This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Persistent religious confusion
Initially, I didn’t realize Aslan was a lion replacing Jesus in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This is very evident in retrospect, but I grew up in a Jewish community and attended Hebrew school on weekends, so making connections between Christian Bible stories and fantasy literature was not a model of thought natural to me.
When I read The last battle and Aslan turned into a man, I had to go to my dad for an explanation. We were an interfaith family but we mainly celebrated Jewish holidays and attended Hebrew school; he is Jewish, also grew up in an interfaith family, and went to a parish school because it was a good local school that would welcome all students of all faiths. The Chronicles of Narnia remains a very formative and important book series in my life, but every time I return to it the confusion over how Narnia represents the Promised Land persists.
This general confusion also persisted in English classes at my school. I had the basics because of the Hebrew school, and we had to read Genesis in English class, but the major Christian themes had to be explained to me more rigorously. What was predestination, and why did I need to know the difference between Calvinists and Lutherans? In addition, is there a Christian significance to the talking horse in The horse and his boy?
The Jewish tradition has midrashim (stories inspired by the Torah) and Talmudic texts (in which rabbis discuss the interpretation of the Torah and how to integrate its teachings into daily life), while the Christian Bible struck me as a confusing set of rules. and names to memorize in order to get the correct questions on the Renaissance Art Test.
Christianity and the literary canon
My experience is extremely common among non-Christians. Although we have a nominal separation of Church and State in the United States, the decision-makers of the early colonies were all Christian men and brought this dogma into the laws and institutions of the land. The (more recent) inclusion of “one nation, under Gd” in the pledge of allegiance is an easy place to see.
This point is not intended to argue that all Christianity should be taken out of the literary canon. However, understanding religion (especially Christianity) as a socio-cultural dimension of literature means discussing it more rigorously to understand how it shapes the themes and direction of novels. When we take Christianity for granted and only explain religions that are “different” (such as Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and a whole host of world religions), we fail to understand the dimensions. deeper insights into literature and how religion shapes characters’ responses to events in novels.
For example, I only found out The Catholicism of Toni Morrison in my twenties, not when I discovered his work in high school. His books are obviously not Catholic moral tales, but his religious identity reflects an important period in American history. As Nadja Nittle writes in America Magazine: “Morrison converted to Catholicism as a child in the 1940s – a time when practicing black families still shared African folklore with their children, traded ghost stories and clung to superstitions. This blend of traditional Christianity and African American spiritual traditions has shaped Morrison in his personal and professional life. Her interpretation of her faith and how it affects her characters provides an exciting new lens through which to read her work that I had no access to before.
So many novels in the American literary canon to respond to (as opposed to exposing and defining) the dominance of Christianity and strict moral codes. Since I didn’t receive a lot of Christian teaching and socialization as a youngster, it was easy to miss a character’s motivation when I didn’t know the culturally dominant Christian morality to which he was responding.
Embrace all religions
As important as Toni Morrison’s religion and spirituality shaped her worldview, it is equally important to me that writers like Judy Blume, Louis Sachar, and Fran Lebowitz are included in discussions of the socio-cultural form of their religion in their work, which is Judaism. In an article celebrating the work of Mahmoud Darwish, the writer David J. Wasserstein identifies him as part of “the tradition of the political poet in Islam, the man of action whose action is poetry”. Engaging in the history of how Muslim writers present and treat their religion is also extremely rewarding.
An understanding of any religion can deepen and enrich your reading experience, as you will gain a diverse perspective on how people around the world have approached questions of morality, community, and faith. The way characters in literature grapple with big questions can often have influences on the religious upbringing of the characters, even if they end up rejecting that education. Since I personally find that my Jewish upbringing influences the way I approach the larger issues of my life, I enjoy reading about characters who come to terms with their own faith and spirituality.
Without a solid literary education inspired by other world religions, we might end up reaffirming the centrality and dominance of Christianity in the literary canon. In addition to evaluating the need a literary canon, there will always be English Literature classes that make choices about how to integrate religion as a socio-cultural force instead of just the water we swim in.
Diving into religions other than your own is an important way to diversify your reading list. There are also many books to discover on young people struggling with religion, or books to deepen your knowledge of Buddhism, Judaism and even Christianity.