The current turn to religion in literary criticism is a return--a repetition, but one with critical differences. Arguably two of the most important differences are, first, that literary critics today are generally less knowledgeable about even the most influential religious traditions (including Christianity) than our forebears in the profession were. Second, in light of contemporary literary criticisms well-established concern for marginalized voices and perspectives, there seems to be a growing recognition (though sometimes uneasy) that religious voices and perspectives are often among those marginalized. More pointedly, as Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe argues, religious voices tend to be marginalized especially by scholars.
In the case of Christianity, there is a special relationship between these two aspects of the recent return to religion in literary criticism. As scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson contend, the widespread lack of sophisticated understandings of Christianity ironically owes in part to the ways in which Christianity is not a peripheral but rather a central, dominant worldview in U.S. culture. Witness contemporary literary critics' increasing "discoveries" of Christian formal and thematic influences in Anglo-American literature as if for the first time, when in fact those influences have been there all along. Indeed, literary criticism's current return to religion should not be taken to suggest a corresponding return to religious themes and interests in contemporary literature, for instance; on the contrary, such themes and interests are not new to contemporary literature because, broadly speaking, they never left it.
This means, among other things, that sophisticated consideration of the relationships among cultural centers and peripheries holds special promise as a heuristic for exploring Christianity not only in literature but also in literary criticism itself. Christian voices may be found at peripheries as well as centers--sometimes both at once, and not always in immediately obvious forms. These complexities help belie the oversimplified secularization narrative that would neatly dichotomize scientific rationality and Christian faith, chronicling the rise of the former and the fall of the latter. In this vein, Charles Taylor's A Secular Age offers one of the more potent recent critiques of such secularization narratives.
In Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative, I argue against the pervasive use of such secularization narratives in gay and lesbian criticism. While gay and lesbian criticism has produced insightful accounts of the complex relationships between centers and peripheries that are enacted in marginalized sexual subjectivities, it has tended in general to reproduce simplistic accounts of the historical and contemporary roles played by Christianity in these subjectivities.
For example, critics have not yet adequately explained the fact that gay and lesbian literature, in many of its most characteristic narrative conventions, draws on and indeed parallels Christian narrative conventions--and not simply to subvert them. On the contrary, Christian discourses and gay and lesbian ones actually share certain common foundational commitments that are implicit in their representational conventions, even when these two groups of discourses are apparently furthest apart from each other. Specifically, these conventions or topoi comprise three types of narrative representations, which are interrelated and which often overlap: identification as incorporating intractable mystery through a dynamic rather than static interplay of difference as well as similarity; personal ethical transformation emblematized in coming-out stories and conversion stories; and the formation of communities defined by nonbiological kinship bonds that are more created than found but are nonetheless foundational.
Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction delineates a theoretical paradigm by which gay and lesbian criticism (and sexuality studies more broadly) may take faith perspectives more seriously on their own terms, which allows for a more sophisticated and useful conceptualization of the roles played by Christianity in marginalized sexual subjectivities. This approach offers not only a more accurate understanding of gay and lesbian culture and history but also new tools for countering the destructive ramifications of the predominant framings of contemporary conflicts between Christianity and homosexuality. Indeed, the preliminary results of an empirical study I am currently conducting with a research psychologist suggest that some of these conceptual tools can quantifiably reduce animosity across such lines of conflict.
Whereas my book challenges sexuality studies scholars to take Christianity more seriously on its own terms, in this essay I make explicit the inverse argument: Christian scholarship stands to benefit by learning from gay and lesbian criticism. As Taylor argues, Christianity imperils itself--denies "something essential to itself"--by its ongoing failures to understand the body and sexuality in sufficiently incarnational terms (771). Taylor describes this failure in terms of a historical process of "excarnation" in Christianity, which is "connected to a fear and therefore repression of sexuality, and hence an avoidance or too timid treatment of questions of sexual identity" (771).
I contend that literature--specifically narrative--resides at the center of these issues. Both Christian traditions and gay and lesbian traditions invoke narrative modes of cognition as foundational, which is paradigmatically emblematized in the centrality of conversion stories and coming-out stories to these respective traditions. As Keith Yandell explains, "Christian theology has always been narratively shaped"; its emphasis on "personal conversion" constitutes a primary example of this: "the believing individual sees her life as a converted person having its source and pattern in the life of Christ. The cosmic story (history as strung between Creation and Judgment) is mediated to one's personal story as a member of the Christian church through biblical stories" (8). Similarly, in gay and lesbian communities, coming-out stories have long functioned in epistemologically and ethically foundational ways.
As an illustration of their similarity, consider that conventional conversion and coming-out stories often share a common narrative element in which the protagonist's will gets challenged or even thwarted--by the overwhelming love and power of God, or by the overwhelming power of sexual desire and love, both of which are characteristically represented as mysteries. This narrative element typically represents the depth of the epistemological claim that grounds the protagonist's conversion or coming-out choice. That is to say, these stories generally portray the choice as a decision that enables the protagonist to recognize a truth that exists independently of that choice. As a narrative element, the force external to the protagonist's will helps to represent the choice (to believe or come out) as the discovery of something found rather than the creation of something made by the choosing. Thus Paul, in 1 Thess. 1:9-10, describes conversion using traditional language employed at the time by missionary Jews, which centers on the biblical Hebrew word transliterated sub: "turn back" or "return" (Brown et al. 775). Conversion in this tradition is a new recognition of something very old--a return to pre-existing truth. Empirical research demonstrates similar characteristics of gay and lesbian coming-out stories (Savin-Williams 3, 7-8, 45).
We should not be very surprised to find similarities in the implicit epistemologies of such characteristic forms of Christian and gay and lesbian narratives. Human sexual behavior evinces a long history of being intimately interconnected with questions of epistemology in general. Thousands of years before Judith Butler theorized the performative functions of sex--that is to say, how the discourse of sex creates or constructs knowledge--Hebrew scripture represented certain kinds of sexual behavior euphemistically with the Hebrew verb meaning to know. Christian scripture and traditions reinforced this association, emphasizing Hebrew scripture's application of it to spiritual knowing by figuring the believer's relationship to Jesus as that of bride and groom.
Indeed, sexuality is often assumed to be irrational or pre-rational in much the same way spirituality is; both have long been associated with experiential, intuitive ways of knowing that remain conspicuously (and for predominant epistemological assumptions today, uncomfortably) mysterious. Despite the supposed chasm between many Christian and gay and lesbian communities, they have more in common than is typically recognized.
One way to elucidate and explore such commonalities is to understand narrative as an epistemologically legitimate and ethically powerful mode of cognition, one that is particularly vital to both spirituality and sexuality. Drawing on a wide range of recent work by such scholars as Chakrabarty, Stephen Evans, David Herman, Phillip Stambovsky, and Taylor, Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction argues that we unnecessarily close ourselves off from certain kinds of knowledge about both spirituality and sexuality when we privilege analytic self-abstraction over narrative, relational ways of knowing. Again, these latter ways of knowing can be seen as uncomfortably mysterious, uncomfortably subjective: as described above, conversion and coming-out stories generally make strong epistemological claims about a truth they represent as having been chosen as well as found. Yet one finds support for the kind of intractable epistemological mystery implicit in such narrative ways of knowing not only among a growing body of contemporary theorists but also in Christian tradition: as Susan Harvey attests, "Ancient Christianity defined God as ineffable and inconceivable. It thereby heightened the significance of sense perception specifically as a noncognitive process of knowing. From such a view, the body becomes the instrument by which God is known in relation to the believer and the believer in relation to God" (18).
In valorizing such relational epistemologies, I argue for conceptual models of sexual identity and identification that avoid balkanizing divisions but instead foster an understanding of the open-ended interdependence and variability among similarities and differences. This includes challenging gay and lesbian criticism to identify, to an extent, with Christian traditions--as in fact gay and lesbian literature has, on the whole, been doing for quite a long time.
Likewise, I conclude this essay by commending the imago dei model of expansive and self-challenging Christian identification as an ethos for Christian scholarship. This includes challenging Christian scholarship to identify, to an extent, with gay and lesbian traditions. The Christian injunction to view all other people--especially marginalized people--as having been created in the image of God has at times resulted in a powerful "politics of identification" documented, for example, in Dan McKanan's research on Christian reformers in the antebellum South (4). The return to religion in contemporary literary criticism presents an opportunity for Christian literary scholarship to help foster a productive increase in religious literacy by exemplifying an imago dei ethos that enriches (and is arguably one of the partially forgotten sources of) contemporary literary criticism's emphasis on marginalized voices and perspectives. Such an ethos promises to help bridge destructive divisions--bridging them not by eliding or ignoring the real differences that do exist (among Christian scholars as well as between secular and non-secular scholars, for instance) but by working to situate those differences in a more productive narrative frame.
The Ohio State University
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Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.
Evans, C. Stephen. Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.
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Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard, 2007.
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