Playful Wisdom examines how Henry David Thoreau’s thinking about religious “play” created a theological legacy in American literature—one that includes Emily Dickinson, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, and Marilynne Robinson. Although these writers differ in many ways, they share with Thoreau an improvisational “looseness” or “mobility” in their thinking about the sacred, a sense that religious experience unsettles fixed belief and alters the very shape of the perceiving self. From this perspective, Robert Leigh Davis argues, unswerving orthodoxy is not as crucial to a life of faith as a light-handed responsiveness of spirit that constantly revises fixed assumptions in light of new experiences. Dickinson describes this responsiveness as “nimble believing” and Thoreau calls it “holy play.” Scholars of literature, religion, and philosophy will find this book particularly useful.
Robert Leigh Davis is professor emeritus of English at Wittenberg University.
Introduction: This is Play
Chapter 1. Play and Attunement: The Spirituality of Walden
Chapter 2. Play and Possibility: Emily Dickinson’s Theology of Perhaps
Chapter 3. Play and Improvisation: Jack Kerouac’s Singing Theology
Chapter 4. Play and Nonsense: Thomas Merton’s Last Poem
Chapter 5. Play and Risk: Annie Dillard’s Daredevil Faith
Chapter 6. Play and Understanding: Marilynne Robinson’s Religious Hermeneutics
About the Author
In this provocative and convincing book Davis argues that Thoreau’s and Dickinson’s concepts of holy play and nimble believing permeate the work of Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Jack Kerouac, and Thomas Merton. Davis points out that play gathers things that do not belong together and therefore forces the “normal” into revision. His arguments are at base theological, heavily dependent on Jürgen Moltmann’s idea that faith is “this game of all-reversing grace” and on the thinking of Bateson, Schiller, Gadamer, Rorty, Rahner, and others. For Thoreau doubt becomes a holy calling, and Dickinson offers a theology of “perhaps.” Kerouac uses jazz as an improvisational model for the sacred. Thomas Merton’s last book-length poems reveal the holy fool’s propensity for nonsense as a condition for spiritual growth. Annie Dillard’s “dark play” is formative and Marilynne Robinson’s emphasizes bewilderment, surprise, and strangeness as part of the religious disposition. In sum, for all of these authors sacred experience unbalances unyielding orthodoxies; and, faith held lightly, focused on improvisation, changes the orientation and direction of the believer’s spirit. Recommended.
This beautiful book is a paean to the love of free and spontaneous expression which saturates the work of Thoreau, Dickinson, and many other American writers. This is scholarship at its best: deep and wide-ranging storytelling, by someone who intimately knows his subjects and draws the reader into that intimacy. Davis sees PLAY as spiritual liberation, reflected in some of the great art of our culture. His book reminds us why culture and literacy are worth fighting for.
Robert Davis traces a seldom-noticed pattern woven through American literary writing, a series of religiously-inspired episodes of vital play carried out within and against large ideological systems. Though we have been rightly instructed by the critical tradition to view American Protestantism as a or even the primary force of oppression for many American writers, Davis demonstrates that it has been a complex legacy, supplying the writers he examines—Thoreau, Dickinson, Kerouac, Thomas Merton, and Marilynne Robinson—with strategies for enhancing responsiveness and enriching worldly engagement. Emerson, after all, declared that the enemy was not religion per se but ossified religiosity. His break from the Unitarianism was a salvage mission, an enterprise Davis finds echoing in these five successors. In Marilynne Robinson’s depictions of “graced souls,” for example, people who are “undefended by fortress theologies of dogmatic conviction and open to the play of holy spirit in the world.” Or in Dickinson’s poems, where grace, “the otherness of the divine spirit,” loosens the ego’s grip and readies one to entertain “prismatic and possibilizing” options, even in the bleakest circumstances: “In the poems of marbling and paralysis, these movements are impossibly small, sometimes as minimal as breathing, shivering, slipping a little, standing up, raising a pen a few inches, raising one’s gaze a few inches, turning to face something or hear something in the distance—as if motion itself becomes precious in these conditions, the sign of a still-quickened spirit.” Though Davis adduces creedal statements advanced by his writers, the force of his argument resides in alert and fastidious exegeses, where his considerable gift for teasing out skeins of association and suggestion cumulatively reveals what a vibrant resource American religion has sometimes proven to be.