Amy Hungerford, Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010)
Queen’s University, Belfast
In recent years there has been a growing interest in finding new approaches to the relationship between religion and literature. Stanley Fish (2005, 6) has become an important voice in this debate since he predicted that religion would follow the “triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy”. American studies, Fish asserts, have produced a rich body of research that examines the role of religion in the nation’s literature and culture. However, as Fish argues, literary scholars need to take up the challenge of reconsidering established frameworks within which the topic of religion has been approached. Amy Hungerford’sPostmodern Belief presents another compelling contribution to the debate. The author examines how literature after 1960 engages with religious issues, highlighting how authors grapple with the various challenges of secularism. One of her recurring questions is how literature explores the tension-loaded relationship between literary and religious belief, and also how literary texts reveal their capacity to mediate between religious and non-religious views. By approaching these questions, Hungerford establishes a rich text corpus, encompassing the works of Allen Ginsberg, Jerome D. Salinger, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, and the apocalyptic fiction of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Robinson’s last two novels, Gilead and Home, are probably the least-studied texts in her selection, while others have been subjected to some scholarship with regard to religion, for example, by John McClure in Partial Faith where the author also looks at the spiritual impulses in DeLillo and Morrison. Hungerford’s readings remain unique however, because she looks at the texts within the context of her own particular framework.
Whereas McClure centres his argument on key postmodern terms such as “hybridization”, “partiality” and “ontological multiplication”, Hungerford makes a strong case by structuring her study according to the notion of a “belief in meaninglessness”. If the term invokes associations with Christian Existentialism, Hungerford applies it in her own way. She examines how a “belief in meaninglessness” becomes both an answer to the “inescapable fact of pluralism” (xiii) and a way to regain literary authority. Altogether, she subsumes two different meanings under the term. First, a “belief in meaninglessness” refers to what she calls a faith-in-faith phenomenon. In this respect it represents a form of faith that is not defined by a specific content, but instead exists for its own sake. A case in point can be found in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; she argues that the novel’s religious syncretism creates “a space of no-knowledge” (12) where the specific contents of a religion no longer matter (9). Secondly, the author relates a “belief in meaninglessness” to another complex issue, namely to language. Novelists such as Allen Ginsberg or Don DeLillo understand language as a religious or quasi-religious medium. In DeLillo’s Mao II, the spiritual power of language is displayed through sound and rhythm, and in The Names through small talk and glossolalia. Hungerford’s point, then, is that in those instances the materiality of language becomes important to such an extent that it finally replaces meaning.
By looking at the work of Marilynne Robinson and the evangelical Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Hungerford turns to novels that, as she convincingly argues, cannot be subsumed under the category of a “belief in meaninglessness”. For these writers the role of doctrine remains central. However, their works do not profess abstract theology, but instead perform a shift from creed to religious practice (121). The fact that Hungerford also looks at novels that lead in a different direction shows that she has not selected her primary sources merely to put across her argument, but instead highlights the complexity and tensions of the literary engagement with the religious after 1960.
Without doubt, by structuring her chapters according to the term of a “belief in meaninglessness”, Hungerford not only shows the enduring impact of religious thought and traditions in post-war literature; her specific angle also demonstrates how the interplay of religion and literature has changed and developed over the last few decades, given that authors have absorbed the challenges of secular values into their writing. Moreover, whereas the analysis of religion in literature is often reduced to the content of a text, the author examines in detail aspects of the literary form (such as plot, style, figurative language, or allusion) that are vital for the literary mediation of religious meaning.
Although or maybe because Hungerford’s arguments are intriguing, they also invite criticism. It is necessary to have a closer look at her point that novelists use religion “as a renewable resource” (136) to bestow authority upon their works, to re-obtain a voice that literature has forfeited after modernism. To rephrase her, the novels are “free-riders” in that they profit from the powerful and prestigious symbols, values, and language of religion, while refusing to engage with religion on a content level. Hungerford sees the “reenchantments” (133) therefore as “empty”, and criticises the novelists for their “vague or unarticulated” attitudes towards religion.
Her conclusive remarks raise the question whether the concept of a “belief in meaninglessness” offers a sufficiently balanced view on religion in post-war literature. Evidently, Hungerford uses “meaning” interchangeably with “content”, “doctrine”, or “specificity”. In this sense, the term “belief in meaninglessness” encompasses Eisenhower’s inclusive faith, Ginsberg’s mystical empowerment of language, McCormac’s nihilistic worldview, and Morrison’s religious symbolism, to name but a few of the contexts she establishes. Yet, on a foundational level, it may be asked whether a belief that does not carry a specific doctrine, but defies any articulated theology, can be taken as a synonym for a “belief in meaninglessness”, or “a belief without meaning”. Hungerford shows profoundly how religious meaning dies and falls away in contemporary fiction, but the question remains as to what new modes of meaning, different both in feature and in substance from the heritage of the historic religions, the novels produce (for example, in relation to ethical knowledge). Hungerford, by coining the term “belief without meaning”, ultimately denies contemporary fiction an active role in the production of new (religious or nonreligious) meaning. In that respect she is more partial than literary critic Robert Alter, for instance, who sees in novels such as McCarthy’s The Road a “dialectic reversal” of religious meaning (2010, 179) resulting from a rejection of established content and the inclusion of new meanings, partly but not fully produced by the various forms the authors employ.
Even though I think Hungerford’s key concept of a “belief in meaninglessness” does not sufficiently allow for the potential of literature to negotiate religious meaning between its de- and reconstruction, there is no doubt that her study is pioneering in the methodology and the theoretical framework that she establishes. What she provides then are not only original ways of looking at the reciprocal relationship between literary form and religious belief, but also an integrated response to the question of how literary fiction suggests answers to the problem “of how to be religious in a secular world” (140). Above all else, Postmodern Belief challenges secularist conceptions of literature in postmodernity, while encouraging us to create new categories to cope with the various forms of religiosity in American literature and culture. Hopefully her study will trigger further research in this direction.
Alter, Robert. Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Fish, Stanley. “One University Under God?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 1 July 2005. 1-6. Web. Accessed 17 Dec. 2010.
Hervieu-Léger, Danièle. Religion as a Chain of Memory. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993.