Rethinking the Sacred
For the authors in this issue, experiences of film, literature, and sound are often inseparable from religious experience.
By Ingrid Norton
One early, icy morning last winter, I delivered a reflection at the Memorial Church’s daily prayers service. I read a speech from As You Like It, William Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, in which the exiled duke speaks of smiling even as he shrinks from the winter winds, thinking, “these are counselors / that feelingly persuade me what I am.” It was the week of East Asian Lunar New Year and the height of Catholic pre-Lenten Carnival, with Valentine’s Day soon to come. Invoking the duke, I said that whether facing the drear of February or internal winters of the heart and mind, we should try to find sweetness in adversity through our own private sense of celebration and resistance.1
After the service, a white-haired woman who had sat in the front pew approached me. “Your sermon was so refreshing,” she said. “You’re a theology student—yet what you said was so free of theology.” I thanked her and said something to the effect that, to me, Shakespeare is holy. As I walked out into the glare of day and the melting snow, I wished I’d made the assertion with greater conviction and eloquence. As a writer and an atheist, it feels natural to reach for a literary text when choosing a reading for a sacred setting.
While editing this issue, I found myself thinking about my exchange with that woman. In 1955, speaking about the modernist chapel he had built on the site of a an old church destroyed in the war, the architect Le Corbusier said, “Certain things are sacred and others are not, regardless of whether or not they are religious.” The quote forms the epigraph to Mary Rakow’s This Is Why I Came, reviewed in this issue by Courtney Sender. In her perspicacious essay, Sender muses on what Le Corbusier’s words mean in the context of the Bible stories Rakow retells. Sender is aware that her own sense of the sacredness of these stories comes as much from her identity as a fiction writer as from her identity as a Jew. “I, like Rakow,” Sender writes, “view storytelling—any storytelling, Bible tales or fairytales or tales about the long line at the supermarket—as sacred.”
Many contributors to this issue share this reverence for storytelling and sense of finding the sacred in apparently secular sources. In her essay “Bertha Mason Is Sacred,” Vanessa Zoltan compares the experience of becoming disillusioned with the novel Jane Eyre to the way she felt when she realized she “had gotten engaged to the wrong man.” In “Nostalgia Awakens,” Robert Hensley-King describes seeing the Star Wars trilogy as a child in 1970s England, an experience which gave him the first inkling of his vocation as a film theorist. In “Sci-Fi as a Queer Genre,” Taj Smith describes how The Matrix inspired him to question the world around him and its gender binaries. In “From Silence to Light,” reading early Christian mystics allows Lina Feuerstein to confront her sorrow over her mother’s cancer diagnosis. And in “On Habit,” Michelle Sanchez finds consolation during a year of loss through playing simple hymns as her church’s pianist.
Many of these essays are about rereading as much as about reading, about the way that words, images, and sounds can transport us to other times and other selves. In “Growing into Faith,” Robert Israel meditates on the deep reverberations of his childhood Judaism, taking readers to a poultry market in 1950s Rhode Island that “reeked of blood, sawdust, and burnt feathers.” To this day, whenever he hears the deep blast of the shofar, the ceremonial ram’s horn trumpet, he recites a psalm he first learned as a child: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable unto Thee, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” The Psalms also figure in our cover story, Amy Hollywood’s “Secular Death.” “The Psalms are not my scripture,” Hollywood writes. “But since I was a child I have read religiously, perhaps I have even begun to write that way.” In the Middle Ages, the Psalms, with their array of difficult emotions, such as terror, abnegation, and righteousness, were read and sung to the dying and the bereft. Hollywood’s bracing, beautiful essay implies that in our own era difficult works of art can have a comparable power, especially for those like herself, for whom “Christianity is simply—but there is nothing simple about it—gone.”
These articles suggest that art can offer ways to rethink sacredness both within and beyond the bounds of traditional religion. In Meghan Guidry’s astonishing autobiographical essay, “Mourning the Unknowable,” she reflects on the ways that the fantastical worldview of her mother continued to haunt her long after she began to consider herself an agnostic. Reading Knut Hamsun’s Hunger for the first time—shortly before her mother died—made her “understand something about my relationship with my mother that I had always felt but never been able to express.” Revisiting the novel a decade later, she finds Hamsun’s vision integral to creating her own myth of her mother. In “The Grace of the Lord Jesus Be with All,” Brad Braxton recalls experiencing the depth of pre-Christian religion while reading the New Testament in Africa; years later, the experience inspired him to find a call for religious pluralism in the biblical book of Revelation.
The books, films, music, and scripture that these authors grapple with do not provide simple consolations. Rather, experiencing and creating art is inseparable from the experiences of aging, mourning, remembrance, and transformation described in these pages. The authors and poets in this issue don’t merely describe art’s power; they enact it through the quality and daring of their own writing.
It is, at last, this devotion to an equal measure of rigor and reverence for art and for the act of writing that is special about Harvard Divinity Bulletin as a publication and Harvard Divinity School as an institution. In her review, Courtney Sender notes that when “we say that we ‘suspend our disbelief’ ” we acknowledge “the way that stories entail their own sort of belief.” The essays in this issue suggest that our interaction with stories and with sound calls forth its own theology: artistic, human, and ineffable.
Ingrid Norton, MTS ’16, guest-edited this issue and served as assistant editor of the Bulletin from June 2015 to August 2016. She is an incoming doctoral student in English literature at Princeton University. Her essay “Hungry Ghosts and the Work of Peter Matthiessen” appeared in the Winter/Spring 2016 issue of the Bulletin.