I broached this subject of working towards a Christian poetics with a friend of mine—a senior Christian literary scholar who had participated in past projects of this kind—he responded with understandable skepticism. His feeling was that ‘this’ has been tried and has failed. I suspect that one reason for this outcome is because past efforts aimed at more definitive systematic statements. If that were the present proposal, I also would be skeptical, even defiant. But that is not what I have in mind—either for the purposes of our discussion today, or for the larger project that I and some others have called the “Christian Poetics Initiative.”

Beginning with the last question raised above concerning what forms a Christian poetics may take, notice the first word of my title. I chose it carefully: Not ‘THE shape of’ or even ‘A shape,’ and not the gerund but the participle: “shaping.” I wanted to signal a process; indeed, were I to host a similar discussion ten years from now I would still title it “Shaping a Christian Poetics for the 21st Century.”

What comes to my mind is not efforts towards a systematic, all-inclusive set of categories and statements, but a sustained, intentional, and evolving conversation: a conversation that is happening already, but which I believe would advance even more fruitfully if Christian literary scholars attended to it with considered reflection and purposefulness.

‘Conversation’ can, we know, sound fuzzy. But my sense reflects what Mark Knight commends in his introduction to the recent Routledge Companion to Religion and Literature. Taking his cue from Gadamer’s Truth and Method and others, Mark envisions exchanges that “test and probe, but also remain open to being led in a new direction” (6), conversations that “bring us closer without, crucially, collapsing our points of difference” (7), and are introspective with respect to our own commitments—“turned inward as much as outward, or ‘always undoing and redoing itself’ ” as Sarah Coakley puts it (8).

What I envision is a process of discovery whose distinctive character and promise unfolds through sustained efforts of inquiry and articulation, and which inspires a growing body of work that is read by practitioners throughout our various literary disciplines. ‘Shaping’ as an intentional conversation suggests contours, not absolute conclusions.

This does not make the framing contours of a “Christian poetics” any less complex of course, and both terms need to remain open to new ways of understanding. That said, I do believe, accepting these and many further challenges, that the formulation of something called ‘Christian poetics for the 21st century’ is tenable as well as needful and propitious.

Despite this confidence, what follows then are more some elements and concerns of a proposal – a prolegomenon rather than a pronouncement, one which invites critique.

My ambition is to plant a seed, not a flag.

Naturally, we need some meaningful distinctions in order to proceed substantively at all – the ‘contours’ of our conversation need to be more than fuzzy lines. Efforts to do so help to trace out the range of issues that our ‘shaping’ must wrestle with … and what our conversation needs to include.


What, first, do I mean by ‘Christian’? Do I mean to evoke a kind of ‘creedal’ or ‘confessional’ hermeneutic? Well, yes, I do, in this sense. My own conviction is that Christianity consists of a distinct vision of life unfolding from a distinct revelation of God and of human existence centered on Jesus Christ. Many elements of this revelation and vision of life are unique, and many others resonate with other visions of life. So, I want to say that something may be ‘distinctively’ Christian, though not necessarily ‘exclusively’ Christian.

Fair enough. But isn’t there another problem here? As my same skeptical friend also pointed out to me, unlike other perspectival approaches to literature, which examine different facets of human experience, Christianity is global: as he put it, “it is a theory of everything.” It is not limited to concerns over specific issues such as gender, race, sexual orientation, politics, economics, and so forth, but is a vision of all of life. (Whether or not other perspectival approaches or critical lenses also aim towards a more global account of at least what’s important is another issue.)

Two further problems for Christian literary scholars emerge from this valid concern. First, since Christianity infuses all of life for such scholars, what is the value of specifying their work as ‘Christian’ when presumably all that they do is informed by their faith, particularly with respect to the motives and quality with which they do their work? Second, a theory of everything, so the complaint may go, defies or resists efforts to distinguish anything in particular, thus absorbing all into one overarching set of relationships. It is this presumed imperialism or hegemony, that I suspect causes uneasiness about the very notion of applying a Christian lens to literary criticism, including among Christian scholars.

To these concerns I would say the following: Turning my friend’s objection on its head, Christianity, as an all-encompassing vision of life, for this very reason summons its adherents to demonstrate its resonances with every facet of human experience, and every area of human inquiry. As Rowan Williams has summarized,

The Christian movement…works on the assumption that it has something to say that is communicable beyond its present boundaries and is humanly attractive or compelling across these boundaries. It assumes that it has the capacity and the obligation to seek to persuade persons from all imaginable human backgrounds that it is decisively relevant to their humanity…1

To “have something to say,” to be “decisively relevant” is much of what inspires my own interest in the process of shaping of a Christian poetics and deepening its engagement with all manner of literary discourses: not in order to envelop them but to enrich them.

So as we continue to wrestle with what we mean by ‘Christian’ and whether or not and in what ways it matters, what of ‘poetics’?

We might broadly understand poetics in terms such as Todorov’s notion of “literariness,” but with respect to its focus of attention, poetics involves attention to form especially—how a work is written, its formal presentation and devices, etc.

What is interesting to note, however, is that poetics, even when narrowly defined, inevitably intersects with other critical concerns. Notions of literary inspiration, e.g., or critical reading practices and literary theory inform and help to shape our formal treatments of texts. As the 1990 edition of the Cambridge Encyclopedia describes, “The theory and practice of poetry, concerning itself with such fundamental questions as what poetry is, what it does, and how it should be written, is known as poetics.” (And of course we would include all literary genres in such definitions.)

What I imagine constituting ‘a poetics,’ then, is a set or series of overlapping lenses (something akin to the equipment used for an optometrist’s examination). The primary lens attends to the LITERARY CREATION itself – the text before us, how it works, its craft – seeking to read a text first and foremost in its own terms. A second lens considers what inspires or informs the work, what we might call LITERARY CREATIVITY or the creative process of the author. A third lens involves LITERARY CRITICISM, that is, our literary-critical theories and practices, including consideration of a work’s historical and literary contexts.

I realize this becomes a fairly broad notion of poetics (and for this reason is probably disputable); but I would suggest that we deploy all of these and perhaps other lenses when we study literary works, including when we attend to how they work—our more narrow definition of poetics.

Putting the terms together, my working understanding of what we might mean by the contours (not definition!) of a Christian poetics looks towards the careful study of texts and sustained engagement with the theories and practices of our discipline with distinctively Christian interests. Again, grappling with what this means and could look like constitutes the first order of business for the intentional, ongoing conversation I am proposing.

We have many excellent examples of this kind of work that continues to grow among Christian literary scholars, which fruitfully explore multitudinous facets of the larger task of formulating a Christian poetics as I am understanding it.

Our task is to continue to do this work … with intentionality. It is up to us to engage the wider fields of literary discourse by demonstrating the contribution that Christian perspectives bring: to show how and in what ways distinctive Christian understandings distinctively enrich literary discourse. And to do so both for each other and also for our non-Christian colleagues.

Pursuing an intentional, sustained conversation of the kind I propose will involve coordination and strategy, and should include not only Christian literary scholars but theologians, writers, and publishers.2

As an addendum to this essay I offer the following reasons for why we need a Christian poetics today and in the future.


1. Most obviously, literature written from a Christian perspective or with ‘Christian concerns’ calls for sensitivity to Christian faith, and not just sensitivity, but understanding. This includes some of the most significant works of literature written. And it attends not only to matters of subject and themes, but form. From narrative structure and plot to poetic prosody, how has Christian faith ‘informed form’? I’m thinking here of everything from the graphic devices of George Herbert to efforts made by Michael Edwards in his classic Towards a Christian Poetics, which traces the elements of the Christian story of redemption as a narrative mirrored in the literary imagination.

2. Because these kinds of elements are present in literature, literary discourses need the kinds of understanding that Christian faith supplies – again, not necessarily exclusively but distinctively – for clarification as well as to deepen and enrich comprehension for the entire literary-critical enterprise.

3. Literary encounters (i.e., our experiences of reading) often call for religious categories of interpretation, regardless if the work is inspired or informed by a particular religious faith on the part of the author. Such encounters can engage notions of the spiritual or transcendent, as well as even more specific Christian concepts (incarnation, redemption, eschatology, and so forth).

Dennis Taylor brings insight as well as impulse to this need when he writes: “The need for a religious literary criticism is not only reflective of a present scholarly void, but also comes out of a spiritual hunger, felt by many teachers and students, for a way of discussing the intersections of their own spiritual lives with what they read”.3 He then adds, pointedly, “…if we are not able somehow to keep the God question open, we are poor readers, because the question is open for the writers we study.”

4. Christian literary critics and scholars need clear and coherent ways of talking about the intersection of Christian faith and literature/literary studies, in order to bring integrity to their critical undertakings. Intentional efforts to formulate a Christian poetics would help to catalogue our progress—not grand-scale systematizing but organizing our collective insights.

It occurs to me that while we have what amounts to a legacy of reflection on the intersection of Christian faith and literature, which has been growing significantly in recent years, we do not yet have what we might call a ‘tradition,’ let alone a ‘canon.’ Could this be a way of telling our own story, versus the story of religion and religious reflection on literature told from ‘secular’ perspectives?

5. Providing inspiration and direction for emerging Christian literary scholars: not in order to confine the diverse range of interests that they may pursue or to pronounce which projects are worthy of their attention, but to guide their own efforts to think ‘Christianly’ about their work.

6. Christian faith is still challenged and suspected (and, unfortunately, often despised and rejected), but its contribution is worth contending for. But we need to do so not by way of demanding attention or with a sense of entitlement. We need to produce a growing body of work that demonstrates the contribution that distinctive Christian sensibilities and insights bring to the fields of literary scholarship. A Christian poetics will help us to organize this work around issues that are germane to the tasks of literary scholarship specifically, and to identify for ourselves as well as others how Christian critical lenses enrich the work of literary scholarship throughout the discipline.

David Mahan
Co-Director of the Rivendell Center for Theology and the Arts
Lecturer in Religion and Literature at the Institute of Sacred Music
Yale Divinity School

1. Williams, Rowan, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. xiv.

2. Not only will such an amalgam of interlocutors contribute important input towards a Christian poetics and the invigorating of Christian voices within literary criticism, but the work of Christian literary scholars will also serve to invigorate both the creative work of authors as well as that of theologians and the formulation of contemporary understandings of Christian faith.

3. “The Need for a Religious Literary Criticism,”

Image Credit:

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Momoyogusa = Flowers of a Hundred Generations.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909.