Religion in American Literature, 2000-2010: Your Top 10 List

Welcome back to our contributor to Everett Hamner, who's been goofing around doing research and teaching at Western Illinois instead of spending time on the all-important business of blogging. Below are his thoughts on ten recent pieces of American literature, of all genres, which show the vitality of religion in American literary culture. Feel free to add your own suggestions for a top ten list in the comments section.

Religion in American Literature, 2000-2010
by Everett Hamner

As one of the literary types haunting this blog, and in small recompense for all I learned about American religious history from my just-graduated Young Scholars in American Religion cohort, I thought some of you might appreciate these recommendations of 21st-century novels and graphic narratives to teach, reference, or just enjoy. Beyond their individual quality, my only criteria for inclusion was that they significantly engage religious questions and that they had not been discussed before at Religion in American History. The resulting list is neither exhaustive nor even my own “top ten.” But it is relevant and eclectic, featuring postmodern doorstoppers and plot-driven page-turners, science fiction and realism, with main characters ranging from African American Protestants to a Catholic-Islamic-Hindu syncretist. I hope many of you discover something intriguing.

1) E. L. Doctorow, City of God (2000). The back cover promises “a detective story about a cross that vanishes from a Lower East Side church only to reappear on the roof of an Upper West Side synagogue.” That just scratches the surface. This postmodern collage of literary forms, including emails, jazz lyrics, free verse, and prayers, is definitely about something missing, but not so much the cross as the God presumed to have hung upon it. Yet this is not merely another expression of Dover Beachian despair. Featuring dark matter and quantum physics, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, Tillichian theology and “Evolutionary Judaism,” and early Christianity and modern filmmaking, the novel is worthy of its namesake. As an early passage has it, “That the universe, including our consciousness of it, would come into being by some fluke happenstance, that this dark universe of incalculable magnitude has been accidentally self-generated … is even more absurd than the idea of a Creator.” A.

2. Yann Martel, Life of Pi (2001). Martel’s novel is one of only a couple on this list that is neither by an American writer nor about American religion. Instead its settings are India, Mexico, Canada, and most of all, the Pacific Ocean. At one level, this is a fairly simple adolescent adventure story, a tale of shipwreck and survival. The twist is that the ship in question was carrying a zoo, so Pi’s lifeboat companions include an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. Too fantastic, you say? Then let me assure you that this half-comedic narrative is framed so as to render the entire novel a study in epistemology and an inquiry into the nature of fiction, allegory, and metaphor. Oh, and because the main character believes that “religion is about our dignity, not our depravity,” he assumes that a loving God won’t mind if a growing boy is simultaneously a pious Catholic, Muslim, and Hindu … even if he doesn’t tell his priest, imam, or pandit. Pluralism, anyone? A-.

3) Brian K. Vaughn, Pia Guerra, and José Marzán, Jr. Y: The Last Man (2002-08).

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narrative is thriving in the new millennium, and I don’t just mean Left Behind. Now collected in book form, this widely-acclaimed comic series will turn off some with its graphic violence and sexuality, but those who tackle it will be rewarded with much more to ponder than the average superhero tale. Utilizing a premise going back to Mary Shelley, this globetrotting narrative interrogates potential mutations of feminism, homophobia, racism, genetic engineering, US nationalism, global terrorism, and religious fundamentalism. True to the genre, there is plenty of hyperbole, special effects, and tongue-in-cheek humor, but these lush panels are as consistently evocative as the plot is relevant. Surgeon General Warning: strangely addictive. B+.

4) Joe Sacco, Palestine (2002). And now for something intensely historical, just to counterbalance the colorful future of that last entry. Joe Sacco does in-depth reporting through immersing himself in the world’s least stable environs. Rather than a feature in The New York Times Magazine, however, the result is graphic narrative. This account of two months in the Occupied Territories in 1991-92 is an effort to uncover the personal dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. There are certainly references to larger-scale political maneuvering, but the core of this work is its on-the-ground tales, which come from both sides of the fences. The wounds of rock-flinging juvenile operatives, the devastation of a neighborhood’s olive trees (and thus some residents’ primary sources of income), the torture of political prisoners, women’s feelings about the hijab, and the obliviousness of Western tourists … material religion, indeed. B+.

5) Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing (2003). Richard Powers is best known for his mastery of scientific detail and his insights about human responses to new technologies. Like his stellar National Book Award-winning The Echo Maker (2005), this novel foregrounds evolution,but here the transformations are primarily of music, race, and religion. Spanning the second half of the twentieth century, particularly the civil rights movement and its legacy, this is not only a 600+ page meditation on jazz, opera, and classical music, but a compelling argument about America’s need to embrace racial hybridity, confront class divisions, and search deeper than religious labels. With a Jewish immigrant father and an African American mother, the brothers who are the novel’s main characters face the same sort of dilemmas observed by their father decades earlier. Among them: “If I want to get ahead, I must become a Christian. But if I use Christianity to get ahead, I lose my soul!” A-.

6) Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). “Faulkner without the pretension,” I thought upon reading Gilead’s last sentence. The Pulitzer selection committee must have felt similarly, and among these recommendations, Robinson’s interwoven novels are the most certain to appear on future American literature syllabi. But greatness is only one element of their appeal. If you need antidotes to megachurch spectacles or clergy sex scandals, these quiet works consider far more mundane matters. Very little occurs plot-wise, and even some of the major events take place offstage. What we do get is immense theological depth, attention to ordinary beauties and graces easily overlooked. We find main characters who are largely admirable andindeed wise rural Iowan pastors. Seriously, this is possible. Need more? Well, race plays a major role. And in covering the same events from the two old men’s perspectives, the novels become a single, very successful narrative experiment. They are also full of understated humor, as in this description of a home health care book: “It was large and expensive, and it was a good deal more particular than Leviticus.” Taken as a whole, what Gilead’s narrator says of a verse in the gospels may be what even the most informed readers feel about American Protestantism after finishing these masterpieces: “You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completelyignorant of it.” A+.

7) Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2007). I debated listing this novel, as I’m not sure it says anything explicit about religion, at least not if defined narrowly. But a single scene from its sparing journey through a barely recognizable, post-apocalyptic American wilderness should be enough to convey the work’s significance. Having walked for days with little to eat, a father and his small son find an underground emergency bunker in the yard of an abandoned home. If the reader has not already accompanied this pair through the bleakness of the preceding hundred pages, the sensory impact of the moment is impossible to fully convey, but suffice it to say that I will never look at a tin of canned fruit the same way. “He turned and looked at the boy crouched above him blinking in the smoke rising up from the lamp and then he descended to the lower steps and sat and held the lamp out. Oh my God, he whispered. Oh my God. What is it Papa? Come down. Oh my God. Come down. Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. […] He held his forehead in his hand. Oh my God, he said. He looked back at the boy. It’s all right, he said. Come down. Papa? Come down. Come down and see.” A-.

8) Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (2010). Speaking of food, here is one of the best science fiction novels of the decade, and the problem here is calories. Imagining a twenty-third century in which international oil obsessions have given way to scarcities of food production, the setting and artificial beings involved are remindful of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, but the setting is Thailand. As in Life of Pi, the religion here is syncretistic, but the strange combinations in play—Buddhists overlapping with Grahamites, with stories about “Noah Bodhisattva, who saved all the animals and trees and flowers on his great bamboo raft and helped them cross the waters”—are taken for granted. This is a compelling contribution to the cyberpunk tradition that invites readers to extrapolate from current religious, ethnic, and global economic tensions and then to reinvest in that future’s history. B+.

9) Ralph Ellison, Three Days Before the Shooting … (2010). Ralph Ellison worked for more than forty years on his follow-up to Invisible Man, but never could bring himself to finish. The reasons were legion, and have recently been thoroughly explored in Adam Bradley’s Ralph Ellison in Progress and Arnold Rampersad’s biography. Scholars of race and American literature are well aware of this struggle, but as I will likely argue in a future essay, those who study American religion should be, too. This 1100-page volume contains a wealth of archival material painstakingly organized and introduced by Bradley and John F. Callahan, including the most coherent 300+ pages of the second novel (which were originally published in 1999 as Juneteenth). Such an unfinished monstrosity may prove too massive for some to engage, but be not afraid: it includes many bite-sized excerpts that deal powerfully with civil religion, African American Protestantism, and the increasingly hybrid religious realities evident at the turn of the millennium. See especially the eight excerpts published by Ellison during his lifetime that appear at the volume’s conclusion. A-.

10) Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (2010). I’m cheating with this one, as I just discovered it myself and am only a hundred pages in. Given the praise garnered elsewhere, though, that’s enough to recommend it. With the 36 chapters receiving such titles as “The Argument from the Improbable Self” and “The Argument from the Irrepressible Past,” philosophers and theoretically-oriented historians of religion and science may be most immediately attracted, but this is compelling reading for anyone in the humanities whose afternoons are commonly devoted to faculty meetings and university lectures. Although several main characters are unapologetically brilliant, Goldstein holds nothing back in critiquing the posturing and petty divisions that characterize too much of academic life. Meanwhile, the novel’s equally serious and humorous reflections on the relationship of faith and knowledge and on modern dynamics of religion and secularism suggest an ear very close to the ground. A-, so far.


matt b at: June 30, 2011 at 8:15 AM said...

I think The Road is immensely theological, which is all the more interesting because McCarthy's an atheist. All the talk about "carrying the fire" and the fact that the father describes the son as "a tabernacle in the dark" construct a statement about belief and truth and the nature of ultimate reality that put McCarthy in the same conversations as Paul Tillich and Mircea Eliade, seems to me.

Everett at: June 30, 2011 at 12:36 PM said...

Good points, Matt. Anyone else out there? You historians can’t all be spending the summer transcribing Bachmann speeches, fantasizing about seeing The Book of Mormon, and catching up on the latest monographs from Blum, Lofton, Sutton, and their ilk, can you?

Edward J. Blum at: June 30, 2011 at 12:48 PM said...

Where's Wicked!!! Talk about a mystical, spiritual, sexual adventure. I loved it. Haven't seen the musical, but it did inspire me to read the original Baum novels.

Paul Harvey at: June 30, 2011 at 12:52 PM said...

Edward Jones, The Known World (2003): I give it an A, similar spare style to Marilynne Robinson, but with (dare I say) some good ol' Faulknerian themes, and the main character, Moses, bought by a black slaveholder. A favorite line:

"The gods, the changeable gods, hated a man with so much, but they hated more a man who did not appreciate how high they had pulled him up from the dust"

Everett at: June 30, 2011 at 12:55 PM said...

_The Known World_ is on my shelf, Paul; you just moved it several slots up the priority list.

Edward J. Blum at: June 30, 2011 at 3:41 PM said...

and oops ... Wicked was published in 1995 so I'm decades behind. Then again, I only read Harry Potter 2 years ago. Marita Golden's _Edge of Heaven_, I thought, was pretty great too, but it was published in 97, I think. Neat tale of sin and repentance within a black family in D.C.

John L. Crow at: July 1, 2011 at 7:37 AM said...

Regarding Ellison, in December the University of Massachusetts Press will be releasing Timothy Parrish's "Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America," a reappraisal of Ellison's legacy and impact of post Civil War America. Parrish teaches in the English department at FSU.

Kelly Baker at: July 1, 2011 at 9:24 AM said...

Everett, as we have discussed before I am not sure my summer reading fits under the canon of literature, but I am struck my the role of religion in YA novels. I finished Carrie Ryan's The Forrest of Hands and Teeth trilogy, a vision of life generations after the (ever popular) zombie apocalypse. Ryan traces the bleakness of a society in ruins held together by religious authorities. It is nowhere near as bleak as the Road, but I am making my students in the fall read both along with several other apocalyptic tales to understand apocalypticism as a genre. Thanks for the list, and The Windup Girl along with Bacigalupi's young adult Ship Breaker are on my fiction reading musts.

Everett at: July 1, 2011 at 10:07 AM said...

Thanks for the heads-up about the Parrish volume, John, and for the Ryan mention, Kelly. Regarding YA stuff, I imagine you already know the _Hunger Games_ trilogy?

Kelly Baker at: July 1, 2011 at 11:10 AM said...

Yes, I am familiar with the Hunger Games, which I almost included in my comment, and the bleakness of those books is unnerving, but Collins' commentary on torture, warfare, media compliance, and human agency is worth trudging through the gruesome games and pain caused to the protagonists.

Also, thank you for directing me to Y, which I can't wait to get my hands on.

Kevin M Schultz at: July 1, 2011 at 11:29 AM said...

Well, she's not American but British, but she haunts the pages of the New York Review of Books and the halls of NYU--does that count? Anyway, Zadie Smith's first book, WHITE TEETH, has Muslim twins fighting for an identity in the modern West, secular Jews, a ton of Jehovah's Witnesses, a battle between science and faith, and a great scene with a priest. It may not be a perfect novel, but it's pretty darn good.

There's also Norman Mailer's CASTLE IN THE FOREST, which is very Mailer, about the devil cultivating evil on earth through the being of Adolf Hitler. I'm cheating a bit because I haven't yet finished it, but it's a perfect telling of his Manicheanism.

Everett at: July 1, 2011 at 4:43 PM said...

Thanks, Kevin! Zadie, absolutely: I'm doing an MLA 12 paper on that book alongside Jeffery Eugenides's _Middlesex_. Norman Mailer's treatment of Hitler, though, I hadn't looked at ....

Hal Bush at: March 27, 2014 at 2:00 PM said...

I suggest adding Leif Enger to this list: especially Peace Like a River. It's a marvelous tale and it takes seriously life in the spirit -- something very few other novels attempt.

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