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Friday, December 16, 2011

Christianity and Literature: As It is Understood

Throughout history, religion has been a strong force in the world.  The works of “Beowulf”, “Inferno” and “Everyman” reflect the importance of Christian values in the times in which they were written.  Beowulf” is a particularly interesting piece in light of this being that the story is actually based around pagans yet it is flavored with a Christian world-view as it was passed down and then formerly written.  Inferno” and “Everyman” would simply not exist if it were not for the religious beliefs that were held in high regard at the time in which they were created.  Throughout all three of these works, religious belief is not so much reflected upon or explained as it is understood to be common knowledge and is expected to be accepted as such. 
            In “Beowulf”, the first of the three monsters that Beowulf encounters in Grendel.  He is described as a “fiend out of hell” (Beowulf 1634) and we are told that he had lived “among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan”. (Beowulf 1634).  While this portion does give a little explanation as to who Cain is “For the killing of Abel the Eternal Lord had exacted a price”, there is still a lack of explanation as to who Abel is to the “Eternal Lord”.  It is expected, of the reader, to understand the context of the murder without further explanation.  Throughout the rest of the epic, references to the Christian God are made as they were common at that time.  In Beowulf, in particular, it appears that God ultimately makes the decisions as to what occurs “Almighty God rules over mankind and always has” (Beowulf 1647).  The story has been so strewn with these types of references that it becomes increasingly obvious that the writer did not want to misstep in the work and speak of the pagan gods in a way that would give them credit, regardless of context or placement of the story. 
            The literary masterpiece “Inferno” draws heavily and exclusively on Christian belief.  Dante provides the reader with a vivid picture of hell.  While the idea of hell is not an exclusively Christian belief in and of itself, in the context of a place of never-ending torment and punishment, Christianity, especially at the time of this writing, overwhelmingly holds it in high esteem of something to fear and avoid.  Dante paints us a landscape that no one would truly like to look upon.  “Abandon every hope, who enter here” (Alighieri 1843)  As Dante travels through the many levels, he addresses many of the issues and political beliefs that he holds in disdain.  His Christian beliefs as well as his political beliefs coincide on a grand scale, making his arguments of how they both compliment one another within his mind.  Throughout each Canto, sins are mentioned by name.  Not all of the sins are common knowledge unless the reader is schooled in Christianity.  For example, “the Simonists”, by secular standards, is not something the average Joe would know about.  The selling of sacred items means nothing without the knowledge of what a “sacred item” is.  Why this would lead to such a punishment “who take the things of God, that ought to be the brides of Righteousness, and make them fornicate for gold and silver!” (Alighieri 1891) would be of an even greater mystery. 
            Everyman” is a lesson for those who believe in Christianity and the beliefs that come with it. “You think sin in the beginning full sweet, Which in the end causeth the soul to weep” (Everyman 2121). While this can be looked upon as an explanation of Christian belief, the story itself resides and thrives on the fact that people already held Christianity as their belief system.  This story goes on to explain, to those who agree, why some things are bad for you and some things are not.  In the end, all the soul truly has is God.  Death comes first to explain what’s going on to Everyman.  As Everyman begins to ponder his own impending death and what it really means, he does an inventory of his life’s worth.  All aspects of the life he has lived eventually abandon him except for Good Deeds “All fleeth save Good Deeds” (Everyman 2140).  In the Christian belief system, good deeds are part of the soul.  Goods, strength, beauty, discretion, friends and even family can disregard a person as easily as they came to be a part of his (or her) life.  When the time comes to meet one’s maker, there will be little to speak of without the good deeds that have been done.  “And he that hath his account whole and sound, High in heaven he shall be crowned” (Everyman 2141)
            Christianity is still a very powerful force in the world today.  While it has since split many, many times over since the time that these writings took place, there is still a wide-held though not necessarily dominant following of the central teachings.  For many of the followers of this religion, these tenets are still alive and well, making the reading of these works comparably easier to understand.  At the time of these writings, however, the Christian religion was the dominant force on the planet.  It had, at the time, held an influence that not only concerned itself with the soul but also for the concerns of politics and power.  Dante addresses this continually and almost flawlessly when he mentions his well-known political enemies repeatedly.  These men are of little renown now but at the time it was important, it was necessary to align religious belief with political belief in order to be understood.  In “Beowulf”, the dominant influence of Christianity is seen when the author adds in Christian phrases in order to make the story an ultimately Christian tale.  In “Everyman” there is simply an assumption, well placed due to the audience who would have seen it, that everyone is on the same page in their belief system.  The profound influence that the Christian church had on not these writings is overwhelming once it is understood.  Since the time of these works the theme of Christianity has been largely understood.  It is a curious thing to wonder if in future generations these works will continue to be understood as clearly as they were then and still are today.  Or, if like many of the works in times before these, the Christian God’s many names will begin to be understood as something else.    

Works Cited

Beowulf.  Lawall, Sarah and Maynard Mack, eds. The Norton Anthology of World Literature.
Second Edition. Volumes A, B and C. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. 1632-1702.  Print.

Alighieri, Dante.  “Inferno”. Lawall, Sarah and Maynard Mack, eds. The Norton Anthology of
World Literature. Second Edition. Volumes A, B and C. New York: W. W. Norton &
Company, 2002. 1836-1942. Print.

Everyman. Lawall, Sarah and Maynard Mack, eds. The Norton Anthology of World Literature.
Second Edition. Volumes A, B and C. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.  2121-41. Print.

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