Skip to main content

New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Home

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein

Issue

This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Choice (volume 51 | number 3).

Introduction

The expansive field of literature and religion has been growing by proverbial leaps and bounds since the mid-1990s.  If, as the Jesuit sociologist Michel de Certeau once observed, historical writing always begins implicitly from our own moment—how, in other words, did we get here?—this should come as no surprise.  Even before the events of 9/11, which some scholars in this essay cited as a spark for their own projects, it had become clear that far from ebbing in the face of modernity, religion was alive, well, and taking over bestseller lists in the literary marketplace.  Various fundamentalisms, heated debates about gender and sexuality in the Church of England and the Episcopal Church, the growing popularity of “spirituality”—all attested to the vibrancy of religion’s cultural presence.  Moreover, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and theologians, led by figures such as Charles Taylor and Talal Asad, have sharply critiqued older models of secularization by which religion slowly gives way to a rational, “disenchanted” worldview.  By the same token, literary critics who might once have written off religion, especially Christianity, as simply oppressive or patriarchal have instead drawn on gender theory, psychoanalysis, historicism, and postcolonial theory to ask very different questions about how religious belief, language, and practice function in the literatures of diverse communities.

Still, it is worth bearing in mind that the very phrase “religion and literature” is fraught with pitfalls around “religion,” “literature,” and even the conjunction “and.”  Several scholars in this essay, such as Fiona Darroch, Judylyn S. Ryan, and Chanette Romero, point out that the spiritual practices of non-Western peoples or people of color have frequently been defined as not “religion” at all.  An implicitly Christian intellectual framework for thinking about belief and practice can easily exclude traditions that do not conform.  And to discuss “religion and literature” implies that literature is somehow not religious, a necessarily profane domain of letters—even though definitions of “the literary” have been in constant flux for centuries, and even though the very notion that a religious text would not be a literary text is, in fact, a historical novelty.  As Brian Cummings points out in relation to the sixteenth century, “[t]o define religious writing as non-literary is to beg the question of what ‘literature’ means, and to call most ‘literary’ works of the period non-religious completes a circular argument.”  Religion and literature is thus a field whose boundaries become hazier, not better defined, once approached.

To speak of boundaries, then, brings me to the composition of this essay.  Given that the period 2000-2012 saw the publication of hundreds of monographs, edited collections, and reference works in this area, narrowing such a rich expanse of scholarship down to approximately one hundred representative works necessitated some difficult choices, somewhat akin to lassoing elephants with a piece of thread.  In order to remain within my own area of expertise, I considered only scholarship focusing on texts written within the Judeo-Christian tradition, although I address several instances where that tradition intersected with other faith communities and narratives.  Some fields, like the Bible as literature, are really their own discipline, and are not discussed here.  Studies of Jewish literature (or Jews in literature) that primarily focus on Jews as a racial or ethnic category were also eliminated.  In cases where religious literature was, for all intents and purposes, also the popular literature of the period, I prioritized scholarship that examined how theology/religious practice intersected with literary form—that emphasized the “literature,” in other words.  Aside from scholarship on Shakespeare and Milton—two authors who have generated their own religion-and-literature industries—I generally downplayed monographs on a single author unless they spoke to a wider field of inquiry.  Finally, except for a few cases, edited collections were excluded.  It should go without saying (but I will say it anyway) that a book’s absence from this essay says absolutely nothing about its quality.

Miriam Elizabeth Burstein (mburstei@brockport.edu) is associate professor in the department of English at the College at Brockport, State University of New York.