2016-06-30
Everybody knows the South is all about saints and sinners--righteous folks and hellions. Often they're the same person, in movies like Robert Duvall's "The Apostle," in books like Lee Smith's "Saving Grace," and just about everywhere in the popular culture. A Don Williams tune of the late 1970s sums it up nicely:

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.

Gibbons' "Ellen Foster" is a masterpiece. Her mother a suicide, her father an abusive drunk, her grandmother all rejection, Ellen must find her way "with God's help but more likely without it." "Ellen Foster" is a book about prayer, mostly about prayers that go unanswered. "The way the Lord moves is his business," Ellen says. The spiritual center here finally is self-discovery. Ellen matures toward forgiveness of self and a confession of the racism that made her feel superior to her black friend: "so many folks thinking and wanting you to be somebody else will confuse you if you are not very careful."

This seems to be the successful formula for the Oprah Book Club: Embattled heroine--disenfranchised, abused, and nearly destroyed--comes to self-awareness (often via books) and narrowly escapes into a tenuous future. No spiritual insight here beyond self.

Similarly, "The Rapture of Canaan"'s Ninah Huff must overcome the abuses of her grandfather's Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind. She must escape her confusion about sex and Jesus and the connection between the two; she must learn to live apart from the constant fear of the sudden return of a judgment-wielding Christ. And Ninah does grow away from the crazed mind of the cult into her own sense of self. Her father has told her, "There's only so much room in one heart. You can fill it up with love or you can fill it up with resentment; Reynolds is clear about Ninah's choice.

Finch Nobles, narrator of "A Gracious Plenty," fits the model as well. Scarred by a childhood accident, Finch has retreated to a marginally insane interior world. Safe from human interaction, Finch guards the graveyard; she is custodian of the dead and more. She is a confidant of the dead. And she too escapes the trap of her circumstances by coming to new self-awareness. "And even though I'm not too hyped up about Jesus in general, it seems like a good policy to try and treat everybody good." That's it--a new spirituality of Niceness.

Some Southern writers are wrestling with the harder truths, and Doris Betts says this reflects a spiritual landscape not so oppressed by the old hellfire. "We're seeing a growing interest in spirituality that isn't especially denominational or exclusive," she says, "that grants to all religions some sense that the aim is the same. The approach is a more positive one, less dependent on scare tactics and dogma." Where "there's a search for one-size-fits-all religion," her own ambivalence emerges.

Betts is quite clear about the doorway through which she approaches her own stories. "There is really no way to prove the existence of a Divine Creator who oversees the world," she says. "If you see it, you will see it. If you don't see it, no one can persuade you. It is an overlay you place on things or don't. So I write from that consciousness."

In her 1995 novel, "Souls Raised From the Dead," Betts brings this viewpoint to the difficult subject of the death of a child and a God who could allow such a thing. In Betts' more recent novel, "The Sharp Teeth of Love," Luna Stone faces loss of faith: "Her Catholic faith had been so easily transferable from army post to army post that only in her teens did she discover how minimal it was. But she missed it. Not the stained glass and statues and Madonnas so much as the certainty that those artists had believed their subject matter was holy." Betts also works hard to avoid what she calls the "sappiness" of a too-easy handling of Christian theology, including the idea that "love conquers all." She writes, "It doesn't conquer all, but it is the best thing of all."

Gail Godwin visits a similar neighborhood in the 1991 "Father Melancholy's Daughters" and its recent sequel, "Evensong." Taken together, the two books tell the story of Margaret Gower, a young woman devoted to her father, an Anglican minister. She calls him Father Melancholy, and he indeed lives behind a black curtain, abandoned by his wife and visited often by despair. Father Gower nonetheless models a life of spiritual focus. Adrian Bonner, a theology student and friend of the Gowers, describes the minister: "He's not trendy; he doesn't pose. He's neither a self-transcendent guru nor one of these fund-raising types who have become so sought after lately by our Holy Church. He's just himself--himself offered daily."

Bonner's profile captures much of the tone of both novels, memoirs of lives well lived, duties performed, the moral center maintained. The legacy that Margaret inherits as she marries Adrian and takes her own clerical vows is one of steadfast prayer, concern for others, and "the grace of daily obligation." "Evensong" is about a conflict between Margaret's High Church liberalism and the apocalyptic theology bubbling into a frenzy at the turn of the new century. Godwin is serious about both, and Margaret's prayer, "Keep us generous and faithful and teach us to fear nothing but the loss of you," suggests a deep theological underpinning.

Betts and Godwin are wary of conversation that focuses too much on their religious dimension. Annie Dillard says that to be called a "Christian writer" is a "death knell." It is to have your audience shaped for you, to be forced into a limiting expectation. But these writers and others like them recognize the impossibility, even the dishonesty, of ignoring the religious life that burns at the center of things.

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