Stanley Fish on the Drama of Redemption

stanley_fishIn a moving and surprisingly orthodox (even evangelical) piece on the downturn called “Faith and Deficits,”  literary theorist and anti-foundationalist Stanley Fish of Florida International University offers the following words on debt and forgiveness:

“The same message, of debts forgiven before you ask, is delivered (with less cheer) by George Herbert’s great poem, “Redemption,” a word that means the payment of an obligation. Herbert’s speaker finds himself in a situation many would recognize today: he has been “a tenant long to a rich Lord,” but discovers that what he owes far exceeds his assets, and he wants to renegotiate: “I resolved to be bold,/And make a suit unto him, to afford/A new small-rented lease and cancel th’old.”

But first he has to find him, and he looks in the places where a really important person might be expected to be hanging out — “In great resorts/In cities, theaters, gardens , parks and courts.” Either he’s just left or he hasn’t been seen, but then, unexpectedly and in the most unlikely circumstances, he turns up: “At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth/Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied.”

Before he or his reader can ask “what on earth are you doing here?”, the final line provides an answer with a compact swiftness that is literally breathtaking: “Who straight, ‘Your suit is granted’, said, and died.” (”Straight” here means “immediately and without detour” and describes the movement and pace of the line it introduces.) The rich Lord has made himself low and wiped away the sinner’s ever-growing debt with his blood, a gift that is efficacious as long as the sinner has faith in him and in nothing else.

This economy, in which funds depleted are endlessly replenished, is underwritten by a power so great and beneficent that it turns failures into treasures. Some economists identify that power as the market and ask us to have faith in it. God might be a better candidate.”

Correct me if I’m wrong here, but Stanley Fish offers a pretty solid summary of the logic and effect of the atonement.  His last paragraph strikes at the heart of the drama of the Christian story.  In conversion, God takes the bankrupt and makes them rich.  He is, as Fish suggests, the “power” in which we must have faith.  Dead-on.

Others may know more about Fish’s approach to religion than I do, but I had not known him to advocate for the orthodox Christian perspective on matters.  He’s criticized the New Atheism sharply, yes, but this seems another matter entirely.

Whatever the cause, I’m thankful for this reminder of God’s sovereign, redeeming work in our world.  For Him, there is no downturn, no sapping of resources.  That we are reminded of this truth in a) the New York Times and b) by Stanley Fish shows us just how surprising God’s providence can be.

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  • Stanley Fish is really hard to figure out. The dean of what’s known as “reader-response” criticism (i.e., the ‘authority’ in a reader-text relationship belongs to the reader, not the text), he’s done some fascinating and truly edifying work throughout a really illustrious career. His work on Milton is fascinating, enriching, challenging, and at times aggravating. It’s also no surprise to see him engaging George Herbert. He wrote an important work on Herbert’s “The Temple” (whose title escapes me at the moment) that’s still one of the most insightful treatments of that work I’ve ever seen. Like most postmoderns, though, he’s notoriously difficult to pin down. Thanks for the link!