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Take five: Author Jamie Spencer discusses his book 'Fictional Religion'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 8, 2011 - The longtime, area professor Jamie Spencer says his new book includes the wisdom of a lifetime of teaching and reading scripture as a lay reader. He says the writers of fiction -- such as C.S. Lewis, George Bernard Shaw and others -- have kept the New Testament new.

Just a month after retiring from St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley, English professor Jamie Spencer is offering fans and former students some of his cherished ideas in his book "Fictional Religion: Keeping the New Testament New."

He will talk about a sign his book at 7 p.m., Wed., Aug. 10 at at Left Bank Books, 339 North Euclid. Polebridge Press published the 154-page paperback, which retails for $19.

The book's thesis is that creative fiction writers and poets often have shaped Christian doctrine though their inspired insights into the human condition and social consciousness. That's what the phrase "Keeping the New Testament New" means, he said. He pulls Christian wisdom from the fiction of 10 English writers from Chaucer to C.S. Lewis, from Irish writer George Bernard Shaw and American William Faulkner.

While librarians will shelve the book as literary criticism, Spencer thinks of it as a new field because his mission is to challenge believers to "take a more rational, more scholarly and more historical-critical approach to what many ages have agreed to consider sacred, possibly even written in stone."

Spencer, 66, taught English literature at Flo Valley since the mid-1970s: at first part time, overlapping with a full-time job teaching English literature to high school girls at Mary Institute for 20 years. In 1993, the year after the girls' school merged with Spencer's alma mater, Country Day School, he left to teach at Flo Valley full time.

In retirement, Spencer has signed up to teach a couple courses at Flo Valley and St. Louis Community College-Meramec and at Washington University's Lifelong Learning adult education program.

At least once a month for many years, Spencer has read scriptures at Episcopal services, first at St. Michael and St. George Church and more recently at St. Peter's Episcopal in Ladue. He's Opera Theatre of St. Louis Guild's advocacy committee chairman and a former president of the Bach Society of St. Louis.

He majored in English literature at Princeton University holds an M.A. from the University of Sussex in England and a Ph.D. from Washington University.

He and his wife, Anna Ahrens, a Villa Duchesne history teacher, live in Des Peres. They have two children and several step-children and grandchildren.

The following is edited for length and clarity,

Who did you think of as your audience as you wrote "Fictional Religion"?

Spencer: I like to think that contemporary thinkers who are open to more scholarly, intellectually credible understand of the New Testament would find it stimulating. Or as one Princeton scholar called it "eye-opening." This book is the wisdom of a lifetime of teaching and reading scripture as a lay reader. Literary creators and their creations are every bit as inspired and inspirational as the canonical texts of the Bible.

I would love to find the book in many church libraries. It could be a supplementary text in classrooms either in English courses or theology courses.

It has poems in the back that people can study. In the fall, I will teach two chapters from the book in a Washington U. Lifelong Learning program -- on English Religious Poets: George Herbert, John Donne and Andrew Marvell. I love that Wash U is calling the course "Soul Brothers."

In "Fictional Religion" you enthusiastically embrace and often refer to ideas of the Jesus Seminar (a group of Biblical scholars who have met twice annually since 1985 to discuss and vote on what they believe the historical Jesus actually said). How did looking at literature through its prism affect your ideas?

Spencer: Poleridge Press is the publishing arm of the Westar Institute -- the people who organize the Jesus Seminar. Both are in the same building in Salem, in Oregon's Willamette Valley. I hope to broaden the Westar Institute's scope by bringing into its sacred premise a deeply affectionate sister disciple, literary criticism. Stephen Patterson is now at Westar. (Patterson, former associate professor at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves and a member of the Jesus Seminar, joined Willamett University faculty in 2010.)

You have so much fun writing about Chaucer's five-times married wife of Bath and her total deafness to the deeper meaning in the morality tale that she tells her fellow Canterbury pilgrims. How have your students reacted to that duplicity?

Spencer: Well, most enjoy the story and her character but the community college students may not get it, not appreciate the depth, its deep complexity. Community college students are, well, busy.

Years ago, when I first taught Chaucer to high school girls at Mary Institute, they were really into Chaucer and loved the wife of Bath. I was more daring then. We even read (The Canterbury Tales') Miller's Tale. The tale that the wife of Bath tells is much more sophisticated than the bawdy Miller's Tale; and it's strict Christian doctrine, a good orthodox dose. She is such a fascinating and immoral character telling a tale about such strict doctrine, but she does not even realize she is preaching the opposite of what she is living.

Various writers you focused on illustrate how their ideas paralleled trends in the wider Christian thinking of their eras. Under Oliver Cromwell's Puritanical England, Milton gives Christians a vivid, raging Satan, even though he was never named in the Bible. George Bernard Shaw's 1905 play "Major Barbara" with its strong social justice message of doing more than feeding the poor but helping them support themselves mirrors the nascent drive for workers' rights and other social justice ideas in Pope Leon XIII's 1891 Encyclical "Rerum Novarum." Is there a trend for other literary critics to measuring religious and inspirational ideas of authors?

Spencer: No. I am breaking new ground. These are my ideas from a lifetime of study.

Shaw's my most controversial chapter. I think what Shaw wrote in "Major Barbara" is much closer to what Jesus actually preached than all the later overlay of theology. Especially about God so loving the world that he sent Jesus to save the world to (die) for the remission of our sins. That idea that Jesus sacrificed his life for mankind is a post-Easter idea. The Jesus Seminar has shown that's an overlay.

I always have thought that Paul was the creator of Christianity. That he shaped it while Jesus was the inspiration. The four -- six -- gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John plus the Gospel of Thomas and O (an earlier collection of Jesus' sayings) made Christ into someone who was fulfilling an institution and spiritual need in the imperial Roman world. The church evoked that.

None the writers you selected is living. You're a longtime book reviewer, what living writers reflect or expand contemporary Christianity ideas on the environment or other issues? What about fiction in other languages beyond the obvious religious ones like Augustine's "City of God" and Dante's "Divine Comedy"?

Spencer: If I do a second edition or a second book, I'd like to include Barbara Kingsolver's "Poisonwood Bible" about a missionary family in the Belgian Congo, which shows modern ideas on global issues. I'd also like to do something on feminist writing like Flannery O'Connor's because I don't have any women writers. Sometime I'd like to write about Madeleine L'Engle "A Wrinkle in Time" and other young adult literature.

As for other languages, I would assume that Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," with a guy coming back to Christian humility, would be one.

My interest and curiosity in Christianity in literature is grounded in my life-long tradition as an Episcopalian. It started when I read C.S. Lewis' "Voyage of the Dawn Trader" when I was 10. That is why I wrote about that story in the book.

I have taught Lewis' "Voyage of the Dawn Trader" at Ladue Chapel, St. Peters (Ladue) and St. Michael and St. George (Clayton). One little boy just came and listened for a long time.

In summarizing his thoughts in the book, Spencer wrote, "Children fantasy literature offers meat for thorny issues as personal redemption and spiritual transcendence. Fantasy, which rejects the rules of realism, is a credible way for a writer to entertain the impossible. It may remind us of gospel episodes where the impossible also occurs, fictional narrative inserted to help dramatize a spiritual truth. Jesus revealing himself as Christ calms a story. He can walk on water. For Biblical literalists, performing the impossible confirms his divinity. For more reasonable believers. it makes powerful metaphorical statement about the transformative power of faith."

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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