Christians and Lit: quoting Greene quoting Newman

In a letter to Elizabeth Bowen on “the role of the writer,” Graham Greene discusses the relationship of Christians to Literature and, incidentally, quotes at length from one of my favorite passages in John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. I suspect that some of the Christian parents who severely shelter their children are really looking to save themselves the trouble (read: labor) of discernment. Most of them, however, are well-meaning, but wrong-headed in how they go about defending the souls of their young ones. Obviously five-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to drink from the fire hose, but their introduction to water (or, to use an ever more apt analogy, their introduction to wine) should be deliberate and incremental, or eventually it will happen all at once. Then, instead of a five-year-old drinking from the fire hose, you will have a twenty-three-year-old who still doesn’t know any better (Exhibit A: the average graduate from most Christian colleges). So then, let the reader understand (especially if the reader is a parent/aspiring parent with those tendencies).

“There are leaders of the Church who regard literature as a means to one end, edification. That end may be of the highest value, of far higher value than literature, but it belongs to a different world. Literature has nothing to do with edification….

Catholic novelists (I would rather say novelists who are Catholics) should take Newman as their patron. No one understood their problem better or defended them more skillfully from the attacks of piety (that morbid growth of religion). Let me copy out the passage. It really has more than one bearing on our discussion. He is defending the teaching of literature in a Catholic university:

‘I say, from the nature of the case, if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man. You may gather together something very great and high, something higher than any Literature ever was; and when you have done so, you will find that it is not Literature at all.’

And to those who, accepting that view, argued that we could do without Literature, Newman went on [here Greene quotes excerpts from a passage that I have included in greater length to preserve its full force]:

‘Proscribe (I do not merely say particular authors, particular works, particular passages) but Secular Literature as such; cut out from your class books all broad manifestations of the natural man; and those manifestations are waiting for your pupil’s benefit at the very doors of your lecture room in living and breathing substance. They will meet him there in all the charm of novelty, and all the fascination of genius or of amiableness. Today a pupil, tomorrow a member of the great world: today confined to the Lives of the Saints, tomorrow thrown upon Babel—thrown on Babel, without the honest indulgence of wit and humour and imagination having ever been permitted to him, without any fastidiousness of taste wrought into him, without any rule given him for discriminating “the precious from the vile,” beauty from sin, the truth from the sophistry of nature, what is innocent from what is poison. You have refused him the masters of human thought, who would in some sense have educated him, because of their incidental corruption: you have shut up from him those whose thoughts strike home to our hearts, whose words are proverbs, whose names are indigenous to all the world, who are the standard of their mother tongue, and the pride and boast of their countrymen, Homer, Ariosto, Cervantes, Shakespeare, because the old Adam smelt rank in them; and for what have you reserved him? You have given him “a liberty unto” the multitudinous blasphemy of his day; you have made him free of its newspapers, its reviews, its magazines, its novels, its controversial pamphlets, of its Parliamentary debates, its law proceedings, its platform speeches, its songs, its drama, its theatre, of its enveloping, stifling atmosphere of death. You have succeeded but in this—in making the world his University.’”
(in Graham Greene: a Life in Letters; 151-52)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s