Sociological Haunting: Finding God in Contemporary Novels
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
By Paul E. Jackson
Many years ago this church’s founding minister, Robert Meyers, often preached on movies and novels. Dr. Meyers felt that contemporary fiction in all of its forms was useful in showing to us great theological and moral ideas and themes. I remember sitting out there, or more correctly up there in the choir, and being mesmerized by his words. It fascinated me that we could turn to fresh, contemporary and entertaining ideas to inform our rather dusty faith. To say this was inspiring is an understatement.
So when I had an opportunity to enroll in a course at Phillips Theological Seminary called Theological Themes in the Contemporary Novel, I jumped at the chance. Taught by Dr. Joe Bessler, we were to read six novels over the thirteen weeks of the semester. It was an online class, so we were to prepare various postings to an online message board and listen to weekly lectures and meditations from Joe. There were written essay requirements and the culmination of the course could be either a paper on a topic from the course, or the preparation of a sermon based on ideas gleaned from the course. It appears that I chose the sermon option and you are now listening to my final from this class.
I want to look at three distinct ideas this morning. First, I want to discuss the class in general terms; the experience, the work, the frustrations and the joys of this type of class. Secondly, I want to look at the overarching theme of the class—sociological haunting—more on this in a minute. And finally I want to comment on a few of the novels and my experience with reading them in this format.
In 2006 and 2007 I developed the first online courses and a complete online program for the Wichita Area Technical College. I built upon an existing resource of online materials that the college had in place, but I was tasked with taking it to the next iteration and putting an entire class in an online format. I’m saying this so you know that I come to online education with some knowledge and experience of this learning modality. My chief observation from my time at WATC is that no amount of technology can ever replace a talented instructor. The entire class experience ultimately rests with the instructor. I know many of us have had abysmal experiences with online education and I hope we’ve had some excellent experiences as well. I’ve taken a number of online classes a Phillips Theological Seminary and I find my previous comment to hold true. It is ultimately the instructor’s responsibility to lead a useful educational experience. And this course on the contemporary novel was an excellent example of online education.
If you’ve never taken an online class, let me tell you that the key skill to success for a student is time management. You have to map out your week so that you give yourself ample time to do all of the reading and then complete the required postings and writing assignments. Dr. Bessler was spot-on with each week’s materials being made available on Friday or Saturday for the coming week. I would start each week, at my desk, by about 6:30 AM, with my morning beverage and that week’s audio lectures and meditation. It was a wonderful way to begin my week. I also would then begin mapping out my posting schedule for the week. We usually had our initial post due by Tuesday and our responses to our co-students’ posts by Thursday. On top of this, I had another online class, plus my concentrated class and all of the regular duties I do for this church during the week, so this past semester was plenty busy. And I loved every minute of it.
Other than the six novels we were assigned, there were additional readings. We had some essays that Dr. Bessler would post weekly and then we would comment on. Also, Dr. Bessler gave his weekly lectures and meditations and sometimes within these there would be assignments to complete or interesting tidbits that we could use in that week’s postings. I always looked forward to Dr. Bessler’s meditations as he has this soft, calming voice that made you feel like he was right there next to you, discussing the text at hand. His voice was so warm and personable that I came to look forward to his meditations and lectures each week. I’m going to kind of miss them. Of course, I downloaded them all, so I have a full library that I can return to any time I need to.
One important aspect of this course was for us to begin developing a discerning eye towards the development of theologies in modern writing. What this means is that we were to basically pay close attention to where God was in these stories; how the people used their religion; and whether or not there was a theology that informed the stories. This was very tricky and it was a great way to begin my own personal work on systematic theology; that is, the practice of looking for and identifying theological systems, or ways of thinking theologically. It’s a big concept and one that I will be working on for the rest of my life, because it is such a vast topic. But as I said, this class was a good way to begin developing these skills in systematic theology that I will need for the rest of my ministry.
The overarching theme of this class was the idea of Sociological Haunting; here is a definition, in the words of Avery Gordon who wrote Ghostly Matters, one of our texts for this class: “Haunting is a constitutional element of modern social life. It is neither pre-modern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import. To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it”.  So what exactly am I talking about with these ghosts and this Sociological Haunting?
After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there remained physical, spiritual and sociological “haunting”. That is, remnants of the past that linger in a variety of forms and incarnations. The creation (and popularity) of the hideous monster, Godzilla, is a direct example of sociological haunting. A society that has had atomic war visited upon it would be expected to require some healing in regards to the use of atomic energy in other forms, such a nuclear power plants or in medicine; so we get the physical consequences, Godzilla, from the acts of violence that were perpetrated; the test explosions of nuclear weapons.. The “haunting” or the ghost of the bombs has lived on in the psyche of the Japanese spirit and I would argue continues to live on in their creative use of Manga art and the universe of characters that inhabit this fictive realm.
Another example would be how traumatized the British people were by the German Luftwaffe air raids on London and other cities. To this day we can see a sociological haunting and fear of “things dropping from above” all the way from Tolkien and C. S. Lewis’s work up through the modern Dr. Who television series. The British people have a distinct fear of “danger from above” and a very specific reverence for the safety of their underground tubes and shelters.
Here in America we have numerous types of haunting. Think of the types of popular movies during and immediately following World War II. Most of the popular entertainment had to do with ghosts. Think of the musicals “Carousel”, or “Brigadoon” or the films “Topper” or “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”. America was dealing with the tragic death of thousands of young people; young lives that were cut down in their prime and were unable to see fruition. It makes sense that our national psyche would look at ways to deal with these cut-short lives. Also in America we have the ghastly ghost of slavery and that brings us to one of the six novels that we read.
We read Alice Parker’s “The Color Purple”. I cannot stress enough that sentence. We read Alice Parker’s “The Color Purple”. We read it, we chewed on it, we discussed it, we dissected it, we wrote our own ideas in our postings and we ruminated on this story. “The Color Purple” is the story of Miss Celie, a freedwoman in the Deep South of Georgia. It is set in the 1930’s and through the brilliant use of letters to God and diary entries and letters to her sister and other people, Miss Celie tells her story. And what a story it is. We don’t have time this morning to review the entire story-line so suffice it to say that if your only experience with Miss Celie is through the Stephen Spielberg movie, you are missing so much. There’s something about Miss Celie’s voice in her letters that pulls you into her story. When she writes of being raped by her father you cringe in terror and revulsion. When she writes of her betrayal of Miss Sophie (she basically tells Miss Sophie’s new husband to beat her) and we see the consequences of this act, you feel her guilt and anxiety seep across the page and into your eyes. It’s a powerful experience. And when you read of the eventual reconciliation of Miss Celie’s family and how Miss Celie will endure, you may shed a tear of joy that it all worked out.
I was taken by how Miss Celie’s theology evolved throughout the novel. In Miss Celie’s theology, at the beginning of the novel, God is “out there” somewhere looking down on creation and this theology serves Miss Celie well. I wrote on one of my postings that I thought Miss Celie used God as a sort of sounding board for her thoughts and ideas. She throws out questions in her diary entries and saw how they felt and sounded. More often than not, Miss Celie worked out her own issues, but she always felt the presence of a loving God.
There is a point in the novel where Miss Celie first feels true love towards another person. Shug Avery is a lounge singer and old paramour of Miss Celie’s husband. Shug Avery is a beautiful, though flawed woman, and Miss Celie develops a strong attachment to this woman. This lesbian love story is just one more piece of wood on the fire that is the controversy surrounding “The Color Purple”. People love to ban this book. I’ll share a little secret with you. Nothing makes me want to read a novel or see a movie more than when it is on someone else’s banned list. I’m reminded of Henrich Heine when he said “Where they burn books, they will soon burn people”.
The experience of human love that Miss Celie felt caused her to begin to see God in a new manner. There’s a biblical parallel between Celie’s dramatic shift from a distant God when she says “You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything at all…” and the verse from Acts about Paul’s conversion: “…and scales fell from Paul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized.” (Acts 9:18 NIV). Many things can blind us from God. Addictions, diversions, anger, resentment, the list goes on. But the spiritual maturation that occurs in this scene…then makes every scene following make perfect sense. It seems like everything is better for Celie after this scene. Celie doesn’t write to God again until the very end, she writes only to the people who mean the most to her. I think this scene opens Celie’s eye to a God that is no longer distant, but very real and present in her world. She begins to pay attention to this and to the relationships she has remaining. It’s a great novel and one we should each read every so often to remind us of the ghosts and haunting of our slaveholder past—a past I fear we all would prefer to forget.
The very first book we read is called My Name is Asher Lev and it is a sweeping novel about a young Hasidic Jewish artist growing up in Brooklyn and how his powerful talent for art clashes with his incredibly close knit Jewish community. At times, the story reminded me of our familiar tale of Fiddler on the Roof. They are both about communities that are trying to keep their traditions alive in an ever-encroaching secular world and how those people living in those communities change and adapt, or not. Asher Lev is a haunting tale in its own right and I encourage you to read it.
We also read Toni Morrison’s Beloved and I still am not extremely comfortable telling you about this novel. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything about it by discussing it here. Let me say again, if you think you know this novel through its cinematic adaption, you are in for a very dramatic surprise. Beloved is set in the years closely following the Civil War and of all of the books we read, it is a true ghost story.
We read a powerful book about the holocaust and its effects called Fugitive Pieces. This story was about a young survivor of a Nazi roundup in his Polish village who was eventually rescued by a Greek archeologist. The book follows his eventual emigration to Canada and how he becomes a famous poet. The second part of the book deals with another man who teaches on this poetry. It is all too easy to dismiss the holocaust, or write it off as another horrible example of man’s inhumanity to man. We busy Americans don’t have time to dwell on these past horrors. I ask you to dwell once in a while upon this event. Not only is it important for us to remember that all humans are capable of this type of madness, this mass extermination of human souls, but it is also important that we think about how different our lives would be today if those lives had not been ended prematurely. I like to sometimes sit back and honor the memories of those lost in the Shoah with a simple prayer or meditation or the thought “I wish all of the victims could be with me today on my bike ride”. All of those little acts that we take for granted, that they never knew. I am willing to bet that they wouldn’t mind having a job to go to; to having to attend a lecture; the banality of another family dinner; the deep boredom of a phone call from him; the endless pursuit of paying our bills. The next time you are bored, think of those who don’t have the luxury of being bored. Or who would love to be alive and bored right now.
Our last book we read is called Let the Great World Spin and it is a huge tapestry of a novel looking at the lives of a number of New Yorkers. It’s a parallel to the 9/11 tragedy and it weaves the stories of its characters in a beautiful, undulating way. It’s hypnotic writing and has a huge cast of characters that the author keeps track of brilliantly.
The sixth book we read, although not in the order presented here this morning, was my least favorite and the most important. It was third on our list and I read it in mid-March. It was a Science Fiction story called The Sparrow. It was written by Mary Doria Russell and it concerned itself with the discovery of life on a distant planet. Through various machinations it ends up that a starship is sent to this planet by the Jesuits. Yes. The Jesuits are space explorers in this novel. Now don’t get me wrong; in retrospect I realize that this is an important novel. It is actually about colonialism and its effects on the indigenous peoples of conquered lands. It has a brisk narrative and it arrives at some compelling questions regarding God and God’s allowing of evil in the universe. You could call it “when bad things happen to good aliens” and wouldn’t be far off. I just didn’t like it very much. I thought that the author got most of the science and biology wrong and I really disliked what she did to the protagonist near the end of the story.
Why I call this the most important novel we read was because of what happened to me during our work with this novel. I won’t go into all of the details, but there is a gruesome plot twist towards the end that I thought was contrived and not necessary to get the author’s points across. I was pretty riled up when I posted my first response. Let me read you a little of that posting:
“I feel violated by what was done to Emilio. I was horrified by what happened to him and numerous times during the narrative I asked myself ’why the hell am I reading this awful story?’ I know what the author was trying to do in regards to colonialism and the law of unintended consequences, but it was all wasted on me by the end because I felt so terribly manipulated by Emilio’s rape and repeated abuse. I’m not naïve—I know this happens in our world all of the time. I just don’t understand why Russell [the author] felt she had to use this story to convey these ideas. I was completely pulled out of the story and my empathy for the characters was morphed into extreme dislike for the novel.”
As you can imagine, I had instant “writer’s remorse” when I hit the post button and knew that these words were going to be read by my classmates and professor. I imagined all sorts of repercussions—how dare you criticize this great work? Who are you to deny these events when the Europeans did the exact same things to the natives here? Where’s your compassion for the aliens? And while there was a bit of that in a few posts, the response from my professor proved to be the most surprising.
He acknowledged my view, called it what it was, a rant, and then proceeded to outline what I had taught him about the novel in my churlish manner. Here are his words:
“Paul, I appreciate you recognizing the genre of a “rant” and I think you can understand why I don’t want to encourage rants in the classroom. That said, I also appreciate the questions that the novel raises as well as the emotions it has also clearly triggered. For example, your criticism of Russell’s knowledge of science seems to work as a genre criticism. Because you are well versed in science fiction as a genre, I can see where one might be disappointed with respect to those expectations. So, as one who to this point in my life has had relatively little interest in science fiction, as such, I learned something helpful from your critique. Also, with respect to your sense that what the author has given us here is utterly inappropriate, I remember my own response the first time I read this novel. While not outraged, I was somewhat nonplussed that this whole inter-galactic journey has as its centerpiece the victimization of rape.”
So, instead of getting bashed for being critical, I get a point-by-point examination of my critique and positive feedback. This was important for me, as it is difficult for me to put out criticism—I want to like everything and I go out of my way to avoid conflict. When I pushed the entry key on what I thought would be a contentious post, expecting to be corrected, instead I was shown in a kind manner how to perform this type of criticism. I hadn’t missed the mark by much, but I had doubted my ability and Dr. Bessler was pointing out that a criticism can be valid, if supported with fact. This was a key learning for me from this course.
Early in our first novel, last February I believe, we had just completed our first set of postings for the novel My Name is Asher Lev. We students had had a good time pulling our ideas together, commenting on each others’ work and diving deep into this story. Dr. Bessler sent us all an email about our work: “I awoke this morning and after a cup of coffee checked our discussion board. I just wanted to say, very good work, folks. Felt as if I was sitting amongst a community of very thoughtful and engaging rabbis. Strong work. Keep imagining in your posts that you are showing us something we may not have noticed, connections we need to catch. All our follow-up conversations will be stronger for it.”
Sitting amongst a community of very thoughtful and engaging rabbis. You can imagine what this praise and encouragement meant to a group of struggling seminary students. I know what it meant for me. It meant that I was being included in this group of rabbis and that I had something of value to give them. And it meant that our work was being noticed by our elders, as it were, that the work we were doing had value, was engaging and was useful. Our work was useful. Who would have thought that a deep dive into six novels could have provoked such thinking, such heart, such bravery and such affection?
I am grateful for this class. I am grateful for its wise instructor. I am grateful for Phillips Theological Seminary and I am very grateful for this congregation.
 Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 7
 Alice Walker, The Color Purple (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Press, 1982)
 Paul Jackson, Celie’s God, posting for Theological Themes in the Contemporary Novel course, March, 2015
 Paul Jackson, Emilio, online posting for Theological Themes in the Contemporary Novel at PTS.
 Dr. Joe Bessler, Response to Post, Sociological Themes in the Contemporary Novel, Spring 2015
 Joe Bessler,