This year, I hope to complete my dissertation, “A Secular Form of Life: Art and Criticism, 1934-2011,” which brings into focus the claims, aspirations, and anxieties of a neglected tradition of secular art and criticism. However, while my work challenges wide-spread skepticism about the defensibility—indeed, the very availability—of what I regard as a coherent, even if still-nascent secular form of life, my research so far suggests that what’s ultimately explanatory, or predictive, is not the evidence adduced to prove that, say, Cormac McCarthy is (or isn’t) a card-carrying secularist. Analogously, precious little hangs on determining whether a given artist has pre-modern sympathies; self-identifies as a modernist; or is rightfully anthologized as a postmodernist. My working assumption, rather, is that a given author’s, critic’s, or theorist’s work is profoundly shaped by the extent to which she is committed—self self-consciously or implicitly—to the network of concepts comprising what Richard Wright called, “human life”; what Flannery O’Connor called, “natural intelligence”; what Ralph Ellison called, “conscious eloquence”; what Michael Fried, Stanley Cavell, and contemporary analytic philosophers call, “mindedness;” and what I call, “the arts of accessibility.”
Of course, all of the above needs refining and challenging, which is why I’m thrilled to be a Junior Fellow at the Martin Marty Center. Indeed, while I have had occasion to address methodological problems in the study of religion as they articulate in literary theory, literary criticism, and several recent literary histories, I have not yet had the opportunity to read and discuss texts with scholars of religion in any sustained way. I have no doubt that such discussions will provide me with powerful interlocutors and transform my perspective, not only of my objects of investigation, but of my own sense of what a serious scholar of religion and secularism is required to do.