The Impossible Prayers of James Boyd White

M. Publishing, University of Michigan, 2013

24 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2020

Date Written: March 1, 2013


Starting with an analysis of one of James Boyd White's most recent sermons, offered here as representative, this paper suggests that much of Jim’s lifetime of work in law and literature, thought of in light of these sermons, can be read as his attempt to address through reading performances the very personal issue of how to speak to his secular audience in a religious voice. For those of you familiar with his work, this is an issue quite similar to the one Jim reads George Herbert as addressing, but for Jim it regards a religion, we might say, several steps removed from Herbert’s, one for which the issue of speaking is not so much how to gesture towards the divine in words, but what sense to make of doing so. Along the way, and assisted primarily by Ricoeur (on reading) and Heidegger (on art and technology), I ask what it is about texts, about art, and about ways of reading that make these so central to his project. Circling back around to the sermon, the concluding sections briefly address the question of what difference sacred texts as art, and an audience formed by these texts, make, and what this difference tell us about Jim’s other works. These are obviously deep and uncertain waters in which, as Jim puts it, we must somehow “learn to sail” if we are to be alive in the way he has spent his life describing, and in them I only wade out from the shore, hoping to encourage you to venture farther.

Keywords: religious voice, James Boyd White, Paul Ricoeur, Martin Heidegger, sermon, parable, prayer, enframing, transformation, identity, art, tradition, literary text, way of reading, distanciation, imagination, culture, cultural dislocation, front of the text, aletheia, mystery, creative, donation, Gospel

Suggested Citation

Sammons, Jack Lee, The Impossible Prayers of James Boyd White (March 1, 2013). M. Publishing, University of Michigan, 2013, Available at SSRN:

Jack Lee Sammons (Contact Author)

Mercer University School of Law ( email )

Walter F. George School of Law
1021 Georgia Ave.
Macon, GA 31207-0001
United States
4783192989 (Phone)
478-301-2259 (Fax)

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