The Jesus—and Book—We Missed

Louis Markos | January 29, 2016


As a graduate student in literature in the 1980s, I was introduced to the critical school of new historicism. Initially I thought I’d be an advocate of this theoretical approach to literature. “After all,” I reasoned, “the more I know about the historical period that nurtured Sophocles or Virgil or Dante or Chaucer or Shakespeare, the better I will be able to analyze and appreciate their poetry.”

My hero and role model, C. S. Lewis, had taken such an approach in writing his A Preface to Paradise Lost, a seminal study that helped modern readers to understand Milton and his great epic in terms of Milton’s own beliefs and the beliefs of his age. Surely, Lewis’s approach would help open up new vistas as I dug into the great poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Tennyson and Browning.

As it turned out, my enthusiasm was utterly misplaced. The new historicists didn’t share Lewis’s desire to understand Milton on his own terms. To the contrary, they taught we’re all—even and especially the great poets, artists, and prophets—products of our socioeconomic milieu. From their ultimately anti-humanistic point of view, Shakespeare wasn’t an inspired genius who rose above his spatiotemporal moment to touch on transcendent truth…


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