Scottish Literature Special Session

The Scottish Religious Bestseller (Scottish Religious Cultures Special Session)

Friday 9th September, 1.30-3.00 p.m.

Yudowitz Seminar Rm, Wolfson Medical Building

Focusing on the legacy of religion in Scotland, the Scottish Religious Cultures network is a multi-institutional collaboration financed by the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s research networking scheme. Due to its fundamental role in shaping Scottish culture, religion continues to affect the nation on a day-to-day basis. We seek to deal directly with the role of religion as a formative and yet divisive force in Scottish society and highlight its positive and negative functions in the development of the nation’s culture. The network is committed to disseminating the very best research on this subject through public lectures, conference and publications. The network also publishes a book series with Edinburgh University Press entitled ‘Scottish Religious Cultures: Historical Perspectives’.

1. Scott Spurlock, ‘Robert Barclay’s Apology’

It may be difficult to apply the term bestseller to a printed text of the early modern period, however, Robert Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678) deserves special consideration. While not being consumed in the quantities of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or Milton’s Pilgrim Progress, Barclay’s work of systematic theology went through nearly 50 editions printed in Scotland, England, Ireland and North America and appeared in seven different languages, including Arabic. Barclay’s work lacked the literary complexity of Milton and the dramatic storytelling of Foxe, instead he offered a theologically astute and spiritually reflective plea for ‘true Christian divinity’. This paper will explore why this remarkable text generated so much interest and led to personal correspondence between the author and Princess Elizabeth of the Palatinate.

2.     Deryl Davis, ‘”The Great Calvinistic Poem”:  Reception History and Robert Pollok’s “The Course of Time”‘

Almost unknown today, Robert Pollok’s nearly 10,000-line religious epic, ‘The Course of Time’, was one of the best-selling poems of the early nineteenth century. Published to immediate acclaim in 1827, the poem remained a bestseller for almost fifty years, capturing audiences with its unique combination of High Romantic sensibility and Calvinist piety. Drawing on Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Pollok – a Scotsman and a recent divinity graduate of the University of Glasgow – sought to justify divine providence and counter contemporary challenges to biblical authority, traditional Christian dogma, and the reality of heaven, hell, and final judgment. My paper examines the literary and religious sources of ‘The Course of Time’ and explores the reasons behind the poem’s remarkable success in the nineteenth century and its near-disappearance in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

3. Gerard Carruthers, ‘Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’

The book that launched Muriel Spark to international fame continued what her previous five novels had done in exploring religious truth and its relevance to the modern world. Spark’s achievement in The Prime of Miss Jean is all the more remarkable as it appeared against a preference in the early 60s for ‘kitchen-sink’ quotidian realism, in fiction, theatre and film. Spark’s novel would go on to work successfully within all three of these modes, peddling an experimental layer that brought together post-modern technique and theological interest. This paper, partly drawing upon new archival work, explores the elements of Spark’s quantum leap to become one of the world’s best-known writers.  It particularly examines Spark’s use of historical mode, realistic disjunction and a demonic voice in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Finally, it speculates on how such a genuinely unsettling novel has become such a mainstream text, both in academe and across such a wide, international popular readership.

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