The American Religion, by Harold Bloom
The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation.
by Harold Bloom.
Simon & Schuster. 288 pp. $22.00.
If one takes enough stabs in the dark, one is bound to hit upon the occasional truth. And if one is as incorrigibly clever and eclectically erudite as the well-known literary critic and amateur Bible scholar Harold Bloom (he of The Book of J), the averages improve somewhat. Or so one would think. The American Religion, however, disproves the rule.
Bloom is aware that there are those who might question his credentials when he claims to be a “religious critic.” (By this he does not mean that he is a critic who is religious. He tells us that he is a “gnostic Jew” who is not quite up to trust in God and all that.) But credentials, in the sense of mastery of a subject, are rather beside the point to this critic who sees his intellectual task not as interpreting reality but as offering “strong misreadings” which create realities not previously suspected.
Bloom has obviously been brooding about religion in America for some time, and all in all he does not seem to care for it very much. At least he does not care very much for the religion espoused by nearly 90 percent of the American people. Traditional forms of normative Christianity and Judaism, he assures us, are vestigial European imports that have never really taken root in America. Those traditions are but the veneer over the real “post-Christian” (and, presumably, post-Jewish) religion of America, which is gnosticism.
Now gnosticism (from the Greek word for knowing) is a term of wondrous plasticity. By it Bloom seems to mean the belief that human beings are inherently immortal, possessed of divine sparks that can be actualized in the solitary and transcendent self. (Emerson is everywhere in Bloom’s ponderings.) Whatever Americans may say they believe, this is in fact what, according to Bloom, they do believe. To the extent that his book is about any one thing, it is about the failure of Americans to recognize and embrace the religion which Bloom says is authentically theirs.
A case in point is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the country’s largest Protestant association. Bloom tells us that his understanding of that community is derived from a colleague at Yale (where Bloom teaches English) who must remain anonymous lest he become the victim of retaliation by the fundamentalists who have in recent years taken over and dreadfully distorted the SBC.
From his anonymous source Bloom has learned to admire Edgar Young Mullins (d. 1928) who, despite having written The Fundamentals (from which fundamentalism takes its name), is depicted as a most agreeable gnostic. Even Mullins, however, did not get the American Religion quite right, for he lacked the nerve to go all the way and affirm what Bloom calls “the nakedness of the soul.” As for today’s Southern Baptists, they simply fail to live up to their creed. Bloom describes the true Baptist:
She [sic] knows, beyond knowing, that she is no part of the Creation, and she possesses the other American knowledge also, the freedom that is wildness, total spiritual solitude.
Never mind that this is not and never has been the Baptist creed. Bloom knows that it ought to be.
Others besides Southern Baptists have likewise failed in their adherence to the American Religion. Take, for example, Joseph Smith (d. 1844), founder of the Mormons, whose strong and indeed fanciful misreading of the Hebrew scriptures and almost everything else brings Bloom close to the “ecstasy” for which he says he is looking. In Bloom’s reading, Smith was wild, solitary, defiant, and plumb crazy enough to merit the title of “religious genius.” But, as one might expect, the Mormons have ruined Mormonism, domesticating the ecstasy in order to construct a bourgeois empire that is, once again, the enemy of the true American Religion.
Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science also come in for major attention—Bloom does not like them at all—and cheap shots are taken at Jimmy Swaggart and others who have soiled their nests in prime time. And so it goes. No wonder that Bloom ends on a distinctly discouraged and discouraging note. The future, he writes, is grim. The Southern Baptist Convention is increasingly the Established Church of the South and Southwest, while the Mormons are becoming the Established Church of the West. Together, they are gaining a stranglehold on the American spirit. Worst of all, the Republican party knows this and is colluding with them to achieve an “altogether invincible” command of our national life.
Yet there is a saving “irony”: this (apparent) rejection of the true American Religion is in fact an assertion of
another form of gnosis, another knowing, and what it knows is that it must replace the purely secular authority brought about by the American Revolution.
Anyone in search of coherent argument might be inclined to think that this conclusion is not so much an irony as a plain non sequitur. But then, The American Religion, a 288-page imaginative flirtation with nonsense, is a text which both perpetrates and invites misreading.