Imprinted by Belief

The essays in this series hold that American literature is imprinted by belief: freighted by ideas about morality, justice and standards for living that are derived from the nation’s Christian underpinnings. Christianity’s imprint on our literature isn’t necessarily about piety or doctrine — though that is sometimes the case. It also trucks in paradox and, at its best, acts as a hedge against over-simplistic and reductive notions of society and of person. In American literature, religious ideas are often more implicit than explicit — a pool into which the work dips, often to great effect. James Baldwin’s soaring, sermonic prose; Toni Morrison’s scriptural authority; William Faulkner’s Genesis-like cosmologies of Southern identity and place: All draw heavily on a Christian-inflected aesthetic. Which is not to elevate this belief system above others in a country as multifaith as it is multicultural and multiracial. To the contrary, among the issues we will encounter in this series is Christianity’s tendency to take down its faith counterparts. Christianity can be a real bruiser. It is cherry-picked and jury-rigged, co-opted and corrupted, and yet it remains inextricable from American identity — which is precisely why it repeatedly finds its way into our fiction.

For American writers even now, Christianity continues to provide a vast web of references, imagery and metaphor. This web is ever pressing, particularly at this juncture, when so much of what passes for Christian sentiment is reductive and illegitimately recruited for political and economic motives. Such forces risk hijacking religious conversation so that we can no longer see ideals that might remind us that human beings are capacious and sacred, and that our dealings with one another ought to reflect as much. I propose these essays as a means of, to borrow the title of one of Adrienne Rich’s most famous poems, “Diving into the Wreck”; each will examine a different aspect of human experience: the prophetic; forgiveness; suffering and evil; apocalypse; and hope. As Rich writes: “I came to see the damage that was done/and the treasures that prevail.”