Despite religious diversity and the separation of church and state, America is a Christian culture; most cultural artifacts have been influenced by Christianity on some level, and thus it is useful to have some basic knowledge of Christianity if you are studying Western European and American literature. (This would be true of knowing about Islam and Hinduism if, for example, you study Indian literature.) It is particularly useful to be able to recognize attributes linked to Jesus. These include personal qualities such as being forgiving and self-sacrificing, historical details such as the fact that he was a carpenter, and the miracles he is thought to have performed, such as walking on water.
Like Shakespeare’s work or literature in general, the figure of Jesus has developed a life of its own. This means that Jesus as a character or archetype has a significant place in literature and culture independent of the particular meaning for Christians. As Foster’s description shows, the archetype of Jesus involves both historical facts about the real Jesus and personal qualities that Christians associate with him. Literary characters that possess either of these groups of qualities may qualify as Christ figures.
Reading like a professor requires you to “put aside your belief system” and enter a more analytical mindset. For example, Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea (1952) features an old fisherman who is kind and pure of heart, who endures great physical suffering, and who even at one point lies in his bed in the shape of a cross. Regardless of your relationship to Christianity, you should be able to recognize the symbolic connection between this character and Jesus. And although this is a rather obvious example, there are lots of instances when a literary character is more subtly linked to Jesus—including characters who are women.
It might appear that Foster is offering contradictory advice here: he at once suggests that we should use what we know about the Bible in literary interpretation, and that we should “put aside” our beliefs when reading literature. However, this is not really a contradiction at all; Foster emphasizes that we should use our knowledge to aid our reading, but not our feelings and beliefs. The importance of not reading from your own particular perspective is further detailed in Chapter 24.
When searching for Christ figures, it helps not to read too literally. For example, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984) features a character who, on the surface, does not seem to resemble Jesus at all: she is selfish, an alcoholic, a sex worker, and a bad mother. At the same time, she has disciple figures, and after dying in a blizzard, returns as a ghost. Foster admits that this may not be enough to convince all readers of this character’s status as a Christ figure, and that the suggestion might alarm the more religious reader. On the other hand, Foster reminds the reader to step back from their personal beliefs (or lack thereof) in order to see the broader ways in which Christ figures operate in literature, which is often as signifiers of sacrifice, redemption, and hope.
As Foster argues throughout, interpreting a book in a literal manner inhibits deeper, more sophisticated understanding. As much as a Christian reader might be offended at Christ being symbolized by an alcoholic sex worker, an atheist might object to the notion that Christ figures always represent redemption and hope. In both cases, the readers’ personal views obscure their understanding of what the author may be aiming to convey.