Literature: Critical Theory and Religious Studies

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Interpretation and understanding of literature has been closely linked with the development of religious thought in nearly all cultures. Literary theory and theology are rarely separated, especially in contemporary, postmodern critical theory. The term hermeneutics, or the theory of interpretation, contains a reference to Hermes, the messenger of the gods according to Greek mythology. He helped humans to understand the decisions of the Olympians. Hermeneutics seeks not only to clarify the relationship between the text and the minds of those seeking to understand it, but also to bridge the gap between the earthly and the divine. In its origins, it is a profoundly theological task, closely associated with evolving from an oral to a written scriptural tradition and of translating texts from one language and culture to another. Transmitting sacred texts using the fallible sign systems of human language requires careful and methodical thought as a preservative against the taboos often associated with the translations of such texts. George Steiner, in his foreword to the 1973 book Translating Religious Texts, noted that in one tradition, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek Septuagint (probably begun in the third century bce) was the result of angelic guidance. On the other hand, another tradition preserved in the Megillath Taanith (first century ce) records that three days of darkness enveloped the earth as mourning for expressing the Law in profane Greek.

Hinduism and Buddhism

In the Vedic period of Hinduism (c.1500500 bce), scholars memorized the learning (the word Veda means "knowledge") and handed it down orally; eventually, the ancient rulers and sages joined forces with the Brahmin, who provided religious legitimization of their power, to begin composing written texts. The Brahmanas and the Upaniads discuss the meaning and purpose of Vedic ritual practices, the latter frequently indicating that nothing of value can be achieved by them in this changing world. By the fifth century, the Brahmins had developed a sophisticated system of phonetics and grammar (notably Panini's grammar of Sanskrit) which enabled the development of thinking in a wide range of literature, from mathematics texts of Hindu theology, and to poetry, most notably the Mahābhārata, within which is to be found the Bhagavadgītā. This poem gave rise to a vast tradition of commentary in Sanskrit and other Indian languages.

As Buddhism entered China, traveling through Central Asia, the process of assimilation occurred in three phases: first, the period of translation; next, the interpretation phase, called Ko-yi Buddhism, and finally, the philosophical systematization of the T'ien-t'ai and Hua yen schools. In the second century ce, Buddhist monks in Central Asia who were competent in Sanskrit and Chinese (as well as other languages) translated the texts. Consequently translation also resulted in interpretation, as Mahāyāna Buddhism shifted from interest in the historical Buddha to more philosophical concerns. Early translations gave rise to a new sort of hermeneutics, or phase of interpretation, called Ko-yi Buddhism. Based upon an analogical method (ko-yi means "extending the idea"), this approach explores the similarities between the Daoist "nothing" and the Buddhist "emptiness." Finally, by the sixth century ce, Kiyoshi Tsuchiya notes in Major World Religions that Chinese Buddhists of the T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen schools had reinterpreted all the major doctrines into a synthetic whole, describing enlightenment in a sophisticated and speculative philosophical language, in contrast to the simple theology of Pure Land Buddhism.

The Religions of the Book

In Sura 29.45 of the Qurʾān, it is urged: "Do not dispute with the People of the Book: say, we believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you; our God and your God is one." The People of the Book are adherents of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These believers share a sense of the revealed nature of their sacred texts, but each faith adopts a very different understanding of textuality as well as its own distinct hermeneutical approach.

In a sense, the Qurʾān is not actually a text; rather, it is the recitation (qurʾān) of revelations by God, the umm al-kitāb (the "Mother of the Book"). In other words, it is fundamentally oral, and therefore it provokes a very different hermeneutics than, for example, the written tradition of the Christian Bible. Translation is literally impossible (rather than forbidden), while reading is not understood as an appropriation of the text but rather as a participation in it. As Gerald Bruns noted, in the 1992 book Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern, "To understand the Qurʾān is to disappear into it."

One of the greatest hermeneutical scholars of the Qurʾān was Abū Hāmid Muhammad al-Ghazāli (twelfth century ce). Al-Ghazāli's hermeneutics stress the primacy of seeing God for oneself within a mystical experience rather than relying on the authority of exegesis. He sets scriptural interpretation firmly at the level of individual experience; on this foundation, al-Ghazāli establishes rules for recitation, including posture instruction and reading speed. Recitation thus performed will lead the reader to a direct experience of God. Al-Ghazāli states that no darkness resides within the text itself, but only in the human mind; he describes the four veils that obscure understanding, such as adhering to dogma rather than witnessing mystical visions. But the purpose of recitation, he believes, is not exegesis or interpretation; instead, it is to experience the speech of God. In these hermeneutics, understanding of the text is not mediated by tradition; rather, understanding of the tradition is mediated by experience of the text.

Vast differences exist between such hermeneutics and the hermeneutics of Torah; the rabbinic tradition is rooted in utterly different understandings of its sacred texts. The Qurʾān exists only as recitation, while Torah exists only in, or as, its letters. As Susan Handelman explains in her 1982 book The Slayers of Moses, "Every crownlet of every letter is filled with significance, and even the forms of letters are hints to profound meanings." Jewish scholars have always understood the Torah, not as divinely inspired human words, but as the very words of God; not as a physical book, but as the blueprint and essence of creation. Thus, Erich Auerbach can say of the stories of Genesis that "doctrine and promise are incarnate in them and inseparable from them" (Mimesis, 1945), and their purpose is not to yield any clear meaning, but rather to leave traces and to provoke and demand many and different voices of interpretation. Against this background stands the genre of biblical exegesis known as midrash, which began with oral transmission in the rabbinic schools, and flourished at the time of the Tannaitic and Amoraic Sages (70220 ce, and 220400 ce). In his 1987 book What is Midrash?, Jacob Neusner defines midrash as "biblical exegesis by ancient Judaic authorities." He divides it into three approaches: first, Midrash as paraphrase, in which the commentator participates in the composition of the text; second, Midrash as prophecy; and third, Midrash as parable or allegory. Above all, midrash is to be seen as a process, rather than as an interpretative exercise seeking definite meaning. The midrashic was one of four overlapping schools of Jewish hermeneutics; the other three were the Literalist, which was applied particularly to deuteronomistic legislation, the Pesher, which was characteristic of the Qumran community and claimed particular knowledge of divine mysteries, and the Allegorical, which understood the text symbolically and pointed beyond itself to a deeper reality (Jeanrond, Theological Hermeneutics, 1991).

Before discussing early Christian hermeneutics, to the reader should briefly review classical literary theory; in particular, Plato, Aristotle, and the tradition of rhetoric, originating in ancient Greece and transmitted into Christian literature largely through the writings of Cicero (10643 bce). These traditions mingled with Jewish hermeneutics to form a body of hermeneutics that continues to serve as the foundation for literary critical theory in Western thought. As observed by Raman Selden in The Theory of Criticism (1988), Plato regarded the artist or poet as an imitator of imitations, twice removed from the "essential nature of a thing": the poet imitates a physical object which is merely a faint copy of the Idea (or Form) of the thing itself. In Plato's Republic, "imitation" (mimesis ) is regarded negatively and seen as a decline from the purity of the original. Aristotle, on the other hand, in the Poetics, regards mimesis as a basic and instinctive human faculty; he sees literature not as an imitation of the illusion of reality, but as an imitation of what is essential to reality itself. Aristotle both develops and diverges from Plato, indicating that art and poetry do not simply appeal to the more inferior human faculties but to the natural human instinct to imitate.

These fundamental differences in classical literary understanding underlie the divergences between the two schools of Christian interpretation of the Bible, based at Alexandria and Antioch in the third and fourth centuries ce, respectively. Between them, they represent the most developed forms of early Christian hermeneutics. Both schools were deeply influenced by traditions of Jewish interpretation theory and practice. The first great scholar of the Platonic Alexandrian school, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150215), received a broad education from both Jewish and Greek teachers. He established an allegorical reading of Scripture, understood as a language of symbols; this interpretation was taken up and systematized by Origen (c. 185c. 254 ce). For Origen, because scripture contains the ultimate mystery, the texts can never be literal and are thus to be read allegorically. At the school of Antioch, however, following the local Jewish traditions of interpretation with an Aristotelian bent, scholars read scripture literally. They believed it described historical events and had no hidden meanings; its stories were therefore clear and available to all. One of its principal scholars, Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350428), dismissed the Alexandrian interpreters as "stupid people."

The greatest of the early Christian scholars in the field of hermeneutics is undoubtedly St. Augustine of Hippo (354430). Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine was a teacher of classical rhetoric, deeply influenced by Cicero, and well read in classical philosophy. His influential work De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine) is essentially a systematic hermeneutics, balancing both allegorical and literal readings of scripture, advocating a careful linguistic analysis of the texts, and developing a theory of signs (semiotics) which anticipates modern scholarship. Arguing that words are only signs, Augustine regarded the Bible as human texts that refer to God. He also insisted upon a proper attitude or perspective when reading Scripture, namely that of love, an insight that can only be derived from reading the Bible itself. He thus established the principle of the "hermeneutic circle," which was only fully acknowledged centuries later by scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834). Augustine's sophisticated theory of reading scripture remained largely unchallenged through the Middle Ages, and continues to provide the basis of much contemporary hermeneutical theory and practice.

Medieval and scholastic hermeneutics continued to insist that scripture offers not merely one way of reading; for example, Nicholas of Lyra (c. 12701349) described four waysthe literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. Even so, biblical hermeneutics tended to take second place to the "science" of the theology of the Church. Change came about with the rise of the Christian Humanism of Renaissance thinkers like Desiderius Erasmus (c. 14661536) and the Protestant hermeneutics of Martin Luther and John Calvin. For Luther, the principle of sola scriptura ("scripture alone"), accompanied by the development of vernacular translations of the Bible, established a clear division between sacred and profane literature that would eventually separate the processes of studying the Bible from developments in the understanding of all other literature and literary theory. Thus, although scholar Terry Eagleton ascribes the growth of professional English studies in the later nineteenth century to one major cause, "the failure of religion" (Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 1983), its roots also lie deep in Protestant hermeneutics. In the seventeenth century, the poet Andrew Marvell feared that John Milton's incursion into biblical space in Paradise Lost might result in the ruin of sacred truths ("On Mr. Milton's Paradise Lost"), and in the next century, Dr. Johnson remarked that Milton was preserved only "by religious reverence from licentiousness of fiction" (The Lives of the Poets, 17791781).

The eighteenth century in Germany and England saw the development of a technical science of hermeneutics that profoundly affected the way in which the Bible was readchanging to a hermeneutics of suspicion rather than a hermeneutics of faith. German theologian Schleiermacher established a critical balance between faith and reason, setting the pattern for contemporary biblical hermeneutics. Similar to St. Augustine, Schleiermacher insisted that scriptural reading be divided into two parts: psychological interpretation, which is concerned with the interplay between the text and the reader, and grammatical interpretation, which requires the careful examination of the linguistic and grammatical structures of the text. Later in the nineteenth century, German theologian David Friedrich Strauss (18081874), in his great 1835 work Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), read the gospels critically, seeking to undercut the Christian religion and its assumptions using a radical hermeneutics which anticipated a Christianity suited to the modern age, separate and distinct from its historical origins and scriptural traditions.

Biblical hermeneutics in the early part of the twentieth century was dominated by two figures, Swiss theologian Karl Barth (18861986) and German theologian Rudolf Bultmann (18841976). Early in his career, Barth wrote: "The Historical-critical Method of Biblical investigation has its rightful place: It is concerned with the preparation of the intelligenceand this can never be superfluous. But, were I driven to choose between it and the venerable doctrine of Inspiration, I should without hesitation adopt the latter, which has a broader, deeper and more important justification" (preface to the first edition of The Epistle to the Romans, 1918). Barth admits his debt to such writers as Søren Kierkegaard (18131855) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (18211881) in his interpretation of the New Testament. Bultmann, on the other hand, bases his biblical hermeneutics firmly within the context of existentialist philosophy and the thought of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (18891976), concentrating not upon a reconstruction of the beginning of the text's life (historical criticism of the Bible tends to focus on the origins of the text as the place of interpretation), but upon the present "existential" moment of encounter between the text and the reader. In the early twenty-first century, attention has turned to more recent developments in critical theory, hermeneutic, and religious studies; one of the major contributors has been French thinker Paul Ricoeur (1913) whose long and multi-disciplinary career has been largely devoted to exploring the relationship between religious thought and literary reflection. In The Symbolism of Evil (1960), Ricoeur explores the notion of "evil" as always requiring a process of interpretation, a hermeneutics, for its very identification. In his more recent Thinking Biblically (1998), written in collaboration with the biblical scholar André LaCoque, he comments on specific passages from the Hebrew Bible, highlighting their metaphorical structure and indicating how they have acted as catalysts for philosophical reflection. For example, in his discussion of Psalm 22, Ricoeur explores how the structure and "poetic composition" of the psalm become the condition of its "reactualization" in prayer and religious reflection.

From Modernity to Postmodernity

In his article on literature and religion in the first edition of this encyclopedia, scholar Anthony Yu outlines the increasing importance of literary critical theory to biblical criticism and religious thought, giving particular emphasis to the effects of New Critical thinking and suggesting that "the history of literary theory over the past thirty years may be regarded a steady and increasingly stringent attack on New Critical doctrines of the text and the interpreter." At the same time, however, many of the underlying doctrines of New Criticism have remained influential and tenacious in literary theory, even while the privilege given to the text as the vehicle of meaning has been eroded. In Yu's brief discussion, which concludes with comments on deconstruction and the earlier works of the French thinker Jacques Derrida and his "Cassandra-like" utterances against logocentrism and the "irreducibly sacred," he pays little attention to the globalization and politicization of critical theory, the merging of religious traditions in common critical discourses, the interaction between liberation ethics and theologies and literary and cultural theory, and the theological shiftoften with a deeply mystical qualityrepresented in varieties of post-foundational thinking that owe much to poetic theory and practice. Such topics must be explored more fully.

Many of the most important figures working in contemporary and postmodern literary theory write from a Jewish background: Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, Robert Alter, Emanuel Levinas, among others. Susan Handelman (The Slayers of Moses [1982], Fragments of Redemption [1991]) has examined the theological bases of current interpretation theory, suggesting a shift from the predominantly abstract and philosophical preoccupations of Hellenic thought to a more text-based approach reminiscent of rabbinic thought and practice. In Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), Harold Bloom addresses the "mysticism" of Jewish Kabbalah, differentiating it from Christian or Eastern mysticism as an interpretative tradition that sought knowledge in the Book and was centered in the Bible. If today literary criticism has become a kind of substitute theology, it is because arguably its concern for text and textuality is rooted in the theology of the Book, and Derrida, who often reminds others of his background in rabbinic traditions by autograph signatures ("Reb Derissa"the laughing Rabbi) or graphic devices in his texts reminiscent of Talmudic commentary, promotes the matter of endless writing as if to set the Jewish against the more definitive Greco-Christian tradition (Christopher Norris, Derrida, 1987). The loss of certainty, which is often perceived as the deepest characteristic of postmodernity, is located by Derrida in "the absence of the Jewish God (who himself writes, when necessary). As the absence and haunting of the divine sign, it regulates all modern criticism and aesthetics" (Derrida, Writing and Difference, 1978). From such beginnings was fashioned the "a/theology" of Mark C. Taylor's Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (1984), with its sense of the unending play of signification in the mazes of "erring Scripture," though Taylor's work begins by relocating Derrida's sense of the absent God in the "death of God," an "event" within the Christian tradition, as reported in the parable of the madman in German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's The Gay Science (1882).

Thus, close affinities exist between the hermeneutical practices of midrash and much of postmodern literary theorythe open-ended nature of the text, the emphasis on writing, the sense of the struggle with the text, and the participation in endless debate rather than the search to establish meaning. The claims of "literary approaches" to the Bible, however, as opposed to the scholarly approaches of the historical critical methodsource, form and redaction criticismbegan much earlier, and can be traced back at least to the work of scholar Austin Farrer in the 1950s, and the later debates over his work between Helen Gardner and Frank Kermode. It was Kermode, in his key text The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), writing as a "secular" critic, who reintroduced the narratives of Scriptures, and in particular the Gospel of Mark, to the arena of literary debate alongside texts from fiction and poetry. Within Kermode's project are two strands, studying the Bible as literature (an activity denounced by poet T. S. Eliot as early as 1935, but taken up in the 1960s by literary scholars like T. R. Henn), and studying the Bible within the canons of literature. The pursuit of the first of these approaches resulted in the volume, which Kermode edited with Robert Alter, entitled The Literary Guide to the Bible (1987); this work sought to avoid the duplication of "traditional historical scholarship" and to celebrate the Bible as literature of major significance. Alter and Kermode specifically rejected the "cultural or metaphysical ruminations" of political or postmodern readings of the texttheir literary approach remains profoundly based in New Critical assumptions. Such literary preoccupations, however, can never be as innocent as Kermode and Alter might seem to imply, and the redefinition of the task of interpretation in hermeneutics and contemporary literary theory has shifted biblical studies away from its traditional emphasis on historical origins and authorial intention towards greater attention to the reader and "reader-response." At the same time, the claims of deconstruction have challenged notions of the coherence and unity of the text; they also question the repressions inherent in such notions (Francis Watson, ed.; The Open Text, 1993). These two shifts have spawned various forms of liberation criticism that seek to expose the coherencies of power perceived both within the texts of the Bible and in the traditions of reading and interpreting them. Two major forms of such criticism exist: first, within various kinds of feminist critique; and second, within the growing field of post-colonial criticism of the Bible.

For example, feminist scholar Mieke Bal claims to establish a "countercoherence" in the Book of Judges which exposes the patriarchal narrative of salvation history as effecting an extreme, gender-bound violence against women, both within the social institutions of the book and its politics of history. Reading the stories of unnamed young women, such as that of the Levite's concubine in chapter 19, she develops an interdisciplinary hermeneutics, drawing upon narratology, anthropology, and other disciplines within the human sciences, to challenge what she calls the arbitrary and biased limits of biblical scholarship. A similar interdisciplinarity characterizes the newer project of postcolonial criticism of the Bible (R. S. Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, 2002). This approach seeks a hermeneutics that exposes the imperialist oppression effected by biblical interpretation, accompanying colonial rule as the twin pillars of imperial control in the nineteenth-century empires of Great Britain, France, and Portugal. In his 1947 book The British Empire in the Light of Prophecy, Bernard Bateson identifies that imperial powers perceived their colonial acquisitions as fulfilling the prophecy of Genesis 28:14: "Thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south."

Contemporary critical theory has affected theology and the interpretation of the Bible in four areas: representation, history, ethics, and aesthetics (Graham Ward, Theology and Contemporary Critical Theory, 1996).The work of Derrida and others on issues of text and textuality radically deconstruct traditional assumptions about subjectivity and text as representation, with massive implications for religious thought. Thus, scholar Luce Irigaray has stated: "We need to reinterpret everything concerning the relations between the subject and discourse, the subject and the world, the subject and the cosmic, the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. Everything, beginning with the way in which the subject has been written" (An Ethics of Sexual Difference, 1993). Moreover, the history, especially in the reading of the Bible, has been deconstructed by critics such as Michel Foucault, resisting and breaking up those continuities which, he suggests, silence the articulation and voice of the imprisoned and oppressed. Far from advocating, as some would suggest, a kind of nihilistic textual free play, postmodern criticism opens up radical ethical perspectives and "an unconditional categorical imperative or moment of affirmation" (Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction, 1992) that are deeply rooted in ancient and neglected forms of theological thinking. Finally, a renewed interest in aesthetics relates closely to questions of representation and the importance of the poet and the artist in primary religious reflection and experience.

Although Jewish and Christian perspectives have been predominant in all such contemporary critical theory, a great deal of such activity has been characterized by a non-adherence to any particular religious tradition or confession. Indeed, much of modern literary theory is atheistic, first heavily dependent upon Enlightenment thought and later upon Marxist, psychoanalytic, and other skeptical forms of analysis. In The Death of the Author (1968), Roland Barthes describes the post-structuralist emphasis on textuality as "an anti-theological activity." At the same time, with increasing critical globalization, broad discussions within literary theory have also begun to embrace the texts and theologies of Eastern religions and Islam. But scholars continue to vigorously defend Christian literary theory, even after recognizing the modern objections to it, arguing that an act of faith is present in all systems of thought (Luke Ferretter, Towards a Christian Literary Theory, 2003). Within the interdisciplinary study of literature and religion in North America and the United Kingdom over the past fifty years, bold advances in literary theory and textual analysis have either provoked defenses of theology and biblical criticswithin the terms of a Christian anthropology which still recognize the possibilities for the Christian critic and post-structuralist and postmodern thoughtor else have driven new forms of theological thinking (though often within ancient ancestors) that are radical yet continue to claim Christian roots. Kevin Mills, for example, in his 1995 book Justifying Language, reads the Pauline letters through the lens of contemporary hermeneutics, which he claims can be thereby a Christian hermeneutics of faith, hope, and charity.

In the decade after biblical criticism finally produced the widely read Postmodern Bible (1995), written by "the Bible and Culture Collective," and its companion volume The Postmodern Bible Reader (2001), which has entered the arena of cultural studies, others have begun to acknowledge the passing of postmodernism. Yet before the majority of theologians have even begun to take seriously the possibility of a "postmodern theology," some have started to ponder what a post-postmodern theology might be like. In his book After Theory (2003), Terry Eagleton argues for the end of the age of "high theory" in literary and cultural studies. He claims that the new narrative of global capitalism exposes those questions that cultural theory has largely overlookedthe ancient issues of love, evil, death, morality, and religion. When a literary theorist like Eagleton, who was nurtured on Cambridge Marxism in the 1960s, concludes his latest book with a chapter entitled "Death, Evil and Non-being," those whose acknowledged business is religious studies need to take note.

Hermeneutics was nurtured on the reading of sacred texts, while the histories of religious thought and hermeneutics are bound together in all the great religious traditions. In Western thinking, the radical beliefs of the "death of God" theologians (Thomas J. J. Altizer, William Hamilton, and others) emerged from a profound interaction with poetry and literature; they asked radical questions about the identity of Christianity. In the 1966 book Radical Theology and the Death of God, Altizer asked, "Must Christianity be identified with its given or orthodox dogmatic form?" What had begun to appear was a form of non-foundational theology, in the work of the British theologian Don Cupitt, for example, based on the radical critique of the western metaphysics of presence by Heidegger and Derrida, and sharing much in common with the ancient theologies of mysticism and the via negativa. Scholar Mark C. Taylor has been defined as the first American "post-ecclesiastical theologian free of the scars or perhaps even the memory of Church theology" (Altizer). It remains to be seen if, in the aftermath of a critical revolution which much religious thought has yet to acknowledge, religious studies can survive as more than a form of historical enquiry, or whether the reading and interpretation of sacred texts will continue as other than merely a branch of wider literary studies outside the closed communities of traditional faith. Critical theory has offered a challenge to hermeneutics and religious thought that will not be denied if reading and thinking are to remain universal activities based on defensible universal principles. According to Cupitt, scholars must learn how to re-read Scripture in a radically different way: "The remedy is to learn to read the text horizontally, from sign to sign, and then we will see that the sideways resonance of the metaphoric is directly ethical. And if we thus relearn reading, then perhaps the text will not seem quite so intellectually obsolete as we feared it was" (The Long-Legged Fly, 1987).


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David Jasper (2005)

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