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  • Religion, Literature, and Method
  • Tracy Fessenden (bio)

Whatever else it may bring in the way of scholarly havoc or pleasure, the so-called religious turn in literary studies, as Justine S. Murison and Jordan Alexander Stein identify it here, has made people like me feel at home where we might otherwise have felt ourselves trespassing, because religion types and literature types now have a way of showing up in the same places. In a packed conference room at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion last November in Chicago, for example, a panel of literature scholars convened around the topic of the post-secular in American fiction. I sat in the audience with a good friend, a distinguished scholar of American Jewish history and culture who teaches, as I do, in a department of religious studies. In the session's lively Q and A the panelists expertly parried a question from a fellow literature scholar about the uses each had made of the methodology of religious studies. "Jesus," my friend said under her breath, impressed. "They think we have a methodology."

Those who come to religious studies, as I have, from another discipline (I started in English) or who branch into other fields sometimes talk about the and-x problem, the fact that in any institutional configuration of religion and something else (religion and literature, religion and psychology, religion and x) the x is likely to be made much neater than scholars of x would probably ever dare claim. Rendering x overtidy in the religion-and-x model allows it to be contained within what religious studies rather than discipline x generates as the controlling frame. The sparkling confidence with which the English professors at the AAR meeting set forth the methods they'd taken from religious studies and found fruitful seemed to me a particularly flattering instance of the and-x problem, religion being in this case the second term cut to fit, perhaps necessarily, the dictates of the first.

So too in this special issue, the question of religion (or "religion," in the editors' usage) comes early on into focus through a series of bracketings and exclusions. "Religion," for early Americanists, is ripe to be shaken [End Page 183] loose from the Puritan milieu in which to speak of it would be "redundant"; more generally, to emerge with "definitional clarity" as something other than culture, ideology, or aesthetics; to appear no longer as the taken-for-granted materials of early Americanist scholarship but instead as a critical problem warranting "metatopical" investigations of its own. The scholarly franchise that Perry Miller founded, the editors point out, has long been concerned about religion without ever bothering with a theory of religion. And as long as that remains the case, they imply, the "challenges posed by [the] recent interdisciplinary rethinking of 'religion'" are likely to go unmet, even unremarked, by those members of the Americanist guild whose interest in religion abides the longest.

I begin at this point to protest: why theorize religion qua religion? Miller didn't have a theory of religion because he didn't think he needed one. But even if we don't share his reasons for not needing a theory of religion—if, say, we now look with suspicion on the desire to keep a certain version of New England, one whose particular religious shadings can go without saying, at the forefront of national memory—it doesn't necessarily follow that we do need a theory of religion, or that we need to choose among competing definitions or approaches. Social or rhetorical? Ideological or experiential? Must we take sides? A concern for vernacular or lived religion, for example, need not preclude attention to religion as a dominant order; people do, after all, live with the dominant order (or what feels to them like one) in registering its pressures, possibilities, and psychic costs.

I realize soon enough however that there's more to the concern for precision in this issue than the usual constraints imposed by the and-x problem. Tacking discipline x onto a home discipline minimally requires a quick study of the conventions by which scholars of discipline x do their work. Getting...