I was raised Pentecostal, so unsurprisingly I’m infatuated with the supernatural. Pentecostalism has also taken on a lot of the tendencies and characteristics of evangelicalism in recent history, so unsurprisingly I also have a fascination with texts (which no doubt stems from the influence of biblicism). After completing my bachelor’s degree in English, I wrote a thesis on 2 Timothy 3:16 and the doctrine of scriptural inspiration in seminary. Right now I’m writing a major research paper on ecological theories of literature and storytelling (both Western and Indigenous) for my Cultural Studies masters. This is all to say that the relationship between writing and the sacred is a long-standing idea which Christianity did not invent; it spans many different cultural and religious traditions, and it’s clear that spirituality has played a vital role in a) elevating the importance of writing and storytelling in the human imagination, and b) inspiring the actual act of textual authorship itself. Over the years, I have wondered how the absence of a religious or spiritual worldview in modern Western culture has led to an undermining of the epistemic authority of literary and sacred texts.
In the environmental humanities, some recent theories/theorists of literature have argued that literary texts and other cultural artefacts can be considered ecologically “inspired” in a sense. Interestingly, this may in fact be a return to/a reconfiguration of more ancient supernaturalist understandings of writing. In many Indigenous societies, the land itself is alive and inherently spiritual; it literally thinks and/or speaks through human thought, which includes storytelling. I’m surprised but also fascinated by how these different cultural traditions reflect this common assumption of the spirituality of text, writing, and story in some form or another. It gives sacred (and perhaps artistic) writing an authority that is sorely lacking in our science-driven society. Here are just a few cultural/religious perspectives on the sacredness and “aliveness” of writing, storytelling, and texts in general.
One important concept for understanding Indigenous teachings about the connection between story/narrative and nature is Place-Thought. Vanessa Watts identifies this concept as a crucial part of Indigenous thought and storytelling which allows each to maintain such a close link to the natural world. Specifically, through the “agency” that Place-Thought locates within creation—which extends to both human and non-human beings—societies and systems become extensions of one another.3 This is in contrast to the Euro-Western frame of thought which “separates constituents of the world from how the world is understood”—for example, the strict division between story/art and environment.4 Watts defines Place-Thought as “a theoretical understanding of the world via a physical embodiment.” Place-Thought is based upon the premise that land is “alive and thinking and that humans and non-humans derive agency through the extensions of these thoughts.”5
In terms of its connection to Western ecologies of literature, an awareness of Place-Thought makes clear that both land and humans possess their own agency and think together, thereby implying that stories are both the thoughts of humans beings as well as the earth. A story is not so much connected to the earth as an it is an act of communication by the earth, facilitated by the language of humans and their place-based thoughts. This same principle could easily extend to written stories so that literary and sacred texts are physical consolidations of the relationship between human thinking with the land. In some sense, the land might be viewed as an author. This understanding of Indigenous epistemology allow us to see the close-knit connection between spirituality, story, and land from a theoretical perspective. The interconnectedness of ecology and story, as well as the important relationship between nature, storytelling, and the sacred is evident within several different Indigenous traditions.
Biblical/Ancient Near Eastern
Most people are familiar with the ancient Greek idea of the Muses. The concept of a God-breathed, sacred collection of writings that 2 Timothy 3:16 describes feel similar or at least compatible with this Greco-Roman notion of inspiration. However, in early ancient Near Eastern societies, writing and its physical markings were also thought to possess a numinous quality (some biblical scholars have argued that the Hebrew Bible reflects this idea as well). Writing was one way in which ancient societies both negotiated and concretized their relationship with divine beings. William Schniedewind has suggested that the numinous power of writing is characteristic of most pre-literate societies, including ancient Egypt and Israel. This “objectification of language” helped establish the idea that writing itself originated with the gods. He writes:
When writing within a text-artefact is an object itself, writing can be imbued with properties that do not reside in the same way in the spoken language… [t]he particular significance that ancient near eastern (and other) cultures gave to the objectification of language in writing may be associated with the view that writing was a gift of the gods. As such, it was separate from speech.1
Non-literate cultures in particular subscribed to “magical” notions about writing that were a reflection of the belief that writing was the domain of the divine.2 In this view, it is not only the content or meaning contained within the written text that qualifies it for sacred status: it is the written medium, or the artefact itself, that is believed to be intrinsically sacred. Re-reading Schniedewind now, it seems his analysis reproduces presumptions about cultural progress and primitivism, but he’s at least able to provide an interesting historical account of writing and the sacred in Mesopotamian culture.
Literary Green Theory
Within more recent traditions of Western literary scholarship, there is growing acknowledgement that literature is not strictly a cultural artefact with no connection to nature, human biology, or the environment. Since the mid-nineteenth century, when ecology emerged as a scientific discipline within the West, there has been a push to apply the questions, categories, and insights of ecology to theories and analyses of human culture. Laurence Coupe notes that although ecology is a branch of science originating in the mid-nineteenth century, literary and cultural studies has recently adapted ecology into a cultural theory as a response to the growing environmental crisis, as “the relationship between human beings and their total environment [has] become manifestly unstable, and the damage being done to nature [has] become an unavoidable challenge.”6 The examination of literature and culture through an ecological lens is known as “Green Studies,” and, as Coupe notes, as a field is it largely motivated by the necessity to reckon with colonial devastation of the natural environment.
One recent example of a “green” theory of literature is Hubert Zapf’s idea of literature as an ecological force. For Zapf, literary production is a result of natural ecological forces and biomaterial elements interacting both within the ecological world and between the mind of the human literary author. This allows us to understand the creation of literature as an inherently ecological event, and in some sense it fills the void left by the absence of sacred rationales for the existence of stories and written texts (which, again, might extend to literary texts). In the absence of a spiritual worldview, grounding literature in ecology as Zapf does is arguably a fruitful and potentially necessary theoretical move to make in order to reinvest art, literature, and storytelling with both power and epistemic authority within a (Western) secular culture that largely problematizes or rejects the sacred.
Which theories of literature, story, or sacred writing interests you the most? Which ones seem the most similar or compatible? Is ecology the answer in terms of modernizing spiritual or supernaturalist accounts of textual inspiration? Does this adequately invest story, scripture, and literature with epistemic authority (and therefore cultural relevancy)? Is there potential for interfaith and theological dialogue between Christianity, Indigenous spirituality, and secular worldviews here?