Literature and Spirituality in the English-Speaking World

by Kathie Birat (Volume editor) Brigitte Zaugg (Volume editor)
©2014 Conference proceedings VIII, 233 Pages


This collection of essays focuses on the role of spirituality in American literature through an examination of the multiple ways in which a deep engagement with the spiritual has shaped and affected literature in the Americas (three of the essays involve Canadian and Caribbean literature). The essays in the first section explore the intimate links between the spiritual and the social as they are manifested in forms of fiction like fantasy, science fiction, and the Christian fundamentalist fiction of Jerry B. Jenkins. The second section looks at the ways in which poetry has allowed writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson, Ellen Glasgow, Fanny Howe and Leonard Cohen to use language as a tool for exploring their complex relation to the spiritual seen in terms of radical otherness, or of exile, or of the search for common ground as human beings. The final section approaches spirituality as a defining element of the American experience, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Toni Morrison and Paul Auster.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
  • Literature and Spirituality in the English-Speaking World
  • Introduction
  • Works cited
  • Spirituality and Society
  • Incarnation and the Spirit of the Social: Demelza Marlin
  • Eucharists of the ordinary universe
  • Durkheim: the individual as muse
  • Collective effervescence and the human divine
  • Marx: fetishism and inhabitation
  • Making money out of men
  • Capitalist communions
  • Conclusion
  • Works cited
  • Spirituality and Politics? Spiritual Models of Culture and Methods of World-making in Postmodern Utopian Texts: Miriam Wallraven
  • Introduction
  • A “good place” or “no place” for envisioning new models of politics and spirituality?
  • Politics and spirituality in utopian texts
  • “Tyranny is tyranny”: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Ruins of Isis (1978)
  • Conclusion: The role of utopian literature in spiritual world-making
  • Works cited
  • “God is a cluster of neurons”: Spirituality and Gene Manipulation in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake: Françoise Couturier-Storey and Jeff Storey
  • Works cited
  • Left Behind as an Example of the Intersection between Fiction and Fundamentalist Christianity: Mokhtar Ben Barka
  • Left Behind: a brief summary
  • The apocalyptic theology of the Left Behind series
  • The interplay of theology and fiction in Left Behind
  • The politics of Left Behind
  • Conclusion
  • Works cited
  • Spirituality and Poetry
  • “Puritan Spirit” and the Question of the Other: A Levinasian Reading of Emily Dickinson’s Religious Poems: Hyesook Son
  • Works cited
  • A Haven for the Suffering Soul: Ellen Glasgow’s Lifelong Quest: Brigitte Zaugg
  • Works cited
  • The Lives of a Spirit: Mystical Bewilderment in Fanny Howe’s Fiction: Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd
  • “Seeking the limits”: the figure of the mystic
  • Mystic expression: a “slippage of words”
  • Seeking for an origin?
  • Bewilderment
  • Works cited
  • Audio archive
  • “I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible.” A Reconfiguration of the Devotional Poet for the Age of the Mass Media: Leonard Cohen’s Holy Hoaxes: Christophe Lebold
  • Theological imagination and poetic skill: the stuff devotional poets are made of
  • Songs, songwriting, song performance: a holy task
  • Spiritual literature as action poetry: Cohen in concert
  • Ironical solemnities and solemn ironies: the crooner as high priest
  • Personal palimpsest: “give a man a mask and he’ll sing you the truth”
  • Works cited
  • Spirituality in the Americas
  • “Fire-Worship”: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Spirituality of Fire: Stéphanie Carrez
  • Fire worship
  • Politics of syncretism
  • Fire and reverie
  • The spiritual alchemy of artistic creation
  • Works cited
  • The Spirit of the Letter: American Literature and the Quest for Kerygmatic Power: Claude Le Fustec
  • Works cited
  • The Spiritual Power of Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Mirjana Danicic
  • Relational spirituality and African beliefs
  • Spirituality in Toni Morrison’s fiction
  • Concluding remarks
  • Works cited
  • Syncretism and Spirituality in the Literature of the English-Speaking Caribbean: Erna Brodber’s Myal: Kathie Birat
  • Works cited
  • Metaphysics of Language and the Experience of Writing in Paul Auster’s City of Glass: Sina Vatanpour
  • Works cited
  • Abstracts
  • The Authors


← 1 | 2 → ← 2 | 3 →

Literature and Spirituality in the English-Speaking World


In 1836 the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his journal an aphorism that captures the complex relation between literature and spirituality in the American context. He wrote:

Make your own Bible. Select and collect all those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul. (quoted in Richardson 241)

His oxymoronic formulation expresses the fundamental contradiction underlying the advice of a cultivated and widely-read scholar who preached a personal and intimate relation to the deity and yet could not help seeing the Bible, a text shared by the Christian community, as a model for the power of language to express the spiritual. Emerson’s remark reminds us above all that spirituality is often a question of words, that it is in words that the spiritual is captured, however inadequate the spoken or written word may be to grasp all that the term “spirituality” implies. The image of the “blast of trumpet” suggests the force of the spiritual in American life, reminding one of the poetess from Amherst who, although she could not bring herself to believe in the conventional sense, attempted to reproduce the “blast” evoked by Emerson in much of her poetry. The presence of the Bible as text in American literature, through a dense web of intertextuality, can be explained by the role of the Bible in Protestant religious practice. But the involvement of American culture with the spiritual has much deeper and more tangled roots, as the Canadian scholar Sacvan Bercovitch has explained in his studies of American cultural history. Bercovitch explores the impact of the Puritan sense of mission and entitlement on the creation of a specifically American culture and the belief in an American destiny. While the culture of a country whose President takes the oath of office by placing his hand on the Bible is clearly strongly influenced by Christian spirituality, the spiritual in American life is by no means restricted to Christianity and ← 3 | 4 → includes many other religions. The need to establish more personal bridges between the American experience and the spiritual which lies at the heart of much of Emerson’s writing can be seen as emblematic of a desire to define experience in spiritual terms, an idea which may even be one of the defining characteristics of American culture. This American propensity for seeking the spiritual in the ordinary is just one of the ideas informing the essays in this collection.

The essays published here were presented during the International Conference “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Spirituality in the Literatures of the English-Speaking World” organised at the Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik of the University of Vienna by Franz Woehrer (University of Vienna) and John Bak (University of Lorraine) in July 2009 in cooperation with the University Paul Verlaine of Metz. They represent contributions concerning spirituality in literatures from English-speaking countries other than Great Britain. The papers devoted to British literature have been published in a separate volume: Franz Karl Wöhrer, John S. Bak (eds.), British Literature and Spirituality: Theoretical Approaches and Transdisciplinary Readings (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2013). While most of the articles involve American literature, papers concerning writers from Canada (Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen) and the Caribbean (Erna Brodber) are also included, thus broadening the definition of America beyond the borders of the United States. They are organized in three sections. The first section, “Spirituality and Society,” includes articles dealing with the definition of spirituality as a social phenomenon and examining the ways in which spirituality becomes a tool for understanding society. The second section looks at “Spirituality and Poetry,” and the third part, “Spirituality in the Americas,” studies manifestations of the spiritual both in American literature and in the literature of the Caribbean, where Christian spirituality includes elements of African origin. All the articles raise fundamental questions about the nature of what we call “spirituality” and the way in which it affects our vision of literature as a representation of human experience.

The first section opens with an article by Demelza Martin (University of New South Wales) which goes to the very heart of the questions raised by Emerson’s quotation. In “Incarnation and the Spirit of the Social,” Martin looks at the ways in which the use of terms like “incarnation” by ← 4 | 5 → Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx invites us to examine their practice as writers and to see to what extent their “sociological thought reveals a deep appreciation of the sacramental nature of social relations.” For Durkheim, the word religion, from the Latin religare, meaning to bind or rebind, would seem to imply that the very nature of the sacred is inextricably entwined with its social dimension. It is this idea which, in more or less overt ways, underlies many of the contributions in this volume. Miriam Wallraven (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen) and Françoise Couturier-Storey and Jeff Storey (University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis) pursue similar reflections on the relation between the sacred and the secular in “Spirituality and Politics? Spiritual Models of Culture and Methods of World-making in Postmodern Utopian Texts” and “‘God is a Cluster of Neurons’: Spirituality and Gene Manipulation in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.” In both articles, the centrality of spirituality to any form of social organization is seen as the premise on which both utopian and dystopian fiction is based. In contrast to these two articles, which separate religion from spirituality in order to examine the ways in which writers redefine the spiritual as social behaviour, Mokhtar Ben Barka’s (University of Valenciennes) study of the Left Behind series in “Left Behind as an Example of the Intersection between Fiction and Fundamentalist Christianity” deals with a series of novels which fictionalize the Christian fundamentalist view of the end of times. Ben Barka shows how this highly successful series of novels written by the fundamentalist preacher Tim LaHaye and the evangelical novelist Jerry B. Jenkins mines a vein which runs deep in American cultural experience, adapting a traditional concern for literal interpretations of the Bible to a cultural context marked by the anxiety and the need for Evangelicals “to make the world safer for themselves and their fellow believers.”

The next section addresses the relation between spirituality and poetry. Poetry, perhaps the most intense and concentrated form of verbal expression, may seem to be the natural path to expressions of the spiritual. However, the scholars writing in this section, like those previously mentioned, are concerned with looking beyond the mere use of the poetic to express the spiritual. Their concern is with the way poets use language to define spirituality, language itself becoming a lens through which the spiritual becomes visible. In her study of Emily Dickinson’s relation to ← 5 | 6 → the spiritual in “‘Puritan Spirit’ and the Question of the Other: A Levinasian Reading of Emily Dickinson’s Religious Poems,” Hyesook Son (Sungkyunkwan University) approaches Dickinson’s poems through Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy of alterity. She shows how, unlike Emerson, who made his own “Bible” and rejected Puritan orthodoxy, Dickinson gave to the Puritan sense of awe before the unknown and unknowable its fullest poetic expression. Like Levinas, Son argues, Dickinson “perceives God as a radical exteriority” and uses language not to bring God closer, but to dramatize the self’s encounter with absolute Otherness. Brigitte Zaugg (University of Lorraine) examines the poetry of another woman writer, Ellen Glasgow, who, like Emily Dickinson, experienced difficulty in reconciling conventional religious beliefs with her own particularly demanding moral and ethical codes. In her article entitled “A Haven for the Suffering Soul: Ellen Glasgow’s Lifelong Quest,” she explores the ways in which Glasgow sought a poetic expression of her need for a compassionate faith. Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd’s (University of Poitiers) study of Fanny Howe in “The Lives of a Spirit: Mystical Bewilderment in Fanny Howe’s fiction,” although it focuses on Howe’s fiction rather than on her poetry, identifies a tension between language and the search for the spiritual which is similar to the one that Son finds in Dickinson. Through the frame of Michel de Certeau’s writings on mysticism, to which Howe often refers, Chorier-Fryd explores Howe’s use of de Certeau’s notion of “exilic writing” in which “utterances and speakers are constantly on the move.” The slippage of words, which in de Certeau’s terms “never finish leaving,” becomes for Howe a means of exploring the unbridgeable gap between language and meaning. Fascinated by the mystics, Howe can be seen, according to Chorier-Fryd, as a modern mystic, using words to express a “theology of searching more than one of finding.” In his study of Leonard Cohen in “‘I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible.’ A Reconfiguration of the Devotional Poet for the Age of the Mass Media: Leonard Cohen’s Holy Hoaxes,” Christophe Lebold (University of Strasbourg) uses the notion of resonance to examine the ways in which Cohen as poet, song-writer, singer and performer uses his voice to “manifest his spiritual vision to the ear,” broadening both the range and depth of that experience by revealing its many facets and collapsing the ← 6 | 7 → distinction between Christianity, Judaism and Zen Buddhism, between the erudite and the popular. Combining “poetic skill and theological imagination,” Cohen, according to Lebold, reveals the appropriateness of mass culture as a means of communicating the spiritual because of the way it makes possible the expression “of the ‘commonality’ of our predicament as fallen beings.”


VIII, 233
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
fantasy science fiction fundamentalist fiction
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 233 pp.

Biographical notes

Kathie Birat (Volume editor) Brigitte Zaugg (Volume editor)

Kathie Birat is Emeritus Professor of American Literature at the University of Lorraine (Metz, France). She has published extensively in the fields of American, African American and Afro-Caribbean literature, with emphasis on questions related to orality and voice. Brigitte Zaugg is Associate Professor at the University of Lorraine (Metz, France), where she teaches American literature and translation. Among the most recent books she has co-edited are L’Espace du Sud au féminin (2011) and Dislocation culturelle et construction identitaire (2012). She is a member of IDEA research group.


Title: Literature and Spirituality in the English-Speaking World
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244 pages