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Dave Astor

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Religion in Novels Is Better Than Religion in Politics!

Posted: 03/ 9/2012 2:12 pm

As some right-wing Republicans try to narrow the gap between church and state, I'd rather discuss church and book. And synagogue and book. And mosque and book.

Yes, many novels have religious content that dominates a book or at least adds a small thread to its tapestry. Some of these novels take a jaundiced view of religion, while others treat it more kindly. But the best religion-infused books can be enjoyed by the devout and atheists alike.

Given that I'm someone who believes religion can sometimes do more harm than good, one of my favorite religion-themed novels is Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry (1927) -- whose title character is a charismatic, unethical, womanizing preacher.

On the other hand, you have a book like Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (2004) that features a sincere man of faith you'd love to have as a next-door neighbor. He's the Reverend John Ames, whose father and grandfather were reverends, too.

Not surprisingly, Elmer Gantry is the more interesting novel -- interesting enough to have inspired a 1960 movie starring Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons (as evangelist Sharon Falconer). I don't expect the borderline-boring Gilead to become a film during any HuffPost visitor's lifetime (or afterlife).

Then there's the nasty, racist, sexist missionary dad in Barbara Kingsolver's masterful The Poisonwood Bible (1998). Nathan Price is a man who embodies some of the worst aspects of organized religion.

A nicer guy with a missionary calling appears in the latter part of Charlotte Bronte's iconic Jane Eyre (1847). St. John Rivers is a driven and doctrinaire Christian, but basically a good man.

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is not a religious book, but that fabulous 1939 novel does feature the significant secondary character of Jim Casy (same initials as Jesus Christ!). Jim, as someone who preaches a form of liberation theology, identifies with the oppressed have-nots -- as Jesus is said to have done. Very different than today's Republican theology!

Other novels with at least some Christian content? Henry Fielding's delightful Joseph Andrews (1742), which co-stars Parson Abraham Adams; Denis Diderot's controversial Le Religieuse (The Nun) (1796); Jane Austen's wonderful Pride and Prejudice (1813), with its foolish clergyman William Collins; and Sir Walter Scott's compelling Ivanhoe (1820), set at the time of the brutal Crusades.

Also: Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic The Scarlet Letter (1850), featuring the guilt-ridden Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale; Mark Twain's fascinating Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896); and Umberto Eco's superb The Name of the Rose (1980), in which 14th-century friar William of Baskerville investigates deaths at a monastery.

Despite the title of Their Eyes Were Watching God, there's little mention of organized religion in Zora Neale Hurston's absorbing novel. But that 1937 book does contain plenty of spirituality in a folklore sort of way.

Novels with Jewish religious themes and characters also abound. They include Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Family Moskat (1950), Bernard Malamud's mesmerizing The Fixer (1966), Chaim Potok's The Chosen (1967) and his two Asher Lev books, and Harry Kemelman's dozen Rabbi Small novels published between 1964 and 1996.

Among the novels that include some Muslim characters with religious aspects are J.M.G. Le Clezio's haunting Desert (1980) and Khaled Hosseini's gripping The Kite Runner (2003). The latter book's believers include humane characters (such as Hassan) and inhumane zealots (such as sadistic Taliban leader Assef).

Then there are football novels like Peter Gent's North Dallas Forty (1973). Yup, for some people, the NFL is almost a religion!

Lord knows, I've only covered the tip of the iceberg here. What are your favorite novels with at least some religious themes and characters?