- Commentary:How to Read Literature, Win Friends, Influence People, and Write about American Religion
We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious.Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
Pursuing a degree in religious studies with a focus on American religious history, I studied literature without apology and without any sense of disciplinary normalcy or professional prospects. It was not until I was well into writing my dissertation on a reception history of Moby-Dick that I recognized how anathema Ed Dorn, Laurie Anderson, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and the New Critics were to the social imaginary of scholars who self-consciously studied American religion. Scanning the job announcement for the absent category of “religion and literature” I quickly began to strategize, desperately, about how best to look like somebody who studied American religion. At first I found little success on the job market. I had difficulty convincing anyone that I really studied American religion. Unlike most recent PhDs in American religion, I had not produced an immersive study of a particular and identifiable religious tradition. Like many of my peers in the religion and culture track at UC-Santa Barbara, my work may have seemed imaginative, but it [End Page 191] was neither central nor significant for a field wherein the shadows of Protestant church history and Common Sense loomed rather large.
Luckily, it all worked out in the end. I found receptive colleagues who recognized the value and even the necessity of studying literature in order to study American religion. And it can work out for you, too, dear reader, reading an article that offers meta-musings culled together in this moment of assault on everything humanistic. While it would be too much to claim that young scholars at the intersection of American religions and American literatures now face a level playing field on the market when competing with historians who proudly proclaim that Foucault makes no sense whatsoever, the insights generated from reading literature are gaining much institutional traction for those who read and write about America in departments of religious studies.1
This is a good thing indeed, for what the study of literature may conjure most vividly is a practiced reflexivity that does not simply question the use of religion as an analytic category but does so in such a way as to reconceive characterizations of historical actors, develop new plotlines about those actors and their interactions with others who, heretofore, have not been granted agentive capacity, and, finally, explore with more dexterity the perverse mechanics of the collective as it plays out at levels both intimate and abstract. For at the intersection of American literatures and American religions lies the possibility of reconceiving the object one studies and reframing the stories one tells about it. This is not an invitation simply to add on people, persons, things, and events to an already established story of American religion.
Instead, it is a call to supplement (perhaps to extinction) metaphors of agentive belief and church history paradigms that have so dominated the field with discursive analyses of the imagination. For in the end, literature enables the scholar to assume a different kind of narrative responsibility in telling stories about our ongoing and everfragile experiments in being human.
Take, for instance, Jennifer Graber’s study that does much to illuminate the historicity of hidebound frames of Protestant consensus. In her essay, the drawings of Kiowa prisoners of war achieve critical leverage upon the dominant force of Anglo-American Protestantism. These indigenous forms not only make religious sense, Graber argues, but they reveal a situation in which expression is both overwhelmed by Protestant captors and resistant to them, simultaneously. Critique, in other words, is not a zero-sum game for the Kiowa or for the scholars who tell their story.
In her study of the 1898 commemoration of George Washington’s birthday by the Improved Order of Red Men Yaqui Tribe #59 fraternity, Elaine Peña investigates how the social...