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Religion in 20th Century American Fiction

Class at Faculty of Arts |



For each week, one student will: 1. Present on one novel: including biographical information on the author, historical source information on the character, and historical information about the time period. 2. Submit a study guide the night before class with at least 10 provocative questions regarding the issues in the text. 3. Report (500 words) on an article from a peer-reviewed journal, assessing the major themes in the text. 4. Write a reflective essay (1000 words) that considers a problem in the text. This essay should be a persuasive argument that reads the text closely and includes specific passages to consider and DOES NOT use secondary material.

Every student will complete all of the four preparation assignments (40%) but only once and never on the same text. In other words, if a student presents on Cather, she could write a study guide for Buechner, an article report on Hurston, and a reflective essay on Robinson.

Discussion in class will account for a heavy percentage of the student’s grade (30%). To prepare for discussion, students should annotate their texts, create notes on the most significant scenes or lines in the text, and make a list of their own questions to ask in class.

There will be an Exam for credit (30%) at the end of the course that will include not only the reading but also any information delivered in the presentations, study guide, essay or reports. It will include a section of Identification (quotes, facts, etc.), Short Answer, and Essay.  18/2  Introduction: Religion and Literature

Bloom, "American Religion"

Hauerwas and Wood, "How the Church Became Invisible"

Kazin, "God and the American Writer"

Lundin, "Introduction," Religion, Literature, and Culture

Singh, "Literary Secularism: Religion & Modernity in 20th c. Fiction"   25/2  Saints and Modernity

James, "Saintliness" lectures, Varieties of Religious Experience

Ellsberg, "Introduction" All Saints

Taylor, "Modernism" Sources of the Self

Guardini, The End of the Modern World

Walhout, "The Liberal Saint"   4/3 Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)

Report: Jabbur, "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

Report: "Dispossession and Redemption"   11/3  Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939)

Report: Jenkins, "Black Gods" Mystics and Messiahs   18/3 Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939)

Report: Powers, "Gods of Physical Violence"   25/3 Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)

Report: Pinkerton, "Profaning the American Religion"

Report: O’Connor, "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South"   1/4 Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)

Report: "Penance, Violence, and the Ending of Wise Blood"   8/4 Frederick Buechner, Godric (1981)

Report: Buechner, "Eyes of the Heart" and "Telling the Truth"

Report: Bruinooge, "Sinner and Saint Recomplicated"   15/ 4 David James Duncan, The River Why (1983)

Report: Duncan, "Toxins in the Mother Tongue" and "Collision of Faith and Fiction"   22/4  David James Duncan, The River Why (1983)

 Report: Snyder, "New Streams of Religion"   29/4 Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)

 Report: Latz, "Robinson"    6/5 Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)

Report: Vander Weele, "The Difficult Gift of Human Exchange"    13/5 Exam for Credit


Great stories tell us who we are, where we come from, and what our purpose is in life. In America, the dominant stories come from the Judeo-Christian religion: the exodus of the Jews from slavery, the miracles and resurrection of Jesus, the acts of the Christian disciples, and the vision of the end times.

American writers are steeped in these stories in particular, even if the numbers of orthodox believers has decreased in the past century. Americans are still what Flannery O’Connor terms "Christ-haunted." Moreover, stories of great individuals overshadow the cultural imagination, from Paul Bunyan to TIME Magazine’s "Person of the Year." In the 20th century, American novelists have unwittingly capitalized on this desire for the hero’s story, and in a culture with only a dozen saints-canonized within the past century-, these authors have created their own "saints."

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