A Catholic Admires Shakespeare at Bob Jones University
As a resident of Greenville, South Carolina I have learned to live alongside an overbearing Protestant neighbor whose looming presence overshadows the life of the city. This is Bob Jones University, the bastion of old-style, uncompromising, kneejerk Calvinism and, until recently, a recalcitrant remnant of old-style southern racism (the latter of which it publicly recanted several years ago). I would even say that I have not only learned to live alongside my somewhat belligerent neighbor, I have learned to respect it and to love it. I am glad that it is there as a part of the fabric of the city which I call home and I have formed a fondness for its quirkily quixotic Christian presence in the culture.
When I first moved to the area, a little over ten years ago, I made a point of reaching out to the English Faculty at BJU in the hope of forming a collaborative friendship with its members. I was received cordially enough by the chairman of the department and two of his colleagues as I sought to explain that, in spite of our theological differences, we were kindred spirits and allies in the war against postmodernism, deconstructionism, Marxist theory, queer theory, feminist criticism and the other manifestations of radical relativism in the academy. I explained my work as editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions (www.ignatiuscriticaleditions.com) and gave them gifts of several of the editions, inviting them to consider contributing critical essays to future titles in the series. I caught the look of wry amusement in their eyes as they looked at each other. “No,” the chairman of the department responded, “I don’t think we could consider writing for a Jesuit publisher.” Although I knew of BJU’s doctrinal anti-Catholicism I had believed, evidently naively, that we could set aside our differences in a noble struggle against a common enemy.
In spite of this rebuttal, I remain fascinated by BJU, which seems to embody what might be called the incarnation of a paradox. On the one hand, there is the somewhat dour puritanism, and yet, on the other, there is a very catholic (small c!) embrace of all that is beautiful in the arts. The art museum on campus contains one of the finest collections of Renaissance art in all of North America, most of which is Catholic (big C!) in inspiration. There is something delightful, almost Chestertonian, in finding a splendid painting of the Assumption on the campus of a militantly anti-Catholic university.
In addition to its justly celebrated art museum, BJU’s dramatic and musical performances are always of the highest quality. I took my daughter to a performance of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola several months ago and last night (as I write) I went with my good friend, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, to a performance of The Merchant of Venice. Father Longenecker graduated from Bob Jones University before catching “anglophilia” (which is always dangerous!) under the influence of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. He then studied at Oxford, becoming an Anglican clergyman, before eventually becoming a Catholic and subsequently a priest. There was something delightfully naughty about being on the Bob Jones campus with a BJU alumnus who had become a Catholic priest!
Usually I avoid watching (post)modern productions of Shakespeare, in the knowledge that I am likely to be offended by the Bard-abuse perpetrated by producers and directors intent on making the plays “relevant” to the politically-correct zeitgeist. This is particularly true of The Merchant of Venice. Many contemporary productions of the play turn all of the Christian characters into fascists and villains and Shylock into the victim and the hero. I once saw a performance in England in which all the Christian characters were characterized as skinheads who punctuated their vituperatively delivered and spleen-venting lines with acts of violence against the innocent and hapless Shylock. Such abuse of Shakespeare’s purpose inverts and perverts the play, turning a comedy, whose happy ending celebrates the self-sacrificial imperative of true love and the timeless lessons it teaches, into a tragedy in which the sub-plot (a condemnation of the spirit of merciless vengeance) subverts and subjugates the entire dynamic of the play.
Another heinous perversion of The Merchant of Venice is the poisoning of the character of Portia so that she is transformed from the wise and virtuous virgin whom Shakespeare paints (one of his greatest and strongest characters) into a feisty feminist who cheats in the test of the caskets as she will no doubt cheat on Bassanio when she tires of him.
I was consoled in the knowledge that there would be no anti-Christian dimension to a production of the play at Bob Jones University and knew that there would be no attempt to turn the heroine into a radical feminist. Instead, the only tampering with the text was the removal of the coercion placed on Shylock at the end of the trial scene to force his conversion to Christianity. Although any lover of Shakespeare will wince at the decision to edit his plays, albeit in a minor way, it must be conceded that these particular lines are enough in themselves to make anyone wince. Indeed, they seem so crassly incongruous and so at odds with the spirit of Shakespeare that one is tempted to speculate that they were not his own lines but were added by a third party. Since, however, there is no evidence for such a speculation, we must place such wishful thinking aside.
The justification for the omission of the offensively coercive lines was given in the program notes by Layton Talbert, a theologian in the BJU Seminary and Graduate School of Religion:
In keeping with this progression from religious caricature to religious ideal, this production dispenses with Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity. Whatever it may have communicated in Shakespeare’s day, such compulsion is incongruous, not merely with modern norms of tolerance, but with the glimpse of true Christianity the audience finally sees in the courtroom.
The fact that I sympathize with Dr. Talbert’s reasoning is evident from the manner in which I discuss these same lines in my book, Through Shakespeare’s Eyes:
There is … one remaining aspect of the trial scene that continues to elicit sympathy for Shylock and that seems to suggest a reprehensible crassness on the part of his enemies. The ultimatum given by the Duke that he will “recant” his pardon if Shylock refuses to become a Christian is an action that no reader of the play can sanction without grievous misgivings. For Catholic Christians the very notion of a forced conversion is anathema, and is explicitly forbidden. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, man “must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.” Contrary to such teaching, and even though there is no indication that he would have done so in conscience, Shylock is forced to become a Christian, on pain of death. The quality of such mercy is indeed dubious and there seems little doubt that the Duke’s ultimatum effectively nullifies his earlier show of mercy in sparing Shylock’s life.
I am also in complete agreement with Dr. Talbert in his theological understanding of the moral lesson that Shakespeare teaches in the courtroom scene:
Seen through the lens of a biblical worldview, the courtroom becomes a parable of the clash between Law (justice) and Gospel (mercy). The one who demands pure justice will find justice to be his undoing. Yet mercy without justice holds no one accountable for evil. God alone is able to dispense complete mercy alongside perfect justice through Christ’s sacrifice. His mercy is humankind’s only hope – a shorthand for the Gospel.
Amen, brother! Amen!
And yet, calling Dr. Talbert my brother, I am bothered by the possibility that he and his colleagues at BJU might not consider me to be theirs. I am, after all, a Catholic and one recalls the words of Bob Jones III that Catholicism is “the religion of the anti-Christ and a Satanic system” and his description of Catholics and Mormons as “cults which call themselves Christian”. Does Dr. Talbert see me as a brother in Christ, or am I a member of a satanic cult, destined for hell? I am, in any event, willing to put such differences aside, not least because Bob Jones III has won my heart completely, in spite of his earlier offensive words. He has won my heart for his simply masterful performance as Shylock in last night’s performance. Who would have thought that Bob Jones III, chancellor and former president of BJU, could be such a great actor, sensitive to the work of Shakespeare and quite clearly a lover of beauty? Like his father, Bob Jones, Jr., the art connoisseur who assembled the fine collection of Renaissance art on the BJU campus, he is able to see beauty as a path to the divine. Any such man, regardless of what he thinks of me and those who share my Catholic faith, is my brother in Christ.