Brief History

Brief history of Religion and Literature in the United States, excerpted from Susan Felch, “Cautionary Tales and Crisscrossing Paths.” Religion & Literature 41.2 (Summer 2009): 98-104.

Before turning to the question, “What ought the field of ‘religion and literature’ to be?,” I would like to consider three institutions that exemplify how North American academics have understood the conjunction of these two terms, “religion” and “literature,” over the past half-century. In 1950, the Divinity School at the University of Chicago established a graduate program in Theology and Literature. That same year, Elva McAllaster, a professor of English at Seattle Pacific College, inaugurated “A Newsletter for Christian Teachers of College English” and developed an informal group of like-minded faculty who eventually organized the Conference on Christianity and Literature (CCL) in 1956. In 1974, when the Modern Language Association underwent a major restructuring, members of the CCL and other interested faculty proposed Religious Approaches to Literature as one of the new formal divisions. In 1976, the division began organizing regular sessions, just a year before the predecessor of this journal, NDEJ: A Journal of Religion in Literature, began publication. The MLA division later changed its name to … “Division on Literature and Religion” in 1997. [It is now a Transdisciplinary Connections (TC) group, the MLA Forum on Religion and Literature.]

These three institutions—a university graduate program, a professional society of Christian teachers, and the Modern Language Association— illustrate three divergent tracks that have crisscrossed the field of religion and literature in the United States over the last half-century. The Divinity School at Chicago and other similar programs traditionally focused on the intersections of Christian theology and spirituality in literature, with a decided preference for cultural studies as the medium where these two interests meet. Influenced initially by the theology of Paul Tillich, scholars have continued to examine the “cultural condition” of human beings, explored parallels in artistic and religious imaginations, and developed new understandings of aesthetics and ethics. For the Conference on Christianity and Literature, the medium where the two fields have met is not so much culture in general as the specific person of the Christian literature professor, as captured by the title of McAllaster’s original newsletter. The CCL has consistently sought to cultivate and encourage academics who are self-consciously confessing Christians. The scholarship published by Christianity and Literature, the journal of the CCL, ranges from close readings of individual texts to adumbrations of critical theory, according to the interests of individual scholars. What unifies such scholarship is both a focus on “how literature engages Christian thought, experience, and practice” and a commitment to “an orthodox understanding of Christianity as a historically defined faith” (Conference on Christianity and Literature). The name of the MLA division, on the other hand, signals a different set of commitments. Calling it neither “Theology and Literature” nor “Christianity and Literature” but rather “Literature and Religion,” the MLA division both foregrounds literary texts and relegates Christianity to one among many world religions. Similarly, the University of Chicago Divinity School subsequently changed its program in Theology and Literature to one in Religion and Literature.