John M. Neary: Like and Unlike God: Religious Imaginations in Contemporary Fiction

(Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1999)

Neary offers a well-nuanced, cogent explanation of theologian David Tracy's two Christian "imaginations," the Analytical and Dialectical, roughly corresponding as "Catholic" and "Protestant." (Neary suggests that the latter formulation is a probably a bit too simple). In shorthand, we could summarize the imaginations thus: "The dialectical emphasizes the gaps and dissimilarities between things (sacred and secular, human and world, human and transcendence) while the analogical emphasizes the connections, the similarities." The former is highly transcendent in its image of God, the latter more immanent. Collegium alums will recognize in this discussion a sophisticated and qualified treatment of the ideas they read in Andrew Greeley's article on the Catholic imagination. 

Neary uses this introductory, highly accessible account to help understand the place of these theological themes in some major works of modern literature. In his application of these imaginations to works by Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Anne Tyler, John Updike, and Thomas Pynchon, Neary shows the frequent interweave and mutual dependency of analogical and dialectical themes. He also managed to examine the relevance of these imaginations to both modernity and the postmodern "linguistic turn."

Given that the book was published in an American Academy of Religion series, the work should draw attention among scholars of religion. Unfortunately, my worst fear is that it may remain invisible to literary scholars not accustomed to checking religious book lists. In one chapter, Neary highlights the important literary-theological work of William Lynch, S.J. in the 1960s and 1970s and remarks with Nathan Scott on the unfortunate loss this entails. Before I even reached that point in the book, I had been reminded of Lynch, and thought what a shame it would be if this book met the same fate among literary circles. Though not a literary theorist myself, I very much appreciate the theological strengths of this work, and was intrigued by their sophisticated application to modern and postmodern literature. It would be a shame if these ideas did not draw more attention from literary scholars. -- Thomas M. Landy