A guest post from David Parry.
A report from the Christian Literary Studies Group Annual Conference
The Christian Literary Studies Group gathered at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on Saturday 5th November for our annual day conference, which this year had the theme “Shaping Ends: Aspects of Apocalypse”. Current world events were not in view when we chose the theme months before, but they added a certain resonance to our discussions.
Opening reflections by CLSG Secretary Roger Kojecký reminded us that humans tell stories to find patterns of meaning in life, and that they need “the sense of an ending” to make sense of those stories. The papers that followed ranged widely through literary history, but a common theme was the popularity of apocalyptic themes today. One speaker reported that his online research had led him to a product advertised as “zombie repellent spray”! (Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson’s book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, reviewed by Alicia Smith in the forthcoming issue of the CLSG journal The Glass, explores apocalyptic in popular culture from a Christian perspective.)
Modern fiction and apocalypse
A keynote presentation by Andrew Tate (Lancaster), spinning off from his forthcoming book Apocalyptic Fiction, addressed the recent genre of ‘climate change fiction’, novels that depict a world after ecological catastrophe. After hailing the nineteenth-century writer and artist John Ruskin as something of a prophet of environmental disaster, Andrew examined novels by Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, and Margaret Atwood, observing that, though depicting a post-apocalyptic world, these writers (even those hostile to Christian faith) tell stories of the survivors that suggest some kind of hope for humanity on the other side of catastrophe.
Simon Marsden (Liverpool) looked at how Christian ideas of apocalypse and the afterlife surface in unexpected forms in contemporary Gothic horror novels – he referenced the TV show The Walking Dead, in which a zombie apocalypse survivor remarks, “Christ promised a resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.” Although Gothic horror is often sceptical about organised religion, depicting a nihilistic universe or a bleak afterlife, the recent novels of Peter Straub and Justin Cronin depict a kind of redemption. For instance, in Cronin’s Passage trilogy, the “viral” race of vampire-like humans is redeemed by the messianic Amy, who overcomes the virus progenitor Zero through sacrificial love. (The A to Z names are not coincidental).
Antichrists and apocalyptic hope
Victoria Brownlee (National University of Ireland, Galway) helped to give the long view by looking at how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Protestants saw the pope as the Antichrist and the Catholic Church as the scarlet woman foretold in Revelation, exploring how this belief is expressed in texts such as Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene. Though this sounds like an extreme fringe belief to most Christians today, it was a pretty mainstream view amid the interweaving of political and theological conflicts of that time. Historians have long observed that periods of crisis give rise to apocalyptic thinking, and Christians have often been tempted to play the game of “pin the tail on the Antichrist”.
However, two further papers reminded us that the original sense of “apocalypse” is not disaster but rather unveiling/revelation, which for Christians is a revelation of an ultimate hope beyond catastrophe. Tom Docherty (Cambridge) drew from his PhD research on the poet Geoffrey Hill, looking at how the form (e.g. rhyme scheme and line endings) as well as content of Hill’s poems expresses a longing for a completion that remains unresolved in this life.
Finally, Roger Pooley (Keele) probed New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann’s assertion that “Apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology”, exploring both ancient apocalyptic texts, parallel with the Bible, and literary works by Yeats and Bulgakov, with Russell Hoban’s sci-fi novel Riddley Walker cited as another literary representation of post-apocalyptic hope. Roger encouraged us to be open to “everyday apocalypse”: we do not have to wait until the end of time for God’s hope-filled future to be revealed to us.
Most of the conference papers will appear in revised form in the Spring 2017 issue of the CLSG The Glass (along with several book reviews). CLSG membership is open to any
one interested in the intersection of the Christian faith with literature, within or beyond academia. We would be delighted for you to join us.
David Parry teaches English literature for various colleges of the University of Cambridge, and his research focuses on early modern / Renaissance literature.