There’s a misconception going around in America that you can’t talk about God in public schools. It’s an erroneous assumption perpetuated by a media fascinated by even the most absurd lawsuits that are waged against teachers and school districts by parents and/or community activists terrified of what exposure to the spiritual hocus pocus might lead to (I can only assume the majority of these “concerned” individuals believe talk of God leads down a road that ends with clones of David Koresh rather than Mother Theresa). In reality, what a teacher is not allowed to do is proselytize in school, or lead the class in prayer; however, he or she is as free as a bird to talk about God if the subject itself is relevant to the curriculum. This is another reason I adore literature. If you’re reading most classic works correctly, you can’t get away from God. Spiritual fulfillment, spiritual isolation, spiritual confusion… the list goes on – these themes actually lend a great deal of depth to works that would otherwise be terribly mundane or run-of-the-mill. From Fitzgerald’s discontent with materialism in The Great Gatsby, to Huxley’s haunting description of a moral-less dystopia in Brave New World, book after book and poem after poem cry out for readers bold enough to look under the surface and discover deeper, richer meanings. It is a technique that harks back to the work of medieval theologians who sought to understand not only the literal significance of the Scriptures (and by extension all literature), but also read for insight into the moral world and search for the threads of redemption and transcendence.
Even when the work itself is not overtly focused on Christianity in particular or on God in general, the human experience captured by the writer is significant for its observation of the beauty of nature or its grappling with the nature of beauty. There are four American writers, however, who must always be read theologically, lest their works be blanched and robbed of power.
#4 – Emily Dickinson
If you’re familiar with her poetry, it is not hard to recognize that despite a pretty stable life, Emily Dickinson had some emotional problems. She maintained complicated relationships with teachers, cousins, a sister-in-law, a sister, and even her mother, and despite dying in her early fifties, she still outlived several members of her family. These things might account for her reclusiveness and the morose and morbid tone in many of her poems. And yet…
Dickinson’s poetry is extraordinarily reflective and courageous. Spirituality was certainly important in her time; she was born during the inception of the Second Great Awakening, and her family was close with Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of Transcendentalism. Perhaps this is why so many of her poems brood upon subjects like death, immortality, natural beauty and personal worship. She examines the necessity of genuine corporate worship in Poem 57, “Some keep the Sabbath going to church; / I keep it staying at home, / With a bobolink for a chorister / and an orchard for a dome…” One of her most convicting works is Poem 185: “‘Faith’ is a fine invention / When Gentlemen can see – / But Microscopes are prudent / In an Emergency.” To read Dickinson’s poetry is to delve into a remarkably honest consideration of the nature of faith and the possibility of forgiveness, redemption and life after death. Her poetry reminds us how important it is not to stifle questions and theologically reflective thinking – that doubt and anxiety may very well be a window that opens out onto the rich landscape of devotion and eternal hope.
#3 – Nathaniel Hawthorne
A grandson of one of the judges of the Salem Witch Trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne had significant issues with American Puritanism. He used the theocratic community as a backdrop for many of his stories and novels, but he also delved much deeper into morality and the struggle with deeply rooted human sin. The Scarlet Letter is his quintessential work, but some of his most captivating pieces are the short stories he compiled in his Twice Told Tales, including the extraordinary “Young Goodman Brown,” which plays upon a Faustian concept of the devil while examining the doctrine of election and the Calvinist belief in total depravity, and “The Minister’s Black Veil,” which focuses on secret sin, hypocrisy and the power of symbolism. Another great work from Mosses from an Old Manse, “The Birthmark,” is a parable-like examination of the conflict between scientific arrogance and divine mystery.
To read Hawthorne in merely a historical light is to miss the potency of his works – his works are steadfastly focused on challenging the reader to reject the desire to create God in his or her own image. Many of his stories reveal the dark side of religious fervor and the complexity of the human psyche, and while it is not hard to miss the morals in his work (he was a dutiful Romantic), there is nothing ineffectual about his conclusions. They are as convicting today as they were back then.
#2 – T.S. Eliot
Although England may claim him as its favorite poet, Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, the grandson of a Unitarian Church pastor and son of a successful businessman. He was privileged, from an affluent New England-based family, and received a thorough education of the highest quality. While he became a British citizen in middle-age, he claimed his poetry was still connected to and born out of his American experience, especially his time spent by the river in St. Louis, which he claimed was more influential to his writing than if he had grown up in any other city.
It is, perhaps, easier to read Eliot’s later works theologically – that is, after his conversion experience and his membership in the Church of England. Certainly, Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets ring with theological significance. However, even his earliest published poem, the magnificent “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” focuses on themes of isolation, inferiority, self-esteem, social malaise, and anxiety toward death. All matters to which spirituality relates. What makes T.S. Eliot’s poetry truly remarkable is his ability to capture the roughness of life, as well as the much-maligned feeling of body and soul, even in lines that seem to glow with beauty. A particularly haunting stanza from “The Hollow Men” reveals such a powerful grasp of language: “Those who have crossed / with direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom / Remember us – if at all – not as lost / Violent souls, but only / as the hollow men / The stuffed men.” To read T.S. Eliot is to be taken on a journey through the dusty landscapes and frustrated cities of this world, searching for a hidden doorway into redemption, into paradise.
#1 – Flannery O’Connor
She once paraphrased Jesus, saying, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you odd.” Odd in the sense that an encounter with God’s grace does not make someone normal, or self-possessed, or status quo. Odd in the sense that salvation in Christ does not beget physical safety or charismatic popularity. Odd in the sense that God’s will for our lives has absolutely no regard for the comfortable little trenches we dig for ourselves in this world. In truth, none of staunchly Catholic Flannery O’Connor’s peculiar and perplexing short stories come across as neat and tidy pictures of Christianity. None of them would sell very well (if they were to be welcomed at all) if placed on a shelf in a Christian bookstore. O’Connor’s stories are dark and earthy, and focus often on the outcasts and scapegoats and seekers stumbling through their dimly lit lives, unknowingly propelled on a collision course with the reality of God. Every story by Flannery O’Connor contains a moment in which the grace of God is either accepted or rejected by a major character, and this cuts to the heart of every individual message in her fiction.
It would be a travesty of education to read Flannery O’Connor’s stories purely for the social context of the American South of the 50′s and 60′s, or simply as an inclusion in the collection of Southern Gothic writers of the early and mid-20th century. While there is much to learn from her regarding the nature and structural technique of short story writing, her painstaking attention to detail and her incomparable grasp of character development, none of these things make her stories into the powerfully transcendent tales that they are. Rather, it is her dedication to uncover truth in even the darkest of places (that place most often being the human heart), and to avoid watering down the message of salvation, a message that is as scandalous and shocking as it is victorious.