Gift of Story, The: Narrating Hope in a Postmodern World

Gift of Story, The: Narrating Hope in a Postmodern World

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781932792478
Publisher: Baylor University Press
Publication date: 03/01/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 6.00(d)

About the Author

Emily Griesinger is Professor of English at Azusa Pacific University.

Mark A. Eaton is Associate Professor of English at Azusa Pacific University.

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The Gift of Story
Narrating Hope in a Postmodern World

Baylor University Press
Copyright © 2006 Baylor University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-932792-47-8

Chapter One
Inventing Hope The Question of Belief in Don DeLillo's Novels Mark Eaton Out of some persistent sense of large-scale ruin, we keep inventing hope. -Don DeLillo, White Noise "When the Old God leaves the world," one character muses in Don DeLillo's Mao II (1991), "what happens to all the unexpended faith?" (7). Posing the question in this way, the character seems to imply retrenchment or at least a transmutation of faith since the proverbial death of God. Belief in the Old God, he suggests, has been lost, redirected, changed. Yet the widespread assumption that religious belief has diminished due to a gradual process of secularization has proved to be quite mistaken, for although belief has clearly faced a formidable adversary in secularism, it has stubbornly refused to go away. On the contrary, the United States remains arguably the most religious nation on earth, and we are currently witnessing a remarkable resurgence of belief in many parts of the world. If DeLillo's character voices here what religion scholars have dubbed the "secularization thesis"-the now discredited notion that the world has been undergoing widespread secularization since the Enlightenment-he still poses an important question about how faith has been shaped by undeniably secularizing forces that, while they failed to stamp out religious belief altogether, nonetheless altered the context in which beliefs are held, if not their actual content.

DeLillo's novels are indeed preoccupied-even obsessed-with what we might call the "question of belief." And the question of belief seems like just the right phrase, too, for belief in DeLillo's fiction is always attenuated by doubt. Whether his characters are challenging a positivist belief in the reality of the natural world or trying to hold onto their belief in some supernatural realm, belief in anything seems precarious at best, provisional or untenable at worst. Above all, DeLillo has managed to capture in his fiction something essential yet paradoxical about belief: where there is belief, there is likely to be some measure, however small, of doubt.

Thus, belief and doubt come to seem less like opposites than two sides of the same coin, mutually constitutive of each other in a kind of cognitive dialectic. Although DeLillo arguably underestimates the persistence of belief in the Old God, as demonstrated in the quotation above, his novels still provide a largely accurate picture of the many dispensations of belief that actually proliferated rather than disappeared in the late twentieth century. What happened to all the unexpended faith, in other words, is that it was redirected into new forms of religiosity or else displaced onto otherwise secular apprehensions of reality, such that the materialistic scientific worldview is infused with a nagging doubt about the adequacy of that worldview to explain all phenomena. In DeLillo's remarkable novel White Noise (1985), the range of beliefs includes not only evangelical Christianity but also Eastern religions like Islam and Buddhism, as well as "a flood of unorthodox spiritualities" frequently grouped under the rubric of New Age religions (McClure 142). After first examining the representations of religious and other beliefs in White Noise, I will return to the question of belief in Mao II, as well as in DeLillo's later novel Underworld (1997). Together these novels develop a searching exploration of the permutations of unexpended faith. DeLillo has created a body of work that not only inventories the range of beliefs in the current religious scene but also reveals the uncanny interpenetration of the sacred and the profane in contemporary culture. Throughout these novels, DeLillo maps out the contours of "a new religious America" marked by an unprecedented range of spiritual options. And "nowhere," Diana Eck has observed, "is the sheer range of religious faith as wide as it is today in the United States" (4-5).

Besides registering the range of religious traditions, DeLillo's novels also represent the ways in which beliefs are influenced by the consumerist ethos of postmodern culture as well as by other faiths. Conversely, the author expertly shows how secular individuals still inevitably search for alternative means of spiritual fulfillment or find traces or "rumors" of the supernatural, as Peter Berger has said, everywhere they look. Critics have often noted the ways in which DeLillo's fine-tuned fictional worlds disclose a "sense of transcendence that lies just beyond" even the most mundane aspects of everyday life, or what the author himself once described as "a kind of radiance in dailiness." "Sometimes this radiance can be almost frightening," DeLillo once remarked. "Other times it can be almost holy or sacred" (qtd. in DeCurtis 63). This sense of a residual radiance or transcendence in everyday life is a surprising outcome of the larger historical transformations that have affected both belief and religion in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. DeLillo's interest in the possibility of transcendence is inseparable from his diagnosis of a rampant fear of death in contemporary culture, which is exacerbated by the loss of faith in an afterlife. Hence, to explore the question of belief in DeLillo's work necessarily involves one in larger questions of eschatology. Secular approaches to DeLillo's novels tend to miss his point about the diffusion of unexpended faith into all sorts of religious and metaphysical systems. His novels provide a kind of case study of how religious belief not only persists but indeed has expanded in our supposedly secular postmodern era. By approaching these novels from the perspective of religious studies, we can gain a deeper understanding of the vicissitudes of belief in Don DeLillo's America.

Postmodern Melancholia

Doubt is as old as faith, of course, and yet the nature of doubt has changed since the advent of modernity. Once viewed as the opposite of belief and punishable by death, unbelief has become in the modern era an inescapable shadow of belief itself. That shadow may be light or dark on a gray continuum, but it indicates the ever-present possibility of ineffable despair. As the philosopher Charles Taylor eloquently writes, a postmodern melancholia of unbelief arises,

in a world where the guarantee of meaning has gone, where all the traditional sources, theological, metaphysical, historical, can be cast in doubt. It therefore has a new shape: not the sense of rejection and exile from an unchallengeable cosmos of significance, but rather the intimation of what may be a definitive emptiness, the final dawning of the end of the last illusion of significance. It hurts, one might say, in a new way." (Varieties of Religion Today 39-40)

Painful as it may be to contemplate, the notion that there is nothing more than what we can see here and now has emerged not only as a distinct possibility, but as a bedrock assumption of the ascendant, materialist worldview.

In the modern context, agnosticism became a viable if not the dominant intellectual position, and the notion of transcendence in turn has lost credibility. "As Christianity came under pressure from Enlightenment rationality," Andrew Delbanco argues similarly, "the idea of transcendence ... detached itself from any coherent symbology," leaving many people with a "lurking suspicion that all our getting and spending amounts to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait for death" (5, 3). Certainly "many people appear to have become completely indifferent to religious and philosophical questions," yet even with the ascendancy of science, "there has been no wholesale rejection of the possibility of belief" (M. Taylor 4; Roof 48). On the contrary, faith remains absolutely central to many people's lives and is clearly on the rise throughout much of the world. There is no question that the so-called secularization thesis-the view that Enlightenment rationalism would ultimately supersede religion altogether-has been decisively challenged by historians of religion, who point to the spread of evangelical Christianity in particular as evidence for the resilience and vitality of belief despite the challenges of modernity and postmodernity (Berger; Jenkins).

DeLillo's novels grapple with big questions like the existence of God, the meaning of life, and what happens after death. His interest in such questions, one suspects, has more than a little to do with his Catholic upbringing. With its heavy emphasis on eschatology, Catholicism is an obvious subtext to Jack Gladney's obsession with death and the afterlife. "I think there is a sense of last things in my work that probably comes from a Catholic childhood," DeLillo admits. "For a Catholic, nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he's raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn't live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain" (qtd. in Duvall 9). DeLillo's characters tend to struggle on their own with such questions, however, without the benefit of older certainties, much less catechisms. This disadvantage helps account for the comic pessimism that is a hallmark of DeLillo's style. Elsewhere he talks about the origins of that style: "There's a sensibility, a sense of humor, ... a sort of dark approach to things that's part New York, and maybe part growing up Catholic" (qtd. in Remnick 45). The combination of foreboding and humor helps account for DeLillo's ability to make even his protagonist's fear of death, if not of eternal damnation, extremely funny. Having abandoned any traditional belief in the afterlife, for instance, Jack finds himself terrified of death: "I woke in the grip of a death sweat. Defenseless against my own racking fears. A pause at the center of my being" (White Noise 47). Cut off from any religious community or tradition of faith, DeLillo's characters are terrified of what may happen when they have shuffled off their mortal coils. If Hamlet worried about what dreams may come in the sleep of death, however, at least he could envision the afterlife as a nightmare. For Jack Gladney, death may well be simply oblivion.

Fear of death in DeLillo's characters is often accompanied by either a total lack of belief or a wildly indiscriminate belief that in its very superficiality resembles unbelief. Jack's German teacher, for instance, is another lapsed Catholic who turned away from God and religion after his mother's untimely death: "I collapsed totally, lost my faith in God. I was inconsolable, withdrew completely into myself" (White Noise 55). Such solipsism ultimately leaves him feeling unfulfilled, however, and he turns, of all places, to "weather reports on TV" for solace. Here at least are predictions of the weather delivered with such "self-assurance and skill" that they become a substitute religion. "I realized weather was something I'd been looking for all my life," he says with the enthusiasm of a recent convert. "It brought me a sense of peace and security I'd never experienced" (55). The man's comment reveals not only that meteorology has replaced religion, but that all religions are subject to the demand for therapeutic self-fulfillment: if they do not meet the need for "peace and security," the adherent will simply turn elsewhere.

No one embodies the consumerist, therapeutic approach to religion more fully, however, than Jack's colleague Murray Siskind, who apparently espouses the Buddhist belief that death is merely "a waiting period" or "transitional state between death and rebirth" (37). Death is a time, Murray assures Jack's wife Babette (Bee), when "the soul restores itself to some of the divinity lost at birth" (37). Death is, therefore, not unlike the supermarket where Bee and Murray meet in one memorable scene: "This place recharges us spiritually. Look how bright. It's full of psychic data" (37). Like the supermarket, death appears to Murray to be a mere formality, a way of changing channels. Metempsychosis appeals to him in part because he has rejected the Judeo-Christian afterlife, a tradition much closer to his roots than Buddhism. How reincarnation is any easier to swallow for someone who is otherwise a materialist is beside the point. Murray is the kind of person for whom, when it comes to religion, the more exotic and outlandish it is, the better. And indeed Murray feels that all theories of the afterlife are more or less interchangeable so long as they provide some comfort in the here and now: "[O]nce we stop denying death, we can proceed calmly to die and then go on to experience uterine rebirth or Judeo-Christian afterlife or out-of-body experience or a trip on a UFO or whatever we wish to call it" (38). Murray's anything-goes approach to religion exemplifies a universalism that is quite prevalent nowadays. Babette also seeks to assuage her own fear of death through familiarizing herself with various religious traditions, first consulting a "Sikh holy man in Iron City" and then reading up on "the occult" to see what it has to offer (192). Ultimately, Babette takes part in an experimental clinical trial for the drug Dylar because she is promised that it "could eliminate the fear of death" (251).

This obsession with death, or more accurately with what happens to us when we die, becomes more eschatological after the airborne toxic event spreads panic throughout the town of Blacksmith and beyond. During the environmental disaster at the heart of the novel, Christian millennialism comes to the fore as the Gladney family encounters a "rangy man with sparse hair" in a suit and tie and running shoes shouting, "God's kingdom is coming" (135). Like countless millennial prophets before him, the man sees signs of the second coming in current events. Despite his own doubts about what happens after death, Jack cannot help but think that the notion of Armageddon is a bit hard to swallow: "I wondered about his eerie self-assurance, his freedom from doubt" (137). "Is this the point of Armageddon?" Jack wonders. "No ambiguity, no more doubt? ... I did not feel Armageddon in my bones but I worried about all those people who did, who were ready for it, wishing hard, making phone calls and bank withdrawals" (137). In an age of modern science, when industrial accidents are real and "airborne toxic events" can occur without warning, it takes a kind of fanaticism to see any cosmic forces at work in what are clearly man-made perils. In another version of millennialism, Jack's older son Heinrich becomes "practically giddy ... with some kind of end-of-the-world elation" (123). Indeed, the black billowing cloud threatening Blacksmith attains a kind of sublimity despite its toxicity: "Our fear was accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious" (127). Facing the prospect of death by industrial rather than natural disaster, or "death made in the laboratory," one felt that the cloud itself was a "cosmic force" (127). So the fear of death and the sense of helplessness before technological or cosmic forces leave DeLillo's characters grasping for whatever religious or other belief systems have to offer. It is no wonder that a family of black Jehovah's Witnesses handing out tracts at the shelter for evacuees "seemed to have no trouble finding willing recipients and listeners" (132). Similarly, the toxic event unleashes a frenzy of speculation about what caused it and what side effects exposure to the chemical will cause, yet such speculation often makes no pretense of being factual or even plausible: "People spun tales, others listened spellbound.... We were no closer to believing or disbelieving a given story than we had been earlier. But there was a greater appreciation ... [for] our own ability to manufacture awe" (153).

This willingness to believe almost anything-amounting to a kind of group hysteria-also helps explain why DeLillo's characters are susceptible to charismatic leaders and cults. As John Duvall points out, "DeLillo has long been fascinated with crowds and people's collective urge to be part of something larger than themselves, to surrender to a power that would help explain the felt alienation of their lives and to protect them from a recognition of their own mortality" (15). DeLillo clearly understands our human need for some higher purpose in life, some reason to hope for a better future, at a time when the world offers plenty of reasons to despair. That's why his characters desperately cling to belief as a means of "inventing hope" in the midst of the seeming chaos and confusion of our postmodern era. His novels highlight some of the bizarre, but surely understandable, strategies people use to create meaning, or as Delbanco aptly puts it, "to hold back the melancholy suspicion that we live in a world without meaning" (3).


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Table of Contents




Section 1: The Postmodern Condition

1. Inventing Hope: The Question of Belief in Don DeLillo's Novels, Mark Eaton

2. Voices from Within: Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, and Roberta Bondi, Anne-Marie Bowery

3. Time for Hope: The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, Memento, and Twelve Monkeys, D. Brent Laytham

4. Beyond Futility: American Beauty and the Book of Ecclesiastes, Robert K. Johnston

Section 2: The Valley of Despair

5. Prosaic Grace: Doris Betts's Souls Raised from the Dead, Martha Greene Eads

6. Narrative Bones: Amy Tan's Bonesetter's Daughter and Hugh Cook's Homecoming Man, Elaine Lux

7. Hope from a Radio: Jurek Becker's Jakob the Liar , Eric Sterling

8. Friendship and Hope: Elie Wiesel's The Town Beyond the Wall, Carole J. Lambert

Section 3: Resisting the Night

9. A Passion for the Impossible: Richard Rorty, John Okada, and James Baldwin, Harold K. Bush, Jr.

10. The Prophetic Burden: James Baldwin as a Latter-Day Jeremiah, Kelvin Beliele

11. Reconciliation and Hope: Confessional Narratives in South Africa, Susan Van Zanten Gallagher

Section 4: Adversity and Grace

12. Hope in Hard Times: Moments of Epiphany in Illness Narratives, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

13. Geographies of Hope: Kathleen Norris and David Lynch, Kevin L. Cole

14. Attunement and Healing: The Fisher King, Michael B. Herzog

15. The Gift of Grace: Isak Dinesen's Babette's Feast, Maire Mullins

Section 5: Hope and the Imagination

16. The Redress of Imagination: Bernard MacLaverty's Grace Notes, Barry Sloan

17. The Search for "Deeper Magic": J. K. Rowling and C. S. Lewis, Emily Griesinger

18. J. R. R. Tolkien: Postmodern Visionary of Hope, Ralph C. Wood

Works Cited

List of Contributors

What People are Saying About This

Will Katerberg

The Gift of Story addresses a vital theme—that of Hope—in contemporary fiction, film, and philosophy, focusing on the Christian tradition as a response to the "postmodern" climate of fragmented hopes and fears at the turn of the twenty-first century. The book's essays find surprising expressions of hope in the novels and movies they examine, and are themselves efforts to find and express hope.

Stephen T. Davis

Written from a realistic and well-informed Christian perspective, the authors—whose eyes are open to the tragedies and contradictions of life—make a convincing case that narrative can be a gift, a gift that even engenders hope. The book is incisive, provocative, and heartening.

Paul J. Wadell

The Gift of Story powerfully illustrates the need for "grand stories" that offer a sense of purpose, meaning, and direction to life, and the costs incurred when we try to live without them. The authors demonstrate that hope is as much a discipline as it is a gift, and that it is impossible to sustain hope apart from courage, love, and imagination. Original, compelling, and very engaging, The Gift of Story reveals that there is a depth and resilience to hope that optimism inherently lacks.

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