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Literature, Religion, and Postsecular Studies

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Literature, Religion, and Postsecular Studies

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Apocalypse South

Judgment, Cataclysm, and Resistance in the Regional Imaginary

While John Winthrop might have famously uttered the phrase “city upon a hill” on the way to Massachusetts, the strands of millennialism and exceptionalism that remain so central to U.S. political discourse are now dominated by eschatological visions that have emerged from the particular historical experiences of the U.S. South. Despite the strategic exploitation of this reality by political communicators, scholars in the humanities have paid little attention to the eschatological visions offered by southern religious culture. Fortunately, writers and artists have not ignored such matters; compared to their academic counterparts, southern novelists have been far better attuned to a southern apocalyptic imaginary—a field of reference, drawn from the cosmology of southern evangelical Protestantism, that maps the apocalyptic possibilities of cataclysm, judgment, deliverance, and even revolution onto the landscape of the region. Apocalypse South rectifies the omissions in existing scholarship by interrogating the role of apocalyptic discourse in selected works of fiction by four southern writers—William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Randall Kenan, and Dorothy Allison. In doing so, it reinvigorates discussions of religion in southern literary scholarship and introduces a new element in the ongoing investigation into how regional identities function in notions of national mission and American exceptionalism. Engaging concerns of religion, race, sexuality, and community in fiction from the 1930s to the present, Apocalypse South offers a new conceptual framework for considering what has long been considered “southern Gothic literature”—a framework less concerned with the conventions of a particular literary genre than with the ways in which literature exposes and even tries to make sense of the contradictions within cultures. 

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Conspicuous Bodies

Provincial Belief and the Making of Joyce and Rushdie

In Conspicuous Bodies: Provincial Belief and the Making of Joyce and Rushdie, Jean Kane re-examines the literature of James Joyce and Salman Rushdie from a post-secularist perspective, arguing that their respective religions hold critical importance in their works. Though Joyce and Rushdie were initially received as cosmopolitans, both authors subsequently reframed their public images and aligned themselves instead with a provincial religious identity, which emphasized the interconnections between religious devotion and embodiment. At the same time, both Joyce and Rushdie managed to resist the doctrinal content of their religions. Conspicuous Bodies presents Joyce as a founder and Rushdie as an inheritor of a distinctive discourse of belief about the importance of physical bodies and knowledge in religious practice. In doing so, it moves the reception of Joyce and Rushdie away from what previous critics have emphasized—away from questions of aesthetics and from a narrow understanding of belief—and instead questions the assumption that belief should be segregated from matters of physicality and knowledge. Kane reintroduces the concept of spiritual embodiment in order to expand our understanding of what counts as spiritual agency in non-western and minority literatures.

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Hard Sayings

The Rhetorics of Christian Orthodoxy in Late Modern Fiction

Hard Sayings: The Rhetoric of Christian Orthodoxy in Late Modern Fiction by Thomas F. Haddox examines the work of six avowedly Christian writers of fiction in the period from World War II to the present. This period is often characterized in western societies by such catchphrases as “postmodernism” and “secularization,” with the frequent implication that orthodox belief in the dogmas of Christianity has become untenable among educated readers. How, then, do we account for the continued existence of writers of self-consciously literary fiction who attempt to persuade readers of the truth, desirability, and utility of the dogmas of Christianity? Is it possible to take these writers’ efforts on their own terms and to understand and evaluate the rhetorical strategies that this kind of persuasion might entail? Informed by the school of rhetorical narratology that includes such critics as Wayne Booth, James Phelan, and Richard Walsh, Hard Sayings offers fresh new readings of fictive works by Flannery O’Connor, Muriel Spark, John Updike, Walker Percy, Mary Gordon, and Marilynne Robinson. In its argument that orthodox Christianity, as represented in fiction, still has the power to persuade and to trouble, it contributes to ongoing debates about the nature and scope of modernity, postmodernity, and secularization.

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Lake Methodism

Polite Literature and Popular Religion in England, 1780–1830

Lake Methodism: Polite Literature and Popular Religion in England, 1780–1830, reveals the traffic between Romanticism’s rhetorics of privilege and the most socially toxic religious forms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The “Lake Poets,” of whom William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are the most famous, are often seen as crafters of a poetics of spontaneous inspiration, transcendent imagination, and visionary prophecy, couched within lexicons of experimental simplicity and lyrical concision. But, as Jasper Cragwall argues, such postures and principles were in fact received as the vulgarities of popular Methodism, an insurgent religious movement whose autobiographies, songs, and sermons reached sales figures of which the Lakers could only dream. With these religious histories, Lake Methodism unsettles canonical Romanticism, reading, for example, the grand declaration opening Wordsworth’s spiritual autobiography—“to the open fields I told a prophecy”—not as poetic self-sanctification, but as awkward Methodism, responsible for the suppression of The Prelude for half a century. The book measures this fearful symmetry between Romantic and religious enthusiasms in figures iconic and unfamiliar: John Wesley, Robert Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, as well as the eponymous scientist of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even Joanna Southcott, an illiterate servant turned latter-day Virgin Mary, who, at the age of sixty-five, mistook a fatal dropsy for the Second Coming of Christ (and so captivated a nation).

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Preaching and the Rise of the American Novel

Preaching and the Rise of the American Novel by Dawn Coleman recovers a crucial moment in the history of the intimate yet often contentious relationship between religion and literature. Coleman’s book highlights the intersection of two cultural trajectories in America around 1850, both often downplayed in literary histories: a boom in preaching, associated with the growth of evangelicalism and the country’s oratorical traditions, and the long struggle of the novel, still facing considerable disdain at mid-century, to achieve moral legitimacy and aesthetic autonomy. Before the Civil War, the preacher in the pulpit was the culture’s paradigmatic voice of moral authority, and novelists who wished to establish the moral value of their own storytelling needed to incorporate sermons. This book explores how antebellum ministers sought to preach effective, authoritative sermons and how novelists sought to claim a similar authority through canny representations of preachers, often veiled critiques of actual ministers, and sermonic voice, or a creative reworking of the sound of preaching. Such intense engagement with sermons shaped some of the period’s most interesting and important novels, including The Scarlet Letter, The Quaker City, Moby-Dick, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Clotel. In illuminating how novelists sought to displace traditional religious institutions, Preaching and the Rise of the American Novel reminds readers of the deep connections between Americans’ religious practices and their literature and speaks to how the processes of secularization are often less concerned with rejecting the elements of religion than reimagining them.

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Puritanism and Modernist Novels

From Moral Character to the Ethical Self

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In Puritanism and Modernist Novels: From Moral Character to the Ethical Self, Lynne W. Hinojosa complicates traditional interpretations of the novel and literary modernism as secular developments of modernity by arguing that the British novel tradition is fundamentally shaped by Puritan hermeneutics and Bible-reading practices. This tradition, however, simultaneously works to dismantle the categories associated with social morality and moral character, helping to form “Puritanism” into a fictional stereotype. Hinojosa demonstrates that the novel thus perpetuates a narrative that associates Puritanism with moral and religious confinement, on the one hand, and modern longing with escape, on the other—even as it remains tied to Puritan views of history and the self. Puritanism and Modernist Novels offers new formal and contextual readings of early modernist novels by Oscar Wilde, E. M. Forster, James Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford. Hinojosa demonstrates that, while they long for escape, these authors still question the value of the novelistic narrative of confinement and escape. Bridging modernist and novel studies, Puritanism and Modernist Novels contributes to conversations about secularization and religion in both fields, highlighting the limitations created by the secularization narrative of modernity.

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Victorian Sacrifice

Ethics and Economics in Mid-Century Novels

In Victorian Sacrifice: Ethics and Economics in Mid-Century Novels, Ilana M. Blumberg offers a major reconsideration of the central Victorian ethic of self-sacrifice, suggesting that much of what we have taken to be the moral psychology of Victorian fiction may be understood in terms of the dramatic confrontation between Christian theology and the world of modern economic theory. As Victorian writers Charlotte Mary Yonge, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, and Mary Augusta Ward strove to forge a practicable ethics that would reconcile the influences of an evangelical Christianity and its emphasis on selfless charity with the forces of laissez-faire capitalism and its emphasis on individual profit, they moved away from the cherished ideal of painful, solitary self-sacrifice in service of another’s good. Instead, Blumberg suggests, major novelists sought an ethical realism characterized by the belief that virtuous action could serve the collective benefit of the parties involved. At a mid-century moment of economic optimism, novelists transformed the ethical landscape by imagining what the sociologist Herbert Spencer would later call a “measured egoism,” an ethically responsible self-concern which might foster communal solidarity and material abundance. Bringing the recent literary turns to ethics and to economics into mutual conversation, Blumberg offers us a new lens on a matter as pressing today as it was 150 years ago: the search for an ethics adequate to the hopes and fears of a new economy.

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Victorian Women Writiers, Radical Grandmothers, and the Gendering of God

If Victorian women writers yearned for authorial forebears, or, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words, for “grandmothers,” there were, Gail Turley Houston argues, grandmothers who in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries envisioned powerful female divinities that would reconfigure society. Like many Victorian women writers, they experienced a sense of what Barrett Browning termed “mother-want” inextricably connected to “mother-god-want.” These millenarian and socialist feminist grandmothers believed the time had come for women to initiate the earthly paradise that patriarchal institutions had failed to establish. Recuperating a symbolic divine in the form of the Great Mother—a pagan Virgin Mary, a female messiah, and a titanic Eve—Joanna Southcott, Eliza Sharples, Frances Wright, and others set the stage for Victorian women writers to envision and impart emanations of puissant Christian and pagan goddesses, enabling them to acquire the authorial legitimacy patriarchal culture denied them. Though the Victorian authors studied by Houston—Barrett Browning, Charlotte Brontë, Florence Nightingale, Anna Jameson, and George Eliot—often masked progressive rhetoric, even in some cases seeming to reject these foremothers, their radical genealogy reappeared in mystic, metaphysical revisions of divinity that insisted that deity be understood, at least in part, as substantively female.

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