Ambivalent Devotion: Religious Imagination in Contemporary Southern Women's Fiction



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Analyzing novels by Sheri Reynolds, Lee Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and Sue Monk Kidd, I argue that these authors challenge religious structures by dramatizing the struggle between love and resentment that brings many women to the point of crisis but also inspires imaginative and generative processes of appropriation and revision, emphasizing not destination but process. Employing first-person narration in coming-of-age stories, Smith, Reynolds, and Kingsolver highlight the various narratives that govern the experiences of children born into religious cultures, including narratives of sexual development, gender identity, and religious conversion, to portray the difficulty of articulating female experience within the limited lexicon of Christian fundamentalism. As they mature into adulthood, the girl characters in these novels break from tradition to develop new consciousness by altering and adapting religious language, understood as open and malleable rather than authoritative and fixed. Smith, Kidd, and Naylor incorporate the Virgin Mary and divine maternal figures from non-Christian traditions to restore the mother-daughter relationship that is eclipsed by the Father and Son in Christian tradition. Identifying the female body as a site of spiritual knowledge, these authors present a metaphorical return to the womb that empowers their characters to embrace divine maternal love that transgresses the masculine symbolic order, displacing (but not necessarily destroying) the authority of God the Father and His human representatives. Reynolds and Walker portray physical pain, central to the Christian image of crucifixion, as destroying the ability of women to speak, denying them subjectivity. Through transgressive sexual relationships infused with religious significance, these authors disrupt the Christian moral paradigm by presenting bodily pleasure as an alternative to the Christian valorization of sacrifice. The replacement of pain with pleasure inspires imaginative work that makes private spirituality shareable through artistic creation. The novels I study present themes that also concern Christian and non-Christian feminist theologians: the development of feminine images of the divine, emphasis on immanence over transcendence, the apprehension of the divine in nature, and the necessity of challenging the reification of religious images and dualisms that undermine female subjectivity. I show the reciprocal relationship between fiction and theology, as theologians treat women's literature as sacred texts and fiction writers give life to abstract religious concepts through narrative.