The 25 short essays on a variety of “Christian classics” collected in this book originally appeared in the Neiv Oxford Review between November 1979 and October 1982. Collected here, in their total economy, James J. Thompson’s essays remind us of the maturing legitimacy of the interdisciplinarv relations between literature and religion. Christian Classics Revisited shows us that these relations need not embarrass us in the way they once embarrassed F.R. Leavis, who wrote in The Common Pursuit (1952): “As for Christian Discrimination, it needs to be said that there can be no substitute for the scrupulous and disinterested approach of the literary critic.” Paradoxically, the present plight of the critical function probably stems more from the effort to discriminate empirically than to “discriminate Christianly.”

So much of contemporary criticism is nihilistic that when one reads Thompson’s deeply felt book the experience is both gratifying and refreshing. Christian Classics Revisited clearK shows that what we perhaps need more of today is not literary critiques but literary celebrations. The time has come for literary scholars to be more aware of their spiritual obligations. Literary criticism, no less than literature as a whole, has a “need for roots,” as Thompson demonstrates. (Even before his own death in 1978, Leav is himself, it is interesting to note here, complained bitterly of “the vacuum of disinheritance” in which modern man lives.)

Christian Classics Revisited also reminds us of what is so manifestly absent from contemporary life: the standards of piety that should give us a true sense of proportion and define the limits of existence. To judge by Thompson’s literary and critical orientation, his critical process of selectivity and judgment, his appreciations, his “celebrations,” he is not the kind of literary academic (or politician) who thrives in the university world and is a luminous presence in the meetings of the Modern Language Association. Bigness and technique—two of our most destructive idols—are what Thompson and his little book contravene. His standards of piety give to his thought and writing the secret of proportion, what the ancient Hellenes called sophrosyné, and which Fathers of the Church like Clement of Alexandria rightly fused with the true mission of faith. “Thus philosophy was a preparation, paving the way for the man who is brought to perfection by Christ,” Clement writes in Stromateis.

There is present throughout Thompson’s book an enhancing simplicity of belief and expression, and of the gift of grace itself In discussing Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness, Thompson quotes these words: “People have so great a need for reverence, to worship, to adore; it is a psychological necessity of human nature.” One rarely finds such words written or quoted today, and it is specially valuable that Thompson cites them and simultaneously illustrates them in his celebratory essays. Christian Classics Revisited reminds us that there can be no standards of discrimination without standards of piety.

Thompson’s critical breviary reveals an unfailing inspiration born of belief He is able to see things and to make judgments that academic critics per se cannot. He establishes between himself and his reader a sincere critical communion, a spiritual rapport, a sympathy of vision. There is so much rot in the realm of critical discourse today, there is so much conscious murder of the Spirit in the classroom and in publications of all sorts, that Thompson’s little essays, by comparison, sparkle with the Light of the Word. Is it possible that we have had too much critical play and then too much critical madness? That question kept crossing my mind as I read with joy Thompson’s essays on G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, Karl Earth’s Deliverance to the Captives. And as I read these essays I realized more than ever that they were the kind of essays that one would hardly find in the book pages of the daily press or in literary quarterlies and critical inquiries. For so long we have been inundated with critical blasphemy of either a neutralist tendency like that of The New York Times Book Review or a Marxist taint like that of The New York Review of Books that some of us begin to feel like beleaguered souls in no-man’s-land.

When Thompson speaks of his own experience in teaching The Seven Storey Mountain in a college course on American thought and being met with an angry silence and cruel resentment on the part of his students, he captures that spirit of enmity that is symptomatic of modern existence. And we are reminded that once the seed of corruption has been planted in the soul, and in the state, it is difficult to extricate. We are reminded, too, that the books Thompson talks about are in their own way the forbidden books of the modern age. A regnant orthodoxy of enlightenment has seen to this!

Thompson’s essays show a sensitive comprehension of religious awareness and concern, and the books he selects to talk about represent a wide variety of genres—fiction, autobiography, biography, poetry, criticism, drama, letters, sermons. The premise that books, especially Christian-oriented books, “can facilitate the pilgrim’s journey through life and can even be the means through which God imparts saving grace to undeserving sinners” informs Thompson’s essays. Such a premise is particularly to be welcomed at a time when critical (and life-) principles lack any real definiteness of moral purpose or spiritual grounding. Our social and cultural pluralism inevitably leads to conditions of life and letters that resist and reject religious ideas and teachings; that equalize, sometimes in the most monolithic ways, secular ideas and spiritual essences and make it impossible to perceive a hierarchy of idea and value and to respond in any way to ultimate questions.

“What does it mean to be a Christian? What must one do to be saved?” For Thompson these two questions are of transcendent importance, and he writes his essays out of a deep need to find answers to these questions. His recognition of this special need separates him from the critical (and pedagogical) Zeitgeist of our time. Modern life remains in the dark shadow of Marxist doctrine, with the stress on economic questions rather than religious questions. In truth, Karl Marx is our Grand Inquisitor, as liberation theology demonstrates with such telling force. Indeed, we have made so much, these days, of the Harvey Coxes and the Hans Küngs that we have tended to forget or to minimize “the theology of crisis” of a Karl, Barth or an Emil Brunner, both of whom decipher the state of our true captivity and challenge us to find the true freedom. Thompson’s essays on these two theologians help to restore a measure of religious sanity to a rampant theological sentimentalism and romanticism.

What connects the visible life with the invisible life, the temporal with the eternal, is for Thompson a fundamental matter. His essays never fail to reflect on spiritual connections that vivify and shape life. Catholicity of taste, seriousness of intent, and courage of faith inform and enrich his acceptances and affirmations as these emerge from the sincerity and order of the eloquent critical testimony found in the pages of this little book. Even when the didactic strain here is strongly evident, Thompson’s sincerity is so radiant that the reader does not resent his evangelical tone. It is surprising and even disappointing to find that Thompson does not include among the writers he celebrates a Fyodor Dostoevski or a Nicholas Berdyaev. The absence of an Eastern Orthodox writer deprives the book of a larger spiritual dimension. Still, the reader need not quibble with the content of Christian Classics Revisited; we have an especially urgent need for such a book written by a teacher and critic conscious of “God in search of man.”

The spiritual and critical ethos that Thompson celebrates is hardly a popular one. Nor is it the kind that will gain either favor or attention in the popular press. Christian Classics Revisited will never command the kind of critical response routine!}’ accorded the sensationalistic and voyeuristic. Given the power of the secular conspiracy, Thompson’s book should make us all the more aware of why we now need standards of piety.


[Christian Classics Revisited, by James J. Thompson Jr.; Ignatius Press; San Francisco; S8.95]