An extended review of “Hospitable Texts: new approaches to Religion and Literature” Conference

by Anna Blanch on August 30, 2011

A wrote a review of Hospitable Texts for Transpositions. Unfortunately, because of space considerations they were not able to include the full extent of the review. Thus, here is the extended review of Hospitable Texts: New Approaches to Religion and Literature

In the heart of London, by Trafalgar Square and the National Galleries, sits the Notre Dame University London Center. From the 14-16 July 2011, the centre, located in the iconic building which once housed the Combined Cambridge and Oxford Universities Club, played host to the Hospitable Texts: New Approaches to Religion & Literature conference. Heralded as an opportunity to float new ways of thinking about the interactions and intersections between literature and religion, Theology and literature, and Christianity and Literature, there seemed to be a concern that this conference did not represent another iterative conversation between disciplines or an articulation of a discreet discipline, but was concerned with methodology, theoretical explorations, trying out new, (hopefully) productive, approaches to reading and demonstrating the value of a particular kind of “intertextual discourse.”

The conference began with a panel discussion with the editors of Christianity and Literature (Paul Contino, Pepperdine), Religion & Literature (Susannah Monta, University of Notre Dame), and Literature & Theology: An International Journal in Religion, Literature, and Culture (Andrew Hass, University of Stirling) and moderated by Susan Felch (Calvin College). The discussion initially moved around the idea that the “and” that features in the titles of these three journals was not just about coexistence or tension but about the possibilities of meaning. For Monta, the “and” is not just a conjunction but signals a problematizing of both literature and religion when the two meet in a shared intellectual space and presents a burden and challenge to speak to different disciplines in a fresh, enlivening way. For Hass, there is a different sense in which the “and” serves to problematize “religion”; He noted in particular the subtitle of Literature & Theology: “An International Journal in Religion, Literature, and Culture,” as demonstrative of the self-awareness of the editorial board of the contested nature of “theology” and “religion” as terms and what constitutes a “text” in the context of literature and culture.

The differences between the North American University and scholarly landscape, and that of Europe and beyond were discussed at various points. Lori Branch (University of Iowa), among others, argued that there is an imperative to find a way of working within the traditional disciplines of literary studies, as well as Cultural Studies, Religious Studies and Theology, especially given the financial pressures facing most institutions. Questions were raised, both in the opening panel and in Branch’s paper, about the realistic longevity of interdisciplinary graduate programs when they are labelled as such. Yet at the same time it was noted on more than one occasion that there is great need for scholars to be immersed in Literature, literary theory, historical theory (with a view to a rigorous and meticulous historicism), church and socio-political history and particularly Theology. The demands of such rigorous training and the strain on the individual scholar to do it all in order to pay attention to the text in appropriate and productive ways served, I observed, to spark discussions about the necessity for collaboration. Collaboration has generally been limited within literary studies.

I observed a tendency, in quite a few cases, to use literary theory or philosophical terms for concepts and traditions that equally could have been strengthened by interactions with theological discourse and theological terminology. This lack of engagement with theological thinkers could be explained by the relatively small number of participants with a self-identified background in Theology; but, could it be that mainstream academia is still largely hesitant about acknowledging the scholarly legitimacy of the interdisciplinary approach to Theology (or Religion) and Literature? It was rather off-putting though to see the fruits of this intellectual bifurcation at a conference about new approaches to Religion and Literature.

An emphasis on Shakespeare Studies was apparent with a seminar and a number of papers devoted to the subject (including that of our own, Micah Snell), a reading group on “As you Like It,” as well as a keynote from Julia Rhinehart Lupton of UC-Irvine on “Shakespeare and Hospitality.” So too, a significant number of Victorianists were present which is perhaps unsurprising given that Nineteenth and Twentieth century literary studies research accounts for the largest number of submissions to the three major journals hosting this conference. I participated in a seminar on Religion, Literature and Theory, while Jennifer Allen Craft (one of the other regular contributors here on Transpositions) was part of the seminar on Religion, Literature and Place. We both enjoyed the substantial feedback and discussion arising as a result of pre-conference distribution and reading of papers.

On Saturday evening, Archbishop Rowan Williams was presented with the Conference on Christianity and Literature (CCL) Lifetime Achievement award. He then gave a rousing keynote titled: “Graceful Writing: How Does Fiction Deal with Grace?” Largely about the narrative shape of grace, his talk artfully weaved a discussion of Marilynne Robinson’s Home, Gilead and her recent collection of essays, Absence of Mind, with observations about John Calvin and Karl Barth . Delivered in his trademark enervating and imaginatively poetic style, I do hope that the keynote will be found in print soon for more people to enjoy. It was certainly the conference highlight for me.

I look forward to seeing the work inspired by Hospitable Texts and to the publications that will likely come out of the work presented there.

Questions for discussion

  • What does the phrase “Religion and Literature” mean for you?
  • Do you think working in an interdisciplinary field opens up intellectual questioning or leads one fruitlessly into a ghetto?

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