2007 Book Awards
Text of Citations given to winners and honorable mention recipients in December 2007
2007 Book Award committee:
Rituals of Spontaneity:
Sentiment and Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth
(Published by Baylor University Press)
Toward her book's final pages, Lori Branch articulates the critical and theological stakes of of Rituals of Spontaneity, her detailed and lively study of the history of sentimentality through several literary texts of the long eighteenth century. Branch writes "if there is any authentic spontaneity, any nonmechanistically determined experience or communion of genuine alterities across difference, we glimpse it, I believe, through beliefs and practices that shape a self of love, not through the shoring up of the subject of mastery" (225). While Branch has written Rituals of Spontaneity with undeniable mastery, her erudite account of Christian literature's inadvertent collusion with secular philosophies inspiringly reflects the author's loving beliefs and practices, both in faith and in literary scholarship.
In its concern with the privileging of spontaneity, its attention to the free prayer movement and its detailing of the cultural connections between secularism and religion, Rituals of Spontaneity finds its place in a scholarly trajectory that follows Ramie Targoff's 2001 CCL Award winner, Common Prayer, while moving toward the broader reach of Michael McKeon's recent foundational work in eighteenth-century literature, The Secret History of Domesticity. Unlike either Targoff or McKeon, however, Branch embarks on her project from an admirably gracious position of Christian belief. Her ability to enter these conversations as an unabashed Christian and also an unstintingly informed scholar earns her the right to be read, and she honors her readership with sculpted and winning prose.
Separate chapters offer thoughtful, energetic readings of John Bunyan's Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim's Progress, of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury's moral philosophy, and Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Sonnets, as well as Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno and Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield under the "market-friendly morality" (137) of their age.
Each time Branch turns her attention to a literary text, her readings reap new insights, both into the imaginative literature at hand and into the intermingling of religious thought and secular ideologies of economics, aesthetics and morality. For instance, her study of Bunyan reflects the myriad ways economic metaphors shape an understanding of the Christian's relationship with and access to a holy and mysterious God, while reminding readers of the full scope of metaphors that scripture offers for humans' relationship to the God who loves them. Committee members were unanimous in our agreement that Branch's intellectual gifts come through most strongly in her recovery of Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Sonnets and her insights into the impact of liturgy on the poet's work.
In describing Lori Branch's scholarship, committee member Christine Chaney writes: "She is not only upending many of the received ideas in this period, but she [also] does so by stellar insight, reasoning, and some of the newest scholarship of this field of study." Jonathan Nauman adds that Rituals of Spontaneity is "passionately written, densely researched, and ... quite original."
The profound faith and intellectual commitment that drives the wisdom of her conclusions speaks for Rituals of Spontaneity as this year's winner.
Dante's Hermeneutics of Salvation:
Passages to Freedom in the Divine Comedy
(Published by University of Toronto Press)
This is the kind of book that takes the deepest insights one has experienced through years of teaching and reading a text, articulates them so clearly as to make their expression seem effortlessly plain, and then significantly advances discussions on passage after passage, showing complete command of recent and historical scholarship all the while. Baur brings the Commedia into dialogue with Heideggerian hermeneutics with all the tact and magnanimity her philosophical training provides, understanding that such dialogue cedes priority to neither Dante's nor Heidegger's text, and that its import lies in successfully illuminating the real literary experience of the Commedia's reader.
The remarkable success of Christine Baur's work lies in her sustained examination of how Dante was able to have his reader join him in portraying the experience of the afterlife from within, enabling thereby a passage to freedom: "Since one's world always reflects and seemingly confirms the stance that one has taken ... the only way of knowing which world is a reflection of what is ‘really' the case is to see which world is consistent with one's own freedom or striving for freedom. Dante shows his reader that the infernal mindset is ultimately inconsistent with the meaning of human freedom, and it is on these grounds that the souls in the inferno are unhappy, rather than on the basis of any objective knowledge that their situation is inferior" (40). This passage epitomizes Baur's ability to clarify and open one's spiritual experience as a reader of the Commedia. Her work ushers us, not into the medieval mindset, but into Dante's remarkable literary performance, advocating that we enter the experience with full consciousness of all its problematics: "The truth of the poem therefore does not reside in the alleged historical accuracy of the poet's report of the pilgrim's journey or in the reader's thinking the same things that the poet thought when he composed the poem; rather, the truth lies in the pilgrim's [and reader's] growing awareness that he himself is responsible for freely choosing God as the source of meaning" (136-137).
"Dealing with erudite concepts as she does," says committee member Cheri Larsen Hoeckley, "Baur writes with grace, avoiding overuse of theoretical language." "Her deeply informed reading of this important Dante text and her rich use of a Gadamerian ‘fusion of horizons,'" committee member Christine Chaney would add, sheds light not only "on the work itself" but also "on readerly practices."
While discussing the Commedia's interplay between self-assertion and humility, Baur cites Dante's Purgatorio, "I had to fly: I mean with rapid wings / and pinions of immense desire" (iv. 25-29). She notes here that "not only the pilgrim, but the poet, too, ‘flies' with ‘penne' (feathers) that are linguistically indistinguishable from the ‘penne' (literally, quills) that he uses to accomplish the narrative journey of the poem" (146). Baur's own quill has admirably assisted us in readerly and spiritual flight both, clearly showing what the Commedia grants us all in 2007. We gratefully offer her the CCL's homage in return.
(Published by Finishing Line Press)
Few literary pleasures rival the discovery of a new poetic talent; and when the discovered poems also feature vigorous and intriguing reflections on contemporary and historical Christian themes, it becomes our business as CCL scholars and litterateurs to spread the news abroad. We have come across an artfully-shaped chap book this year, noting its mastery "of image and sound" deployed "in appealingly effective patterns" (Cheri Hoeckley), admiring the sharp, vivid imagery of its powerful and well-crafted poems (Chris Chaney).
The mastery of the testimonial stance, of word and phrase repetition, gave pause: it seemed as if anything might happen here. We encountered hibiscus-eating tortoises who provide a moment of communing between mother and daughter, witnessed how creation itself resists the violent spectacle of a martyr in the Colosseum, heard wry, unspoken repartee between a contemporary teacher and her Shakespeare class. But allow us to take you to a selection from the "Secret Center" of this collection, in which the poet startles us into reconsidering a well-known biblical figure, delivers a remarkably personal poetic vision, and advances a profoundly Christian appreciation of art. Please listen, as "David Considers His Music."
There is nothing too wonderful about it.
I pick it up, I play.
Is that not the life of a harp?
I cannot tell why people change
with these notes. Widows lift their tambourines,
children drop their rocks and stare.
Even the sheep look up from the field
as if they know more than they should.
I think I could turn over a rock
and watch the lichen pulse with each arpeggio.
It is ordinary to be amazing.
I don't try to do anything else.
At times I see the music play before me.
Deep chords become these violet mountains,
heaving from the ground like muscles.
A slow crescendo, the green power of a wave
washing over me, the elation of being small, being lost.
I like to play because I lose my place.
I play yet don't make anything happen.
I lift the harp as easily as grass sprouts around my ankles,
as olive leaves tumble down my back.
I believe I can carry a violet mountain
on my back. This is not amazing.
You see, I can only laugh when children stare
with wonder. I can't help the fingertips
that weave my soul around the strings.
There is something that keeps me awake
at the most beautiful hour, the black sky with light
pressing behind it. I cannot stop leaning over
the verge of possibility.
I think my song will fall through the decades
like a muscle of water. I think it will splash
children, widows and rocks. I think I will weave
my soul around the world. Thank you, Lord,
that I will have nothing to do with it,
that I will do it all.
Friends, we give you Tania Runyan's Delicious Air!