Spirituality of the Suburbs

By Yost, Julia | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, October 2019 | Go to article overview

Spirituality of the Suburbs


Yost, Julia, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Obituaries for Toni Morrison, who died on August 5, remember her as a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, a black woman novelist, and the last great American novelist-never a Catholic novelist. Morrison converted to Catholicism at age twelve but stood aloof from the Church for years. Despite a few game attempts by the pious press to claim her, Morrison's Catholicism is a biographical fact, not a literary one.

Her novels are not credally Christian but pop-gnostic. Pop-gnosticism is a cult by and for the bourgeoisie, an artifact of the worst early-Christian scholarship of the 1970s and the still worse late-Freudian psychology of the 1980s. Morrison made her fiction debut in 1970 but achieved her greatest success in 1987 with Beloved, on the strength of which she received an appointment at Princeton and the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. In the 1990s and 2000s, the patronage of Oprah Winfrey brought her a still broader readership, one drawn primarily by her novels' portrayals of therapeutic self-realization. Morrison achieved immense success by distilling the spirituality of the suburbs.

The architect of pop-gnosticism is Morrison's Princeton colleague, the religious historian Elaine Pagels, whose seminal book The Gnostic Gospels (1979) sketched a very American style of gnosticism and passed it off as a lost tradition of early Christianity. Pagels's gnosticism is not much concerned with the corruption of the material world, which exercised the Marcionites and other ancients. Its emphasis is rather on the tenet that we are redeemed by gnosis, by knowledge of our true spiritual selves.

This style of gnosticism-called by one observer "the cult of the God Within"-is now the dominant American religion. It proposes internal harmony as the chief end of religion. Naturally, we wish to externalize this harmony: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you," says Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, a crucial text for Pagels.

Morrison's affinity for this style of gnosticism is evident in much of her fiction, most explicitly in Paradise (1997), in which a syncretic faith focused on psychological healing replaces traditional Christian creeds among a "convent" of traumatized women in Oklahoma. Under the direction of the charismatic Consolata, a gnostic "divine mother" such as Pagels describes, the women dabble in Egyptian gnosticism and Brazilian Candomblé. The novel's epigraph quotes from a poem discovered, along with the Gospel of Thomas, among gnostic manuscripts in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in the 1940s.

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you." The parallels between popgnosticism and psychotherapy are patent, and Pagels makes them explicit: "Both gnosticism and psychotherapy value, above all, knowledge-the self-knowledge which is insight." Again: "For gnostics, exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly-a religious quest." In Paradise, Consolata directs her followers to heal themselves by narrating their pasts. What would Jesus do? See a therapist.

Morrison's Beloved is a "spiritual" novel, in two senses: It is a ghost story (or spirit story); and its ghost metaphorizes the god (or spirit) within, which may be encountered in therapeutic gnosis. Sethe, a former slave, lives in a house that is haunted by the ghost of her baby daughter, whom she murdered years earlier to prevent her being taken back to slavery. In the summer of 1873, from the river behind the house emerges a beautiful young woman-the incarnate ghost of Sethe's "beloved" daughter, now grown. In psychoanalytic terms, Beloved represents the return of the repressed. Sethe has been repressing the traumas of her life as a slave: "She worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe," and she begins each day "beating back the past." Sethe secludes herself with Beloved, whose behavior becomes vampiric ("what you do not bring forth will destroy you"). …

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