Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Theological Turn

There has been talk recently of a ‘theological turn’ in literary and cultural studies, just as there has been a resurgence of the ‘God debate’ in our culture more generally. Questions of religion seem back on the agenda in ways they have not been for a long time; and no wonder, given the extraordinary roles of the US Christian Right and of Islamic insurgencies and terrorism in shaping world history over the last decade or so.

How might such a theological turn affect readings of Morris’s News from Nowhere, which has surely seemed to so many of its readers one of the most resolutely secular utopias in the entire tradition (it refers dismissively to the Bible as ‘the old Jewish proverb-book’, after all) ? We can predict, I suspect, that more weight will begin to be given to the fact that Morris’s masterpiece ends, not at Kelmscott manor as we lazily assume, but at Kelmscott church, where William Guest fades into invisibility on the threshold of the utopian feast and plunges back into the class-ridden nightmare of his own nineteenth century.

Why should utopia end thus at a sacred site? Can it be that such buildings, and the religious values that have attached to them for centuries, cannot be so briskly secularised as Morris, the Nowherians themselves and we as readers would all like to think? Is it possible to elaborate a reading of News from Nowhere beginning, not with the Socialist League meeting or the new Hammersmith Guest House, but with Kelmscott church itself, which might then radiate back retrospectively into the text in surprising ways and alert us to religious significances we had not previously fully picked up (bathing in the Thames as baptism, for example)?

I am not going to offer such a reading myself, but I feel sure that, under the weight of today’s ‘theological turn’, we will be seeing them come through in future years.


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