Divine heresy: Women's revisions of sacred texts
Brassaw, Mandolin R.
This dissertation argues that American women writers have revised sacred texts to challenge patriarchy, racism, and colonialism and rewritten American history to reveal how biblical scripture has been implicated in these processes. I focus on the literary strategies of Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Lucille Clifton to rewrite sacred texts and create myths for a new society. In different ways, these writers redefine Christianity, often by countering the erasures of women in biblical scripture, recovering suppressed texts such as those from the gnostic tradition, and creating new sacred texts. Chapter I traces the history of feminist scriptural revision from the early feminist movement to its resurgence in the late-twentieth century. In this period, a number of authors rewrote religious scripture from a pre-Christian tradition; Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels played a critical role in the attention given to scripture suppressed by Christianity and the potential it holds for writers interested in recovering alternative epistemologies. Chapter II focuses on Morrison's Beloved and Jazz , which are concerned with the way biblical theology is proliferated through apocalyptic narrative strategies and omniscient narration. This chapter investigates the shift Morrison makes between biblical and gnostic concerns in the first two books of her trilogy. Chapter III analyzes the final book in Morrison's trilogy, Paradise , and compares it to Silko's Gardens in the Dunes . Here, Morrison relies on gnostic sources to scrutinize the effects of biblical notions of utopia on literature and its implications for social relations. Gardens uses the same sources but puts them to different uses, subverting their authority in a rewriting that supports Native survival through a program of cultural syncretism. Chapter IV examines the poetry of Lucille Clifton, who, although initially revising Christianity through her refiguring of the Lucifer character, rejects that tradition following the events of 9/11. Clifton's work in Mercy marks a juncture in women's revisions of sacred texts in its departure from Christianity and its introduction of a new sacred text and moral code not predicated upon hierarchy. In conclusion, I consider how these writers extend feminist and anti-racist traditions of scriptural revision explored in the introduction.