October 27, 2009

My current classes deal with 19th Century working class autobiography. The bourgeois narrative of progress and fulfillment is strikingly absent from these texts, as are the sort of authorial tropes you'd normally expect to find in writing from this period.

Our professor started out last class by asking us what sort of things we'd include in our autobiographies. A generic list started to develop: birth, class, education, formative relationships, turning points and epiphanies all seemed like obvious subjects for inclusion. Finally our professor stopped us, admitting that he found it odd how none of us bothered to mentioned religion, spirituality or faith. Surely such a category is important most biographers. We had only mentioned secular items, he said. At this point, I was compelled to say something but I thought my words would be lost on most of the class: religion is not a reductive category among categories - it is not one domain of the humanities among many- it is not an object of speculation and observation in the social sciences. It is the grid upon which all other categories are situated. For the theologically minded, such categories of life are decidedly not secular but in fact deeply meaningful. The distinction does not compute. The day to day concerns of an underprivileged life are not somehow more basic than faith. Faith can't be separated out so easily. Material sustenance is not opposed to or set apart from transcendent aspirations, as the bourgeois autobiography narrates (for it is precisely a transcending of material shortcomings that is commonly narrated by affluent autobiographers). Indeed, many of the personal accounts we've looked at give little time to religious language, and those that do, write with a hope that (unlike the "literary" posturing of extensive quotations from Robert Burns and the like in an attempt to appeal to middle class readers) actually means something. It has to mean something because, for every one of these working class lives, the church has failed in every sense possible.

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