CFP: American Deconversion Narratives, ASA, Nov. 21-24, 2013 (1/5/13)

Deconversion narratives are becoming increasingly visible in American culture: recent films by Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) and Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) chronicle a character’s involvement with, and eventual departure from a new religious movement; former Pentecostal minister and staunch atheist Jerry Dewitt has been touring the country sharing his deconversion experience and offering assistance to those who are “recovering from religion.” These recent developments compliment a long history of deconversion narratives in American literature, which includes work by Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Lee Smith, Chaim Potok, Mary McCarthy, and Mary Rowlandson. What do these narratives, and others like them, tell us about the position and influence of religions in the United States? As the position and influence of religions has changed, how have deconversion narrative transformed? How do cultural producers use these narratives to present new identities and secure membership in different communities? How are elements of religious practices that are left behind recuperated and re-imagined to accommodate new identities and communities? Papers may consider any historical period and any medium.

The 2013 American Studies Association conference will be held Nov. 21-24 in Washington, D.C. Please submit abstracts (300 words), a brief bio, and a c.v. to Andrew Connolly ( by January 5.

Review of Preston Allen's Jesus Boy

Jesus Boy
Preston L. Alllen
New York: Akashic, 2010.

Author Bio
Allen was born in Hondorus, but moved to the U.S. with his family when he was three. His family started in Staten Island, moved to Boston, and finally to Miami where he attended middle school and high school.

His family attended Holiness churches, though he is reluctant to offer too many details about what kind of Holiness churches.

Allen received his MFA from Florida International University, and his Creative thesis is titled “The Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters.” Since Allen has indicated he began Jesus Boy when he was around 16, it is possible that this thesis contains early versions of what ended up in Jesus Boy. He currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Miami Dade College.

Jesus Boy is Allen’s sixth book. Five of those books are novels. His short story collection, Churchboys and Other Sinners (2002) won the Sonja H. Stone Prize in Fiction. Some passages in the collection are identical to passages in Jesus Boy. Allen is also an active blogger and frequently discusses religion.

Plot Description
Jesus Boy spans somewhere between 10-15 years and recounts the affair of Elwyn Parker and Sister Elaine Morrisohn. When the affair begins, in 1979, Elwyn is just 16 while Elaine is 42. While Elwyn is wracked by guilt as the affair begins, Elaine is not, instead taking pleasure in their encounters and asserting that the Faithful of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters, a predominantly black Holiness church in Florida, are simply too strict.

Eventually the couple are found out by Elwyn’s family. Despite his family’s efforts to end the affair, the couple continue to see each other, and even plan to get married until Elwyn’s grandmother reveals that Elaine’s dead husband, Buford, is actually Elwyn’s grandfather. Even though there is no blood relationship between Elwyn and Elaine, the connection  is enough to scare him away from marrying her. He does not, however, end their affair.

When Elwyn goes away to college he experiences a crisis of faith from which he never fully recovers. In large part, this crisis is a result of his inability to reconcile his affair with his faith. Elaine, though she still attends church, is unconcerned as long as Elwyn continues to see her. He does this despite marrying another woman.

In the end, Elaine passes away and Elwyn sits by her deathbed, still unsure about how to feel about her, their relationship, and his faith.

The novel also contains many subplots and one major flashback. One of the more important subplots features Peachie, Elwyn’s first love, who marries Elwyn’s rival Barry. While Barry starts a church and television ministry with fluctuating success, he cheats on his wife and beats her. Eventually, they separate. Peachie and Elwyn remain friends even after Elaine dies. In the flashback, Buford has an affair while married to his first wife. This flashback story has striking similarities to the story of Gabriel in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.

The novel ends with a kind of epilogue, where Elwyn has become a womanizing car salesman who specializes in selling cars to preachers. He becomes dissatisfied with selling, and in an act of kindness, makes reparations to a woman who purchases a damaged vehicle. Though he no longer attends church, he frequently quotes scripture to himself, sometimes ironically and even criticizes contemporary believers for their lack of commitment. Clearly haunted by his religious upbringing, Elwyn finds a way to salvage part of it: he begins to believe that God is love. He does not begin attending church again, nor does he leave his position at the dealership (despite threatening to), but he has found a belief he can build on.

Pentecostal Elements
Unlike some of the other memoirs and novels, Jesus Boy makes a sharp distinction between Holiness churches and Pentecostal ones. It is an important reminder that, while in some areas and churches the terms are used interchangeably, that is not always the case.

While Elwyn is at college, he meets Donna and her father, whom he refers to as “Holy Rollers.” Elwyn attends their church and discovers the real difference between Holiness and Pentecostal churches is “the noise. The Rollers used tambourines and drums along with their piano and organ” (210). Of course, that is not the only difference. There is some implication that the Pentecostals engage in speaking in tongues and other ecstatic experiences far more often than the Faithful of the Holiness church. Elwyn sees all of this as showboating.

This does not mean that Holiness believers never engage in ecstatic religious experiences. During a Holiness tent meeting, one of the female believers is slain in the spirit and trembles as the ushers carry her to the back of the church. Various other members cry and pray. Eventually, a white minister who is at the meeting grabs the microphone, speaks in tongues, and runs out of the tent. No interpretation/translation follows. The event startles the other participants at the meeting, but they all seem to interpret it as a miracle. Furthermore, it is interesting that the man is identified simply as the “white man" by the characters. Although his presence points to the multi-ethnic nature of the Holiness church (reinforced in other passages), the constant focus on his race indicates that white members are still a minority.

Even more than these instances of ecstatic religious experience, the constant references to the Holy Spirit moving on/in/over people bears a strong relationship to Pentecostal churches. While it begins in church services, characters begin to use it as an ironic metaphor for sex.

Critical Response
Julia Scheeres of The New York Times praises Allen for exploring the sexy side of church, and the crisis of faith this causes, without turning its characters into caricatures.  This is consistent with other brief reviews of the novel (Bancroft; “Books;” Coan).

O Magazine listed the novel as one of its “Ten More Books to Read,” describing it as an “African-American Romeo and Juliet,as played out in a devout Christian community.” This description was no doubt guided by the publishers description of the Elwyn and Elaine as “the star-crossed African-American Romeo and Juliet” (Akashic). also provides a reading guide with 20 questions about the novel.

An excerpt fromt he novel appears in the Spring 2010 issue of Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire.

To date there has been no scholarly response to the novel.

Works Cited/Consulted
Allen, Preston. Churchboys and Other Sinners. Durham: Carolina Wren P, 2002.

--. “Preston Allen’s Biography.” Red Room. Web. 13 Sept. 2012.

Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Bancroft, Collette. Rev. of Jesus Boy. St. Petersburg Times 17 Oct. 2010. 5L.

“Books; Briefly.” Rev. of Jesus Boy. The International Herald Tribune. 15 May 2010. 22.

Coan, Jim. Rev. of Jesus Boy. Library Journal 135. 7 (Apr 15, 2010): 72.

“Jesus Boy.” Akashic Books. Web. 13 Sept. 2012.

“Reading Questions for Jesus Boy.”, 2010. Web. 13 Sept. 2012.

“Reading Room.” O, The Oprah Magazine 11 (1 June 2010): 111.

Review of James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain
James Baldwin
New York: Knopf, 1953.

Author Bio
The novel is divided into five sections. In the opening James Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem. His mother left his biological father when Baldwin was still young. Three years later she married David Baldwin, a part-time Baptist preacher. The elder Baldwin was particularly harsh on the future writer. Essays like “Notes of a Native Son” and, arguably, the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, feature Baldwin trying to come to terms with his step-father.

In his early teens, Baldwin converted to Pentecostalism and became a celebrated young preacher. He discusses his experiences in the Fireside Pentecostal Church in a several pieces, including “Down at the Cross,” which appears in The Fire Next Time. In that essay, he describes both his attraction to the “excitement” of the church, and his eventual disillusionment when he realizes he can fake it.

This wasn’t the only factor in his rejection of the church at age 17. In “Down at the Cross” and several other essays, Baldwin accuses the black church of making false promises, especially that of “safety,” which it cannot keep. Though he never fully rejected Christianity entirely, even describing himself as “born again” in a 1979 essay (“Open Letter” 784), Baldwin was a frequent critic of the church in both his fiction and essays. He was particularly critical of racism in the “white church,” and attacked what he called “the white God” who sanctioned slavery.

Baldwin had connections to several writers and artists who influenced his work, including Beauford Delaney, Countee Cullen, and Richard Wright. The latter relationship was a tumultuous one as a result of Baldwin’s pointed critiques of Wright’s work.

Baldwin’s relationship with the civil rights movements was also strained because of his sexuality. Baldwin was an openly gay man who wrote about explicitly queer sex in his fiction as early as his second novel, Giovanni’s Room. Many civil rights leaders, especially those connected to the black power movement, rejected Baldwin because of his sexuality.

Baldwin passed away in 1987. At his funeral, a tape recording of the writer singing “Precious Lord” was played, a lasting tribute to his fraught relationship with Christianity, especially Holiness/Pentecostal Christianity. He published seven different novels, two plays, and numerous essays and short stories. Go Tell It on the Mountain is his first novel.

Plot Description
The novel is divided into five sections. In the opening section, John is celebrating his 14th birthday. As a poor, African-American boy in 1930s Harlem, he feels trapped between the debilitating life he sees his father, Gabriel, living, and the life of excess he imagines white Americans enjoying. Gabriel is a part-time preacher and part-time laborer. To celebrate his birthday, he uses the money his mother gives him to go to a movie theatre, which only highlights the life he wants, but feels is unavailable to him. When he returns home he finds his parents, Gabriel and Elizabeth, fighting after his brother was injured in a street fight. Later, John goes to the church to get ready for an evening prayer service. There, he talks with Elisha, whom he is secretly attracted to. The rest of the congregation, including his family, filter into the church and the service begins.

The middle three sections of the novel are the “prayers” of three of John’s family members. They fill in John’s familial heritage. His Aunt Florence’s chapter reveals that she left the south, and her mother, to find a better life in the north. She married a man named Frank who eventually leaves her for another woman. In the present, she is still grieving the loss and torn about the possibility of giving into the church, and her brother, Gabriel, as a means of dealing with her grief. His father’s chapter tells the story of Gabriel’s conversion and career as a minister. Though Gabriel is very successful and committed to a “holiness” life, he eventually succumbs to his desire for a woman who is not his wife. The woman becomes pregnant, and although Gabriel is able to hide it, the failure starts a debilitating downward spiral that he endures even in the present. His mother’s chapter reveals that Gabriel is actually John’s step-father. John’s biological father, Richard, never marries his mother. Instead, they lived together until Richard commits suicide, suffering the emotional trauma of racially motivated police brutality.

The final section is John’s conversion. At the end of the prayer meeting, John is slain by the spirit and has an intense vision of racial violence. When he comes to, it is already morning and he declares himself saved. Although Gabriel is skeptical, the other characters support his conversion and rejoice with him.

Pentecostal Elements
Clarence Hardy has identified the church in the novel as a Black Holiness church. The Black Holiness movement is very similar to African-American Pentecostal churches, though some slight differences exist. In the novel, there are a number of ecstatic experiences. Elisha speaks in tongues, John is slain in the spirit, etc. Beyond this, there are some crucial Pentecostal theological ideas, including an emphasis on spiritual anointing and power. Consistent with Holiness churches, there is also reference to sanctification, which is downplayed in some Pentecostal denominations. The novel also engages with Black Holiness Theodicy, theology pertaining to African-American suffering, particularly slavery.

Critical Response
There is a wealth of scholarly criticism on Baldwin’s novel, far too much to summarize here. Instead, I will highlight a particular controversy amongst critics and a few interesting studies that address the specific religious content of the novel.

Much of the scholarly work on Go Tell It on the Mountain addresses John’s conversion experience. Some scholars have read it has a legitimate conversion into the Black Holiness tradition (Gibson; Coleman; Lynch; Lundén, etc.), though some in this group see this as a negative because of the sacrifices John will have to make, including suppressing his homoerotic desire (Powers; Cobb; Scruggs; Hardy, etc.). On the other hand, critics have also argued that John does not experience any kind of conversion and, instead, maintains a kind of status quo (Olson; Fabre; Nagueyalti; O’Neale; etc.). These are only two extremes in the critical controversy. Numerous critics have argued that John is able to find the “compromise” he is looking for at the beginning of the book, combining elements of the Black Holiness tradition with the white world he envies, enabling him to explore his sexuality while simultaneously participating in a “new” religion (Robinson; Macebuth; Dixon; etc.). Still others have suggested that the conversion is simply a metaphor for John’s acceptance of a gay identity (Csapó), his entrance into adulthood (Allen), or even the birth of a rejuvenated Civil Rights movement (Norman).

Both Peter Kerry Powers and Angelo Robinson look at the way Pentecostal/Holiness attitudes towards the body and desire, particularly homoerotic desire are portrayed in the novel. Robinson concludes that “John is not ‘cured,’ ‘healed,’ or ‘delivered’ from his sexual desire during his rebirth; he is rather ‘restored’ to confront the reality of his sexual desires while at the same time claiming the promise of salvation in that reality” (349). Powers provides a much closer analysis of the tension between bodily desire and responsibility to the religious community, and how they are brought together through confession in the Black Holiness church and in Baldwin’s novel. Powers suggests that “while John’s conversion bridges the gulf of separation between self and others in the formation of community, it does so only by maintaining a gulf inside John himself between public role and private desire…. John’s desire, finally, is still a love that dare not speak its name” (806). So, while both critics are aware of the religious context of the novel, they both make very different conclusions about John’s conversion, and how it impacts his homoerotic desire; for Powers, John must hide his desire in order to be part of the religious community, while for Angelo, the conversion experience gives John the ability to live as an openly gay, saved black man.

Clarence Hardy’s James Baldwin’s God is the most comprehensive examination of the Holiness context of Baldwin’s work. He sees a progression in Baldwin’s work, in which the rejection of the Holiness movement “takes its initial shape in Go Tell It and his early short stories and then crystallizes most notably in his later fiction and essays, where he adopts a less sanguine view of his personal conversion experience” (xiii). This puts Baldwin’s first novel in a particularly interesting place. Baldwin’s objections to the church that he later expresses in The Fire Next Time are present in the novel, but not as harsh, and seem to be partially balanced by some redeeming qualities. The result is that Go Tell It on the Mountain embodies some of the tensions described above. In his chapter on Go Tell It on the Mountain, Hardy explores the tension between the links to African religions and racist theology in John’s conversion, as well as the tension between the “safety” offered in the church and the oppression and despair that “safety” costs. He draws on sources related to African rituals, anthropological and sociological studies of Holiness and Pentecostal churches, as well as historical information about the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North to conclude that, in Baldwin’s earlier works, “the church is depicted as a repository of illusions that attempts but fails to ward off the possibilities of human secular activity and pleasures” (7). John’s conversion, meanwhile, “can be seen as the entrance of a new member into an adult community, with all the status that it implies, or as an opportunity for a broader group to exercise social control on its individual members” (10). Hardy’s analysis of the novel in its religious context does not provide a clear answer to questions surrounding John’s conversion, but rather illuminates some of the tensions the conversion explores.

Works Cited
Allen, Shirley S. “Religious Symbolism and Psychic Reality in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.” CLA Journal 19 (1975): 173-99.

--. “The Ironic Voice in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Therman B. O’Daniel. Washington: Howard UP, 1981. 30-7.

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage, 1991.

--. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.

--. Giovanni's Room. New York: Dial P, 1956.

--. “Notes of a Native Son.” Collected Essays. New York: The Library of America, 1998. 63-84.

--. “Open Letter to the Born Again.” Collected Essays. New York: The Library of America, 1998. 784-87.

Brooks, Joanna. "From Edwards to Baldwin: Heterodoxy, Discontinuity, and New Narratives of American Religious-Literary History." American Literary History 22.2 (2010): 439–53.

Cobb, Michael. “Pulpitic Publicity: James Baldwin and the Queer Uses of Religious Words.” GLQ 7.2 (2001): 285-312.

Coleman, James. Faithful Vision. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 2006.

Csapó, Csaba. “Defiance against God: A Gay Reading of Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.” The AnaChronisT (2000): 315-26.

--. “Race, Religion and Sexuality in Go Tell It on the Mountain.” James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. Ed. Carol Henderson. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.57-74.

Dixon, Melvin. Ride Out the Wilderness: Geography and Identity in Afro-American Literature. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1987.

Fabre, Michel. “Fathers and Sons in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Modern Black Novelists. Ed. Michael G. Cooke. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1971. 88-104.

Gibson, Donald B. “James Baldwin: The Political Anatomy of Space.” James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Therman B. O’Daniel. Washington: Howard UP, 1981. 3-18.

Hardy, Clarence E. James Baldwin’s God: Sex, Hope and Crisis in Black Holiness Culture. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2003.

Joyce, Justin A. and Dwight McBride. "James Baldwin and Sexuality: Lieux de Memoire and a Usable Past." A Historical Guide to James Baldwin. Ed. Douglas Field. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 111-40.

Lundén , Rolf. “The Progress of a Pilgrim: James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Studia Neophilologica 53 (1981): 113-26.

Lynch, Michael F. “A Glimpse of the Hidden God: Dialectical Vision in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.” New Essays on Go Tell It on the Mountain. Ed. Trudier Harris. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1996. 29-57.

Macebuh, Stanley. James Baldwin: A Critical Study. New York: Third P, 1973.

Nagueyalti, Warren. “The Substance of Things Hoped For: Faith in Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Obsidian II 7 (1992): 19-32.

Norman, Brian. “Duplicity, Purity, and Politicized Morality: Go Tell It on the Mountain and the Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement.” James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. Ed. Carol Henderson. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. 13-28.

O’Neale, Sondra. “Fathers, Gods and Religion: Perceptions of Christianity and Ethnic Faith in James Baldwin.” Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Eds. Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt,Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. 125-43.

Olson, Barbara K. “‘Come-to-Jesus Stuff’ in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and ‘The Amen Corner.’” African American Review 32.2 (1997): 295-302.

Powers, Peter Kerry. “The Treacherous Body: Isolation, Confession, and Community in James Baldwin.” American Literature 77.4 (2005): 787-813.

Scruggs, Charles. “The Tale of Two Cities in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.” American Literature 52.1 (1980): 1-17.

Pentecostalism in Fiction: A List

This is a preliminary list of fiction with elements of Pentecostal, Holiness, or Charismatic Christianity. I will add to it periodically. The nationality of the authors, determined by their country of birth and/or how they self-identify, is in brackets. I will link my reviews to stories or novels when I post the reviews.
(UPDATED Nov. 1, 2013; special thanks to John Weaver for his suggestions. Weaver is the author of Evangelicals and the Arts in Fiction)

Allen, Preston L. Jesus Boy (2010, USA)
Allison, Dorothy. Bastard out of Carolina (1992, USA)
Ashour, Linda. Speaking in Tongues (1988, USA)
Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953, USA)
Brown, Rita Mae. Bingo (1988, USA)
Caldwell, Erskine. Tobacco Road (1955, USA)
Cash, Wiley. A Land More Kind Than Home (2012, USA)
Chercover, Sean. The Trinity Game (2012, Canada/USA)
Chute, Carolyn. The Beans of Egypt, Maine (1985, USA)
Delillo, Don. The Names (1982, USA)
Edgerton, Clyde. Lunch at the Piccadilly (2003, USA)
Enger, Leif. Peace Like a River (2001, USA)
Enquist, Per Olov. Lewi's Journey (Lewis Resa, 2001; English translation 2005, Sweden)
Espeeth, Amy. Sufficient Grace (2012, USA)
Gwyn, Aaron. Dog on the Cross: Stories (2003, USA)
Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land (1961, USA)
Hendra, Tony. The Messiah of Morris Avenue (2007, UK)
Hiaasen, Carl. Nature Girl (2006, USA)
Hinnefeld, Joyce. “Speaking in Tongues.” Tell Me Everything (1998, USA)
Hollins Flowers, Sandra. “Hope of Zion.” Prize Stories 1981: The O Henry Awards (1981, USA)
House, Silas. The Coal Tattoo (2005, USA)
House, Silas. Clay's Quilt (2002, USA)
Huffey, Rhoda. The Hallelujah Side (2000, USA)
James, Marlon. John Crow's Devil (2005, Jamaica)
Johnston, Wayne. “Catechism” The Walrus (July 2005, Canada)
Kerney, Kelly. Born Again (2006, USA)     
Kurtz, Don. Churchgoers  (2007, USA)
Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry (1926, USA)
Limey, Romulus. Jesus Tales (1980, USA)
Livingston, Billie. Cease to Blush (2007, Canada)
Martin, Samuel Thomas. A Blessed Snarl (2012, Canada)
Merrick, Elizabeth. Girly (2005, USA)
Miller, Kei. Same Earth (2008, Jamaica)        
Morgan, Robert. Truest Pleasure (1995, USA)
Packer, ZZ. "Speaking in Tongues." Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003, USA)
Parker-Sharp, Clive. The Box (2012, UK)
Parks, Tim. Tongues of Flame (1985, UK)
Pearson, T. R. Gospel Hour (1992, USA)
Peretti, Frank E. Piercing the Darkness (1988, USA)
Peretti, Frank E. This Present Darkness (1986, USA)
Peretti, Frank E. The Visitation (1999, USA)
Perrotta, Tom. The Leftovers (2011, USA)
Pollock, Donald Ray. The Devil All the Time (2011, USA)
Quinonez, Ernesto. Chango’s Fire (2004, USA)
Reynolds, Sheri. The Rapture of Canaan (1995, USA)
Sinclair, Upton. Oil! (1927, USA)
Smith, Lee. Oral History (1983, USA)
Smith, Lee. Saving Grace (1995, USA)
Smith, Lee. "Tongues of Fire." The Christ-Haunted Landscape:
     Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction (1994, USA)
Spoon, Rae. First Spring Grass Fire (2012, Canada)
Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash (1992, USA)
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath (1939, USA)
Tartt, Donna. The Little Friend (2002, USA)
West, Nathanael. The Day of the Locust (1939, USA)
Winterson Jeanette. Oranges Are not the Only Fruit (1985, UK)

“The Quietest Pentecostal”: Initial Thoughts on John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church

Giancarlo Esposito (left) and Ron Cephas Jones (right)
Like Doubt, Shanley’s most famous play in his church-state trilogy, Storefront Church is a parable play. The lesson this time: great men resist the progress of capitalism and help those left behind. Protagonist Donaldo Calderon (played by Giancarlo Esposito) faces two connected dilemmas that dramatize this message.  As the borough president of the Bronx, Donaldo must decide whether to endorse a development project, backed by the mayor of New York, that would see a vacant building transformed into a mall. Though Donaldo doesn’t have any clear alternatives for the vacant building, he is keenly aware that a mall would provide few benefits for the people of the Bronx while lining the pocketbooks of wealthy bankers and business owners. At the same time, his mother and her friend are in financial trouble because they have lent money to a storefront church which cannot pay them back. While his mother’s friend asks him to intercede with the bank, Donaldo also speaks with the pastor of the church, which has yet to hold a service. In both circumstances, which become intertwined, Donaldo feels caught between doing what is financially sound and what he has learned is right from his upbringing in a storefront church.

Donaldo is not the only one who feels torn. The cast of characters find themselves on a continuum between two extremes.  On one end is smooth talking banker Tom Raidenberg (played by Jordan Lange). He is calculating and manipulative in his pursuit of business interests and shows a visible distain for emotional outbursts. On the other end is Jessie Cortez (played by Tonya Pinkins) whose frequent emotional outbursts and blind faith provide comic relief. Both characters narrowly avoid becoming caricatures and act as signposts against which others characters can position themselves. They also seem to support gender stereotypes, especially given that Tonya is the only female character in the play.

One of the characters caught between these two extremes is Rev. Chester Kimmich (played by Ron Cephas Jones), a Pentecostal minister from New Orleans and the pastor of the storefront church that can’t repay money to the women of the play. Chester isn’t what you might expect from a Pentecostal preacher.  Neither Chester, nor his church demonstrates the ecstatic worship, excitable preaching, and speaking in tongues often linked to Pentecostals. None of “the fire and excitement” that James Baldwin writes about in both his fiction and memoirs (Fire Next Time 33; also see Go Tell It on the Mountain; Amen Corner; etc.). Instead, the first time we see Chester, he is quietly sitting in the dark, empty church. He has been doing this for months, prompting one character to call him “the quietest Pentecostal I ever met.” When Donaldo visits him in the church, Chester resists speaking, and does so only when he has no other choice. In this exchange, Chester’s voice, is quiet and intense, and he even seems irritated at some points. Eventually, he reveals that he is stuck.  He describes this feeling as a hole, opening up before him on the path God has called him to follow. In response, Chester has halted his efforts to open a church and waits for God to reveal what he should do next.

Ultimately, this is the lesson that Donaldo learns, and a simplistic version of the play’s overall message: stop and wait. While this isn’t necessarily an unusual message for a Pentecostal pastor to deliver, it might seem more appropriate coming from a Quaker. In some Quaker services, participants sit in a circle, waiting for the Spirit to move someone to speak. Theoretically, if the Spirit moved no one, church members would continue to sit and wait, though this rarely happens. Pentecostals, meanwhile, tend to be known for the frequent movement of the Spirit which manifests itself physically in a variety of forms. It’s not that Pentecostals don’t wait for the Spirit to move, it’s that they are not often portrayed as waiting long or quietly.

So why is Chester a Pentecostal instead of a Quaker? Or, perhaps a better question is why is it significant that Chester is a Pentecostal? There are a number of ways to answer that question. One is that it taps into the social position of Pentecostal and Holiness storefront churches historically in New York and its boroughs. Scholars like Clarence Taylor, John Giggie, Cheryl Sanders, and others have argued that Pentecostal and Holiness storefront churches became havens for lower class ethnic minorities, particularly African-Americans after the Great Migration. While black Baptist and Methodist churches tended to appeal to middle-class African Americans who were keen to set aside “slave religion” in order to present themselves as more respectable, Holiness and Pentecostal churches embraced the more ecstatic components of African-American Christianity. They also provided a sense of spiritual empowerment and opportunities to minister that participants would not find elsewhere, certainly not in a racist American society. Although African-American Pentecostals and Holiness believers were generally hesitant to proactively fight for their rights, preferring instead to leave it in God’s hands, they did minister to segments of the population that more progressive African-American churches tended to shun. Resisting the progress of capitalism in order to aid those left behind fits this Pentecostal-Holiness tradition of ministry.

But there is also dramatic significance to Chester’s Pentecostalism. Chester is not an authoritative spiritual figure, condescendingly dispensing spiritual wisdom to other characters. Instead, he is learning the very lesson he is teaching. At one point he says “I know how I used to do it [lead a church], but I don’t know how to do it now.” Chester is used to have frequent prompts from the Holy Spirit to help guide him. These prompts, often accompanied by physical manifestations in the Pentecostal-Holiness tradition, not only provide guidance but also what Charles Price Jones, an early Black Holiness minister, calls “spiritual assurance, heart peace, rest of soul, the joy of salvation in the understanding of a new heart, a new mind, a new spirit, constantly renewed and comforted by the Holy Ghost” (qtd in Spencer 113).  Without this assurance, Chester admits that, while he still believes in God, he no longer feels God. Instead, he feels dead inside. His waiting is a tormented struggle. As a result, Chester is not an authoritative voice in relation to the other characters; he appears to be struggling with them as an equal.

This becomes apparent in the climax of a play, the first service of Chester’s storefront church. Although it begins with a rather subdued hymn (“I Shall Not Be Moved,” appropriate given its content and its use as a protest song), the service does not follow a recognizable format of hymns and choruses, followed by a sermon and altar call.  Instead, the service becomes a dialogue between the characters. This dialogue is initially framed as testimonies, not uncommon in Pentecostal-Holiness churches, but it eventually loses even this structure. The characters struggle and grope toward a way to understand their lives. One of the bankers, Reed Van Druyten (played by Zach Grenier), has an emotional break down and finds acceptance with the other characters, which is framed as his salvation. Donaldo and Chester, meanwhile, play off each other to construct the ultimate message of the play and its practical application in both of their lives. It is during this exchange that Chester’s voice begins to take on the familiar, authoritative cadence of a Pentecostal minister, a cadence that Donaldo mimics, at first in jest, then in sincerity. This change is punctuated by Chester repeating the phrase “I feel affected,” signaling not only that his sense of the Holy Spirit’s promptings have returned, but also that those promptings have come through the emotional stories of the other characters. The service ends with a much more upbeat rendition of “I Shall Not Be Moved.”

What is absent from all of this, even in Reed’s salvation, is any of the Evangelical theology common in Pentecostal-Holiness churches. In its place, there is a Pentecostal spiritual sensibility mixed with a socio-political project, leading to a pluralistic congregation. Ethan Goldberg (played by Bob Dishy) highlights this vague spiritual pluralism when he proclaims to Chester “either I’ve joined your church or you’ve become a secular Jew.” It links the play to the postsecular, particularly as both John McClure and Amy Hungerford have theorized it. McClure argues that postsecular fiction dramatizes the turn back to religious, but not to a “well-ordered systems of religious belief” (4). Instead, he draws on Jacques Derridas, Richard Rorty, and Gianni Vattimo to construct what he calls “weak religion,” religion which affirms the spiritual/supernatural, but rather than introduce a dogmatic theology, explores possibilities of what the spiritual/supernatural might be like without fully committing to any of those possibilities (13). Protagonists in postsecular fiction incorporate “dramatically ‘weakened’ religiosity with secular, progressive values and projects” (3). For McClure, the weak religion presented in postsecular fiction leads to a more pluralistic understanding of religion which he refers to as “spiritual multiculturalism” (19). In an effort to historicize the postsecular impulse in American fiction, and American culture at large, Hungerford argues that the origins of postsecularism extend all the way back to American transcendentalists. Their celebration of “belief without content,” where the presence of belief in the spiritual is much more important than the doctrinal specifics of that belief, is an early iteration of postsecularism in the United States (xiii). For Hungerford, this lack of content leads to a greater emphasis on the form of belief, especially the form of the language of belief.

Shanley’s Storefront Church clearly shares some of these characteristics.  Its spirituality emphasizes the importance of belief while resisting clear definitions of doctrinal contours of that belief, allowing for a diverse congregation. It also pairs this vague spirituality with a sociopolitical message regarding the progress of capitalism and those it leaves behind. At the same time, the vagueness is balanced by specificity.  Though the spirituality is, at least on the surface, pluralistic due to its lack of defined doctrine, it is a specifically Pentecostal spiritual sensibility. It draws on not only the historical position of Pentecostalism in the social context of the boroughs of New York, but also on Pentecostalism’s emphasis on affect and spiritual interaction with God (leaving behind the doctrinal specificity of “God”). Furthermore, this spirituality includes belief that is not quite void of content, the way Hungerford describes. Instead, it replaces content about God, the Bible, Heaven, and Hell, with content about socio-political action, or more appropriately, inaction, in the face of capitalist progress. This specificity resists the tendency of McClure, and to a lesser degree Hungerford, to homogenize the postsecular.

Though Shanley may rely too heavily on caricatures derived from stereotypes, he clearly presents a postsecular Pentecostalism, one that draws on a specifically Pentecostal spiritual sensibility and combines it with a historically specific socio-political message.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James.  The Amen Corner.  New York: Dial, 1968.

--. The Fire Next Time.  New York: Vintage, 1991.

--. Go Tell It on the Mountain.  New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.

Giggie, John.  After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915.  New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

Hungerford, Amy. Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010.

McClure, John.  Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison.  Athens: U of Georgia P, 2007.

Sanders, Cheryl J.  Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture.  New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Spencer, Jon Michael. Black Hymnody: A Hymnological History of the African-American Church.  Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1992.

Storefront Church. By John Patrick Shanley. Dir. John Patrick Shanley. Perf. Giancarlo Esposito and Ron Cephas Jones. Linda Gross Theatre, New York. 27 June 2012. Performance.

Taylor, Clarence. The Black Churches of Brooklyn. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Review of Lee Smith's Saving Grace

Saving Grace
Lee Smith
New York: Ballantine, 1995.

Author Bio
See Oral History review

Plot Description
The novel is the fictional journal of Grace Shepherd, a middle-aged woman from Appalachia looking back on her life.  Grace’s father, Virgil, is a traveling Holiness preacher who handles snakes. The Shepherd family follows him around and support his ministry. Her mother even handles hot coals. Grace, meanwhile, believes in Jesus but hates Him and resists what she interprets to be the Holy Spirit.

The Shepherd family settle for a time in Scrabble Creek where Virgil establishes a ministry which garners a large following. Despite this, things gradually disintegrate for the Shepherd family. Two of Grace’s siblings reject the family’s religious practices and “rescue” a third sibling who is denied medical treatment. Following this, Lamar comes to the Shepherd family. He tells Grace he is Virgil’s son, but hides this from the rest of the family, ultimately becoming Virgil’s right-hand man. At the same time, Lamar seduces Grace, and there is some suggestion that he does the same to Grace’s mentally disabled sister and her mother. At the same time, Virgil’s infidelities come to light and devastate Grace’s mother, Fannie. During an eventful homecoming service, several parishioners are bitten by snakes, Grace loses her virginity to Lamar, Fannie commits suicide, and Lamar steals the Shepherds' car and savings. The events force Virgil to go on the road again, and he takes Grace with him.

While on the road, Grace is exposed to Virgil’s tendencies to “backslide” more fully. In the end, he abandons Grace in a trailer at the behest of his new lover. Travis Wood and his sisters eventually take Grace in. Travis Wood is also a preacher, and while he was initially enthusiastic about Virgil’s practices, he is much more controlled and restrained. Despite the significant age difference between Travis and Grace, they begin courting and get married. Grace remains resolute in her rejection of the Holy Spirit, refusing to be saved, but pretends she has already been saved.

The restricting life of a preacher’s wife begins to make Grace restless, and when a handsome young man comes to paint her house, they begin an affair.  Travis discovers the affair and Grace leaves him and her daughters to live with the painter, Randy Newhouse.  Grace marries Randy, but the relationship soon loses its excitement for Randy who begins an affair with another woman.

Feeling lost, Grace retreats to the house at Scrabble Creek. There she begins her journal. The spirit of her mother visits her and encourages to come to her and to come to Jesus.  Grace decides to stop resisting the Spirit, and takes up hot coals just as her mother had done. The novel ends as Grace leaves the house at Scrabble Creek for good. It is not entirely clear what Grace’s plans are, but there is some indication that she will go to church and follow Jesus, though in a way that differs from both her father and Travis.

Pentecostal Elements
Within much of the Southern United States, there is a great deal of slippage between the identifiers “Pentecostal” and “Holiness.” While there may be formal theological differences between the two groups, there is often a blending that happens in practice, making it difficult to establish a clear boundary. Churches often use both identifiers. As a result, though the word “Pentecostal” does not appear in the novel, the Holiness practitioners in the novel are nearly indistinguishable from Pentecostal practitioners in Appalachia.

The first half of the novel, while Grace is still with her father, is full of descriptions of ecstatic religious experiences. Characters often speak in tongues, dance in the spirit, fall out in the spirit, prophecy, etc. The more lengthy descriptions are given to rarer practices like snake handling or holding hot coals. The depiction of these practices are consistent with anthropological descriptions. This is not surprising since Smith notes that she consulted these works and even participated in writing one that was released around the same time as the novel. The novel links the Holy Spirit to wind.  This is primarily a Biblical metaphor, but one that is frequently used in Pentecostal contexts.

As with many novels depicting Pentecostalism, there is a clear relationship between sex and ecstatic religious experiences.  Grace, herself, makes these connections explicit (as does Smith in interviews). There are parallels in the language used to describe both experiences as well.

Less a Pentecostal element and more of a broad Evangelical element, Grace often frames the dramatic events of her life as moments of salvation where she is born again. Though American Literature is replete with moments of epiphany which lead to rebirth, Grace’s language is distinctly evangelical, even when she describes leaving her husband to begin an affair with Randy Newhouse.

Critical Response

Reviews of Saving Grace have been mixed. For example, Dennis Covington (author of Salvation on Sand Mountain) praises the novel in a Washington Post review for “cloth[ing] the spirit with flesh.” Meanwhile, in a New York Times review, Gregory Blake Smith suggests Lee Smith relies too heavily on clichés for her plot and characters.

Most scholars who write about the novel have focused on gender roles as they relate to spirituality. Linda Byrd-Cook argues that Grace adopts a form of goddess spirituality by the end of the novel, and that the novel promotes this kind of spirituality over Christianity of any kind. Similarly, Paula Gallant Eckard argues that there is a clear division of male and female spirituality, but that Grace is able to somehow merge the two and find a common ground by the end. She uses feminist psychoanalysis to frame her critique. Both scholars seem to enhance the contrast between genders and spiritual practices in order to support their claims.  Joan Wylie Hill takes a more balanced approach and argues that Grace’s epiphany leads her back to snake-handling churches rather than to a distinctly female spirituality. Hill draws on previous critical responses to Smith as well as interviews with the author. Jacqueline Doyle presents perhaps the best paper to date on the novel, sussing out all of the allusions to Biblical and classical literature. She determines that the ending is vague and indeterminate, and that is what lends power to the female voice of the story. Doyle puts Saving Grace alongside works by Sheri Reynolds, Jeannette Winterson, and Marilynne Robinson, suggesting all of the novels attempt to establish a female voice within and beyond current institutionalized religion.

Byrd-Cook. “Reconciliation with the Great Mother Goddess in Lee Smith’s Saving Grace.” Southern Quarterly 40.4 (2002): 97-112.

Covington, Dennis. "Grits and Magic." Rev. of Saving Grace. The Washington Post. 28 May 1995. X01.

Doyle, Jacqueline. “‘These Dark Woods Yet Again’: Rewriting Redemption in Lee Smith’s Saving Grace.” Critique 41.3 (2000): 273-289.

Gallant Eckard, Paula. Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2002.

Smith, Gregory Blake. "Snakes of God." Rev. of Saving Grace. New York Times Book Review 9 July 1995. 7.

Wylie Hall, Joan. “Arriving Where She Started: Redemption at Scrabble Creek in Lee Smith’s Saving Grace.” The Pembroke Magazine 34 (2002): 91-9.

Review of Lee Smith's Oral History

Oral History
by Lee Smith
New York: G P Putnam’s Sons, 1983.

Author Bio
Lee Smith was born in 1944 in Appalachian Mountains of Grundy, Virginia. Her parents raised her there and she cites the people of Grundy as formative to her style and sense of speech. Smith spent her last two years of high school in Richmond boarding school, and then went on to college. She currently resides in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Smith was raised a Methodist, but she attended a Pentecostal church with a friend on a regular basis.  She got “saved” multiple times during revival services and started dating a boy at one of the “wild” churches of the mountains. Smith says the revival meetings acted as a kind of aphrodisiac for her and her boyfriend. Her mother, who moved to Grundy as a school teacher, was less than enthused about Smith’s religious adventures because they were too “low-class.” Even before the revival meetings, Smith believed she heard God speak to her as a child. When she left Grundy to go to a Episcopal prep school in St. Catherine’s, her enthusiasm about religion waned in the face of what she describes as “institutionalized ritual.” She maintains that she may find that passion again, but that it will probably come when she returns to the mountains because she associates it with the mountains. She says she still believes in God and continues to look for a way to balance this belief with the mundane, everyday life.

Smith received a BA in English from Hollins College in 1967. While in University she became friends with fellow author Annie Dillard. Since that time she has taught Creative Writing in both high school and a variety of colleges and University, including North Carolina University and Duke University.

Smith has published eleven novels and three collections of short stories. She has received the O. Henry Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, and the North Carolina Award for Literature, as well as many other literary awards. Her work has appeared on the New York times Bestseller and has become a staple of contemporary Sothern Literature studies.

Her fiction is most often set in the southern United States, and usually in the Appalachian mountains where she grew up. Her work frequently features religion, whether it is the focus of the work or simply in the background. Of particular interest is Saving Grace, which focuses on the daughter of a snake-handling Pentecostal, and her short story “Tongues of Fire,” about a young girl who converts to Pentecostalism and speaks in tongues.

Smith, Lee. Interview with Susan Ketchin. The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1994. 44-55.

Smith, Lee. “A Spiritual Journey: An Interview with Lee Smith.” By Linda Byrd Cook. The Southern Quarterly 47.1 (2009): 74-103.

Plot Description
Oral History is a family saga novel told from multiple points of view. It is the story of the Cantrell family in Hoot Owl Holler, located in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. The frame narrative features Jennifer, a descendant of the Cantrell family who was raised in the city.  Jennifer comes back to interview her relatives for a college project. The core narrative begins in the early 1900s and traces the family through to the 1980s. As with many family sagas, there are many failed romances and scandalous affairs that fill the pages. The tellers of the stories attribute these failures to a curse brought on by the earliest failed romance in the narrative. Almarine Cantrell begins a love affair with “Red” Emmy. His grandmother, Granny Younger, convinces him to throw Emmy out of his house because Granny believes Emmy is a witch. It is Granny who introduces the idea that Emmy curses Almarine and his offspring. The story of this curse haunts the later generations of Cantrells, all of whom experience tragedy and loss in some way. The unreliability of the narrators makes it impossible to sort out what is an exaggeration and what actually happened, situating the early-eighties novel within the tradition of postmodern novels with multiple perspectives that question objective truth.

Pentecostal Elements
Most of the second section and a portion of the third section of the novel are told from the perspective of Richard Burlage. Richard’s portion of the narrative stands out against the other narrators. While the other narrators tend to have a clearly rural southern dialect, Richard’s sections are overly wordy and full of flowery language. As a result, he appears as an outsider, both in terms of the text itself and the way he is treated in Hoot Owl Holler.

Richard is an ivy-league educated man from Richmond who is determined to find spiritual and emotional enlightenment while offering something to those “less fortunate.” He takes a position as a teacher near Hoot Owl Holler and begins teaching there.  He also attends a Pentecostal church where they speak in tongues and promote a variety of ecstatic religious experiences. Richard is drawn to the church because they seem to have an emotional and spiritual engagement he lacks.

The text links his desire for spiritual engagement in the church with his sexual desire for Dory Cantrell.  The Cantrells do not attend the church, but Richard sees them, and Dory in particular, as having the same kind of emotional, and eventually, spiritual engagement with their surroundings. His desire culminates when Richard secretly meets with Dory at a church service. While waiting for Dory, Richard is overwhelmed by emotion and goes to the altar to get saved. As soon as he prays for salvation, Dory walks into the church and Richard leaves with her.  What follows is several days of sexual adventures between the two that take a very spiritual tone thanks to Richard’s language.

The two are eventually caught and Dory’s family takes her back to Hoot Owl Holler. Richard loses his teaching position and plans to move back to Richmond. He writes Dory to ask her to come with him, but the message is never delivered. Both Richard and Dory end up in marriages they find lacking as a result. Dory kills herself many years later, though there is no conclusive link to her failed romance with Richard.

Critical Response
Early reviews of the novel tend to praise Smith for an accurate portrayal of Appalachian life and a true rendering of Appalachian dialect through her speakers. While the reviews overwhelmingly present the novel as better than her previous work, they still find it lacking in some regard. Some suggest it is too safe, while others argue it loses momentum in the latter third of the book. Despite these criticisms, the novel became a Book-of-the-Month selection in 1983.

Since then, the novel has received a significant amount of critical attention. I will look at two specific streams of this scholarship. The first involves the positioning of Jennifer and Richard. Several critics suggest that the novel critiques the position of condescending outsiders through the two characters (Soos; Billips; Jones; Hill; Gallant Eckard; Hazelwood Donlon; Hendricks Wallace; Parrish). Rodger Cunningham even uses the novel as an example of how Post-Colonial theory can be applied to portrayals of Appalachian people. Nancy Parrish raises an important complication in with this approach: Smith has stated numerous times that she identifies with Richard. The result, argues Parrish, is that the portrayals become less of a binary critique (outsiders bad, insiders good) and more of a way for Smith to self-reflexively acknowledge her position as an author writing about Appalachian mountain people. Finally, in one of the most cited articles on this book, Suzanne Jones suggests that, while Jennifer and Richard both act as condescending outsiders who manipulate the narrative to their own purposes, all of the narrators from Hoot Owl Holler do the same; each narrator tweaks the story to emphasize or exaggerate particular points to satisfy his/her own agenda. The result is that the ethical dichotomy between insider/outsider begins to collapse.

The second stream of scholarship involves religion. Several critics argue that the novel privileges female, earth centred, and emotionally engaged spirituality over stayed Christianity (Byrd; Oswalt; Reily). Central to this argument is the portrayal of “Red” Emery. These critics not only argue that “Red” Emery is treated unfairly by the Cantrells and their underlying Christianity, but that she does actually posses supernatural powers. This latter point is far from clear in the published version of the novel, as stated above. In earlier drafts of the novel, “Red” Emery has her own section of the narrative. This section makes the stories of her supernatural abilities even less believable. Linda Byrd argues that Smith is actually promoting goddess spirituality in the novel, but there is little textual evidence to support her claim. Conrad Oswalt, meanwhile, argues that even Granny’s use of Biblical mysticism is more of an “elemental” religious practice rather than a Christian one, ignoring various forms of Christian mysticism. Despite the problems with these arguments, there is an underlying current in the novel which these critics identify. Specifically, it questions gender roles, and the deployment of religion in securing those roles, in the Appalachian mountains. The answers the novel provides are not clear cut, and certainly don’t fall neatly into the dichotomies that these critics present.

Billips, Martha. “‘What a Wild and Various State’: Virginia in Lee Smith’s Oral History.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 13.1-2 (2007): 26-48.

Byrd, Linda. “The Emergence of the Sacred Sexual Mother in Lee Smith's Oral History.” The Southern Literary Journal. 31.1 (1998): 119-42.

Cunningham, Rodger. “Writing on the Cusp: Double Alterity and Minority Discourse in Appalachia.” The Future of Southern Letters. Eds. Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 41-53.

Gallant Eckard, Paula. “The Prismatic Past in Oral History and Mama Day.” MELUS 20.3 (1995): 121-35.

Hazelwood Donlon, Jocelyn. “Hearing Is Believing: Southern Racial Communities and Strategies of Story-Listening in Gloria Naylor and Lee Smith.” Twentieth Century Literature 41.1 (1995): 16-35.

Hendricks Wallace, Anne. “Ethical Readings of Folklore: Can We Stop Turning the Southern Folk of Lee Smith’s Oral History into Commodities?” Southern Studies 4.4 (1993): 361-76.

Hill, Reinhold L. “‘These Stories Are not ‘Real,’ but They Are as True as I Can Make Them’: Lee Smith's Literary Ethnography.” Southern Folklore 57.2 (2000): 106-18.

Jones, Suzanne W. “City Folks in Hoot Owl Holler: Narrative Strategy in Lee Smith's Oral History.” The Southern Literary Journal 20.1 (1987) 101-112.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Rev of Oral History by Lee Smith. The New York Times 29 July 1983. C21.

Ostwalt, Conrad. “Witches and Jesus: Lee Smith's Appalachian Religion.” The Southern Literary Journal 31.1 (1998): 98-118.

Parrish, Nancy C. “‘Ghostland’: Tourism in Lee Smith’s Oral History.” Southern Quarterly 32.2 (1994): 37-47.

Reilly, Rosalind B. “Oral History: The Enchanted Circle of Narrative and Dream.” Southern Literary Journal 23.1 (1990): 79-92.

Smith, Dave. “Myths of Love: New American Fiction.” Rev of Departing as Air by Allen Wier, The Summoning by Robert Towers, Oral History by Lee Smith, and The Good Son by Craig Nova. The Kenyon Review 6.1 (1984): 121-34.

Soos, Frank. “Insiders and Outsiders: Point of View in Lee Smith’s Oral History.” The Iron Mountain Review 3:1 (1986): 20-4.

Yardley, Jonathan. “Bewitched Voices; In Fine Folk Tradition, Vivid Tales of the Holler.” Rev of Oral History by Lee Smith. The Washington Post 15 June 1983. B1.


Reviews of Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

As Jeanette Winterson tours her new memoir around the U.S., the reviews keep coming in.  Here is an alphabetical list of links.  I'll add more as I find them.

83.9 KPCC (Southern California):

American Libraries Magazine (interview):

The Boston Globe:

The Examiner (Chicago):

The Guardian:


The New York Times:

The Philadelphia Inquirer:

The Seattle Times:

The Washington Post:

Salvation on Sand Mountain Review

Salvation on Sand Mountain
by Dennis Covington
Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1995. 272p

Author Bio
Dennis Covington was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1948.  In Salvation on Sand Mountain he describes going to a relatively tame Methodist church when he was growing up, though the church was often visited by firey, Pentecostal type preachers. He began attending a Baptist church with his second wife shortly before the central events he describes in the book.

Covington earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the early 1970s and has taught both English and Creative Writing throughout his career.  He is currently a professor in the English Department at Texas Tech University.

In between teaching assignments, Covington served as a reporter and columnist for several newspapers, including The New York Times.  In 1983, he served as a freelance war correspondent in El Salvador.

Covington has published two YA novels, three memoirs including Salvation on Sand Mountain, along with numerous essays and short stories.  Religion is a topic he revisits frequently.  For example, in a 2007 review of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Covington defends religion in general, and Christianity in particular by poking holes in Hitchens’ theory that “religion kills,” holding up Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as positive political figures whose faith Hitchens misinterprets.

Plot Description
In the tradition of new journalism by Michael Herr and Norman Mailer, Covington investigates the small snake handling community in the Appalachian mountains that is connected to an attempted murder trial.  Glen Summerford, the former Pastor of the church, is tried and convicted of trying to kill his wife with snake venom.

It isn’t long before the trial recedes into the background. The real story here is the snake handlers themselves and Covington’s involvement with them.  Covington provides detailed, sympathetic descriptions of their services where participants speak in tongues and handle snakes.

Gradually, Covington becomes part of the community.  He speaks in tongues, even handles snakes, and experiences the same ecstasy he sees others experience. The experiences prompt him to dig into his own past, desperately searching for a hereditary connection to the snake handlers.  AT the same time, Covington always distances himself from the group; he never fully describes himself as one of the snake handlers.

Covington's internal struggle becomes external when he preaches gender equality in the church.  The male authorities in the church reject him, and Covington leaves the community for good.

NOTE: In the 2009 reprint there is an afterward where Covington returns to the snake handling community so it can address them about his book.  I will update this section once I obtain the newer edition.
Pentecostal Elements
The snake handling church Covington investigates is a Pentecostal-Holiness church. Members of the church practice glossolalia, snake handling, become slain in the spirit, and demonstrate various other ecstatic experiences.  The book is filled with descriptions of these experiences.  The book also shows other elements of the community, including its suspicion of outsiders, its uneven gender roles, its tendency toward simple, modest dress, etc. Although these elements may be more common to other Pentecostal churches than snake handling, they are hardly universal to all Pentecostal churches.

Critical Response
Salvation on Sound Mountain was widely and generally positively reviewed when it was released. For example, in his review for The New York Times, Lee K Abbott calls Covington’s memoir “a book of revelation—brilliant, dire, and full of grace.” The book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1995.

William Jolliff points out that some reviewers did quibble with the book because of the way it crosses genres. Reviewers who wanted more an anthropological study of the snake handlers were confused by Covington’s introspection.

Some academics are also confused about how to situate the Salvation on Sound Mountain.  In his book Between Heaven and Hell, Robert Orsi critiques Covington for his rejection of the snake handling church at the end of the book.  For Orsi, it represents the moralizing tone to many Religious Studies scholars take when writing about “radical others.” Russell T. McCutcheon takes issue with Orsi’s underlying thesis about methodology in Religious Studies, and comes back to Covington as an example. McCutcheon and Orsi both read Covington's book as a reflexive study of the snake handling community.

Unlike the two Religious Studies scholars, Jolliff, a literary scholar, reads Salvation on Sand Mountain as a spiritual autobiography which is supposed to be more about Covington’s spiritual journey than the community he is observing. Jolliff compares the book to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, making the argument that the earlier novel is the unconscious subtext of the more recent memoir.  The paper is relatively simplistic and reveals little about the text.

Abbott, Lee K. “Death Rattle.” The New York Times 9 April 1995.

Jolliff, William. “Redeeming the Serpentine Subtext: Dennis Covington’s Appropriation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in Salvation on Sand Mountain.” The Hemingway Review 30.2 (2011): 73-87.

McCutcheon, Russell T. “‘It’s a Lie. There’s No Truth in It! It’s a Sin!’: On the Limits of the Humanistic Study of Religion and the Costs of Saving Others from Themselves.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74.3 (2006): 720–50.

Orsi, Robert A. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds, People who Make Them, and the Scholars who Study Them. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2005.