15 May 2012

CCL Conference Abstract: Eugenides and Smith

I'm scheduled to give a paper at the 
Conference on Christianity & Literature Western Regional meeting next week. Here's the abstract for my paper: 

Checking Out and Hooking Up:

Reading Eugenides through the National Study of Youth and Religion


American sociologists have recently identified a new phase of human development, “emerging adulthood” (Arnett, 2000). These young people have been investigated by the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, University of Notre Dame, led by Dr. Christian Smith. Dr. Smith and his team have published three books: Soul Searching (2005), Souls in Transition (2009), and Lost in Transition (2011). In these studies, Dr. Smith diagnoses a new, particularly postmodern, belief as the prominent “religion” in Americans ages 13-30: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Meanwhile, author Jeffrey Eugenides published two novels whose main characters are emerging adults: Middlesex (2002) and The Marriage Plot (2011). This interdisciplinary paper seeks to interpret Eugenides' bestselling novels in light of Smith's research. Although the two novels are set in the 1950s-60s and 80s, respectively, they were written from a 21st-century perspective, and it is interesting to ask: Do the characters fit the statistical categories of the NSYR? To what extent does each suffer from the “five major problems facing very many young people today: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life” ( What place does religion play in their lives? Which of the “six major religious types” do they fit (Souls in Transition 166-8)? Are they Moralistic Therapeutic Deists? How accurately does Eugenides' fiction portray the reality of emerging adult beliefs? By examining two sets of texts together—sociological and literary—this paper hopes to present a picture of postmodern belief that dominates the lives of emerging adults and the reading lists of adults in America. Furthermore, a mutual inter-interpretation of fiction-as-sociology and (especially) sociology-as-narrative will reveal the “story” Smith tells about the character development of a putative American Young Person and, thus, of America herself as an emerging adult.

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