From Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature by Anthony Esolen (ISI Books, 2007):
Critics are fond of citing, as the inspiration for The Tempest, accounts of an English shipwreck off Bermuda, and what was hailed as the providential survival of the crew. No doubt Shakespeare had that shipwreck in mind. But far more important to the play are the allusions to scripture throughout. These allusions form a consistent and ironic pattern. In short, this farewell play is also a play of expectation – a play of Advent…
The Book of Common Prayer shows that among the readings Shakespeare would have heard at the obligatory services during Advent and the octave of Christmas were the entire book of Isaiah, the Letter of Jude, the letters of Peter, the gospel passages from Matthew that refer to the Second Coming, and the account in Acts of the travels and the shipwreck of Saint Paul. Every single important motif of The Tempest is to be found in these readings (particularly in Isaiah 29); there are no exceptions. All point to ends that are beginnings, and many comment ironically upon sinners who live amidst events and, as if they were sleepwalkers, cannot understand them.
The above is from page 123, in a roughly 400 page book. So far, that’s as far as I’ve read. So far, I am having mixed feelings about the book. Much of it is excellent, and mind-stretching, and eloquent, and makes me yearn to read (or reread) books the author is referencing. But Esolen, whose articles and blogging I have long learned from and enjoyed, occasionally detours in this book into the very sorts of mind games, and academic-speak, and what I see as over-analysis, that make me avoid, like the plague, most academic books about literature – seeing strange (and usually ‘earthy’) symbolism here, and deep significance there, in passages that don’t seem to me to need twisting around like that.
On the other hand, the ‘for crying out loud!’ moments (as I call them), have been few and far between, which puts this book way ahead of the pack in that regard.
And, significantly (oh, oh, now I’m claiming to point to significance – it must be catching, do you suppose?… 🙂 ), Esolen brings an understanding of Christianity to a study of books that are built on Christian foundations. He also notes (page 12):
…In the case of Christianity, it is as Chesterton puts it. You had better be in the faith completely or out of it completely. The worst position, if you want to understand it, is to be partly in and partly out, or to have a passing, culturally based familiarity with its surface. You are neither so familiar with it as to probe its depths, nor is it so strange that you are moved to approach it with care. You take the attitude of Petronius, or of “Tertium Quid.” You’ve seen it all before.
Apply a two-dimensional Christianity to the mature allegories of Spenser and Milton, and at once you will discover discrepancies and incoherence… Many such false dilemmas arise because the critic has failed to understand the subtleties of the Christian faith.
And Christianity is the subtlest of faiths, yet of a wondrous simplicity…
Luckily for those of us who aren’t as well-read, or perhaps don’t have the right sort of memory for it, when Esolen dishes up lines like the above-quoted ‘You take the attitude of Petronius, or of “Tertium Quid”,’ he provides enough context to let us know what he’s talking about. He might expect us to swim in deep waters, but he’s not out there to watch us poor readers drown in the wake of his brilliance. (I’ve read books like that. Or, to be more clear, I’ve tossed aside books like that. Haven’t you?)
The book, as you may guess from the pull quotes, serves up an education on Christianity as well as on literature. And it is nice to read a prolonged meditation on literature written by a man who likes literature, and isn’t just using it to tear apart into little pieces to impress his colleagues. It is also nice to read a scholarly study by someone who hasn’t sold out to the materialist view. Still, there are passages devoted to strange symbolism, to which the well-mannered lady in me objects…
It’s not a book for everyone, and I can’t say it clearly passes a “suitable for mixed company” test, but C.S. Lewis fans in particular might like to give it a go.