Christianity in Literature

I was thinking about my initial reading of John Redding Goes to Sea and how I saw John as a Christ figure. When reading, the description of John Redding’s body floating in the water stood out to me as reflecting the death of Jesus because of the positioning of his body, his torn clothes, and his blood mixing in with the water. In our discussion on Wednesday, I couldn’t come up with a reason for why I picked out this image and asked a question regarding Christianity and Biblical references. I think part of the reason is that I have been trained in past classes to look for the Christ figure while reading, since it has been brought up in so many discussions I have had before. During my freshman year of high school, Simon from Lord of the Flies was identified as a Christ figure. Same with Santiago from Old Man and The Sea my sophomore year and Jim Casy from Grapes of Wrath my junior year of high school. Just a few weeks ago in my American Lit class, one of my classmates brought up the question of whether Benjy from The Sound and the Fury could be seen as a Christ figure. Christ figures have popped up everywhere for me in my past English classes, which is why it is something I look for when reading.

There’s a danger, I think, that comes with searching for Christ figures in literature. They are usually the character in the story that makes sacrifices, is good with children, and/or experiences physical suffering. By assigning these characters the title of the Christ figure, readers accentuate the importance and power of the character’s sacrifices and morality. The issue with this – it excludes characters in literature who are women, and it excludes non-Christian readers, or those who have no exposure to the Christian religion, from a full reading of the text and the author’s intention in the crafting of a character.

Turning to Zora Neale Hurston, we discussed on Monday the lack of reverence for religion in Mules and Men. This can be seen in stories like the tale of why the church split, as Charlie explains that Christ glued together eleven rocks to build his church on. Hurston’s folklore involved a satire of Christianity as the religion of colonialism, which was imposed on African Americans who were deemed “never ready” to accept religion. Taking this point from our Mules and Men discussion, I identified John Redding as a possible Christ figure in Wednesday’s reading due to the heavy influence religion, or the critique and satire of it, had in other works of Hurston’s. Christianity plays an important role in the history and folklore that Hurston is attempting to preserve and share through her writing.

So, I guess the question I am asking of myself and others here is what is the danger of automatically identifying good male characters as Christ figures in literature? How can we reconcile this with the intention of authors and the influence Christianity has on so many works of literature? I know this is a lot broader than the specific readings we discussed this week, but the question of why so many of us posed questions about Christianity really stuck with me. Why do we (I) instinctively read this way?

3 Replies to “Christianity in Literature”

  1. I think this comparison has merit and also functions within the view of Hurston as an author criticizing religion and the organization of religion as a whole in her writing. In John’s death, he attempts to work and function outside of his community by going to the sea. While he does accomplish this with his dead body floating upon the log, the image of him spread like Christ upon the cross hammers home her points about the failures and shortcomings of religion. While he may achieve this sort of Christlike nature on a superficial level, his failure to truly attain what he desires is an echo of Hurston’s criticism of religion, seen elsewhere in “John Redding Goes to Sea” as well as her other works. Also, I agree that perhaps people are too quick to put the mantle of “Christlike” upon characters who somehow sacrifice themselves for the good of others, and I believe that Hurston is aware of this trope as well, raised with a preacher for a father. Her use of John Redding to subvert this literary device shows that even though he suffered and died, his community is still no better off, now even dealing with and grieving the loss of one of their own.

  2. This is an interesting point. I think our positioning as students at a Catholic university matters here. I think that, regardless of whether the author intends for the character to be a Christ-figure, we can look at the comparison between the character and Christ. While Hurston may not have intended John Redding to be a Christ figure, the idea of sacrifice is certainly prevalent in that short story. At one point, John criticizes his mother for emphasizing self-sacrifice in her son but never practicing it herself. Thus, the idea of sacrifice is certainly prevalent and the Christ comparison is sensible.

    he willingness to see Christ figures is a bias we bring to the text. Yet, if we think about Christ as a “character,” he fits within a larger trope of the sacrificial lamb, seen earlier in the Bible. In actuality, we are making comparisons to another text. Comparing someone to Christ is the same as comparing a character to Holden Caulfield or Atticus Finch. These comparisons are exclusionary if someone has not read The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird. While this exclusion isn’t as historically significant as religion-based exclusion, I think the comparison to Christ that we make continuously presents a similar exclusion.

  3. I think asking why many readers are so quick to identify Christ figures is a really interesting question and I’m willing to bet the answer is fairly nuanced. If we view Christianity as the religion of colonization it makes sense – Christianity has such a prominence culturally that there are Christian influences in our daily lives, whether we practice Christianity or not, that I’m sure we don’t even recognize. Maybe Christian authors have been privileged over others in the teaching and creation of the literary canon and so we are more aware of books with those religious and philosophical underpinnings. Think about how we have been conditioned to see them too. I also read Old Man and the Sea in high school and recognizing the Christ figure was a way of teaching us how to critically read texts. There’s a ubiquity to this narrative and figure, as you’ve noted, that can be hard to notice, if you aren’t one of the people who are alienated by its prominence in literary teaching. I don’t know that it is necessarily a bad thing to potentially identify a Christ-figure in a text, especially if Christ is a part of your religious beliefs. But I think it does reflect a need to think critically about how we are teaching literary analysis and which authors and traditions are represented when we do.

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