Book of Year Award 2009
The Incarnate Text: Imagining the Book in Reformation England
The 2009 Conference on Christianity and Literature Book of the Year Award goes to James Kearney for The Incarnate Text: Imagining the Book in Reformation England from University of Pennsylvania Press. Addressing a multiplicity of complexly interrelated tensions—between Roman Catholic and Protestant conceptions of images and texts, between patristic and humanist translation practices, between the visual and the aural, among others—Kearney focuses on “the ways in which the book was imagined during a crisis in representation and language, a crisis that was sparked by the Reformation” (2).
As he explains in his introduction,
"Many Reformers embraced written language as the medium and the book as the vehicle of godly authority and Christian truth. Many championed the vernacular Bible and Christian literacy as antidotes to ignorance, superstition, and idolatry. … At the same time, Reformers were suspicious of all human media, of the fallen material dimension of all representation. They distrusted the material dimension of text, of all that might be associated with the letter rather than the spirit, and so this return to the book, this embrace of text, was fraught with ambivalence." (3)
In his first chapter, Kearney “explore[s] the ways in which the humanist desire to attend to the historicity of text and the Reformation desire to exalt the text of scripture to the center of Christian experience strain the traditional ways in which scripture was conceived” (54). In challenging and careful close readings, Kearney illustrates this tension in the works of Desiderius Erasmus, William Tyndale, and Thomas More, reaching the surprising conclusion that “the Lutheran Tyndale adopts an Erasmian optimism about the ability of writing to transmit God’s word and will, while Erasmus’s friend and colleague More adopts a Lutheran pessimism about the ability of written language to transcend its fallen condition” (84).
Chapter two considers the ambivalences shaping Book I of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which Kearney describes as “A Protestant poem whose hero is an apocryphal Catholic saint, an iconoclastic poem that consistently relies on elaborate Catholic imagery,” and in short, as “a work whose utter strangeness has not been fully appreciated by modern readers” (86). The third chapter argues that Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus in his apostasy follows the pattern “of an influential form of the conversion narrative: the readerly or textual conversion. By staging apostasy as textual conversion, Marlowe points … to the disturbing implications of the conventional Christian notion that texts penetrate and transform readers” (142). Chapter four reads Shakespeare’s The Tempest “as a meditation on the function of the book as both instrument and justification of European dominion.” An epilogue suggests that Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis simultaneously affirms and marginalizes Christianity.
In his explication and examination of these various ambivalences, Kearney demonstrates a remarkably broad erudition, skillfully drawing on theological and aesthetic discourse, history of religion and history of the text, cultural materialism, hermeneutics, and translation theory. He forges interpretively profound links between Christian theological history and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century British literature. His analysis avoids simplistic approaches in which literature is used to proof-text theological traditions or in which theological concepts are treated as separable categories. Instead, Kearney shows that literature and Christianity both contribute to and draw on a discourse which is wary of material texts.
Kearney’s ability to examine literature in the light of theological conflict embodies a scholarly ideal perched between interpretive originality and documentary rigor. From a methodological standpoint, Kearney deftly combines the critical tools of formalism and historicism. His astute close readings and careful attention to historical discourses complement—rather than compete with—each other. The book provides a model for reading that will make it much harder for future scholarship to assume a false opposition between approaches grounded in material culture and approaches grounded in theological concerns.
2009 Book of Year Award Committe
William Tate, Covenant College
Benjamin Myers, Oklahoma Baptist University
Christopher Noble, Azusa Pacific University