Monday, November 07, 2011


"I don't think literature would be possible in a determined world," wrote Flannery O'Connor to young Alfred Corn. "We might go through the motions but the heart would be out of it."

She seems to be suggesting that literature derives its power by finding and exploiting holes in the fabric of creation that give onto eternity. Scientific determinism leaves no room for holes; the fabric of creation is seamless, the reign of law abiding. If God does not act in the world, if grace does not exist, if the transcendent does not illuminate the immanent, then literature is a waste of time.

Or so says Flannery O'Connor.

I would, of course, take issue. One need not go looking for holes in creation to encounter the animating force of literature. The world may or may not be determined in every particular by natural law, but the complexity of things is such that life is shot through with freedom, real or effective. Grace fills creation as water fills a rag. Literature wrings it out, here and there, in spates or dribbles.

Alfred Corn's spiritual trajectory, insofar as I have discovered it, has been an adventure of self-discovery, in and out and in the faith, with an important awakening along the way. I am not a fan of Corn's poetry; it doesn't touch me in ear or heart, which is surely my limitation, not that of the poems. But there is a book edited (and contributed to) by Corn that I can heartily recommend: Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament..

Corn marshaled twenty-three American writers to each address one of the books of the New Testament, including such luminaries as John Updike, Annie Dillard, Mary Gordon, Anthony Hecht, Amy Clampitt, Robert Hass, Grace Schulman and John Hersey, a group that although mainly Christian in background or practice, includes writers of other faiths and none. Their mandate was to draw upon their personal life experience and literary sensitivity to explicate the texts.

What results is variable and engaging, drawing upon the latest biblical scholarship, but following the texts into unexpected places, places that reveal as much about the writers as about the texts.

This is what the scriptures should be: Not a source of doctrinal certitude, or infallible divine word, but a shared cultural mirror, of supreme importance in the Western tradition, in which we can each hope to find glimmers of our true selves.