Religion in American Literature, 2000-2010
by Everett Hamner
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-.
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-.
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.