A Novel Approach to Teaching American Religious History

by Phillip Luke Sinitiere

For my American Religious History class this fall, I'm considering revamping the course by assigning 3 or 4 novels (and perhaps a memoir). As I've done in the past, Religion in American Life will serve as the main anchor text for the course, and I'll have a host of other primary and secondary readings for students to examine.

I once assigned a memoir, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (1963), and asked students to consider Baldwin's ideas about the relationship between race, religion and democratic society. Students enjoyed the book--partly because of its relative brevity--but mostly due to its deep and hefty subject matter and Baldwin's engaging and accessible writing. I will probably assign it again at some point.

Some have suggested using Black Robe (1985), and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood (1952). Malcolm X's Autobiography seems to be a mainstay. For me, the fact that each of these books have been made into a movie makes them compelling assignments--rich ground to discuss interpretive vantage points via text and film--but certainly there are many other worthy choices. I'd like to assign novels (or memoirs) that cover multiple time periods and address a variety of themes.

So, what are your experiences using novels (or memoirs) to teach American religious history? What novels (or memoirs) have worked best for specific periods? What novels (or memoirs) work best to address topics such as gender, immigration, race, ethnicity, class, unbelief, or sexuality? What novels (or memoirs) explore lived religion or popular religion, or even religious pluralism? What are the possibilities, promises, and peril of the novel (or memoir) approach?


JM Utzinger said…
I have had great luck with Abraham Cahan's short stories, especially _The Imported Bridegroom_ and _Yekl_. The latter was made into the movie "Hester Street." Not only is Cahan compelling, he really highlights issues of whether the religious identity of Jewish immigrants can survive as they Americanize. Cahan, of course, is only one side of the story, but because the stories are short and really packed with issues, I have really great responses and discussions with my students.
MJZHarper said…
A few suggestions:
James Baldwin's Go Tell it On The Mountain
Lillian Smith's Killers of the Dream
John Edgar Wideman's The Cattle Killing

Once my students each chose a memoir to read (from a list). Near the end of the term, we gathered for a reception where each student came in character from his/her chosen memoir. We then held a discussion where everyone contributed from the vantage point of the character/historical actor. Students ate it up.
Kevin M Schultz said…
I love using novels.

I've had great luck with Black Robe for the settlement phase of American history and with Lying Awake for the recent period, esp. regarding Catholic history.

Lying Awake is short, filled with things like gender issues, science and religion, and the place of religion on modern society (it's the story of nun in modern LA who has visions which turn out to be a brain tumor). Like Black Robe, it's centered on Catholics, but I do think it worked with the students.

I've also used vol. 1 of Studs Lonigan for the 1910s. Students loved it too, once they got into it, mainly because it deals with kids their age.
Anonymous said…
I like using novels in my Religion in the US classes as well. I find it a good way for students to get into the material from a different vantage point. One book that I've enjoyed using is Orson Scott Card's _The Folk of the Fringe_. It is about Mormons after a post-nuclear event. The book is a series of interconnected short stories written in the 80s (so there are obviously some dated references). It has been good in talking about religious violence (the first story opens with a group of Mormons who have been forced out of North Caronlina by other Christians). It also is good for talking about the power of religious community and practice. The notion of "fringe" in the novel (used several ways) is also good to compare with Laurence Moore's "outsider" thesis. I've also used Leslie Marmon Silko's _Ceremony_ which I think is good for talking about gender, ethnicity, relationships between Natives and whites, the power of religious practice, etc. There are a lot of issues with using the book, one of which is how some students do not like it because the narrative is not linear. I've found that students who like the novel really like the novel and student who dislike the novel really hate it. There is no middle ground. A third novel I've used is Mark Salzman's _Lying Awake_. It's good for discussing gender, religious experience, the relationship between science and religion, as well as the lives of Catholic women religious (it's good to compare the convented life of the novel's main character with how other women religious have different experiences). Students like this one because it is a quick, easy read (especially compared to _Ceremony_).
Brian said…
Without a doubt, you should include Harold Frederic's 1896 novel, "The Damnation of Theron Ware."

It hits just about every subject you can think of related to late-19th century religion and society: immigration, gender, sexuality, revivalism, unbelief, plurality of religious beliefs, science, etc. It probably sounds like I'm exaggerating its breadth, but I assure you that it's all well-developed in the novel. A must read for religious history.

Incidentally, I've found through some of my own research that many literary folks consider Frederic to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest forgotten American author, especially from the late-19th century.
Jason Bivins said…
Great topic! I've actually used "The Fire Next Time" quite often, and it's always met with enthusiasm by my students. I've also assigned the first Left Behind novel, Starhawk's "The Fifth Sacred Thing," and I've toyed with the idea of using Sherman Alexie. "The Cattle Killing" is a great suggestion.
Art said…
Black Robe is great for so many reasons--much better than reading through the Relations. But because of the language and sex, I've run into trouble with my more puritanical students. One wrote in his/her review that I was an embarrassment to the university for assigning it. At a public school, though, I shrugged it off. Presently, I'm not sure that I would assign it. Call it "tenure fright." Make no mistake, I qualify the heck out of the author's intent. But for some, it just doesn't matter. I've used Wise Blood with mixed success. I needed to consult outside commentary before I really got a handle on it, and that helped. I found Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner's, Flannery O'Connor: A Proper Scaring to be very accessible and thoughtful. She also covers some key short stories. You might do just as well going with one or two O'Connor short stories. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "Good Country People" summarize many of the key themes in Wise Blood. Great post, indeed. Please consider updating us on how the course went.
Brian said…
You also can't go wrong with a few Nathaniel Hawthorne short stories, such as "The Gray Champion," "The Minister's Black Veil," "Young Goodman Brown," or "Endicott and the Red Cross," all of which have Puritan settings, with lots to say about both Puritan- and early-to-mid-19th century society.

Also, "The Celestial Rail-road" and "Earth's Holocaust" are great. The first is a wonderful parody of Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," and both have tons of great commentary on society during the 1830s and 40s, particularly on religion, reform, and revivalism.
Anonymous said…
I really like Anzia Yezierska's _Bread Givers_ for the Gilded Age, immigration, urbanization and gender issues. It's a terrific read; fun, sad, cute, and full of allegories that resound with students. GREAT QUESTION Phil!!!
Paul Harvey said…
By way more of memoir/historical text: "Bood Done Signed My Name" by Tim Tyson.

*Ceremony* is a favorite of mine -- not an easy read though for students.

For 19th century, it's hard to beat Uncle Tom's Cabin and Twain's *Connecticut Yankee* if you want to deal with novels that aren't "about" religion but ultimately really are.
Phil said…
Thanks everyone for these fabulous suggestions! I appreciate your thoughts and perspectives.

As Art suggested, I may write a follow-up post (or two) in the fall, providing an update and progress report.

Either way, I look forward to continuing the conversation.
Anonymous said…
"Name All the Animals" by Allison Smith is a really beautifully written memoir. Set primarily in the 70s, in a very Catholic family within a very Catholic community in upstate New York. Lesbianism, gender normativeness and death in the family are other major themes.

Also, its a beautifully written memoir.
David Stowe said…
Two books I've used in American Studies classes that would seem to have potential for religious history are Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible and Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. Both would allow students to get at transnational currents of religious experience, U.S.-Congo in the first case and U.S.-India in the second. I've always thought James Carroll's An American Requiem would be great for some course.
David said…
I've used Marilynne Robinson's novel _Gilead_ in a course on Christianity in the U.S. since 1860. The novel connects the Civil War up to the 1950s by telling the story of three generations of Congregationalist ministers in Iowa. It helps students understand the fate of the mainline Protestant churches in post-Civil War America, along with the spiritual practices that accompanied such transformations. (The grandfather has visions of Jesus, the father is a pacifist and later agnostic, and the grandson totes around Karl Barth.) My students really liked the novel, too. We had some really lively discussions about the characters in the tale.
Charles Ives, "The Unanswered Question" and Symphony No. 4, S. 4 (K. 1A4).

Richard Wright “Black Boy.” Make certain that the edition includes what was published separately as “American Hunger”.

Marilynne Robinson. “Gilead” and “Home”.

John Houston (film) “Wiseblood”.

Michael D. O’Brien “Strangers and Sojourners”.

Walker Percy, “The Moviegoer” and “The Last Gentleman”

Robert Coles. “What Profit under the Sun” part nine of “The Privileged Ones”, Volume V of “Children of Crisis".

“Black Elk Speaks” as told by John Neihardt.

Elie Wiesel “Ani Maamin”.

Isaac Bashevis Singer “Enemies: A Love Story”.

Paul Mazursky Film} “Enemies: A Love Story”.

Ursula Goodenough, “The Sacred Depths of Nature”.

Erwin Goodenough, “Toward a Mature Faith”.

Peter Beagle, “The Last Unicorn”.

Anais Nin, “Henry and June” from “A Journal of Love”.

Philip Kaufman. (Film) “Henry and June”.

Maxine Kumin, "Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief".

Lewis Sorley, "Honorable Warrior and the Ethics of Command". This is an important biography of a Christian general.

Robert Penn Warren, “Rumor Verified”.

Jane Kenyon, “Collected Poems”.

Denise Levertov, “A Door in the Hive”.

Adrienne Rich, “An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991”.

Leonard Cohen, “Beautiful Losers” and “Book of Longings”.

Terry Riley. “Salome Dances for Peace” (music).

Ted Michael Morgan