Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Secular or Spiritual: Rereading Anne of Green Gables

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Secular or Spiritual: Rereading Anne of Green Gables

Article excerpt

Abstract: Comparison of L. M. Montgomery's 1908 Anne of Green Gables with Kevin Sullivan's 1985 telefilm adaptation clarifies the role of religious and spiritual practices in both texts; the comparison, while it demonstrates the process of secularization in late twentieth-century popular culture, also highlights the institutional context for Anne's religious maturation in the novel. Montgomery's representation of a changing church and of a personal spirituality that is an essential component of maturation raises questions about the implications of secularization to the depiction of spiritual identity in young people's literature.

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It sometimes seems to have become a fact almost universally acknowledged that to speak to a wide audience in late twentieth- or early twenty-first century Canadian and American society, one must tone down or avoid explicit Christian content in novels or films. As Canada and the United States become more aware of their increasing religious diversity, and as fewer people explicitly identify as Christian, (1) the assumption is that explicit Christian content is alienating. However, the continuing popularity of certain texts, such as L. M. Montgomery's 1908 Anne of Green Gables, problematizes any easy acceptance of such an assumption. Although some readings of the novel, including Kevin Sullivan's adaptation of it in his 1985 television miniseries, have glossed over its religious content, Montgomery demonstrates that Anne's spiritual life is intimately linked to her intellectual and emotional development. It is possible that the novel remains popular in spite of this religious dimension, but it is also possible that Montgomery's representation of a changing church and of a personal spirituality that is an essential component of maturation provides other ways for twenty-first-century readers to produce relevance (to use John Fiske's term) (2) from Montgomery's text. Comparison of the novel to Sullivan's telefilm clarifies the role of religious and spiritual practices in both; the comparison, while demonstrating the process of secularization in late twentieth-century popular culture, leads to questions about the institutional context for Anne's religious maturation and the implications of secularization to the depiction of spiritual identity in young people's literature.

Context

Anxiety about Christianity in cultural texts, particularly those directed toward young people, has two forms: a fear of Christian content perceived as propaganda and a fear that Christian content will not appeal and thus not sell. The way these two forms can be linked was made most explicit this past decade in regards to C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. As HarperCollins sought ways to capitalize on the post-Harry Potter popularity of fantasy, it considered publishing "new Narnia novels by unidentified authors" (Carvajal 1), but with a marketing strategy determined "that no attempt will be made to correlate the stories to Christian imagery/theology" (1). Douglas Gresham noted that "in today's world the surest way to prevent secularists and their children from reading [the series] is to ... link Narnia with modern evangelical Christianity" (qtd. In Carvajal 18). Gresham's phrasing, with its emphasis on "evangelical," points to the anxiety about Christianity as propaganda, since evangelism, as it has come to be understood, privileges conversion to a particular authoritative view. (3) Admittedly, Montgomery's novel has not faced the same degree of hostility regarding religious content as Lewis' novels, (4) perhaps because of Lewis' profile as a Christian apologist. Nevertheless, the debate over the Narnia series--whether Lewis' novels constitute a sort of propaganda, whether the publisher should expand a secularized version of the series--is instructive, as just one articulation of ongoing social tensions, particularly in Canada and the United States, concerning the role of religious institutions in public life and the way that those tensions enter and affect the field of young people's literature. …

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