Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Spiritual Redemption through Love as a Recurring Theme in 20th Century American Literature

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Spiritual Redemption through Love as a Recurring Theme in 20th Century American Literature

Article excerpt

At the dawn of the twentieth century, it appeared that religious faith would soon be obsolete. Advances in science and technology had rendered belief in supernatural causes for natural phenomena untenable and had cast doubt on the idea that there's a divine plan for human lives. Instead, the latter half of the twentieth century brought a backlash of renewed religious fervor both in America and in the Middle East. The rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East is in many respects the mirror image of the rise of the Christian Right in the United States; both reject science in favor of faith and would like to turn back the clock to a time when science served religious dogma. Although the events of 9/11/2001 have been interpreted as an attack on Christianity by Islam, in fact, the destruction of the twin towers was a blow by a religious culture against the central symbols of a predominantly secular one. The Christian Right shares radical Islam's rejection of secularism and has explained the 9/11 attacks and various natural disasters since then as being God's way of punishing America for its corrupt and godless culture. Even more important than their shared abhorrence of secularism is the fact that both the Islamic extremists and the Christian Right have moved away from the "Ethic of Reciprocity," or the Golden Rule as it is more commonly called, as the guiding principle of human behavior. Right wing fundamentalists have returned to the God of the Old Testament as the model of how to handle differences in belief at home and abroad. Today, America seems more deeply divided than at any time since the Civil War and more profoundly alienated from most of the rest of the world than at any previous time in its history. Both at home and abroad, America has become embroiled in what many people interpret as a holy war between believers and infidels--whether it's the Judeo-Christian West against Islamic jihadists in the Middle East or the "religious right" against "godless humanists" here in America. The religious right claims to hold a monopoly on moral values, arguing that morality cannot exist without belief in God. In their view, "Godless liberals" are by definition amoral, sinful, and corrupt--the main source of moral decay within American society. These two factions are in conflict over virtually every aspect of America's domestic and foreign policies.

In the context of this apparently irreconcilable split in American culture, what the study of twentieth century American literature can offer is a renewed understanding of the profound similarities in the core values of Judaism, Christianity, Native American spiritualism, secular humanism, and existentialism. These core values are expressed in the works of writers whose perspectives range from devoutly religious to atheistic. "The Magic Barrel" by Bernard Malamud, Ironweed by William Kennedy, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, Dangling Man by Saul Bellow, All My Sons by Arthur Miller, and The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut all address the impact of war, the disintegration of cultural values, the loss of a sense of community, and the search for a source of meaning and transcendence in individual lives. Each of these works portrays love as a powerful and essential spiritual force in human lives, with significance and consequences that go far beyond the emotional bonds between individuals. The ability to love is strongly linked to emotional and spiritual health, and the failure to love is a symptom of moral or spiritual inadequacy. What is most striking about these works is that they all arrive at the same answers to the essential questions: "What is the meaning of life?" and "How should a good man live?" The answer is that we must love one another. Love is the foundation of moral action, love creates meaning and purpose in people's lives, and love makes spiritual transcendence possible, whether it is within a religious or "post-religious" context.

Bernard Malamud's short story, "The Magic Barrel" has an overtly religious topic: the preparation of a young man to assume spiritual leadership within the Jewish faith. …

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