[Milton-L] De Doctrina Christiana

Michael Bryson michael.bryson at csun.edu
Thu Jan 8 23:05:05 EST 2009

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So Paradise Lost "is" a "Christian" poem?

Good to know there's no debate on that point.
Honestly, this is the kind of thing that keeps too
many students thinking that Milton is someone they
do not want to read (go check the number of times
Milton is offered as a single-author course in most
English departments--once a year is on the high
side, while every other year is all too common). I
am lucky enough to be able to teach a Milton course
every semester here at CSUN, but that is a highly
unusual circumstance. I deal with theology (and
philosophy and history and genre and...and...and...)
quite a bit in that course, but never do I insist
that students (or colleagues, for that matter)
simply check their judgment at the door and
genuflect before a not-to-be-questioned
pronouncement such as the one above.

I first read the poem in the Escondido, CA public
library, and I found in it (at the age of 13) a
refuge from the oppressive fundamentalist cult in
which I had been raised. Does that make the poem
"anti-Christian" (or, more specifically,
"anti-20th-century-American cult"?) No. Neither does
the experience of reading the poem in the Vatican
make it Catholic, or at Westminster Abbey make it
Anglican, or at Wrigley Field make it doomed.

Paradise Lost is a poem (a staggeringly great poem
at that) which makes much use of themes, characters,
questions, dilemmas, cruxes of thought, etc. that
are at work in the various branches of
"Christianity." But it also engages with many/most
of the same things that are at work in Judaism(s).
Does that make it a "Jewish" poem? There are points
of contact that can be established between the
concerns of Paradise Lost and those of
Zoroastrianism, and even Hinduism. No one, I trust,
will be pronouncing that Milton's poem is therefore
either Zoroastrian or Hindu. (Of course, that might
be a rather interesting pronouncement, valuable at
least for its freshness. The same old gets to be
rather, well, same old.)

A poem that deals with "themes" (for want of a
better word) that appear in "Christianity" (whatever
the variation), is not, due to that fact, a
"Christian" poem. Paradise Lost deserves better than
to be treated so reductively as one might treat the
kind of garishly printed (and poorly written)
pamphlets that American door to door evangelists
peddle on weekend mornings. Those are, indeed,
"Christian" publications. Paradise Lost is not so
monumental and sub-literate a bore as that.

Michael Bryson

P.S. And what, exactly, is "the religion of Christ"
much less the "gospel of Christ"? (Let's let the
Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics and Anglicans and
Southern Baptists and Presbyterians and Lutherans
and Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses hash that out
for a while, shall we?) Who, exactly, was this
"Christ" person, anyhow? (Let's get John Dominick
Crossan and Rick Warren to debate that one...) These
are serious historical questions, and I think Milton
took them seriously. And precisely what relevance
does "Christ" (whoever that may have been outside
the pages of the texts, both canonical and
non-canonical) have in a poem where the name does
not appear even once? All too many of us refer to
"Christ" in published work on Milton, without, it
seems, ever bothering to acknowledge that Milton
seems allergic to the word in his later poetry.
This, among other reasons, is why I wrote (in the
Tyranny of Heaven) that Milton studies have often
threatened to turn into Milton ministries.

I sincerely apologize to the members of this list if
the polemical tone here is too much. But this is
something I believe is a crucial point. Academic
study of a poem that engages with theology,
mythology, politics, etc. should not be an opening
to bring one's weekend devotionals (or lack thereof)
into the classroom (or the journal). But with the
study of this author, and this body of work, the
temptation seems impossible for many of us (on
either end of the spectrum) to resist. I am not
without sin here, and I am not trying (despite what
may appear in these hastily-written paragraphs) to
cast the first stone. But when does enough become


---- Original message ----

  Date: Thu, 08 Jan 2009 21:39:35 -0500
  From: jonnyangel <junkopardner at comcast.net>
  Subject: Re: [Milton-L] De Doctrina Christiana
  To: John Milton Discussion List
  <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
  >On 1/8/09 4:01 PM, "Peter C. Herman"
  <herman2 at mail.sdsu.edu> wrote:
  >> Dear All,
  >> I wonder if perhaps we could try for more
  >> terminology than "Christian," since the
  >> definition of that term for Milton (and others)
  >> was very much in dispute. Catholicism, for
  >> example, is for Milton (and others) "popery,"
  >> not to be tolerated in the well-regulated
  >> commonwealth. And I remember that Calvin's
  >> Catholic antagonists called him an "atheist."
  >> call PL a "Christian" poem, therefore, implies
  >> ecumenicism that I do not think is warranted by
  >> either the times or the text itself.
  >> Peter C. Herman
  >"Christians" are simply those who believe in the
  religion of Christ (just
  >like the Catholics). I read "Areopagitica" last
  semester and Milton wasn't
  >an ecumenist by a long shot: he left the
  Catholics out (not to mention
  >supporting regicide, the two handed engine ready
  to smite the blind mouths,
  >I guess if one were to define PL as a "Christian"
  poem they would have
  >define "Christian" by Milton's views in DDC. I
  certainly think the text of
  >PL is supported by Milton's view of the religion
  of Christ (Christianity)
  >that he expressed in DDC.
  >I understand what you're saying in reference to
  calling PL a "Christian"
  >poem and its implication of ecumenism, but there
  has never been (nor will
  >ever be) a standard definition of what
  "Christian" is because it's always
  >changing. But the one thing Christianity (in all
  of its various forms) has
  >always shared is the belief in the religion and
  gospel of Christ.
  >For instance, C.S. Lewis was a Trinitarian, and
  in his brilliant work "Mere
  >Christianity" he tackles the complexities of the
  Trinity with the genius
  >that Milton tackled PL and Einstein tackled
  Relativity. And Lewis loved the
  >Christian theology of PL, even though there were
  some obvious theological
  >differences separating Milton and Lewis.
  >Whatever the differences over the centuries, make
  no mistake: PL "is" a
  >Christian poem. After all, I first read it as a
  child in a private Christian
  >elementary school that was completely
  Trinitarian. I have friends in the
  >priesthood (one still at the Vatican) and they
  all have read it (and
  >continue to read it) and absolutely love it.
  >Peace Shalom,
  >"Some things are too hot to touch/the human mind
  can only stand so much..."
  >-Bob Dylan
  >Milton-L mailing list
  >Milton-L at lists.richmond.edu
  >Manage your list membership and access list
  archives at
  >Milton-L web site: http://johnmilton.org/
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