Romance Narrative in Conservative Evangelical Homiletic

by Ken Paradis, Wilfrid Laurier University

[From “Homiletic Reading and Popular Fiction, or, Why the fuss about The Da Vinci Code?”]

{This excerpt historicizes some of the reading practices and assumptions invoked by contemporary evangelical readers of popular fiction.  Frye shows up toward the end of the section, but his work – especially, of course, The Great Code and the first half of Words With Power but also the discussions of the social functions of romance in The Secular Scripture and The Anatomy – was in the back of my mind for much of it. That said, I’m not a Frye expert, and if anyone on the Frye blog wants to give a read over and make suggestions, I’d be grateful for the input. KP}

Ken Paradis, Wilfrid Laurier University

  1. Evangelical typology, Common Sense science and homiletic fiction.

It would be easy to assume that the evangelical adoption of narrative fiction for homiletic purposes was a kind of market-driven pandering to popular taste at the expense of doctrinal rigor, and it has been frequently been interpreted as such over the past two and a half centuries.  But the narrative models developed in nineteenth-century evangelical writing, especially late in the century and early in the next, reflected the attempt by American evangelical homilists to remain faithful to earlier Protestant models of thinking and communicating one’s faith even as these epistemologies and rhetorics were being radicalized in the traditionalist/modernist controversies.   The retrenchment by conservative evangelicals in this period around a particular way to know the world (early modern science), a particular way to relate that knowable natural and historical world to scripture (typological interpretation), and a particular mode of relating the two (common sense realism) directly informs the controversy that erupted around The Da Vinci Code.

Early nineteenth century evangelicals (and later, the conservative wing) tended to retain the Reform doctrine that the spiritual realm is real and the actual world is “dead” and fixed, though permeable to divine intervention.[i] Reform notions of Biblical inerrancy that became increasingly central to conservative evangelicalism in the later nineteenth century rested on the assumption that just as Scripture has an authoritative original autograph that, once translated, can be apprehended by human rationality,[ii] so too does its thinking rest on the idea that the world itself is a fixed, stable entity potentially capable, with appropriate translation, of being known.  Earlier Christians had found analogical resemblances between the things of the world and the ideas of the Bible via the methods of allegorical interpretation exemplified in the writings of the church fathers, but just as Protestant reformers wanted to strip away the Papists’ “riddling allegories and equivocating tropes” (Luxon, 8) and deal with the literal text of scripture on its own terms, so too did they wanted to strip away analogical thinking from their understanding of nature and develop ways to observe, analyze and describe the actual phenomena of the world on its own terms.  As Peter Harrison explains,

[the Protestant] assertion of the primacy of literal reading entailed a new, non-symbolic conception of the nature of things.  No longer were objects in the natural world linked to each other by sets of resemblances.  As an inevitable consequence of this way of reading texts, nature would lose its meaning and the vacuum created by this loss of intelligibility was gradually to be occupied by alternative accounts of the significance of natural things – explanations given by early modern science.  In the new scheme of things, objects were related mathematically, mechanically, causally, or ordered and classified according to categories other than resemblance. (114)

In place of allegorical thinking, which postulated harmonious structures of resemblance and analogy between the spheres and used recognizably fictional representations to illustrate abstract doctrinal principles, Protestants turned to typological models of reasoning which presumed that scripture recorded real, historical characters and events that spiritually resonated with the real historical events and characters recorded in other parts of scripture, and that these resonances, when seen in terms of Christ, provided the “spiritual” truth of scripture.[iii] Further, since the world recorded in scripture shared both the mystical substructure and the same historical plane and surface reality as our own, typology (especially among the American colonists) was often extended to interpret the spiritual reality of contemporary people, events and phenomena.[iv] This meant not only that Protestants turned to early modern science to generate an understanding of the world that typology would interpret, it also made “objective” history a primary matter of spiritual interpretation.  The historical person of Jesus and the events of the New Testament sutured history to Providence; their historical factuality grounded their claim to fulfill (and retroactively guarantee the factuality of) earlier scriptural history while securing prophetic claims about future events.  By reframing the relationship between scripture and world in primarily historical rather than mystical and sacramental terms, typological interpretation allowed early Protestant to situate themselves at the center of the prophetic historical narrative, seeing themselves as the agents who would carry out the premillennial task as restoring the purity of the primitive church that had been corrupted by the bishops of Rome.[v]

But if it were theoretically possible for the Puritans to map the world and history against scripture, they were acutely aware of the limitations of the minds of those who would presume to carry out such a task.  However, around the time of the First Great Awakening in the 1730’s and ‘40’s American proto-evangelicals were on their way to abandoning their forefathers’ radical pessimism about the capacity of human reason.[vi] Instead, they began to embrace Scottish Enlightenment notions of Common Sense Realism, which they interpreted as establishing that because there was an inbuilt resonance between both Special and General revelation and the rational faculties of mankind, “common sense” was the most reliable guide to understanding both the world and scripture.[vii] In replacing their forefathers’ sense of fall-induced spiritual “blindness” with more of a sense of a slight spiritual “astigmatism” ([2006], 16) George Marsden argues, Common Sense Realism allowed “the three great strands of American thought – modern empirical scientific ideals, the self-evident principles of the American revolution, and evangelical Christianity – [to] remain reconciled” ([1991], 128). Where other Protestant traditions had developed arcane theologies and divisive doctrines, plain-speaking evangelical preachers offered the plain Gospel illustrated by stories set in the world everyone knew, and trusted that the combination of their auditors’ faith and what fundamentalist firebrand Billy Sunday called “horse sense” would allow their message to be understood.

It was in this homiletic storytelling function that evangelicals revitalized typology as a dominant mode of popular Christian discourse.[viii] They enthusiastic revived the Puritan tendency to recruit typology to the task of what was previously called moral allegory or tropology,[ix] but they articulated these tropological messages in homiletic forms based around “realistic” prose narrative.  Earlier Protestant moral allegories (including Pilgrims’ Progress) answered the question “How should I live?” with the answer: “Consider this imaginative representation and apply its principles to your life.” Typologically structured evangelical homiletic asked readers or listeners to accept – provisionally – that the events related in the narrative were real historical circumstances that could then be figurally related to real scriptural antecedents and, ultimately, to the historical person of Christ.  The answer to the question “How should I live?” became, “According to type, as modeled by this narrative.”

The presumption inherent in this kind of typological reasoning meant that stories, if they were to be homiletically effective by facilitating identification, had to seem “real” even if they were technically fictional.  Though uncomfortable with this blurriness, religious tract societies early in the nineteenth century reluctantly adopted what they called “true narratives” to get their message across in their tracts.  Though they preferred stories about events that actually happened, they were also willing to use (and recognized that many of their most popular tracts) used stories that did not necessarily represent an actually occurring situation, but that depicted a typical situation that could clearly illustrate a moral imperative or spiritual truth.[x] “By blurring the distinction between the real and the figural, between worldly fact and sermonic hypotheticals,” as Gregory Jackson explains, “homiletic narrative confirmed for countless readers that such designations simply perpetuated a false ontology” ([2009], 8).  In other words, though this notion of “true narrative” resisted the distinction between and non-fiction that was becoming prevalent in secular and literary culture, it faithfully followed the logic inherent in typological reasoning: since types are mere shadows of spiritual reality (and thus unreal, except in their almost meaningless factuality), as long as the representation in the homiletic narrative typifies actual things it can function pedagogically to illuminate spiritual truths. As evangelicalism became the civil religion of America in the mid-nineteenth century, evangelical writers began developing models of long form prose fiction that extended this logic into what Jackson calls “homiletic realism.”  The descriptive surface of the story accorded with mundane experience, was loaded with details designed to elicit sensory response, and was constructed to allow a postulative recognition of its historicity – akin to what Samuel Richardson called, with regard to his novels, “that kind of Historical Faith which Fiction itself is generally read with, tho’ we know it to be Fiction” (in Frei, 144),[xi] but the story elements and genre variables – the kinds of things that happened, the way characters acted and reacted – organized the way that the spiritual (ie. typological) dimension was engaged within that descriptively realist setting.[xii] The identification enacted in genres such as sentimental fiction that used homiletic realist techniques provided, as Tompkins puts it, the “fundamental framework for the ordering of experience” that informed “not only the perception of nonmaterial concerns such as the existence of God or the shape of an argument [but the] perception of the ordinary facts of existence” as well (Tompkins, 153-4, 156).

The complementarity of “realism” (the confluence of common sense experientialism, early modern scientific empiricism and the narrative conventions of descriptive verisimilitude) and typological reasoning was manifest generically in two quite different ways in evangelical homiletic fiction: one that took its cues from middlebrow realistic novels; another informed by popular formula stories.  For much of the nineteenth century, in sentimental and progressive homiletic novels, realist descriptive and narrative techniques would predominate, though, unlike contemporaneous secular literary realisms that located the experience of reality in a world that Frederic Jameson describes as one “of Cartesian extension, of the quantification of the market system: a space… incapable of symbolic unification,” (111)[xiii] descriptively realist homiletic novels aspired to capture what Jackson calls “the reality of experience,” the experienced sense of a world infused with a spirituality that provided the “symbolic unification” secular realism lacked.  In nineteenth century sentimental fiction and progressive homiletic novels the Divine was usually represented as something experienced internally and emotionally, perceived to be the motivating force behind events in an actuality that largely followed the laws of nature and, admittedly, a rather sentimentally contrived plausibility.  Common sense realism and literary realist techniques governed the descriptive surface of middlebrow homiletic realist narrative (such as that in much sentimental fiction), while the shapes of the stories being told found their meaning in scriptural typology, allowing readers “a unified lived experience of historical and biblical time” (Jackson, 232).

But in the latter half of the nineteenth century the common sense consensus broke down as science changed, scripture (or its interpretation) changed, and American evangelicalism split, often bitterly, between those who accepted and those who rejected those changes. “Views of science were changing from static and mechanistic to developmental and organic” in this period, Noll observes, and the “doxological Baconianism” that had undergirded American common sense understanding was increasingly unable to effectively engage new scholarship on its own terms ([1993], 100).  And even as science was rendering the world less comprehensible and even counterintuitive to common sense understanding, kinds of Biblical criticism relatively new to American evangelicals historicized scripture, challenging the idea that Christianity’s sacred texts carried a unitary, timeless, literally manifest set of meanings. In the face of these changes, and against those “modernist” evangelicals who attempted to accommodate them by moving back from a strict literalist reading of scripture and embracing a vision of a God who could be known through His perceived presence in the rapidly changing world as much as from a set of historical texts, conservative evangelicals increasingly defined themselves in defense of common sense empiricism, divine supernaturalism, and Biblical inerrancy.  What Mark Noll calls the “strong supernaturalism” of late nineteenth century conservative evangelicals was rooted in the Reform notion that while the created world was starkly separated from God by original sin, God and his agents (or adversaries) acted in and through worldly events, even, sometimes, in ways that broke natural law itself, with the paradigmatic antitypes of this kind of intervention being the miracles of Jesus’ conception, ministry and resurrection from death. Where early in the nineteenth century the relation between the material world described by science and the supernatural realities described by scripture had seemed so self-evident, by the early twentieth century asserting that one could determine the correspondence between the two with any authority was a polemical position identified with what was becoming a conservative evangelical subculture identifying itself as the embattled protector of eternal truth and the values of the true America.[xiv]

While the realism of sentimental fiction or the progressive homiletic novels easily accommodated an evangelical modernist perspective, with its emphasis on plausible and sympathetic characters sensing the presence of God and seeing His presence in the ordinary world around them, late nineteenth century conservative evangelical homiletic returned to story forms in which actual supernatural agents moved through the world, interweaving the old stories of spiritual warfare with stories of American millennialist exceptionalism, and increasingly, with the dark premillennialism of the Darbyite dispensationalists.[xv] As a form associated in the late nineteenth century with both femininity and mundane realism, best fitted to telling “stories of probability in a recognizably realistic setting” (Baym, 33), the novel became less amenable to conservative evangelicals as they moved to embrace both a more “masculine” faith and one grounded more explicitly in a supernaturalist dual-world ontology.   Largely withdrawing from the novel and published fiction as preferred homiletic and pastoral vehicles, evangelical conservatives on the cusp of the fundamentalist era nevertheless retained narratives that incorporated descriptive realism, a “romantic” supernaturalism,[xvi] and representations that borrowed heavily from nineteenth century popular fiction.[xvii]

This shift in narrative form placed evangelical conservatives around the turn of the twentieth century in the company of others who sought to articulate alternatives to the world given by modern capitalism and its attendant discourses.  In the late nineteenth century, Jameson argues, with the “gradual reification of realism in late capitalism … romance once again comes to be felt as the place of narrative heterogeneity and of freedom from that reality principle to which a now oppressive realistic representation is the hostage.  Romance now again seems to offer the possibility of sensing other historical rhythms, and of demonic or Utopian transformations of a real now unshakably set in place” (Jameson, 104).  And while late nineteenth-century serious fiction was moving toward the minutely detailed psychological and sociological descriptions of high realism, another kind of fiction full of vividly described tempestuous lovers, cowboys, detectives, ghosts, monsters, pirates and adventures at the edge of the civilized world, beneath the sea and beyond the sky was being written for the kinds of people (women, young people, working people in the urban ghettos, mining villages or western ranches) who preferred dime novels and “story papers” to hardback novels and serious broadsheets.

The resonance between the conventions of romance representation and the epistemology of conservative Christianity early in the twentieth century is nicely captured by G. K. Chesterton.[xviii] By his own telling once an exemplary man of his thoroughly modern time, by the late nineteenth century he had become disenchanted with the disenchanted scientifico-realist sense of the world.  He simply could not, he recounts, dismiss the sense of a profound oddness or strangeness in the world that modern secular understanding simply could not account for.  His religious awakening was prompted, he writes, when he took seriously his sense of “the riddle of the earth” in which “every stone or flower is a hieroglyphic of which we have lost the key”; when he acknowledged his gut feeling that he “had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller” ([1908], 59-60).  And the kind of story he sensed in the world was not the kind of story his literary realist contemporaries were writing.  It was the kind of story found in popular novels. “People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature;” he writes, “people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are … Romance is the deepest thing in life; romance is deeper even than reality” ([1905], 192).  Following Diderot’s dictum, realistic novelists had tended to distinguish themselves from romancers by making a distinction between the marvelous and the miraculous, or the improbable and the incredible: marvelous occurrences are improbable but within ordinary experience (they could happen), and the novelist’s job is to render them in a plausible way, but miracles are incredible in that they couldn’t happen, within the world of shared experience.  This means that while the marvelous can intimate the action of the Divine in the mundane sphere, the miraculous asserts and assumes it.  In their assertion and assumption of morally polarized supernatural agency, romances naturalize in their structure of representation the kind of supernaturalism that conservative Christian faith in the period was emphasizing, and both are positioned – one formally, one doctrinally – in opposition to “the world,” the arbiters of cultural legitimacy were describing in secular realist terms.[xix]

Similar sentiments continue to animate certain strains of evangelical thought. Fredrich Buechner argues that an essence of the Gospel is captured by the logic of the fairy tale, in stories where “terrible things happen and wonderful things too … goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle … which goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after, and where in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his true name” (81).  But though they share a fairy-tale logic, the “crucial difference,” is that “the claim made for [the Gospel] is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still” (90).  Similarly, in several of his books, popular contemporary evangelical writer John Eldredge argues that it is this resonance with the deep structure of spiritual reality that makes blockbuster movies such as The Matrix or Lord of the Rings so popular.  Such stories resonate widely because they offer secular analogues of the deep story of the Christian universe.  We respond to these stories because they gesture toward a higher state, a kind of perfection that as Created beings, despite our fallen state, our souls recognize as our true home.  Properly interpreted, even these secular pop cultural narratives can provide guides for ethical living, spiritual reflection and healthy gender relations.[xx] Contemporary evangelicals, then, can legitimately approach pop culture in two distinct but complementary ways: they can read pop fiction for fun, indulging in the imaginative escapism it offers (if legitimately condemning its salaciousness and amorality); but they can also read pop fictional stories as analogues of the deep reality addressed by Christian faith, recognizing their capability to act as vehicles of serious messages that can either strengthen or – without proper interpretive guidance – erode faith.

Chesterton argues that because it has such universal and intuitive resonances with the deep reality of the cosmos, and because it invokes an intellectually and morally coherent setting for agency (a “world”), romance narrative is not only a powerful and apt homiletic vehicle, it is also the most accessible and thus most genuinely democratic rhetorical medium ([1908], ch VIII, passim).  Neo-fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell, in Charles Conrad’s analysis, put Chesterton’s observations into action. Falwell’s preaching, Conrad argues, is grounded in a romantic framework that naturalizes its political arguments: in it contemporary society is represented as a polarized cosmos of “simplified moral constructs in which everyone is expected to take sides”; a cosmos in which one side is “impious, alien to auditors’ romantic reconstructions of their childhood experiences and populated by agents of the devil who justify the evils of their world through the machinations of a powerful but corrupt language,” while the other side is “an idyllic world, a pious society which is a perfect re-creation of innocent past experiences” (160-62).  This is a potent rhetorical framework because it allows a kind of argumentation that can accommodate complex appeals to character and emotion as well as to logic, whereas American secular liberalism tends to grant priority to logic while seeing appeals to character or emotion as undermining rather than strengthening its claims.[xxi] Falwell’s is a rhetoric with two descriptive modes. “The world,” for Falwell, is an objectively knowable phenomenon best described in terms of history, and empirical “science,” but the real world – the redeemed world, the world of the true church, and the once, abiding and future real America – is a place best described through romantically structured typological mediating narratives.[xxii] And just as “the fairy tale impinges on the ordinary world the way the dimension of depth impinges on the two-dimensional surface of a plane” (Buechner, 78), the romantically organized narrative motifs of evangelical nostalgia and aspiration in Falwell’s homiletic impinge upon – and give meaning and value to – the flat, horizontal plane of the secular, scientifically and historically knowable world in a way that accords with that powerful vision of America’s divine destiny, that “mixture of piety and American folklore … in which true religion and liberty are always pitted against false religion and tyranny” (1983, 160-61).  This imaginative and rhetorical framework helps organize those “fundamentalist habits of thought,” which, Noll observes, “have proven more resilient than fundamentalism itself” ([1994], 139) because it articulates the tension that lets conservative evangelicalism thrive by seeing itself as embattled.[xxiii]


[i] As evangelical theologian David Wells puts it, evangelical theology is, “for soteriological reasons, constructed to reinforce the discontinuity between God and human nature.  The sola gratia, sola fide motifs are structurally central because there is an epistemological disjunction between God and human nature that is an outgrowth of the disjunction between nature and grace. This, in turn becomes part of a world sharply distinguished between natural and supernatural” (84). The weakening of this disjunction in the late nineteenth century, Marsden (2006) explains, was one of the provocations that caused conservative evangelicals to define themselves against the “modernists” who had “at the heart of [their] impulse … the principle that God was immanent and revealing himself in the modern world” (177).

[ii] As Peter Harrison explains, for Luther the literal sense was “the highest, best, strongest, in short the whole substance nature and foundation of the holy scripture,” and, for Calvin, allegory “ought be carried no further than Scripture expressly sanctions” (108).  But, for the Reformers, “literal” interpretation did not sanction for interpretive anarchy.  It merely made hermeneutic method authoritative over hermeneutic tradition.  For Puritan Henry Hammond, the Bible was to be understood ‘by the use of ordinary means’ rather than through the ‘extraordinary gift of the spirit.’ “By ordinary means” Harrison clarifies, “Hammond meant the use of learning, study, meditations, rational inference, collation of places, consulting of the original languages, and the ancient copies and expositions of the Fathers of the church … and the like” (120).  Thus, Harrison observes, “while in principle freedom to determine the meaning of the sacred texts was given to individual readers of scripture, it was hoped at the same time that such readers would voluntarily submit themselves to a set of publicly available, rational and universal canons of interpretation” (123). The notion of an inerrant, perspicuous text accessible to ordinary people was central to the success of American revivalist evangelicalism, but the interpretive “anarchy” latent in these notions was a key contributor to the sectarian tendencies of American Protestantism (see Hatch, 1990).

[iii] Erich Auerbach’s essay “Figura” provides a detailed overview of the development of typological interpretation (and its relationship with other allegorical modes) in Christian thought and literature through the ancient and medieval periods. Auerbach’s distinction between allegory, which relies on fictional images to illuminate abstract ideas, and typology, which posits spiritual connections between historically discrete real world events, is a useful heuristic that has informed most discussions of religious typology over the past half-century.  Both Catholic and Protestants used both typology and other forms of allegorical interpretation because, as Northrop Frye points out, they provide necessary and complementary ways of conceptualizing scriptural coherence: “allegory works by providing a kind of spatial form to the dynamic temporal movement of narrative in scripture.  Typological allegory provides a metahistorical form to scripture which allows it to be “seen together” or comprehended as a unity which transcends its internal diversity” (1982; 62).  But, as Frye notes, scriptural typology by itself can function as both an organon and a rhetoric mode – a way of organizing thought and a way of organizing and expressing that reasoning in verbal form (Frye, 1982; 80).  Because typology can inform such a comprehensive discourse, Protestants were able to extend typological interpretation to address questions of moral allegory (tropology) and final meaning (anagogy or eschatology), questions that had previously been seen as distinct from those appropriately answered by typological interpretation.

[iv] For discussions of Protestant typology, Harrison is particularly insightful on its relation to the rise of early modern science, Lewalski provides the most succinct overview of the role of several models of typological signification in organizing an early American Protestant religious imagination of self, world, history and nation, and Keller is perceptive in his observation of the way the popular use of religious typology in the American colonies took over (from tropology) the job of articulating individual morality and helped structure American Protestant spiritual autobiography.  All of these are indebted not only to Auerbach, but also to Sacvan Bercovich, who has influentially illustrated the way that various kinds of typological representation helped shape American notions of national identity from the Puritan period to the end of the nineteenth century.

[v] The Catholic Church did have millennial thinkers of course, especially before it became a state power (ie. Ireneus), but millennialism also flourished around the turn of the first millennium (ie. Jochiam de Flores), and around the time of the counter-reformation.  The main doctrinal currents of the Church, however, followed the allegorical schemae developed by Augustine and others. Luther and Calvin speculated on the immanence of the eschatological period, especially in their earlier works, but denounced millennialist speculation in their later writing upon seeing the violence it provoked. Norman Cohen’s is the standard historical survey of Christian millennialism, but see Boyer (ch. 3) for a more succinct overview of this phenomenon.

[vi] As Jackson illustrates, eighteenth century American theologian Jonathan Edwards is a key mediating figure in the synthesis of Calvinist and Lockean epistemologies that paves the way for nineteenth century evangelical notions of Common Sense.  Edwards argues in his sermon “Divine and Supernatural Light” that “the saving evidence of the truth of the Gospel is such, as is attainable by persons of mean capacities, and advantages, as well as those that are of the greatest parts and learning…. Persons with but an ordinary degree of knowledge, are capable, without a long and subtle train of reasoning, to see the divine excellency of the things of religion: they are capable of being taught by the Spirit of God, as well as learned men” (in Jackson, 65-6).

[vii] Filtered primarily through Scottish philosophers Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (a standard text at nineteenth century American colleges), common sense rationalism was theorized as a response to Hume’s radical skepticism, and argued that through an inductive assessment of the individual consciousness, one could arrive at an understanding of the mind’s activity, and from there its engagement with the world (see Holifield, ch. 4).  It is important to note that American evangelicals were not particularly rigorous in their appropriation of this philosophy, taking from it primarily the governing notion that because both world and mind are created by God, the mind, via Baconian induction, could function as a reliable guide to knowing the world through empirical science, understood as a “natural theology” which pointed to and was fulfilled in scriptural revelation.  As Noll (1985) points out “the Common sense tradition has not so much provided evangelicals with theological principles as it has given distinctive shape to the style, the apologetics and the biblical shape of an already existing faith” (226). For relatively recent discussions of the American evangelical use of Scottish Common sense rationalism, and evangelical thought’s relation to the Baconian model of science, see Noll (1985,1993), Marsden (1991, 2006), Hatch (1984, 1990) and Numbers (2006).

[viii] Early Protestants had tended to use typology allusively to structure the use of homiletic exempla, to organize biographical and autobiographical representation, or to contextualize arguments in terms of Scriptural analogues, but as George Landow explains, “Evangelicals … were largely responsible for the widespread English revival of interest in typological interpretations of the Bible. Although members of the high church party also practiced typological exegesis, it was the evangelical Anglicans, the Methodists, Baptists, and similar sects who taught English men and women to read the Bible for types of Christ” (342).  Evangelicals gravitated to typology, Landow suggests, because it provides a coherent hermeneutic and exegetical framework not visibly reliant on either ecclesial tradition or on a grammatical-historical view of scripture that can be easily engaged and mobilized by individual worshipers and lay preachers.

[ix] Though strict constructionists (including Luther and Calvin) preferred to limit typology to discerning patterns within Scripture, the postulation that Christ fulfils both human history and every human life allows typological interpretation to easily flow over to address both extra-scriptural (especially classical) literatures and the events of both human history and individual human lives.  Encouraged by Puritan theologians and writers, this broader “plebian” (Perry Miller) mode of typological interpretation became a dominant mode of popular reasoning in America from the 16th to 19th centuries, recruited to the task of explaining providential and national history as well as the details of individual lives.  This expansion of popular typological interpretation into what was, in Patristic hermeneutics, the tropological mode of allegory (using scripture to evaluate the morality of human actions) involves shifting to a general presumption that every human action is typical in some way, away from the presumption that one must instead map and mould one’s life onto and against scriptural patterns: “Where classic [typological] reasoning moved from the antitype to the type,” Keller observes, “plebeian [typological] reasoning proceeded from type to antitype – an existential difference – thereby refreshing the structure considerably” (280).

[x] Religious tracts were not, as E. Brooks Holified points out, “vehicles for … discussions in polemic theology, but would contain ‘pithy expressions, lively representations of truth, and pathetic addresses’ to ‘affectionately [direct] the sinner to the Lamb of God,’ … [making] an affecting appeal – often using narrative and dialogue – that would cause the reader to ‘feel’ every argument that was adduced” (136-37, with quotes from The American Tract Society Documents, 1814-1925).  See Nord (113-130) for a discussion of the reluctant adoption of fiction as the preferred homiletic mode of the early nineteenth century tract writers.  While many clerics demanded that all stories in religious tracts be verifiably true, deplored the sentimental style of popular fiction and despised the “cursory” style of popular reading, the tract societies themselves recognized that the most popular and, anecdotally most effective, tracts used sentimental and clearly typological stories such as “The Dairyman’s Daughter.”

[xi] Frei provides an invaluable historical analysis of the way that the fiction / non-fiction distinction emerges in the context of realist prose, and comes to be differently applied with regard to secular narrative, homiletic narrative and biblical narrative.

[xii] As Jackson points out, homiletic realist fiction attended to the characterological specificity, roughly naturalistic causality and the homogeneous time and space associated with literary realist description, but it “cathected religious readers’ identification with allegory, a typological script whose action unfolds simultaneously inside and outside historical time. To ‘read’ narratives in this way is to see oneself as a historically grounded subject with transhistorical agency” (145).

[xiii] Though their writing often dealt with the ambiguities inherent to the experience of existing in a world “incapable of symbolic unification” (as Jameson puts it), American realists of the late nineteenth century rarely maintained a rigorously consistent “realism” in their writing, remaining open to integrating various elements of fantasy and deviating, when necessary, from the constraints of realist representation (See Sundquist [1982]).  But, Karl Keller argues, what set literary realist writing of the period apart from its “less-esteemed” popular and religious counterparts (such as Beecher and others) who “kept the forms of the faith” and “might have kept the earlier content very much in mind” was the refusal to unify those fantasy elements into a corresponding alternative world and coherent intellectual structure of the kind invoked by scriptural typology.  Rejecting the impulse to turn the self into an antitype finding its types in the world (as occasionally occurred in the writing of Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau) and frustrated with the intellectual imperiousness of the typological mode in popular discourse, “the Disaffected Party” of American authors (he includes Hawthorne, Melville and Dickinson) cultivated an ambiguity that undermined the solidity of the type-antitype postulation. “The uncertainty principle is their answer to typology,” Keller argues: “They become the realists we call them by not understanding the structure and substance of things… The simultaneity of contrarieties – that is, ambiguity as a rich condition of unknowing – is for these writers an apposite order, replacing simplicities like those of typology” (302 n.12, 301).

[xiv] Conservative Evangelical identity, as George Marsden points out (1984, 2006), tends to be rooted in two disparate topoi: the first identifies evangelical values with American values, and positions evangelicals at the historical center of the true American nation; the second identifies evangelical values with a persistent opposition to “the world.”  The second identity framework, Marsden observes, is often used to narrativize the first:  at one point America was Godly but America lost its way, and both evangelicals and true Americans (or the two conflated) now find themselves dispossessed in their own country.  Grant Wacker argues that it is because this identity overlaps so well with an identity widespread in the post-bellum South, that evangelicalism shifted its primary loci from the North (before the Civil War), to the South, where it has remained.  For Noll, the cost of this conflation of evangelical values with “America” was a loss of “the ability [on the part of evangelicals] to distinguish themselves from American idealism or gain any kind of distance leading to self-reflexive self-analysis of their own presumptions” (1993; 68).  For Noll, because both evangelical values and American ideals can, in conservative evangelical rhetoric, be fused and fixed in the nostalgic amber of a putative lost golden age of evangelical hegemony (a move that appears in the fundamentalist / modernist debates and continues into the present), they are resistant to critical reappraisal.  The effectiveness of “eternal values” as rhetorical vehicles for marshalling reactionary identification is a function of the way they can be used to short-circuit self-inquiry by forming a nostalgically sealed-off loop between nationalist and religious ideation. See Numbers (2006) for the most comprehensive survey of the continuities between nineteenth century evangelical conceptions of science and those of contemporary conservative evangelicals.

[xv] Marsden (2006) argues that though, since the Puritans, there had been American Protestants who felt that Christ would return before the millennium instead of during or after it, it was Darby’s nineteenth century pseudo-scientific premillennialist end-times scenario (Social Decline à Rapture à Tribulation à Armageddon à Millennium) that was adopted by most, though not all, of those groups of conservative Protestants who joined the fundamentalist coalition of the 1910’s and 20’s.

[xvi] Northrop Frye, still the most perspicuous theorist of literary genre, describes “romance” as usually centered around a supra-ordinary hero on a quest that takes him (or, less often, her) through a morally polarized universe.  He or she confronts various unexpected obstacles, extreme dangers, and terrible oppression but also benefits from improbable luck and coincidence in the quest to make things right, to put things in order and to secure liberty: to arrive at what Frye calls “identity,” a state in which things are what they should be and the self is at home in the universe.  These conventions normalize a cosmos in which the flat, extensive social and natural realm described by realism is intersected by a vertical, moral dimension populated by super- and sub-human agents capable of interacting with human beings and shaping human destinies.  For Frye, medieval romance emerged as a secularized “displacement” of the hierarchical model (ie. stratified within, above and below the natural order) of the Christian cosmos, and “mimetic” (high and low) literature in drama and the novel emerged in the early modern period as presenting an alternative model of conception not only to romance itself, but of its hierarchical cosmos as well.  See Frye (1958; 2006).

[xvii] The easy movement of narrative conventions in nineteenth century evangelical discourse from fiction to homiletic, pastoral and devotional writing is evidence, as earlier noted, of the way that evangelicals saw homiletic fiction not as a matter of imposing anthropomorphic narratives on a formless or unknowable reality, but of writing about things that were not factually extant in ways that could, nevertheless, provide illuminating analogues of spiritual realities.  Commenting on the description of ministering to a dying child provided by late nineteenth century conservative evangelical William Plumer, Holifield wryly notes its “considerable resemblance to the conventions of the popular antebellum novel” (163). Tompkins goes further, arguing that the congruence between descriptions such as Plumer’s and those in the sentimental novel are evidence that “the same network of assumptions that supported the religious beliefs of evangelical Christians shaped their rhetorical and stylistic conventions as well” (156).

[xviii] Along with C.S. Lewis, another Anglo-Catholic convert from secular modernism in the twilight of the Empire, Chesterton shows up frequently in contemporary evangelical non-fiction writing.  Our sense of the ubiquity of these writers as influences in contemporary evangelical thinking is circumstantially reinforced by Alan Wolfe who also notes, with some surprise, the predominance of the non-American, non-evangelical Chesterton and Lewis in the Wheaton library and curriculum.  He ascribes their prominence to the lack of a developed literary tradition in American evangelicalism.  It seems more likely that though both of these writers argue for a strongly supernaturalist form of Christianity neither were theologians or even clergy, but were primarily novelists in the popular romance tradition (Chesterton mainly in detective stories; Lewis in fantasy and science fiction).  Both frame their highly romantic and fundamentally narrative understanding of Christian supernaturalism in opposition to modern scientific rationalism and literary realism, an opposition which is echoed in the discourse of contemporary conservative American evangelicals.

[xix] Though Frye is more concerned with the return to “myth” in literary modernism, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century evangelical homiletic return to romance narrative can be seen within his theoretical framework as the recovery of a literary mode that articulates a fundamentally alternative cosmological conceptualization to that of secular realism in its articulation of a hierarchical cosmos that can be mapped onto what St. Paul called the “true myth” (“logoi”) of Christianity that stands apart in its truth, if not its form, from the bebelous mythous of false religions (Frye 2006, 16).

[xx] See especially Epic (Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson, 2004) and (with Brent Curtis), The Sacred Romance (Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson, 1997).

[xxi] This argument is well made by Sharon Crowley.

[xxii] As Susan Harding shows, Falwell’s use of typology (positioning his actions in terms of Biblical characters and stories, in the historical type/antitype relationship), gave his narratives considerable rhetorical flexibility, allowing him to make his own very public failings, backslidings and personal transgressions ultimately compatible with his representation of himself and his followers as being on the virtuous side of the morally polarized cosmos (85-104).

[xxiii] As Frye (1982) illustrates, both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures modulate through several overarching generic modes – often recapitulating types within each successive genre frameworks – that have to do with the function of the stories being told in relation to their Hebrew or early-Christian societies.  The attribution of an overarching generic mode to scripture is, Frye argues, more a function of what the interpreter wants scripture to do than it is a reflection of some insight into a deep generic unity in this generically diverse body of writings. Frye argues that privileging romance, an implicitly revolutionary mode that emphasizes the disjunction between an oppressive actual situation and an alternative imagined in terms of a society of free individuals in harmony with their environment, tends to appeal less to figures in religious establishments than to those who perceive themselves as embattled religious outsiders desirous of change.  This sort of romantic self-conception informs the “radical traditionalism” that is such a key aspect of evangelical self-identity. See Smith (1998).

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