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Standing on holy ground: The sacred landscapes of Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, and Frederick Buechner

Elizabeth Z. Bachrach Tan, University of Massachusetts - Amherst

Abstract

In this dissertation I examine how three contemporary writers represent their religious experience and interpret the varied landscape of American Christianity. Central to my study is the consideration of contemporary religious discourse and how spiritual meanings are constructed and reflected in personal narratives by spatial structures and codes. Some of the questions that I focus on include: What and whom do the representations of religious life center around? Who's there? Who's not? Also, how important is the physical landscape in the rendering of spiritual experiences? What spaces and places are sacred?^ In chapter one I discuss why it is important for literary and composition scholars to consider contemporary religious writings. I also overview numerous theories of space, and point out how attending to the discourses of space helps elucidate the incarnational motif that is as strong a paradigm within contemporary Christian narratives as that of conversion.^ Chapter two focuses on what is most likely Dillard's best known work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I explore in detail the ways in which she presents the landscape of the creek as both a natural playground and a spiritual wonderland.^ In chapter three, I consider four of Dillard's "churchscapes" that appear in Holy the Firm and Teaching a Stone to Talk. I argue that Dillard's "map" of the American church reveals a variegated Christian landscape and highlights clashes of incongruities. Dillard provides candid and occasionally humorous portraits of religious cultures as she attempts to make the sacred realm recognizable in her texts.^ In chapter four, I look at Norris's Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. I first establish how she represents her external landscape before engaging questions of how her spiritual views and her natural surroundings mutually shape each other. What most strongly gets expressed in Norris's essays is a vision of the sacred that is grounded within ordinary time and space and intensely human centered.^ In chapter five, I discuss Buechner's three spiritual autobiographies, Sacred Journey, Now and Then, and Telling Secrets. I detail how place imagery assists him to describe his internal life; via the landscape of his imagination, he drafts a blueprint not only for himself but for Christianity in North America as well. I argue that by naming his everyday, ordinary world as a regular venue of sacred encounter, Buechner's works both demystify the holy and reintroduce elements of enchantment into postmodern American spaces.^ I conclude with a brief afterword, drawing together some of the key ideas that appear in each chapter. I consider how differently these writers articulate their Christianity as well as, surprisingly, how many similar tropes and concerns appear in their personal narratives of faith. ^

Subject Area

Religion, General|Geography|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Elizabeth Z. Bachrach Tan, "Standing on holy ground: The sacred landscapes of Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, and Frederick Buechner" (January 1, 1995). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. Paper AAI9606486.
http://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations/AAI9606486

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