Finding God in Strange Places

Review by Anthony Baker

All’s Well That Ends Well
From Dust to Resurrection:
40 Days with Shakespeare

By Peter Graystone
Canterbury Press Norwich, pp. 192, $20.99

How might literature inform theology? More to the point, how can it do so well? Most basically, there are two ways. Good literature can send us toward theological questions; theological questions, alternatively, can send us to contemplations of good literature.

Two recent books offer excellent examples of this bidirectional possibility, centering on the inarguably great literature of William Shakespeare.

Peter Grayston’s All’s Well That Ends Well is a Lenten devotional consisting of 40 short chapters — four to five pages each — on Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Each chapter takes a single work and reflects on how a particular passage or a plot point might intersect with Christian faith.

The epigraph and the last chapter title are the same, and they give us the Lenten theme: “It is required you do awake your faith.” The line is from The Winter’s Tale, one of the late romances in which Shakespeare is exploring theological territory with an almost reckless intensity. Graystone, though, shows that the playwright lays this requirement upon us in subtle ways throughout his works.

Graystone is an educator in the Church of England and an avid theatergoer. He opens his Lenten mediations, appropriately, with a song about all that will “come to dust,” from Cymbeline. This leads him to wonder about the strange story of Jesus writing in the dust when the woman is caught in adultery.

Shakeshafte and Other Plays
By Rowan Williams
Slant Books, pp. 156, $28

Admitting he’s always been curious about what Jesus wrote, Graystone now wonders if perhaps the medium was the message: “It wasn’t the word he was forming … it was the dust his fingerers were in … That’s what he wanted those vindictive men to think about. Life in a handful of dust” (5).

This is the way the chapters go. We hear a plot, we study a passage, and we follow the author into connections that he makes to Scripture or other elements of faith. Not all are equally compelling. But then again, neither are the plays. The mediation on Richard III leads to rather inane thoughts about evil. Sonnet 30, which reads to me as a moving account of the tension in friendship between remembered losses and anticipated restorations, is for Graystone a cheap dismissal of “the locust years.”

Some readings, though, are brilliant. The unresolved tensions and ironies (including the title) of the play All’s Well That Ends Well leads him to reflect on the surprises and unresolved nature of the Resurrection accounts in the gospel. The Comedy of Errors, by nearly all accounts a frivolous romp of a play, becomes a moving account of a profound recognition and acknowledgement, “as though I had seen the face of God” (48).

I journeyed “from dust to resurrection” during Lent this year with this book, and found it an excellent companion.

The path between literature and theology can sometimes, as I noted before, work in the other direction. Or, said better, the theological questions to which literature sends us can send us back into literature. Rowan Williams’s collection of plays travels this path, with his signature depth and difficulty. A difficulty that is, in this case, less a matter of technical construction than emotional weight.

The title play is about young Will Shakeshafte, one of the possible aliases for Shakespeare. He comes to a Lancashire home in the midst of the crisis about the illegal missionary work of Jesuits under Elizabeth’s Protestant reforms.

This theologically charged atmosphere provides, for the troubled young scholar that Williams imagines, an opportunity to notice what’s missing in the public rhetoric of faith. In one of my favorite scenes, he and a friend discuss the old Chester Mystery Plays. They showed, his friend said, “bits of what you’re like. With only God knowing how it all fits together.”

Will is excited by this and says that it’s as if the plays presented us with a mirror, and as people watched, they could say, “Yes, that’s me, someone’s seen me, someone’s known what it’s like, I exist. I’m here, not just in my head, but here for God and man.”

Without the chance to really see what we’re like and to both acknowledge ourselves and know ourselves as acknowledged by others, we’re not really seeking or telling the truth. If a person couldn’t see what he’s really like, “he’d bust open like — like a man on the scaffold, like a man with his insides being, being …” (21).

He trails off, and the scene ends with some embarrassment. “Steady, Will. It’s only plays we’re talking of,” his friend says (22). But Will is clearly on the cusp of a discovery of what “only plays” can do. The scaffold imagery returns later, in a conversation with his Jesuit mentor. Will says that, while the Catholic “picture” of things makes the most sense, he worries that he’ll miss some of the “voices” around him if he speaks any strong language of theological clarity (55).

His mentor seems to understand his dilemma before they part ways: “You’re going to be asking every moment, have I heard right, have I heard enough, and that’s not the state of mind that holds you upright on the scaffold” (57). The theater, clearly, will be Will’s scaffold, where a person’s insides can burst open and show themselves, nakedly, before God and the world.

The second play, “The Flat Roof of the World,” follows the harrowing encounter of poet David Jones with the craft-priest community surrounding Eric Gill. Jones, best known for a long poem reflecting his experience in trench combat in the First World War, is making use of art to process his trauma. Not just in the sense of healing, though; he’s haunted by the possibility that something true “grows in the trenches” that he cannot ignore. “Something had been sort of opened up in the trenches, something I couldn’t close without closing up, well, everything that mattered. And I had to … you know; just live there” (119).

David’s pain is not the only trauma that matters in the play. We now know that Gill, the community’s founder, sexually abused his two daughters. Petra is here always in some way talking about her father’s abusive presence, while Gill uses language to avoid it.

Neither David nor Petra, of course, can find the words to say all they need to. There’s too much left behind, like the rifle he leaves under an oak tree after he was wounded in battle. Or the wooden doll her father made her, which lies abandoned on the workshop floor. And this failure becomes for both of them its own kind of torture. But the point, as another character reminds David, was never to say everything. “Not always trying to say big things, just letting it show through” (89).

The weakest moment in this brilliant play, for me, is the set of final monologues by David, Petra, and Eric. They talk about the traumas directly for the first time, especially the abuse. I suppose Williams intends to show how language remains unable, even when it is direct and non-evasive, to say all that needs saying. The shift, though, is abrupt, for a play that has gestured toward deep, difficult, and true things by the gaps in language.

The final and briefest play is the most explicitly theological. It is about the resurrection of Lazarus, and the strangeness of that gospel story. The only characters are three “Voices”: a contemporary English layman who is wrestling with the resurrection language, and two whom we come to see are Martha of Bethany and John the Beloved.

Jesus here seems to be physically taking Lazarus’s death on himself as he approaches the tomb. He becomes death, even as “I am the Life” takes shape as the deep refrain of the play. He is not just life, but the life, as if, one voice says, he is “what’s left” when rain washes away all the earth, down to living bedrock. Under all things is life, beyond even death. “The life itself” (135).

These three plays all explore the power of language, language taken not simply as the words humans say, but as a gift of creation and communication that is on loan, perhaps we could say, from God. Shakeshafte’s yearning to give words to quiet voices, Jones’s restless quest to name what grows in trenches, John’s attempt to follow Jesus and pick up words like living pebbles off the ground — all speak to the beauty and the limits of our attempts to use words to bear witness to the living, transcendent God.

In both volumes, excellent and moving in very different ways, we find the sorts of theological surprises that only a literary imagination can really produce. God appears in the strangest of places. In a warm statue (The Winter’s Tale), in the music that only a vile fish-smelling creature can hear (The Tempest), or in the muddy trenches of Europe. Or at the tomb of someone’s brother. What strange stories these are. What a strange God they tell of.

Dr. Anthony D. Baker is Clinton S. Quin Professor of Systematic Theology at Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas.


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