Changing Your Religion

July 21, 2015

There is a Quaker family in Some Luck, Jane Smiley’s novel (first of a trilogy) about an Iowa farm family, but that’s not what drew my interest. Good thing, too, because nothing is said about this family religiously except that they are Quaker and thus a bit apart from others. Walter Langdon, the father in the family that is at the center of the chronicle grew up Methodist but not in any deep way. Rosanna, who he marries when he returns from World War I, grew up Roman Catholic.

This religious difference doesn’t seem much of an issue (she was eager to be out of her parents’ house and on with her life) until she and Walter soon begin having children and the question arises about where they will be baptized. That question freezes Rosanna for a time, but she opts for the Methodist church.

What does draw my interest is Rosanna’s religious journey from that point forward. It is unusual in my experience to read a novel that addresses religious issues unless issues of religion or religious identity are front and center, the main thing. Religious matters aren’t the main thing in Some Luck but they do matter, especially for Rosanna.

She gives birth to six children over a space of two decades, each quite different from the ones before and that sets her wondering. When Mary Elizabeth (the third) dies of an accidental fall, Rosanna finds herself with despair and troubling questions.

If having religious questions in view in a novel is unusual, all the more so is having religious change in view. Rosanna drags her family to a Billy Sunday revival and answers an alter call. That helps her feel cleansed and better able to leave the tragedy behind. She directs her family away from the Methodist church in which her husband grew up and has them begin attending an Assembly of God church. She finds a more active religious experience there that’s helpful to her, but later, with the Depression full upon their lives, she finds the preacher in that church too quick to blame individual behavior for the sad circumstances in which nearly everyone is now enmeshed. She and her family creep out of the church mid sermon one Sunday never apparently to return.

There is nothing especially deep or insightful about this religious journey in Smiley’s novel, but it is striking that I can’t think of a parallel in another novel. I can think of novels where there is turmoil about having given up religion but is there another that sympathetically imagines a person’s leaving one church for another ass one thread in a more complex skein?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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