Beyond Belief and Unbelief

The religious turn in literary studies has challenged the traditional focus on authorized and institutional religion in literature, and it also has expanded what counts toward literary histories of devotional practice. Scholars of literature and scholars of religion share resources, drawing especially on the local, environmental, and material histories of the sacred. As a result, the study of religion in literature today is less predetermined than it used to be, as evinced in recent work on conversion, heterodoxy, atheism, and the secular. Yet because the religious turn gained traction as a predominantly cultural and material turn, the felt need to define religious experience as such has been neglected. There now exists an opportunity to reassess “religion” as a category of narrative and performative experience that is both distinct from and imbricated with other forms of sensory, cognitive, and social encounter.

This collection of essays uses the tools of the religious turn to renovate the notion of religious experience in literary studies. Beyond the binaries of orthodoxy and heresy, secular and sacred, and homogeneity and pluralism, we seek to locate religion’s phenomenological, sociological, and anthropological dimensions as they appear in literary texts and performances. Just as at one time the multivalent capacities of literature were at risk of being suppressed by Religion (capital “R”), today “religion” risks dissolving into so many disconnected acts of literary expression. Might literary studies play a part in stretching yet also sustaining the tension between praxis and belief that characterizes lived religion?

Each chapter presents a keyword or religious experience—e.g., blessing, revelation, magic, word, (de)conversion, inspiration, doubt, totem, transfiguration, confession—and demonstrates religious experience as it is represented in literature as well as how literary texts themselves serve as media of religious experience.

This book is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Press in February 2022.