When I was a kid Uncle Remus would put me to bed
With a picture of Stonewall Jackson above my head.
Then Daddy came in to kiss his little man
With gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand.
In those few lines, we get a handful of persistent regional themes: history, race, family, hard liquor, and religion. Everything's there but the shotgun.
This is nothing new, or even Southern. American literature has long been caught up in what Lionel Trilling calls its universal subject--"salvation and damnation." We had those wordy Puritans, after all, and Thoreau crowing like an evangelistic Chanticleer to his neighbors, and the God-obsessed New Yorker, Herman Melville. Our writers have reflected an ambivalence about God and a longing for order God might provide.
Now we seem to be caught up in a new wave of spiritual searching. Angels clog media waves and New Age variants spring up like dandelions in a wet spring, while organized religion staggers on. You know it is a significant cultural movement when spirituality shows up on bumper stickers. Gail Godwin, in her recent novel, "Evensong," cites Andre Malraux's evocative prediction that "the twenty-first century would be a religious century or it wouldn't be at all." That sounds right to me. But amid the religious writing now going on in the South, I find a mixture of serious grappling with the possibility of God and of transcendence, and Religion Lite, easy answers peddled like gold chains on the Shopping Channel.
Religion has never been far from the heart of Southern writing in the last decade. Books like Anne Tyler's "Saint Maybe" (a straightforward study of sin, confession, and grace) and Ernest Gaines' "A Lesson Before Dying" (a story of the transformation of a condemned man, a change that may have its source in God) remind me of the continuing heat of the spiritual fires. There's the work of Reynolds Price, who speaks in his autobiography of his "ceaseless duty to love creation." And there's the quirky Will Campbell, who understands, as one of his characters puts it, that "a man's religion is what he'll get mad enough to fight about." When someone responds, "I thought religion was about God," he answers, "God is about God. Religion is about us."
Lately, however, popular literature seems to be trading in the old currency. Take John Grisham's latest, "The Testament," for example. You've probably read the book already; surely you've seen it in every airport bookstore in the country. What's surprising is that it is so serious a treatment of conversion that you'd expect to see such a book in a Christian bookstore.
In familiar, page-turning style, Grisham tells the story of a ne'er-do-well lawyer, Nate O'Riley. In and out of rehabilitation clinics and marriages, O'Riley is near the bottom. Driven by addictions and moral bankruptcy, he had been nearly destroyed by his consuming profession and personal failures. Now he's to get a last chance. Accused of trying to "live without God," Nate moves toward redemption. Readers can almost smell the sawdust in the aisles.
Doris Betts warns us about "Christian books" in which the word Christian "spoils to a rancid adjective." We are rightly wary of those fictions whose thesis bludgeons. But what of those that, as Betts also puts it, treats religion as "a California feeling--like feeling religious on the golf course on Sunday morning"? Jan Karon's Mitford series has spawned a cottage industry revolving on "the little town with the big heart." Adjacent to the town hall in Mitford (a fictional town in the North Carolina mountains) is the First Baptist Church: "Set into the center of its own display of shrubs and flowers on the front bank was a wayside pulpit permanently bearing the scripture verse John 3:16, which the members had long ago agreed was the pivotal message of their faith." No hint of satire here. These books ignore life's thorny mixtures. They're good beach reading, but life is not always a day at such a place.
More prolific than Graham's old-line specificity or Karon's gentle pastoral--was there ever such a place as Mitford, N.C.?--is a non-specific cultural preoccupation with matters of religion. Many successful writers of the South know that religion is at the roots of their experience. They want to talk about it, sometimes even react against it. But, damaged by religious specificity, they've opted for religion without the baggage of hellfire.
Elizabeth Dewberry describes her books as "about a loss of faith in the church, not a loss of faith in God." Shari Reynolds says, "I don't even go to church anymore," but adds, "Contact with the higher power is important to me. I seek transcendence." Clyde Edgerton talks about his resistance to "God-backing novels." Denise Giardina says her approach in writing "about religion is to ask questions rather than answer them." This brings me to the vaguely humanistic novels of two extremely talented writers, Kaye Gibbons and Sheri Reynolds. Reynolds' "The Rapture of Canaan" takes apart the mechanisms of Christian fundamentalism and considers the impact of a culture of religious fanaticism. Her more recent novel, "A Gracious Plenty," unfolds the story of a woman's acceptance of "the promise of touch"--a human touch, not divine.