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

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein

Secularism and Postsecularism

The work of philosopher Charles Taylor in particular has spurred literary scholars to rethink traditional assessments of both the secularization process and the relationship between religious and secular domains.  Theodore Ziolkowski’s wide-ranging, synthetic Modes of Faith: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Belief traces late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century European struggles to identify some sort of coherent replacement for a lost faith in Christianity.  The tone grows sterner once Ziolkowski reaches the “mythophilia” that animated Nazism (as well as many of its opponents), and the final chapter on religious renewal wraps up with the book’s own moral message: a somewhat contemptuous warning about the parallels between early-twenty-first-century culture, with its technology-driven superficiality, and these earlier examples of secular seeking.

Lori Branch’s important Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment and Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth critiques models of secularization that put the religious and the secular in stark opposition to each other.  As her title suggests, Branch problematizes both “ritual” and “spontaneity”: although spontaneity emerges as the watchword of authenticity in everything from prayer to Romantic poetics, Branch shows how such spontaneity emerged from ritualized language and cultural forms.  Colin Jager approaches the same problem from a different angle in The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era, which argues that secularization is a matter of modern “differentiation”—emerging splits between “religion” and “science”—rather than that which comes after religion.  Using Hume’s critique of the argument from design as his starting point, Jager shows how the ramifications of design in natural theology were appropriated, reworked, and sometimes jettisoned as ways of thinking about sensibility, the “fancy,” and the nature of the literary itself.

Pericles Lewis’s Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel challenges the position that religion is a fundamentally useless category for thinking about modernist literary experimentation, proposing that the term “secular sacred” better describes how the High Modernist novelists sought alternative ways of narrating a meaningful world without God.

John A. McClure’s intriguing Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison finds that a number of postsecular authors—those simultaneously rejecting materialism or skepticism, on the one hand, and resurgent fundamentalism, on the other—articulate what he calls a “weak religion,” which eschews totalizing, all-explanatory metanarratives in favor of “partial” narratives, ones that negotiate between modernity and the possibility of transcendence.  Drawing on McClure’s work, Norman W. Jones’s Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative draws provocative links between the tropes of gay and lesbian fiction and of Christian narratives.  Without arguing for mutual influence, Jones argues that Christian and gay authors nevertheless develop very similar strategies for imagining “identification, personal transformation, and chosen community.”

Andrew Tate’s Contemporary Fiction and Christianity argues for a “postsecular” reading of even apparently secular works by atheist authors, demonstrating that such authors wrestle with such core theological questions as incarnation, miracles, and eschatology.  Unlike Tate, Amy Hungerford suggests that we might think about a “post-religious”  world.  Hungerford’s Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960 argues that modern poets and novelists such as Allen Ginsberg, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Marilynne Robinson have identified religion not with content, but with “form,” even as they have also elevated the status of literature by identifying it with religion.  This religious mode is “meaningless” (evacuated of content) yet, in its existence as linguistic “practice” (as performance, style, and so forth) also powerful.


This essay presents only a sampling of what is proving to be a lively field of inquiry across multiple national and religious traditions.  Notably, much of this work insists on taking religion on its own terms, rather than dismissing it as a mode of false consciousness, or as incompatible with progressive politics.  What can we predict for the future?  Philosopher Charles Taylor’s work on secularism has already begun to influence scholars, and it should prompt further reflection on the relations between sacred and secular realms in the literary landscape.  Postcolonial scholarship, which calls the very definition of “religion” into question, is also a fruitful area for exploration (as we saw in accounts of “Praying Indians” appropriating Christianity on very different terms than the colonists intended).  Catholic literature, which has long been regarded with some suspicion as an area of scholarly inquiry, shows every sign of enjoying an intellectual renaissance.  And growing academic awareness of religious publishing—Christian and otherwise—should lead to closer attention both to the nuts and bolts of producing and disseminating religious literature (from the present and the past), and to the ongoing vitality of religious literature in all its forms, popular and otherwise.