theology and literature

Theology and literature go way back: books and the Book, stories - our's and God's, narrative theology, novels that sound the depths of the divine, new canons of belief, Hebrew poetry, genres, literary criticism...

Feminists too have historically used novels and poetry to express their ideas, often finding a space in literature that was closed to them in the formal arenas of philosophy or politics. Think Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook... Plus Gloria Anzaldúa's efforts to expand the shape of feminist discourse.

It should not come as a shock then, that literature is one of the themes of my thesis, specifically novels by contemporary Latin American women writers.

The surprise for me was the discovery of a particular conversation between novelists of the 1960s and 1970s and the emerging liberation theology movement. The best introduction to this interaction is Luis N. Rivera-Pagán (2002) Essays from the Diaspora Mexico: El Faro, particularly his essay, "Myth, Utopia, and Faith: Theology and Culture in Latin America.” pp.9-36.

Love and death, solidarity and violence, are all expressed in the Latin American ‘imaginary recreation of reality that is our literature’ (Rivera-Pagán 2002:31), he notes, referring to the development of magical realism in Latin America novels.

I was particularly interested in the discovery of Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas' impact on the young Gustavo Gutiérrez. A Theology of Liberation (spanish version) begins with a quote from Arguedas' Todas las sangres and is dedicated to him. Rivera-Pagán comments, "Arguedas faced like maybe no other Latin American writer, the labyrinthine and conflictive relations between the different ethnias, cultures, languages and spiritual traditions in the Andes" (19). Both books illustrated the tear between violent reality and the hope of peace. Like Gutierrez, Arguedas saw a conflict between the God of the landowners and God of the poor.

Their conversation in print actually began ten years earlier in Arguedas novel El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1969)
In the summer of 1969, Arguedas recognizes with horror that his novel goes nowhere. This means that his aspiration to bring justice and peace, to overcome centuries of tragic violence and oppression, by a literary reconstruction of reality flounders into catastrophic failure. (21)

Within the novel-diary, the writer shifts from hope and solidarity to hate and fear. In that moment another character, ‘Gustavo,’ emerges and is challenged by the despairing novelist to proclaim a God of liberation. With that, Arguedas killed himself. "This is a book that begins with a discussion of suicide, ends with a suicide note, and is signed with the author's own dead body." comments Jon at Post-hegemony.

Latin America feminist theologians have also bent their ear to the insights of other writers. Elsa Tamez draws on ancient mythological stories. Marcella Althaus-Reid (2003) engages with works by Latin America writers such as Alejandra Pizarnik and Federico Andahazi. Ivone Gebara (2002) draws insights from the diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus and the work of Juana Inés de la Cruz.

My theme of violence against women is present in a number of Latin American novels. Isabel Allende deals directly with the violence of the Pinochet years in Chile, as well as violence against women in the home and in situations of migration. Ana Castillo from Mexico considers women’s spirituality of survival in violent contexts, including death and madness. Julia Alvarez records women’s resistance to the Dominican Republic military dictatorship. Laura Esquivel’s most recent novel, Malinche, explores the conquest of Latin America. Regina Rheda writes about economic marginalization in Brazil. And Marcela Serrano considers shelter spaces for women.

Such novels give voice to women's lives. They expose the violence struggled against. They pass on subtle tips, hints and strategies for survival. And they celebrate and recreate women’s resistance.


Jon said…
Check out Manlio Argueta's One Day of Life. More generally, I think that Central American writing might interest you.
rachel said…
Thank you Jon, thats really helpful. I've just tracked down a copy of One Day of Life for sale online. best wishes