Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Carissa Smith shares with us some of the more high-brow culture we should be consuming.
For our first nutritious and edifying offering, we have the fiction of Anthony Trollope, Victorian novelist and gentle satirist of Anglican church politics.
Trollope is posthumously making his way around the artsy Christian blogosphere this week, due to Image editor Gregory Wolfe’s essay “Religious but Not Spiritual,” in which he praises Trollope’s The Warden for “striking deep social and political resonances upon the gossamer strings of . . . comedy.” Wolfe focuses much of his attention on The Warden‘s protagonist, the Rev. Septimus Harding, whose “faith is played out in the minutiae of liturgy and music rather than the grand thoughts of preaching and theological exposition.”
Wolfe connects his reading of The Warden to his reflections on the phrase “I’m spiritual but not religious”: “the Reverend Harding,” Wolfe writes, “makes me think that I’m religious but not spiritual.”
This is where Trollope’s genius lies in The Warden. For in making Septimus Harding a liturgist he emphasizes that the quintessential activity of a religious community is not the purveying of doctrines and ideas but the worship of the presence that has called the community into being. In common prayer and song we lay aside the burden of self-consciousness; we recount the story of the encounter that brought us together. In worship we become participants, living members of a body, rather than observers and connoisseurs.
While the “I’m spiritual but not religious” phrase irks me as much as it does Wolfe, I’m not sure that reversing the phrase solves the problem. What is most endearing about Septimus Harding is that religion is what enables his spirituality–a fact that the reforming evangelicals of his day fail to understand in their zeal for making all clergymen in their own image.
Quibbles with Wolfe aside, his praise of Trollope is just. Trollope’s novels, especially Barchester Towers (sequel to The Warden, but fine as a stand-alone work), are worth reading not only for their comedy but also for their portrayal of good and faithful men and women persisting even in the midst of the money-and-power struggles of the church. If you’re short on time, you can get condensed Trollope exposure through the 1982 BBC miniseries Barchester Towers (which actually combines The Warden and Barchester Towers). The picture and sound quality are as terrible as only early 80s British TV can be, but the acting talent includes Nigel Hawthorne as the irascible Archdeacon Grantly and a very young Alan Rickman as the unctuous Reverend Obadiah Snape–I mean, Slope.