Seeing Into The Life Of Things

Book emerges from Jesuit Institute discussion of religion
and the arts

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

A Jesuit Institute-sponsored discussion on the religious experience in the arts, which helped launch a quarterly journal in 1996, has now inspired a book its creators hope will extend the discussion.

Edited by Rattigan Professor of English John Mahoney, Seeing Into the Life of Things contains essays from Boston College contributors and other scholars and writers, including renowned author Henry Louis Gates Jr. Mahoney, who also authored one of the pieces, says the book offers both a theoretical and practical approach to the sometimes controversial relationship between religion and the verbal, visual and performing arts.

Book contributors include, from left: Part-time faculty member John Anderson (English); College of Arts and Sciences Dean J. Robert Barth, SJ; Prof. Judith Wilt (English); Rattigan Professor of English John Mahoney, the book's editor; Prof. Joseph Appleyard, SJ (English); and Prof. E. Dennis Taylor (English). (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Mahoney feels the book's potential readership extends beyond academic circles. Its references and subjects, ranging from the work of Flannery O'Connor and the Woody Allen movie "Crimes and Misdemeanors," to popular religious autobiographies, would appeal to anyone "with an interest in popular culture," he said.

"The conversations we've had continually focused on how to talk about religion, and religious art, in a larger cultural context," he explained. "Cultural studies nowadays bring forth questions of race, nationality and gender, so the issue is how religious experience should be addressed by the larger critical community.

" Seeing Into the Life of Things is a response to this need," Mahoney continued. "One comment from the discussions which made an impression was that we need to have a language to talk about, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins or George Herbert. Can we discuss the quality of virtue in literature without fear of sounding pious? It seemed that these questions could be posed outside the seminar as well, and so we invited other writers to participate."

Contributors to the book include College of Arts and Sciences Dean J. Robert Barth, SJ, English Department professors Joseph Appleyard, SJ, Judith Wilt and E. Dennis Taylor - editor of the Religion and Arts journal supported by the Jesuit Institute - and part-time faculty member John Anderson.

Other contributors with ties to University are College of the Holy Cross Professor of English Philip Rule, a former Jesuit Institute fellow; Williams College Professor of English Stephen Fix, a 1974 alumnus; and University College Dublin Professor of Philosophy Richard Kearney, a regular visiting faculty member in the Philosophy Department.

The remaining authors include Gates, who is W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Humanities at Harvard University; Harvard Divinity School faculty member Jane Rzepka, a Unitarian Universalist minister; and her husband, Boston University Professor of English Charles Rzepka.

Some of the writers took part in a series of faculty discussions at the Jesuit Institute beginning in 1990 which eventually resulted in the creation of Religion and the Arts . Taylor echoes many of the major themes from those conversations in his essay opening the book's first section, which explores larger theoretical issues.

"The book dovetails very well with the purpose behind the journal," Taylor said. "In my chapter, I wanted to pose a question and challenge the journal consistently deals with: How do we discuss the religious and the spiritual in literature?"

Following that premise, Wilt contributed a chapter on religious and spiritual imagery in American film. Analyzing such elements as music, editing and technological effects, Wilt sees an increasing use of religious references in commercially produced movies. The latter part of her essay scrutinizes two contemporary films, "Powwow Highway" and "Household Saints," using this criteria.

"In movies like these which explore specific ethnic groups, religious history is understood to be part of these ethnic lives," Wilt said. "So while the film's primary interest is in providing entertainment, at the same time it conveys these religious and spiritual messages."

The book's second section offers critical and pedagogical approaches to poems, stories, novels, and other forms, or to individual writers. Mahoney, for example, looks at the works of poet Stevie Smith, and Fix appraises author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson.

"I think the book's range of subjects is very appropriate," said Fr. Barth, whose essay examines Hopkins, the renowned Jesuit poet. "The discussions which fostered the book certainly reflected a diversity of interests, from fiction to poetry to cinema. Seeing Into the Life captures the essence of that discourse."

Return to Oct. 2 menu

Return to Chronicle home page