Four poles of the Christian imagination

The placement of this chapter immediately struck me as curious–we don’t hear about the “perennial Christian tradition” until Ch. 5 (pg. 174). BP offers the following explanation: “With the examples of Butler, Cowley, Pope and Thomson already fleshed out, it will be easier to summarize the conflicts between Augustan and Baroque imagination” (175). It’s interesting to see him go back to the material that the Augustans were responding to, and then to move on to fideism in post-Augustan writers.

BP remarks early in this chapter that the Augustan “is the strand which has formed in different ways the prejudices and habits of thought for the class of enlightened elites which encompasses both capitalists and radical intellectuals” (175). I would propose this remark as something we might discuss further in the comments below. I would have thought, for example, that dissent and fideism were more fruitful philosophical veins for some radical thinkers–or even for capitalism in very traditional accounts of the Protestant work ethic via Weber.

BP presents four modes: the logist (which imagines “a faith perfected by knowledge . . . a faith presenting a distinct object to the intellect”); the analogical (“rather than verbal formulation and equivalence, it seeks in the image of the creature an intelligible or imaginative trace of God”); the mystical (“it attempts a severe discipline to find the unmeditated person of God”) and the fideist (it “exists whenever God is perceived as an absence”).

The delineation of these modes gives scholars of Christian writing a number of effective tools, allowing for precise descriptions of how a Christian author understands and represents God, and how a Christian author might represent or attain knowledge. Like any delineation, however, the boundaries between “modes” might be investigated. In fact, BP allows for some overlap between the modes within individual works, within the Bible as a whole, and within the careers of individual authors. He notes “the special relations of the two symbolic and the two ontological modes” as well. I would have liked to see more commentary on how some authors combine multiple modes and whether these modes can also be held as distinct categories of Christian symbolism and ontology.

For example, Bunyan is placed as a fideist writer on the chart of 194-5. This makes sense, for Bunyan does indeed seem to be alone in a world vacated by God, and often terrified of having been abandoned by God. As well, he works within classic genres of fideism–the confessional biography and the allegorical spiritual journey narratives. I am wondering, however, whether there is an element of the logist in Bunyan’s writing which contradicts the fideist elements. Bunyan, of course, is a very different logist from, say, Eleanor Davies, but he does seem interested in verbal puzzles and in the revealing power of the Book. After all, there is an “Interpreter” figure in The Pilgrim’s Progress–and Scripture and Biblical text seems to take on an extremely active role in Grace Abounding as well. And does not the great writer of allegory see God in the “creature” as well? Is there no capacity in Bunyan for the experience of a “figure-making God?” [Donne’s words, quite by BP].

My final impression of the “four poles” is that each “pole” is a fruitful interpretative tool to approach Christian writers–but that individual Christian writers might have more of a mixture of each mode than BP allows here.

I would be interested in talking about the emphasis in fideist Christian cultures of “fellowship” or even congregational unity. After reading BP’s account of fideism, I wonder if the Lutheran and anabaptist and/or independent emphasis on fellowship is not a direct response to the hollow feeling of an absent God (the second half of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress might exhibit this kind of fellowship, as Christiana is accompanied by a vast company of fellow believers.)

On a separate but related note re. the baroque and shifts of cultural priorities, think of Alex Ross’s remarks in The New Yorker about the resurgence of interest in Handel (of course, some of us never left him). Ross writes: “it’s a bit of a mystery why Handel has become so crucial for early-twenty-first-century listeners. The prior century made a cult of Bach, whose music takes the form of an endless contrapuntal quest. Perhaps, in an age of information overload and ambient fear, we have more need for Handel’s gentler, steadier art.” Of course Ross also adds that Handel grants us not only gentleness and steadiness but also “high-class melodrama and psychological theater.”

Here’s the link:

I enjoyed this chapter a great deal.


3 responses to “Four poles of the Christian imagination

  1. I agree with you, Carrie, that this chapter seems to be placed oddly within the book. Parker brought up the Christian imagination in his introduction, so we know it will come up, but why nod toward the assumptions we make about the relationships 17-18th c writers have toward Christian imagery and content, only to provide a thorough explication so much later? This chapter could have been placed earlier and formed the conceptual backbone of the entire work.

    I think of these as “Mr. Wizard moments.” Remember how Mr. Wizard would try to get a neighborhood kid to perform a physically impossible task, like blowing a balloon up inside a bottle, and then, after the kid’s red in the face and frustrated, he’d say, “But I didn’t say you couldn’t use a straw!” From the beginning, Parker’s using tools he hasn’t shown us yet.

    It’s possible that framing the entire book as an argument about the persistence of Christian thought in late Renaissance aesthetics might have taken away from the “triumph” narrative suggested by the title. “The Decline and Fall of the Christian Imagination” might seem too daunting.

    As far as the “mixture” of the poles you suggest, I wonder if their appearance in secular poetry and prose is less “mixed” than it is in actual theological prose like Bunyan’s, which clearly crosses all kinds of exegetical boundaries.

  2. Something that strikes me as odd about the content and placement of this chapter is that we know from the following chapters that the real focus for the remainder of the book will be on fideism and its applications within a limited period of time. Thus the definition of the other poles seems necessary more for contrast than because of a developed argument about the content to be found in the writers listed. Probably this is one of the drawbacks of writing a tightly focused book–no room to expand as one would like.

  3. These questions of organization and ordering, especially when it comes to one’s chronologies, are some of the hardest decisions one makes while writing a book, and yet they’re only rarely remarked upon.

    BP deserves some credit for risking our surprise by breaking chronology and placing this chapter here, but this still feels like a transitional chapter between the first and second halves of the book, the “eclipse of analogy, rise of empiricism” portion, and now the “fideism” portion. Clearly, these topics have a historical and logical relation to one another, but I wonder if this organization is working against him.

    For one thing, these typologies and diagrams were illuminating in a structuralist sort of way, but as Carrie H. noted, these ideal-types don’t map particularly well onto figures like Bunyan, and they don’t seem particularly helpful for understanding the previous group of representative poets; rather, they’re most helpful for those reading ahead, trying to understand the significance of the fideism in the remainder of the book.

    Perhaps one issue here is that much of BP’s argument feels evolutionary and unilinear to me, filled with amphibious, transitional figures, but the discussions in the subsequent portions of the book really are springing from a more serious or rupture than he acknowledges. This is why this section feels like a second “introduction” to what follows. Did others get the same feeling that we were starting over again?

    Another issue: I don’t consider myself particularly materialist, either, but the picture of religion offered here feels almost entirely intellectualized and individualized, without much grounding in collective religious practices or institutions, which might have anchored these discussions in different ways. This is one reason why the sectarian impulses Carrie H asks about don’t seem present at all in this picture.

    Having said that, I think the discussion of fideism is the real payoff here and in the next few chapters, because it creates a rich context for understanding multiple literary works and careers, especially Johnson’s.