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Dr. Maxine Hancock Invites You to Come Read over Puritan Shoulders

May 17, 2018
I love the Puritans for their clarity in doctrine, their courage in persecution, and their general joyful earnestness in life and action

While to some the English Puritans are icons of discipline, to those who read and study them, they are lifelines of spiritual perception and encouragement. The writings of Richard Baxter alone have saved the ministry of many a disheartened pastor.

In this informal conversation, Dr. Maxine Hancock shares a bit of her enthusiasm for the Puritan works at the heart of Regent’s upcoming conference, Uncommon Devotion: Reflections on Puritan Texts, hosted by the John Richard Allison Library.

Professor Emerita, Interdisciplinary Studies and Spiritual Theology at Regent College, and a renowned scholar of John Bunyan, Dr. Hancock, will be speaking on The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Regent College: Why would you recommend reading John Bunyan?

Dr. Maxine Hancock: The Pilgrim’s Progress is probably the most satisfactory map of the Christian experience that I have discovered in a lifetime of reading. The longer I live, the more perceptive I see Bunyan to have been about the long process of conversion that is the Christian life, the “12,000 Steps to Christian Maturity.”

Right now I am especially aware of “how fitly are the stages set”—the ways in which times of stress and distress are so often lovingly followed by respite and refreshment. And I love “The Second Part” with its feminine characters and the emphasis on making our journey as part of a company. I have found that companions for the journey are among the greatest gifts of life.

What first interested you in his work?

By the time I did doctoral studies in mid-life in the late 1980s, scholarly interest had caught up with my girlhood obsession: literature and social entities once deemed “marginal” had come to the fore as history and literature were examined as much for what had been missed as for what had been attended to. The Literary Culture of Nonconformity (the title of a seminal work by N. H. Keeble) was explored by cultural materialist historians and well as by literary scholars.

What have you written about Bunyan and what intrigued you as a scholar?

I found myself in the perfect milieu to finally pay the attention that Bunyan’s marginal notations deserved, and wrote a thesis which became a book titled The Key in the Window: Marginal Notes in Bunyan’s Narratives (2000). It mattered to me because reading Bunyan without the antiphonal accompaniment of its scriptural intertext is to miss much of the richness of his work.

In other work, I have explored themes of women’s identity, community, and emerging literacy (as borne witness to in “The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Second Part”), the influence of oral storytelling strategies on Bunyan’s narrative structures, as well as the instructions of Bunyan and Baxter to their Nonconformist readers regarding the respective roles of aging believers and their Christian communities.

The whole metaphor of life as journey is fascinating to me. I loved teaching an interdisciplinary course at Regent, “Spiritual Pilgrimage: Image and Experience,” in which we looked at the motif in Bunyan and then followed it through to twentieth and twenty-first century literature.

Why does this sort of conference—one that focuses on a range of texts—interest you?

I love the Puritans for their clarity in doctrine, their courage in persecution, and their general joyful earnestness in life and action, and I love old books for the sense they give of the power of words to reach across centuries of cultural change. So what could be better than a conference that brings a range of scholars together to discuss both? And better yet, in the wonderful atmosphere of Regent’s Houston-Packer Collection of Puritan and Nonconformist Books?

What will you be speaking about at the conference?

Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? I won’t give away much, but I will say that I am focusing on the character who would get the Oscar for the best-supporting actress if this were a movie. Much as I love the matronly Christiana, the younger woman, Mercie, will be the focus of my attention.

Do rare books offer us something that PDFs and reprint versions cannot?

Handling and reading the old books as they were presented to their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readers is an entirely different experience from reading digital or reprinted versions. There’s something about holding a book that was held by a newly-literate tradesman or slipped into a housemaid’s apron pocket, or that was spread open and propped up on an earnest minister’s desk as he prepared to preach, that is a kind of time travel: you read with the original intended reader, over his or her shoulder, and sense both the expanse of time and the closeness of spirit between first readings and your own.

If I am new to the Puritans or church history, would this conference be worthwhile? A good introduction?

Absolutely—but you had better bring your notebook along, because you will be drinking from a fire hose. (OK, I know that’s a mixed metaphor). The conference that Cindy Aalders has put together is unusual in its breadth and depth. It will be a privilege for all who come to hear something of the significance and influence on today’s academic and theological thought of what was once a despised minority—writers and ministers published by printers who risked their businesses to produce these works.

Registration is now open for Uncommon Devotion: Reflections on Puritan Texts. Thanks to a generous donation, we are pleased to offer this conference free of charge.

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