‘I could almost believe in God’: the evolution of American theology in American literary naturalism

Bembridge, Steven (2017) ‘I could almost believe in God’: the evolution of American theology in American literary naturalism. Doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia.

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Abstract

This dissertation is about the prevalence of religious themes in American literary
naturalism, which emerged in the late nineteenth century. The centrality of themes such
as the indifference of nature and the struggle for survival are common to naturalism, owing
to its close association with post-Enlightenment and post-Darwinian advances in science
and philosophy. From a contemporary perspective, where science and religion often
appear as oppositional explanations for life and its development, it becomes all too easy
to assume that those authors associated with naturalism represented religion in limited
ways, or with a spirit of antagonism. However, I demonstrate that religion occupies a
central position in naturalism. I argue that the religious themes of Frank Norris, Stephen
Crane, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis are reflections of nineteenth and
early twentieth-century theological and cultural histories that saw American Protestantism
adjusting to a post-Darwinian and post-Enlightenment context through a process of
liberalisation. Whilst I do not set out to form an overarching theory of religion in
naturalism, I do argue that the naturalists consistently explore the veracity of the Bible,
the humanity of Christ, the eschatological promise of life after death, the socio-economic
and socio-political implications of Christ’s teaching, and the concept of original sin. In
conclusion, I note that both the Great Depression and post-9/11 America saw a return to
naturalism as a mode of representation. I therefore also explore how twentieth- and
twenty-first century naturalists continued to incorporate into their works the religious
themes explored in the works of the earlier generation of naturalists. The naturalists were,
and perhaps continue to be, scientists, philosophers, and non-conventional theologians.
Religion and naturalism coexist in a complex relationship that ebbs and flows between
orthodoxy and liberalism, but never do they deny the right for the other to exist.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Faculty \ School: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > School of Art, Media and American Studies
Depositing User: Katie Miller
Date Deposited: 17 May 2017 14:20
Last Modified: 09 Jul 2018 11:55
URI: https://ueaeprints.uea.ac.uk/id/eprint/63545
DOI:

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