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Postmodern/Post-Secular: Contemporary Fiction and Spirituality
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Postmodern/Post-Secular:
Contemporary Fiction and Spirituality

And I’ll bet that before this century is out men will turn once more to mystery, to wonderment; they will explore the vast reaches of space within instead of more measuring more “progress.”

—PaPa LaBas, in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo

They are all the presences we are not supposed to be seeing—wind gods, hilltop gods, sunset gods—that we train ourselves away from to keep from looking further even though enough of us do . . .

—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

[S]pirituality virtually by definition no longer exists: the definition in question is in fact that of postmodernism itself.

—Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism

An influential strand of contemporary cultural theory has tended to inscribe postmodernism within a secular history of secularization: to see the postmodern period and the cultural products identified with it [End Page 141] as thoroughly and satisfactorily secularized. This is how Fredric Jameson represents the moment, and how Jean-François Lyotard represents it, and how Brian McHale and many others represent it. Yet other students of contemporary culture, and of particular artists and novelists operating within that culture, tell a different story. 1 Sociologists of religion describe the period from the 1960s to the present as one of a third “Great Awakening,” yet another in the series of moments in American history when spiritual preoccupations intensify and new spiritualities flourish. 2 Poll-takers tell us that the vast majority of Americans still profess to hold significant religious beliefs. 3 But studies of contemporary spirituality also suggest that the nature of these beliefs, and the way in which they are held, are changing. They represent this period as one of spiritual exploration (Roof) and of what Jameson calls, in another context, “heterogeneity without a norm” (Postmodernism 17). “Mainstream” forms of Christianity survive in some sectors of the community, while in others Christianity takes on new and virulently dogmatic forms, and in still others it becomes identified with various movements of liberation. Judaism fragments along similar but by no means identical lines. At the same time, however, “many people appear to have become completely indifferent to religious and philosophical questions” (Taylor 4). And many others experiment with a flood of unorthodox spiritualities, some drawn from marginalized European traditions of magic and witchcraft, others from the non-European traditions of Africa, Native America, and the Orient. These new spiritualities, like the more traditional forms, are often inflected with the rhetoric and values of consumer capitalism, but they tend, at the same time, to appeal to people dissatisfied with secular strategies of fulfillment, and to challenge what Cornel West calls market or consumer values. Thus the many-sided scandal of contemporary American spirituality: that it remains so vigorous, that it is so often politically engaged and so often entangled with consumerism and sensationalism, and that it is increasingly culturally eccentric in its inspiration and practices.

Some of the most celebrated contemporary American fiction captures and reflects this turbulent situation of spiritual engagement, uncertainty, and experimentation. Don DeLillo’s work, for instance, repeatedly constructs contemporary Americans as a people driven by homeless spiritual impulses and mezmerized by new religious movements. And his work, while less formally and ontologically playful than [End Page 142] that of other postmoderns, insistently interrogates secular conceptions of the real, both by focusing the reader’s attention on events that remain mysterious or even “miraculous,” and by making all sorts of room for religious or spiritual discourses and styles of seeing. Thomas Pynchon’s novels, frequently cited by students of postmodernism as exemplary texts, are a veritable index to the new spiritualities. Awash in paranormal events, they represent the world in ways that reflect the disparate ontologies of gnosticism, spiritualism, Native American and African religious traditions, the martial arts traditions of the East, and American transcendentalism. The world of Ishmael Reed’s postmodern classic, Mumbo Jumbo, is similarly shaped in terms of marginalized sacred and occult ontologies, as is that of Leslie Silko’s Almanac of the Dead. And sacred ontologies and discourses are powerfully represented in other artistic domains as well. Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” resonates with Jewish symbols and ideas. Quentin...