Themes in Literature

Literary Religion


Religion and literature are inextricably intertwined. Many of the world’s major religious texts, such as the Bible, the Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita, are studied not just for their philosophical and spiritual truths but for their literary aesthetics as well. Both religion and literature spring from a common impulse to explore and explain the fundamental mystery of human existence—of humankind’s place in the world and our relationship to the created universe, to the Divine, and to our fellow human beings. Religion, like literature, mirrors the ruling cultural paradigms of the day while also taking issue with them, interrogating and interpreting social and cultural mores and offering compelling new visions of being in the world. They offer both comfort to the troubled and the joys of quiet repose, and they are intimately personal and reassuringly or troublingly (as the case may be) public at the same time. Not surprisingly, religion is not only a key theme in literature but has functioned as the very fountainhead of much literature from antiquity to the present time. The ancient epics of the world, from Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey to the Mahabharata and the Ramayana from the Indian subcontinent, give us a revealing glimpse into the cultural makeup of their peoples. They also feature an elaborate parallel universe of gods and goddesses who are intimately involved in the world of mortals and, indeed, mirror some of the same vanities and foibles of the human world. For example, Athena is Odysseus’s patron deity and assists his return home, helping him to, among other things, fight the houseful of suitors who are pursuing his wife Penelope and living the good life at his expense. Similarly, Krishna, an important deity in the Hindu pantheon of gods, helps the righteous Pandavas defeat their cousins, the immoral Kauravas, and regain their kingdom. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Antigone risks Creon’s wrath and becomes a tragic heroine by virtue of her determination to perform her brother Polynices’ burial rites. She acts not just out of filial duty but also because proper burial rites for the dead, whether they are foe or friend, are demanded by the gods. In more modern times, John Milton set out to accomplish the ambitious task of writing a contemporary epic for England in the 17th century by choosing to write a Christian depiction “of man’s disobedience of God” and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

The Bible is the inspiration for his great epic, Paradise Lost, and biblical themes of good, evil, the nature of sin, and the power of redemption with true repentance that is available through religion stem from the core of this text. Similarly, Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, based on the Faust legend, explores the pitfalls of the arrogance of knowledge as Faustus signs away his soul to the devil in exchange for the fleeting pleasures of necromancy and magic for a brief 24 years. The play is notable in the way it explores Faustus’s battle with his conscience (imagined as his good and bad angels), and then sketches in moving detail the plight he faces with the prospect of eternal damnation. But more profound is its depiction of Mephistopheles, one of Satan’s chief emissaries, sent to interact with Faustus.

The very origins of British drama can be located in religion in the shape of the medieval miracles and morality plays that featured stories from the Bible and were concerned with moral education. In fact, scholars have traced the origins of fool characters common in Shakespeare back to the portrayal of Satan as a bawdy and buffoonish character in the Morality plays. In the West, religion has been the inspiration for much of its most acclaimed art and architecture, as well as its literature. The work of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo Da Vinci, to name a few of the most acclaimed painters of Renaissance Europe, as well as the most exquisite churches and cathedrals in Europe, owe their origin to the religious impulse. In addition, the church has always been a major patron of the arts, commissioning some of the most profoundly important works, whether they be painting, religious manuscripts/treatises, or the buildings of western civilization. In the Dark Ages in medieval Europe, it was the monks who preserved some of the most valuable books of ancient Greece and Rome by diligently copying them on vellum by hand before the advent of the printing press. Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, and Saint Augustine’s Confessions and The City of God are all intensely religious in content. While Dante presents a complicated three-tier system of the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, an imaginative and allegorical imagining of the afterlife, Augustine’s autobiographical text presents a compelling view of the journey to religion and selfhood. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century, is structured around the tales told by a group of 23 pilgrims on a pilgrimage from London to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Although Chaucer presents a fairly wide cross section of medieval English society from the noble Knight to the humble Yeoman, a majority of the pilgrims, such as the Monk, the Pardoner, the Friar, the Prioress, and the Summoner, among others, belong to the Christian orders. These characters are some of the most interesting in The Canterbury Tales, and Chaucer satirizes corruption among the church’s functionaries through them. Some of the most emotionally resonant wrestling with questions of faith can be found in the metaphysical poetry of 17th-century poets such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and George Herbert, in appeals such as Donne’s “Batter my heart, three personed God” or in Herbert’s poems “The Affliction” and “The Collar.” In 19th-century Victorian literature, the question of faith and doubt that afflicted people after Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species, which declared that man is not made in the image of God but is descended from apes, is a recurring theme. In different ways, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, A. H. H., Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervill es, all express the painful incomprehension and angst of a world suddenly deprived of the certitudes of religion expressed so well in Robert Browning’s “Pippa’s Song”: “God’s in His Heaven— / All’s right with the world” (ll. 7–8).

Religion may seem to have been in slow retreat because of the onslaughts of industrialism, the coming of the railroads, the depopulation of the countryside, the findings of the geologist Charles Lyell and the psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and Karl Marx’s declaration that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” but it nevertheless has continued to preoccupy writers, whether they be poets, novelists, or dramatists. T. S. Eliot’s modernist masterpiece The Wasteland articulates a deep sense of the loneliness and alienation experienced by people lost in the facelessness of the modern metropolis, but it also closes with a heartfelt prayer of “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih,” invoking the ancient mantra of peace from Hindu religious traditions. In his later work “Burnt Norton,” and particularly in his poetic dramas, Eliot turned to religion in his quest for answers to the modern malaise of isolationism and loss of faith. Murder in the Cathedral, his best-known play, centers on the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket and explores with insightful nuances the nature of temptation for one even so deeply steeped in Christ as Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury. Even the desire to martyrdom, as long as it springs from an earthly desire to garner spiritual capital, can be corrupt and compromised. Becket’s union with God can only come once he transcends this greed for spiritual acclaim and annihilates all egotism. Beyond spiritual and ethical explorations, literature also portrays religion as a great source of discord and dissension in the world and thus critiques the violence and fanaticism that results from a narrow-minded adherence to creed. Much of Salman Rushdie’s work, for instance, refers to the violence arising from the conflicts between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India, such as his Midnight’s Children. But the power of religion to inflame passions is most aptly demonstrated through the controversy surrounding the publication of his The Satanic Verses in 1988. The Satanic Verses is a part-fantasy, part-realist novel in which Rushdie presents a fictionalized story related to some apocryphal verses from the Quran, and consequently makes references to the life of Muhammad, the Prophet. The creative liberties taken by the text upset some sections of the Islamic community, which widely condemned it, and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious decree, condemning Rushdie as an infidel. Rushdie went into hiding in fear following much violence involving the publication of this book around the world, and he suffered threats to his life. Countries such as Pakistan and India with large Muslim populations banned the book in the interest of public safety. Religion is a powerful source of both succor and conflict, emerging from the wellsprings of our most deeply human impulses and arousing our most passionate responses. It becomes a lens through which issues of race, ethnicity, and identity are parsed. Literature, in its extraordinary power to mirror and mediate these passions and conflicts, finds both its source and its substance in religion, in the shape of themes, images, symbols, and the very language it uses to appeal to us.

See also Anonymous: Beowulf; Bunyan, John: Pilgrim’s Progress, The; Crane, Stephen: Red Badge of Courage, The; Defoe, Daniel: Robinson Crusoe; Emerson, Ralph Waldo: “Divinity School Address, The”; Faulkner, William: Light in August; Greene, Graham: Heart of the Matter, The; Hawthorne, Nathaniel: Scarlet Letter, The; Young Goodman Brown; Hemingway, Ernest: Farewell to Arms, A; Jefferson, Thomas: Notes on the States of Virginia; Joyce, James: Dubliners; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, A; Lawrence, Jerome, and Robert E. Lee: Inherit the Wind; Melville, Herman: “Bartleby the Scrivener”; Moby-Dick; Molière: Tartuff e; O’Connor, Flannery: “Good Man Is Hard to Find, A”; Wise Blood; Potok, Chaim: Chosen, The; Rowlandson, Mary: Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson; Steinbeck, John: Grapes of Wrath, The; Stowe, Harriet Beecher: Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Twain, Mark: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Winterson, Jeanette: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; Wright, Richard: Black Boy.

4 thoughts on “Literary Religion

  1. The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.. ~William Shakespeare

  2. really enjoying your island. I tried to extend my stay but my hotel is all booked up. I suspect the literary festival.

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