Four UVA Graduate Students Give Papers at the International Conference on Religion, Literature, and Culture

William P. Boyce, "“Transgressing the Boundaries of Faith in Luther’s Galatians: A Theological Realignment”

Martin Luther casts a long shadow over modernity, no less at the edge of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Was Luther’s reformational theology ultimately fixated on clarity and category or was it scrambling rationality under the weight of paradox?  Although later Lutherans exhausted much energy on definitional precision, Luther himself remains frustratingly (or, generatively) unclear. In this paper, I revisit the exegetical polyvalence of Luther’s theology of faith, manifested in his Lectures on Galatians 1535.  First, I detail five interdependent vectors of understanding “faith” across Galatians, challenging the assumption of modern scholars who neglect these multifaceted contours and correcting for the impulse of early Lutherans who sought to pin down Luther’s complex delineations.  Then, I show that Luther’s confession of Christian fides must begin from the recognition of faith’s kaleidoscopic nature.  Finally, I offer a few ecclesial reflections on the meaning of confession given Luther’s prismatic theology of faith over against the narrowing demands of rationality’s classificatory system.  What are the discursive and aesthetic implications of framing faith as an alternative to reason, not in the oft-supposed sense of “sacred” versus “secular” but rather in the sense of open-ended trajectories versus concretized enclosures?

Ashleigh Elser, "Beyond the Breach: What Literary Readers of the Bible Might Learn from Higher Crticism"

Over the last century, literary approaches to the Bible have staked their claim in the field in oppositional terms: as a viable alternative to (or even a necessary deliverance from) the modes of reading and interpretation advanced by higher critical scholarship. The terms of this interpretive antagonism have been long been advanced in the polemical prefaces of literary guides to the Bible. There, literary readers as early as Richard Moulton and as late as Robert Alter draw clear lines in the sand between their own “literary” investments and the largely distortive modes of reading advanced by the “historical” investments of higher critical scholarship. The narrative discrepancies and compositional fissures foregrounded by higher critical scholarship are framed by these readers as largely irrelevant to the task of literary interpretation. By means of this polemical breach, reading the Bible as literature came to be strictly partitioned off from interpretive questions posed by the Bible’s internal frictions and the conflicts between the Bible’s competing narrators. Literary reading of the Bible came to be associated with an aesthetic reverence for the “final form” of the text and an underlying commitment to the canon’s stylistic and narrative unity.

In this paper, I offer a brief history of the under-examined polemical foundations of literary approaches to the Bible. Then, I make a case for why literary readers ought to see past these self-erected borders in their engagement with biblical narratives. Looking at Genesis’ divergent characterizations of Abraham as one salient example, I argue that attention to conflicts between biblical narrators might yield more than matters of merely “historical” concern. That is, the juxtaposition of divergent representations of Abraham’s character gives rise to thought, to new questions for literary readers and to new ways of considering characterization and genre in biblical literature.

Charles A. Gillespie, “Confessing Rhetorical Lines: Augustine’s Positive Performance Theory"

Two phenomena—virtuosic literary descriptions of events and the conference performance of scholarship—point to the complex relationship between writing and embodiment. Theologizing representation in Christian thought remains entangled with an ancient anti-theatrical bias. Early church figures like Tertullian drew a sharp line between the sacramental performance of the Eucharist and the violent civic rituals of Roman spectacles. These anxieties appropriated the logic that banished tragedians from Plato’s Republic: theatrical mimesis blurs distinctions between artistic falsehood and real life. But, much like Plato’s philosophical poetry, Augustine’s rhetorical skill troubles an easy and general binary between the holy drama of liturgy and the demonic charades of theatrical spectacle. Rather than add to Augustine’s warnings about the danger of theatre, I try to develop Augustine’s positive account of performance. Augustine’s literary gifts help us take theatre more seriously. In only a few pages, Erich Auerbach unfolds the Alypius passage in Confessions VI as a text rich with rhetorical devices that simulate both Biblical parataxis and Ciceronian crescendo. Drawing on my work in theatre studies, my presentation will use a ‘performative research methodology’ to stage a live performance example demonstrating how Augustine’s prose ‘feels and directly presents human life, and it lives before our eyes’ (Auerbach, Mimesis). I juxtapose Auerbach’s account of the Roman games in Confessions and City of God with Augustine’s preaching on Eucharistic vision. Liturgical performance makes present a reality that re-figures memory and community. Augustine’s rhetoric aims at transfiguration: he calls for a reader’s own conversion in Confessions; he gives a sense of civic pilgrimage to consummation in City of God; he invites hearers of Sermon 272 to become a new body. Augustine need not further separate textual analysis from embodied re-presentation; indeed, he might be an unexpected ally for crossing the anti-theatrical line in religion and literature scholarship.

Joseph Lenow, "Leaving Eden: Destructive Plasticity and Exceeding Gender in Hemingway's The Garden of Eden"

This paper examines the issues of gender, identity, and personal change raised by the narrative of Catherine Bourne in Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous novel The Garden of Eden. Making use of Catherine Malabou’s notion of “destructive plasticity” and Kathryn Tanner’s discussion of human plasticity as a mark of divine grace, I argue that Hemingway’s novel challenges the adequacy of accounts of self-transformation relying on Aristotelian categories of habituation. Some changes require an interruption in the continuity of our sense of self, a metaphorical Eden that must be left behind to enable a new form of life in the world.