Religion and Narrative Form

John Paul Spiro

Whenever one expresses a preference about a work of literature[1]—and criticism, even when it damns, is an expression of one’s preference to discuss this rather than that—one cannot help but reveal one’s ideological commitments.

This idea is neither new nor controversial, and I have yet to encounter a better summation of it than Northrop Frye’s:

Every deliberately constructed hierarchy of values in literature known to me is based on a concealed social, moral, or intellectual analogy… The various pretexts for minimizing the communicative power of certain writers, that they are obscure or obscene or nihilistic or reactionary or what not, generally turn out to be disguises for a feeling that the views of decorum held by the ascendant social or intellectual class ought to be either maintained or challenged. These social fixations keep changing, like a fan turning in front of a light (Anatomy of Criticism 22-23).

This latest novel is good insofar as one approves of its political agenda (e.g., reminding us of the values we’ve lost in our techno-crazy age, or revealing the struggles of an oppressed group of people, or lampooning the pretensions of educated people like myself), while that much-discussed TV show is problematic because of the way it represents such-and-such people and ignores a particular problem, and so on. A work of narrative art is worth one’s time if it flatters one’s worldview and one’s sense of self.

If we are already aware that this is how culture industries work, then we should attend more to the religious content of whatever is worth our time at least as much as we attend to the social, political, moral, and intellectual content. Indeed, those categories may be best understood as sub-categories of religion, which for my purposes can be understood as however we understand the relationship between morality and cosmology. Think of a story and then consider whether or not that story suggests (1) a governing force in the universe and (2) the relative kindness or maliciousness of that governing force. It is possible for a story to suggest a random and capricious universe, but this is just another statement about God (i.e., that He has abandoned us) and humanity (i.e., that we can’t understand how to make sense of what happens). It is common for us to displace this governing agency onto the author(s), as when we say, “that season of The Sopranos just became all about cruelty” or “That novel just sort of fell apart two thirds of the way in.” Repeated claims that the author is trying to show us something about narrative and the world are futile in such circumstances, because what is actually articulated is “I like my storyworlds ordered according to specific principles.”

The “religious content” specified above operates at the level of form. Literary forms emerge and flourish (and die) as a result of the religious preferences of artists and audiences. This is all the more relevant now that so few of us have conscious religious commitments. One’s personal secularity is immaterial if, for example, one is disappointed when a story fails to provide “redemption,” one enjoys stories that end in marriage or the suggestion of immortality, one wants to see good people rewarded and bad people punished, and one values the struggle to be ethical (usually in some version of “loyal to loved ones and to one’s gifts”) in an indifferent and disordered society. Tragedies are authentically pagan, possibly nihilistic, and unfailingly aristocratic—and thus hard to come by. We don’t believe in such gods. Comedies (the overcoming of human foibles for the sake of romantic coupling) are stronger than ever, with all their attendant conservatism regarding human limits and proper social order; we prefer an indulgent, forgiving God who wants us to learn to have sex with the right person. Science fiction stories are frequently religious allegories about the dangers of humanity overstepping limits, while horror stories dramatize the refusal of the demonic to disappear. Superhero stories are about gods—often those who love humanity for no good reason. And no matter the genre, we celebrate self-knowledge and heroic self-sacrifice, either in the form of literally dying for one’s fellows or giving up the fun of hanging with the bros so you can be the man your girlfriend needs you to be. We already embrace formal norms, in narrative and ethics, and we can even admit the socio-aesthetic prejudices that inform those norms. Let us now acknowledge the religious assumptions that inform those socio-aesthetic prejudices.

[1] I’m writing about narrative art—literature and film—because it’s what I know. These ideas can and have been applied to music, visual art, etc., but I leave it for others to do so.

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John Paul Spiro lives in Philadelphia and teaches philosophy and literature at Villanova University