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John Wilson

"The Religious Turn"

An encouraging conference.

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The May 19 installment of Tablet Magazine includes a podcast of an interview in which Sara Ivry talks with Joshua Ferris about his new book. Here's the teaser from the Tablet website:

The novelist Joshua Ferris made a splash in 2007 with his debut Then We Came to the End. The critically acclaimed book was a hilarious, biting satire about employees in a collapsing ad agency in Chicago at the end of the dot-com era. Ferris followed it up in 2010 with The Unnamed, a somewhat darker novel about a Manhattan lawyer who just wants to be walking; it's an urge he cannot resist, and it undoes his life.
Now Ferris is out with a new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. With the help of a somewhat petulant, loner dentist the book takes on existential dread, what it means to be a Jew, and Red Sox fandom in a mix of the absurd, the droll, and the profound. Ferris joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss what compels him about belonging to a faith community, what kind of research—biblical and medical—he had to undertake to write his novel, and why he envies the Jews.

At one point, Ivry asks Ferris about his own religious background. Ferris says that he grew up going to a lot of different Christian churches; he joked with his mother that they suffered from multiple denomination syndrome. His new book, he tells Ivry, was inspired in part by the attraction he felt for the rituals of his Jewish friends. Christianity, as he experienced it, was almost entirely about an "announcement of belief," whereas Judaism is much more about practice—"a heterodoxy of practice," he adds, that goes "far beyond a statement of belief."

Whether that familiar contrast—Christianity = "belief"; Judaism = "practice"—is anything more than an unexamined cliché is a question for another day. What struck me about the podcast was something else entirely. In much of the contemporary fiction and poetry I read (and I have added To Rise Again at a Decent Hour to my reading list), "religion" and religious questions are pervasive, though you wouldn't guess that from a lot of cultural commentary these days. This interest in religion and the religious takes many forms, explicit and implicit, and can't be reduced to any particular "movement" or tendency. It encompasses writers who are in fact quite hostile to religion in general or who observe it curiously, handling it with tweezers; others who celebrate "the religious impulse" while disliking particularist claims; others still who speak from this or that faith tradition; and writers who can't readily be placed in any of the foregoing categories, whose work is haunted (that seems like the right word) by the transcendent.

None of this would surprise the people I was hanging out with last week, when Brett Foster and I flew to Los Angeles and drove to Santa Barbara, to the campus of Westmont College, for the 2014 Western Regional Conference on Christianity and Literature. The theme was "The Religious Turn: Secular and Sacred Engagements with Literature and Theory."

Any event that takes place at Westmont has a bonus to start with: the setting is glorious. "Tree-hugger" is a term of derision, but I was tempted to pause and hug a eucalyptus as I walked along the campus paths. The conference director, Kathryn Stelmach Artuso, an assistant professor of English at Westmont, did a superb job planning and supervising our gathering—everything from overall vision to user-friendly details like the signs that helped us find our way to the next session.

This was not a single sustained conversation but rather a set of overlapping conversations. The "religious turn" in literary studies and "theory" (where literature, philosophy, and other disciplines are entwined, sometimes uneasily) is itself contested, like the "post-secular" and every other notion pertaining to this historical moment that comes after the heyday of the secularization thesis, which was in full force when I started college, in September 1966, just a few months after Time magazine's notorious "Is God Dead?" cover.

Part of what I loved about the conference was the wild diversity of perspectives. Speakers came from many different angles and many different locations: from small colleges I'd never heard of, from big state schools and Christian colleges, from Harvard Divinity School and California Baptist University and the First Baptist Church of Regina, Saskatchewan. Among the participants were roughly 30 grad students, and there were many young faculty in attendance. We started on Thursday evening with a talk by Marilyn McEntyre and a circle of poetry readings (to which Brett contributed), so we weren't just talking ABOUT literature and religion and life.

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