I am a child of the church. In an early memory, I am 6 years old, half-asleep in the back of my grandparents’ station wagon on the way home from a revival. It is thrillingly late. I am contented, safe, warm. The car is quiet save the sound of traffic passing in the other direction, and the murmur of Family Radio — which was always playing in my grandfather’s car. My ears still buzz from the stadium speakers, and from the choirs and the preachers’ hooping and the audience praise shouting.
The God of my revival childhood was all-powerful and relatively benevolent, but there were a great many rules about what we should do (go to church three times a week, live by the Word of God, literally interpreted), and what we shouldn’t (listen to secular music, play cards, watch movies, drink).These commitments and privations were rewarded with God’s love, palpable, like a bird alighting on a shoulder.
I left it all behind as a teenager, when I plunged into the world on the other side of the stained-glass window. My defection brought a heady, delicious freedom that also left me a little bereft. Then, as a college student, I read James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Here was so much of my own experience, intimately detailed, as though he were whispering to me about how it had been and what we’d lost, how much of it we’d never understand. Here was a blueprint for how to be both: how to grow up in the conservative church and become an artist, how to be poor and Black and tell about it with due pride and complexity, how to disbelieve but be imprinted by belief. And how literature could articulate these quandaries, could give me all of this, and more.
This essay, like others to follow in this series, maintains that American literature is also imprinted by belief, freighted by ideas about morality, justice and standards for living that are derived, alongside manifold wrongs and derelictions, from the nation’s historically Christian heritage. Christianity’s imprint on our literature isn’t necessarily about piety or doctrine — though that is sometimes the case. It also trucks in paradox: At worst, it justifies great evil; at best, it inspires decency and generosity, and acts as a hedge against oversimplistic notions of society and of the individual. It asks us to hold contradictory realities in mind and heart; there is sustenance and insight to be gained in that wrangling.
In some of our literature, religious concepts are more implicit than explicit — a pool into which the work dips, often to great effect. James Baldwin’s soaring, sermonic prose; Toni Morrison’s scriptural authority; William Faulkner’s Genesis-like cosmologies of Southern identity and place: All draw heavily on a Christian-inflected aesthetic. Which is not to elevate this belief system above others in a country as multifaith as it is multicultural and multiracial. To the contrary, among the issues we will encounter is Christianity’s tendency to take downits faith counterparts. Christianity can be a real bruiser. It’s cherry-picked, co-opted and corrupted, and yet it remains inextricable from American identity — which is precisely why it finds its way into our fiction.
There’s no denying the great harm done in Christianity’s name; nor its moral ambiguities and contradictions. But these complexities, so often wrestled with and illuminated in the nation’s literature, are precisely what allow us to contemplate the opposing and irreconcilable realities of our history, and of every human life. For many American writers even now, Christianity continues to provide a vast web of references, imagery and metaphor. This web of concepts is ever relevant, particularly at this juncture, when so much of what passes for Christian sentiment is bullying, reductive and illegitimately recruited for political and economic motives. Such forces risk hijacking religious conversation so that we can no longer see ideals that might remind us that human beings are capacious and sacred, and that our dealings with one another ought to reflect as much.
I am a writer, a practitioner of literature, not a forensic specialist like a theorist or critic. This is rather like the difference, crudely put, between a chef and a restaurant reviewer. To practice literature is to create something of aesthetic value deliberately crafted to enter into a relationship with a reader. In this sense, my lens on matters of Christian inflection is one of impacts: What are the contours of a reader’s encounter? What is gained or lost? I propose these essays as a means of, to borrow the title of one of Adrienne Rich’s most famous poems, “Diving Into the Wreck”; each will examine a different aspect of human experience: the prophetic; suffering and evil; forgiveness; apocalypse; and hope. As Rich writes: “I came to see the damage that was done/and the treasures that prevail.”
The prophetic generally calls to mind foretelling the future; in this conception the prophetic figure is an emissary of sorts, charged by God to deliver a divine message, often regarding some contravention of God’s will and the coming moral and spiritual collapse. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Tanakh are myriad and complex but have in common their proximity to periods of big trouble for the ancient Israelites — the sort of trouble that alters a nation and its people forever: invasion (Assyria, Syria, Babylon, to name a few), obliteration and erasure (the sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple), and exile (thousands carted off to Babylon). In the face of these disasters the prophet cries out, beseeching the Israelites: Do not tarry in injustice and untruth. Remember that you are a righteous people; act accordingly and at some juncture, God’s favor will return. The prophet rails against any force that might encourage, or benefit from, the people’s failings, including temple and king. The prophet disrupts the smooth functioning of society and state to describe a difficult reality.
What Is the 1619 Project?
Acknowledging a historic moment. In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine launched the 1619 Project, spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones. The project explored the history of slavery in the United States and was released to coincide with the anniversary of a ship carrying the first enslaved Africans to the English colonies.
The enslavement legacy. The project made a bold claim: that the experience of slavery is inextricable from American history. It prompted praise, criticism and debate.
The project’s impact. With its examination of how the legacy of slavery continues to shape life in the United States, the project started in-depth conversations about how American history is taught and written.
Awards and controversy. Ms. Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for the project’s opening essay, has faced backlash from conservative groups over her work. In 2021, some board members at the University of North Carolina reportedly opposed her appointment to tenure position due to her involvement in the 1619 Project.
Expanding the initiative’s reach. Since its launch, the 1619 Project has expanded to include a podcast on how slavery has transformed America, two books and a six-part documentary debuting on Hulu on Jan. 26.
In his seminal work “The Prophetic Imagination” the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann argues that prophetic utterance is so dynamic because it uses language that is unbought, not circumscribed by any human power. That is to say, poetry. Prophetic utterance cuts through “numbness and denial,” Brueggemann writes, and speaks from outside sanctioned norms to articulate the people’s anguish and loss. Brueggemann calls this the “language of grief.” At the same time, prophetic voice also speaks of the possibility of a redeemed future. Brueggemann calls this redemption — a reconciliation with God and the attendant astonishments of peace, beauty and fulfillment — the “language of amazement.” The latter is impossible without the former. The prophetic utterance is untamed and subversive. It is, we might say, the language of art and of the imagination: aesthetically highly developed, illuminated with meanings that are recognizable to the listener, often unbidden and usually uncomfortable. Some prophets shout full-throatedly, with complete knowledge of their mission; others, almost unwittingly, hold up a mirror in which some specter, some twisted face, appears.
American literature, arising from the inchoate beginnings of the nation, has had its share of prophets. Perhaps because the nation itself has its share of sins against which its prophets railed. The country’s founding gets underway in the North with the Calvinist Puritanism of the early arrivals to New England, and in the South with adventurers, fortune seekers, second and third sons robbed of inheritance by primogeniture, indentured servants and so on. Enslaved Africans were brought and bought by the thousands. Early Americans enslaved and despoiled Indigenous people, some by the lash, others by imported disease, land theft, false treaties and mass deportation to the (also already inhabited) Western reaches of not-yet-America.
These early Americans also established universities and introduced a legal system based on trial by jury; they became abolitionists and, later, suffragists, and wrote a great many books — indeed, created an entire civic credo from a true conviction of the holiness of the human person. And yet, biblical concepts of conquest and dominion — as found in the Hebrew Bible, in which God commands the ancient Israelites to procure the Promised Land of Canaan by murdering its inhabitants — give moral credence to Manifest Destiny. Later, in 1863, when the slavery question had reached an impasse, the Confederacy took as its official motto: Deo Vindice, God will avenge. The country’s religious history is steeped in painful paradox: The good done in the name of God sits cheek by jowl with a host of horrors.
Among our earliest literary prophetic voices are the slave narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries. The first slave narrative published in America, by Venture Smith, appeared in 1798. Subsequent years saw a proliferation of these writings, so numerous as to form a genre of their own, including famous works like Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.” These books described the vile abyss of the “peculiar institution.” Jacobs writes in genteel prose that almost belies the depravity she describes: “But I now entered on my 15th year — a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. … He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things.”
Slave narratives galvanized the abolitionist movement, became a foundation for African American literature and influenced the development of autobiography as a literary category. More often than not, the narratives were informed by a Christian perspective, all the more striking from a people brutalized by those who proclaimed devotion to that religion. The prophetic utterance here is nuanced; these writers reinterpreted a Christianity of violence and subjugation and used it to claim their humanity as children of God.
Many condemned the hypocrisy of the Christian who would take another human being as property. There is a subtle yet remarkable generosity in this rebuke: If the foundational tenets of the faith call each Christian to love her neighbor as herself, then the insistence that the slave owner correct his ways (he too is one’s neighbor, theologically speaking) is an intervention against his damnation and a profound act of grace. Such grace is not meek resignation to injustice and suffering, but rather a demand based on a radical reinterpretation of the enslaver’s dogma. Here is Frederick Douglass on the subject: “I love the pure, peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
How will America metabolize the presence of these people it has whipped and put into neck irons? What about the Trail of Tears and the smallpox blankets? What might all of that mean to a nation that has declared itself righteous and blessed by God? Among the writers who show us how the literature of the period grapples with such paradox is the brilliant and bedeviled Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s only novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” (1838), is a melodramatic contribution to the whaling narratives so popular at the time; it’s not his best work, but it is significant. At its end, the protagonist finds himself — after a series of adventures involving shipwrecks and mutinies, scrapes with death and a murderous tribe — in a dinghy accompanied by a Black member of said tribe and a white companion. The three men drift on a sea of miasmic whiteness, toward a thick white veil beyond which a figure appears. This figure, Poe wrote, was “very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of snow.” Upon sight of such whiteness, the Black Native promptly gives up the ghost and the story ends.
Whiteness here is totalizing; Blackness is a haunting embodied, or, as Toni Morrison puts it in her book “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” an “Africanist presence … a dark and abiding presence that moves the hearts and texts of American literature with fear and longing.” The unfree long for freedom. The “free” long for it too, chained as they are by an existential fear of the consequence their abominations may bring. The novel’s milky white air and sea are sickening and fetid. While this whiteness rids the protagonist and his companion of their Black boogeyman, it offers no relief, no comfort and no escape; it will swallow them too. Poe’s vision, however oblique or unwitting, speaks the country’s moral and humanitarian crisis, and its splintered, schizophrenic identity.
Published some 170 years later, Morrison’s novel “A Mercy” (2008) is a brilliant response to Poe’s prophetic utterance. “A Mercy” revisits, in the mode of Brueggemann’s language of amazement, an often ignored chapter of American history to suggest a path to future redemption. The novel’s main voices belong to Florens, an enslaved teenage girl; Jacob and Rebekka Vaark, the white couple who own her; and Lina, an enslaved Indigenous woman whose tribe has been decimated by smallpox. The novel is set in the late 17th century in an America that is not yet fully formed. The Spaniards, French, English and Portuguese jockey for territory and power; there are Black slaves, free Black people, white indentured servants from various European places and myriad Indigenous tribes. There is no Constitution, few strictly drawn borders, no unifying creed from shore to shore, no catechism of freedom.
“A Mercy” is a meditation on an American tehom, an ancient Hebrew word that means “the deep” and refers, in the biblical context, to the oceanic, inchoate depths at the moment of creation — as in Genesis 1:2: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” In Morrison’s novel, the American tehom swirls with any number of possible outcomes and directions. To be clear, there was nothing utopian about these formational years; pre-America America was a violently contested Eden. What followed, with regard to liberty and human rights, was the Fall.
Early in the novel Morrison references Bacon’s Rebellion, an uprising in 1676 of white landowners, Black free and enslaved people, and indentured whites against the governor of Virginia. The band was not virtuous by any means, but of interest to Morrison was its multiracial, multiclass composition — unthinkable even 50 years later. The governing class responded by codifying whiteness: New laws stipulated that a white person could harm or kill any Black person without consequence. Thus race becomes a tool of domination and division and the more just and humane of the tehom’s possibilities are banished.
The novel has undercurrents of lament — rage and mourning for the more merciful trajectory that could have been. Florens, after a journey to reunite with her beloved leads instead to new understanding of herself, reflects: “I am become wilderness but I am also Florens. In full. Unforgiven. Unforgiving. No ruth, my love. … Slave. Free. I last.” The strange prevails here — the novel’s nearly unrecognizable proto-America is further queered by the lyric descriptions of its undomesticated landscape. The reader feels as though she has entered a vision. Take this passage in which Jacob Vaark travels along the Atlantic Coast: “Unlike the English fogs he had known since he could walk … this one was sun fired, turning the world into thick, hot gold. Penetrating it was like struggling through a dream.” Morrison’s auric mists invert Poe’s stultifying white miasma.
From Jacob Vaark’s dreamy embryonic America we turn to Louise Erdrich’s North Dakota, in which the rage and sorrow of prophetic grief make way for tempered hope and an open-eyed clarity about the past, without which a future would not be possible. At the center of Erdrich’s novel “The Plague of Doves” (2008), set in the dying town of Pluto and on a nearby reservation, is the long-ago unsolved murder of a white family, for which four innocent Native men were hanged by a white mob. The lone survivor, a Métis elder named Mooshum, passes the story of the lynching to his adolescent granddaughter, Evelina.
The novel opens with a singular occurrence: Droves of voracious doves descend upon the crops of the area’s farmers, Native and white alike. The people of Pluto’s efforts to fend them off include clubbing, trapping and eating them; ritual dances by the women; Hail Marys thrown in for good measure; and a procession led by Mooshum’s older brother, “one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood.” It is after this rather biblical disaster — the dove being a Christian symbol of peace and of the Holy Spirit — that the white family is fatally shot and the avenging lynch posse launches a series of events that haunt the narrative.
Mooshum’s storytelling is the novel’s engine, a ritual of sorts, which anchors the plot, provides its structure and, to great extent, its prophetic voice. For young Evelina, her grandfather’s story is both revelation and mandate. She creates an exhaustive dossier of everyone she knows — and maps them onto a sort of community family tree. She wants answers: Who murdered the white family and why? How were Mooshum and the other men implicated? These questions beget another: How did white people come to own so much formerly Native land in Pluto?
What she discovers are old wounds and old secrets, further complicated by the deep enmeshment of the people of Pluto. Evelina’s classmates and friends are descendants of the lynchers, as she is a grandchild of the lynched. The people of Pluto are white and Indigenous. They are intermarried, intermingled, culpable for various wrongdoings, great and small, personal and historical. Pluto’s past and present are locked together, each lending significance to the other. How to live with loss of land and people, and violence done to you and yours, when the perpetrators of the crimes are your neighbors, your friends, members of your own family?
Erdrich’s masterly use of Catholic themes and imagery is a cipher for the commingled community she describes. In Pluto, Catholicism is baked in and ubiquitous. There are also folks Evelina calls “the traditionals,” who practice the old ways, and a host of belief systems that fall along the spectrum between Native and European. Pluto’s religious syncretism is a new third element birthed from what was and what has been imposed upon it.
In Erdrich’s hands it’s often funny, too. During a visit from the local priest, old Mooshum tells him about a Native-hating white trapper called Liver-Eating Johnson, whose nose Mooshum bit off years before during a fight. The supposed mouthful of nose is displayed for the priest, who declares it “positively pagan.” With a gleam in his eye, Mooshum wants to know what’s so pagan about the piece of nose when the church keeps a bit of St. Joseph’s spinal matter lodged in the altar. To the sputtering, apoplectic father, Mooshum says: “Compare though, I must. … When you stop to consider how the body of Christ, the blood of Christ, is eaten at every Mass.” The humor has a way of stymying simplified notions about the powerful and the powerless — there’s “no ruth” here, to quote Morrison again.
At the same time, Erdrich never lets us forget that Catholicism is a foreign invader, armed to the teeth. Among the lynched was a boy whose mother was so devout that she asked Mooshum to nail crosses into the bottom of her son’s shoes. He left little crucifixes in the earth wherever he walked. The people called him Holy Track. Of his last moments Erdrich writes: “The boy was too light for death to give him an easy time of it. … He heard his mother say, Open your eyes, and he stared into the dusty blue. … The little wisps of cloud, way up high, had resolved into wings and they swept across the sky now, faster and faster.”
We have descended into deep canyons of grief, but we needn’t stay there. The biblical prophets’ laments were most always followed by a vision of what might come after sin and sorrow. Isaiah prophesied a new branch from the stump of Jesse; that is to say, the Israelites would be blessed with a messianic king to bring them out of exile and hopelessness. The narratives left by the enslaved, the novels of Poe, Morrison and Erdrich have not marooned us.
On the contrary, they offer a light to help us see our beginnings more clearly. Together, they form a kind of constellation by which we might plot a course forward. Toward the end of Erdrich’s novel, Mooshum asks Evelina to take him to the tree where the lynching occurred so many decades before. Evelina is sorrowed and enraged by the prayer flags draped on the tree’s limbs: “This is sentiment instead of justice,” she says. She is right, she couldn’t be more right. It is also painfully, terribly true that the past cannot be undone, even as it cannot be excused. Mooshum looks up into the branches and replies: “Awee, my girl. The doves are still up there.”
Ayana Mathis’s new novel, “The Unsettled,” will be published in October.