Postmodern Belief

Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960

Amy Hungerford
Series: 20/21
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Postmodern Belief
    Book Description:

    How can intense religious beliefs coexist with pluralism in America today? Examining the role of the religious imagination in contemporary religious practice and in some of the best-known works of American literature from the past fifty years,Postmodern Beliefshows how belief for its own sake--a belief absent of doctrine--has become an answer to pluralism in a secular age. Amy Hungerford reveals how imaginative literature and religious practices together allow novelists, poets, and critics to express the formal elements of language in transcendent terms, conferring upon words a religious value independent of meaning.

    Hungerford explores the work of major American writers, including Allen Ginsberg, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Marilynne Robinson, and links their unique visions to the religious worlds they touch. She illustrates how Ginsberg's chant-infused 1960s poetry echoes the tongue-speaking of Charismatic Christians, how DeLillo reimagines the novel and the Latin Mass, why McCarthy's prose imitates the Bible, and why Morrison's fiction needs the supernatural. Uncovering how literature and religion conceive of a world where religious belief can escape confrontations with other worldviews, Hungerford corrects recent efforts to discard the importance of belief in understanding religious life, and argues that belief in belief itself can transform secular reading and writing into a religious act.

    Honoring the ways in which people talk about and practice religion,Postmodern Beliefhighlights the claims of the religious imagination in twentieth-century American culture.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3491-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION Belief in Meaninglessness
    (pp. xiii-xxiv)

    This book is about belief and meaninglessness, and what it might mean to believe in meaninglessness. In American culture, belief that does not emphasize the content of doctrine has roots in the transcendentalist thinkers of the early nineteenth century, and among the Romantics more generally. Belief without content for Emerson the experience of which he imagines, through the fi gure of the transparent eyeball, or the silent church makes way for a critique of institutional religion and its discourses of doctrine and theology.1 This book will argue that a century and a half later, with religious critique so fi rmly...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Believing in Literature Eisenhower, Salinger, St. Jacques Derrida
    (pp. 1-27)

    Leading the 1953 inaugural parade for President Eisenhower was a float known to its builders as “God’s Float.” Added to the parade lineup at the last moment, when a parade official noticed that the event might fail to represent the idea that “this was a nation whose people believed in God,” the float was constructed to make that abstract point concrete. It was built around a “central edifice denoting a place of worship” with “side aprons” carrying “greatly enlarged photographs of churches and other scenes of worship. In Gothic script on the sides and ends of the float [appeared] the...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Supernatural Formalism in the Sixties Ginsberg, Chant, Glossolalia
    (pp. 28-51)

    When allen ginsberg testified at the Chicago Seven trial in December of 1969, Judge Julius J. Hoffman and his Federal District Court saw before them the figure who defined Beat poetry in the popular imagination. Ginsberg appeared in 1969 as he had since his return from India in 1963 and as he would for most of the next two decades: a countercultural figure, a thin man with full beard, heavy-framed glasses, and long hair cascading from the edges of a growing bald spot. This was the Allen Ginsberg who had returned from a sixteen-month stay in India in 1963 ready...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Latin Mass of Language Vatican II, Catholic Media, Don DeLillo
    (pp. 52-75)

    To trade argument for incantation, as Ginsberg’s poetry does, is not what the reformers of the Roman Catholic Church aimed for in the Second Vatican Council, convened from 1962 through 1965, roughly the years when Ginsberg was transforming his poetic practice. Instead, Vatican II sought to reform the practices of the Church such that instruction in the faith would become increasingly prominent in the experience of the lay Catholic. The mystical and incantatory aspects of the mass would be in some sense preserved, but the main source of that mystery and the incantatory feel the Latin of the mass would...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR The Bible and Illiterature Bible Criticism, McCarthy and Morrison, Illiterate Readers
    (pp. 76-106)

    In the previous two chapters, I have shown how particular writers, working in the context of certain popular religious cultures, turn to the material aspects of language as the foundation for a literary mysticism, to find a way of believing without doctrine, to craft a belief without meaning that will satisfy the religious longings that are so much on the surface of both Ginsberg’s and DeLillo’s work. In this chapter, I examine the fate, in the late twentieth century, of what is probably the literary text that is, as a material object and as a literary text, the most mystified...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The Literary Practice of Belief Lived Religion, Marilynne Robinson, Left Behind
    (pp. 107-131)

    Clifford Geertz begins his influential essay, “Religion as a Cultural System,” with the following epigraph from the early-twentieth-century philosopher and novelist George Santayana:

    Any attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular. . . . Thus every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life. The vistas it opens and the mysteries it propounds are another world to live in; and another world...

  10. CONCLUSION The End of The Road, Devil on the Rise
    (pp. 132-140)

    The writers I have considered in this book turn to religious understandings of language at moments of high ambition in their work and at watershed moments in their careers. For Ginsberg, the turn to supernatural formalism comes during his poetic crisis of 1960 1961. For other writers, we can track the importance of the religious turn in the structure of the work itself: they place their most potent evocations of literature’s religious or supernatural power at the endings of major novels we fi nd it at the end of Song of Solomon and of Beloved, and at the conclusion of...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 141-174)
    (pp. 175-186)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 187-194)