WESTERN CONFERENCE ON CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE
“Believing in Literature: Religion and the Contemporary Author”
Amy Hungerford, professor at Yale University, is perhaps one of the most influential contemporary scholars of literature and religion in America. She is the author, most recently, of Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960. She is on the vanguard of a religious turn in literary studies., in which religion is being taken seriously, and literature is being seen as a means of exploring spirituality. Here Amy talks about the drawbacks of a diction of faith that avoids specific “belief content”—that is, that avoid denominational or doctrinal specificity.
Hungerford began with an epigraph from George Sanatayana to the effect that you cannot be religious without being some particular religion, and used it (as does Clifford Geertz) as a praise of particularity.
There is an effort in late 20th-century literature to retain belief without beliefs. Can it work? Or is it like speaking without a speaking particular language? Are both hopeless? In the end, Hungerford says YES.
There is space within the great house of the Church for skepticism, questioning, intellectual modernism, and alternative rituals. There is a real persistence of religious life in the modern world. Later 20th century writers think it is possible to believe without beliefs. There is not, however, a simple trajectory from Harriet Beecher Stowe's “moralizing” through the ambiguities of Henry James or Theodore Dreiser to the secularizing present. For instance, The Damnation of Therond Ware by Frederick ___ is not a novel about the decline of religion, but about its aesthetic future in a pluralistic culture.
The hope of religion is on the shoulders of writers' aesthetics. New criticism has been essential to the development of the modern novel. How do aesthetic, non-doctrinal forms of belief inform specifically doctrinal writers? The function of belief in even Robinson and Lahaye/Jenkins is informed by form. There is an essential transcendent/immanent binary. Gender roles and the action genre function formatively. Belief is itself a practice, like rituals, in these books. Perhaps there is a genre that could be called Supernatural formalism.
Discourses of belief and lived religion are simultaneously inhabited. Religion is a world to live in. So are the imaginative worlds of novels. The religious turn influences structure: there are redemptive, revelatory endings. There is a move from Bible as Literature to Literature as Bible. They try to re-enchant the literary world by pushing it towards the transcendent. Robinson, Morrison, McCarthy, Lahaye all made their mark with their most religious works.
Belief without meaning dehumanizes the literature and the reader. Writers want religious power without facing the doctrinal foundations. There is an advantage to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism; not believing anything particular makes it easier to tolerate everyone—but vague religion insulates religion from public discourse. There is a currency of underarticulated belief. It is empty.
Where will this emptiness go? Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke and Cormac McCarthy's The Road are sample cases. In Tree of Smoke, there is an absent mystery without the particulars that might reveal transcendence. The novel lacks human particularity. The novel produces a feeling of biblical force, but that's about it. McCarthy is attracted to numinous nothingness. He is in love with words, and with nothingness. Is the boy's light nothing, or everything? The end of the novel flaunts the power of words to create a world, like the power of divine creativity. The words hold out hope, even while the words say that there is no hope.
Theirs is a new kind of postmodernism, that offers something like an alternative modernism. They prefer the belief-without-content to the earlier obscurities of style and allusion. Religious worlds have to do imaginative work to go on being religious in a pluralistic context. Does literature need to be religious to move its readers?
Philip Roth's Everyman is humanist. American Pastoral presents nothingness filled with human detail. This fiction is post-religious, yet still valuable. Secularity needs cultural architects as much as religion does. Renewal of religious thought needs clear devils, not vague smoke. Example: __ Jones. He presents lived religion. Lived religion deserves and demands our attention. Literary beliefs are not always distinct from religious ones. The discourses are the same. They both must be specific. Full of particular life. Facing the problems. It's about the language; the cadence of the Book of Common Prayer, for instance.
The conclusion is that fiction that tries to avoid particularity of belief content is nothing but smoke.