Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960

Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960

Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960

Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960


How can intense religious beliefs coexist with pluralism in America today? Examining the role of the religious imagination in contemporary religious practice and in some of the best-known works of American literature from the past fifty years, Postmodern Belief shows how belief for its own sake--a belief absent of doctrine--has become an answer to pluralism in a secular age. Amy Hungerford reveals how imaginative literature and religious practices together allow novelists, poets, and critics to express the formal elements of language in transcendent terms, conferring upon words a religious value independent of meaning.

Hungerford explores the work of major American writers, including Allen Ginsberg, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Marilynne Robinson, and links their unique visions to the religious worlds they touch. She illustrates how Ginsberg's chant-infused 1960s poetry echoes the tongue-speaking of Charismatic Christians, how DeLillo reimagines the novel and the Latin Mass, why McCarthy's prose imitates the Bible, and why Morrison's fiction needs the supernatural. Uncovering how literature and religion conceive of a world where religious belief can escape confrontations with other worldviews, Hungerford corrects recent efforts to discard the importance of belief in understanding religious life, and argues that belief in belief itself can transform secular reading and writing into a religious act.

Honoring the ways in which people talk about and practice religion, Postmodern Belief highlights the claims of the religious imagination in twentieth-century American culture.


This book is about belief and meaninglessness, and what it might mean to believe in meaninglessness. In American culture, belief that does not emphasize the content of doctrine has roots in the transcendentalist thinkers of the early nineteenth century, and among the Romantics more generally. Belief without content for Emerson—the experience of which he imagines, through the figure of the transparent eyeball, or the silent church —makes way for a critique of institutional religion and its discourses of doctrine and theology. This book will argue that a century and a half later, with religious critique so firmly a part of our secular condition, belief without meaning becomes both away to maintain religious belief rather than critique its institutions and a way to buttress the authority of the literature that seeks to imagine such belief. Belief without content becomes, I will suggest, a hedge against the inescapable fact of pluralism.

The chapters that follow demonstrate how and why writers become invested in imagining nonsemantic aspects of language in religious terms and how they thus make their case for literary authority and literary power after modernism. Whether it is Allen Ginsberg urging his listeners to “make Mantra of American language now,” James Baldwin's Brother Elisha speaking in tongues in Go Tell It on the Mountain, Cormac McCarthy's illiterate “kid” toting the Bible in Blood Meridian, or Don DeLillo making sacred the multilingual talk of tourists in the Parthenon, American writers turn to religion to imagine the purely formal elements of language in transcendent terms. The remarkable religious valence of the literary in the secular context of twentieth-century America allows us to observe up close the imaginative component of what it takes for religious belief to persist and what it takes to believe in literature—believe in it as a site of crucial cultural work in the age of lit-

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