In chapter two of Christianity and Literature, Jeffrey and Maillet lament, “Many literary majors…graduate without any clear sense of whether literary theory enables them to find…any truth, goodness, beauty or even any meaning in literature.”
In response to this dismal assessment, indulge me a brief opportunity to summarize the three theories of truth—truth being the most fundamental aspect of literary theory—as presented in the aforementioned book, Christianity and Literature, and reflect on how it can enable us to find meaning in literature.
The first theory is what is called correspondence theory.
Correspondence theory can be understood as “a verbal claim being true only if it corresponds to pertinent fact or external reality.”
Put another way, it is only true if it is true, literally. In order for a truth claim to be valid under this theory, it must be demonstrable or observable.
For example, if one claimed the extravagant sports car he recently started driving in fact belonged to him, he would only need to produce the title to verify his claim.
Two other aspects of correspondence theory are important to note.
First, as Jeffrey and Maillet assert, “a valid correspondence is likewise objective and mind independent.” This means truth is not subject to our taste or appreciation of it. Actual truth in this theory does not need anyone’s approval to be true; it just is whether it is recognized or not.
And second, correspondence theory does not exclude faith rightly attributed. Just as a scientist relies on the experiments and records of previous studies performed by reputable scientists, by faith, so Christians are not wrong to “accept as reliable the knowledge tradition of the church and ultimately of Scripture itself.”
There is also “a kind of truth that pertains less to physical realities or events than to a set of propositions within which a claim may be regarded as true if found to be logically consistent—or coherent—with the rest of the data set.”
This is called coherence theory.
According to Jeffrey and Maillet, “Coherence truth involves a criterion of appropriate relationship of reasonableness given certain presuppositions.”
Examples given in the text are that of chess, where there is not any real correspondence between the game and the reality of its “medieval counterparts,” and writing, where the writer is able to create imaginary universes analogous to but different from our own.
In both cases, when the fictitious worlds are self-consistent with their predetermined domains, they are said to be true, even if they do not “actually” correspond to pertinent fact.
The third truth theory, called pragmatic theory, dominates literary theory in our day more than any other.”
In pragmatic theory, truth is always relative and subjective to the individual perceiving it.
In this theory, something is held to be valid if it works, and often changes and morphs as when the consensus of the community does. It’s sometimes perceived as just common sense.
As one might quickly intuit, unlike correspondence and coherence theory, there is not any room for pragmatic theory in Christian literary theory.
And one of the essential aspects of literary theory—particularly for the Christian—is discerning under which truth theory the writer is operating.
In examining the theories previously discussed, I would affirm the belief that Christians can find meaning in literature if they read it with a critical eye for truth.
By virtue of its form, literature creates an alternate reality with analogous contexts that shapes our perception of the real world. Concern for the truth then, though “disguised as a fable, parable, or ‘harmless tale,’” becomes the Christian critic’s passion.
When we read with our eyes open, we will see elements that are true in our own life and world.
For example, in the Greek tragedies, by way of the sufferings, fear and pity are aroused in the audience, effecting catharsis, which means their souls are “lightened and delighted” for having experienced the tragic fall of the character.
In reading literature, Christians ought to “readily see lived reality beneath an engaging cortex of imaginative analogy and say… ‘Aha! That rings true.’”
Jeffrey, David L., and Gregory Maillet. Christianity and Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011.
Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.