Professor, Long Island University (Brooklyn)
There are two key factors that prompted me to conceive of a Society for Heresy Studies. First, I felt that religious subversion in literature simply does not register on the radar screen of many scholars. Most critics working in religion and literature do so to legitimate or celebrate their faith, taking what Gregory Erickson calls the “assumed confessional position.” There is nothing wrong with this…unless it is the only going approach. These same critics, too, are usually quite insensitive to the heretical or blasphemous aspects of literary texts, even if they are practically stumbling on them. For instance, most Zora Neale Hurston scholars choose to celebrate her literary accomplishment, focusing on anything but her religious apostasy or, even more absurdly, trying to turn her work into a testament to Christianity. Or consider Rebecca West: critics generally did not notice her misotheism, partly because they lacked a framework such as misotheism to begin with, but also simply because nobody was looking for the nonconformist element.
Second, I felt that making a pass at heretical or atheist readings at relevant conferences constituted an off-side foul. The folks at the “International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture” (ISRLC) were not interested to hear me speak about misotheism, ostensibly because the organization’s focus on Biblical exegesis, theological interpretations of literature, and confessional criticism sees piety as the handmaiden of literature. The CCL (Conference on Christianity and Literature) is more friendly to nonbelievers, but their conference titled “Belief and Unbelief in Postmodern Literature” in 2012 turned out to be a platform for confessional papers; at another CCL conference I gaped when a fellow-panelist proclaimed that the Problem of Evil was solvable, with nobody but me protesting. These two factors—that critics do not see the heretical contents that are there and that those who do explore heretical aspects of literature without an apologist agenda are shunted to the margins of scholarly meetings—persuaded me that it was time to found our own Society to explore the heretical potentials of literature, art, and culture. The titles of my own work bespeak the new frankness I am promoting: “Zora Neale Hurston’s Religious Imaginary and the Specter of Heresy,” “Unbelief in the Novels of Wood and Goldstein: New Directions,” “’And he’s a’going to destroy him’: Religious Subversion in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials,” and, of course, Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism. The Society for Heresy Studies should serve as a platform for unapologetic approaches to heretical aspects of literature and art, and as a clearing house for ideas and arguments that disturb the hermetic placidity of creeds and trouble the waters of doctrine.