Since being an undergraduate student, I have always been fascinated by the interdisciplinary no-(wo)man’s land that seems to exist between Religious Studies and English Studies. I was inspired to think critically about the shifting space of ‘religion’ (taught as an undergraduate by Jeremy Carrette, Richard King, Mary Keller) and how to listen carefully to the conversations I was seeing and imagining across the disciplines. The body of literature within which I witnessed (and still do) these conversations most clearly is postcolonial, and specifically Caribbean, literature. Writers such as Erna Brodber, Wilson Harris, Fred D’Aguiar, Toni Morrison carve literary spaces where questions of ‘critical religion’ are brought into sharp focus whilst, simultaneously, the language of critical religion enabled me to add a crucial layer to readings of their work:
“ – I have been bad from the beginning. I had better pray that the Lord Jesus enter in and cleanse me.
– but she wouldn’t let him enter in the right form or through the right door. He could only come as the baby Jesus, into her uterus, fully nine months, curled up fetal [sic] fashion and ready to be delivered at any time”
Erna Brodber MYAL a novel, (London: New Beacon Books, 1988): 84.
The term ‘religious’ is too opaque and loaded with cultural motifs and stereotypes that usually say more about the descriptor than what is being described, and it is therefore analytically redundant. I often find that creative writing provides a bridge across the sticky quagmire of daily rhetoric; it can highlight ‘what is really at stake’ (when I was a postgraduate student, Mary Keller would always ask me ‘what is at stake here?’ What are we fighting for? What is at risk? What are we really asking?). Toni Morrison’s character Beloved (the resurrected baby murdered by her slave mother to save her from a life of slavery, who returns from the dead but slowly consumes her mother) and Erna Brodber’s Ella (a young woman possessed by colonisation, which manifests as a swelling in her body that she believes is Jesus Christ in foetal form) demand responses that avoid the pitfalls of vague descriptors such as religious or spiritual. Beloved and Ella demand a more sophisticated response that engages with the historical and embodied journey that such terminology has been on, and that refutes an exclusively European Enlightenment model of knowing and seeing. Characters such as Beloved (and Ella) bridge the physical and metaphysical world with history on their shoulders; she is an embodiment of slavery, she is an embodiment of a traumatised people, suffocated at birth to exist as ghostly remnants of their true selves; she is a religious body. The discourse of critical religion opens up a vivid reading of characters such as Beloved, but this is a two way conversation; characters such as Beloved, and Erna Brodber’s Ella, exemplify what is at stake within a critical religion framework and enable us to use a terminology of religion with certitude and focus.
I am the author of the monograph, Memory and Myth: Postcolonial Religion in Contemporary Guyanese Fiction and Poetry (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009). I am also author of a review article on The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvior (Literature and Theology, 2008 22(3): 368-371), and article “Re-imagining the Sacred in Caribbean Literature” in Literature and Theology: New Interdisciplinary Spaces edited by Heather Walton (Surrey: Ashgate, 2011). I am an Associate Editor for Literature and Theology Journal (Oxford University Press), and worked with Alison Jasper as Assistant Reviews Editor for the journal for a number of years.
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