Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Committee Chair

Stenger, Mary Ann

Author's Keywords

Wendell Berry; Cormac McCarthy; Spirituality


Spirituality in literature; Religion in literature; Berry; Wendell; 1934---Criticism and interpretation; McCarthy; Cormac; 1933---Criticism and interpretation


This dissertation provides a reading of characters in the novels and short stories of two important contemporary American writers through the lens of spiritual theology. While spirituality has often been understood as necessitating a flight from the particular, the concrete, or the everyday, theologians such as Rowan Williams and Nicholas Lash have presented a more robust version of spirituality that understands the call to spirituality not as an invitation to flee from this world, but rather a vocation to a way of life that seeks reconciliation within this world, encountering and embracing God's presence within the contexts of such realities as corporeality, communities, and the created order as a whole. Such an understanding interrogates both ancient and modern forms of gnosticism that have often posed a threat to more orthodox forms of Christian spirituality. After constructing a theological framework rooted in the work of Williams, Lash, and others, I apply it to literature, arguing that the embodiment of these ideas, and therefore a demonstration of what Christian vocation might look like in the everyday, is present in the characters who populate the works of Wendell Berry, a Kentucky writer and farmer who has had a troubled relationship with Christianity, but nonetheless identifies himself as a Christian and takes seriously what the Bible has to say about the faithful life. In contrast, the primary influences that shape his characters' world views are gnostic in derivation. Thus, McCarthy's characters, in their pursuit of various goals, embody the opposite of Christian vocation in the ways that they relate to the flesh, to community, and to creation. Rather than humbly seeking and encountering God in these contexts, they strive always to transcend them, to overcome creaturely limitations, and to become, in the words of the serpent in the garden, "like God". By comparing these writers, the characters they create, and the worldviews that shape their narratives, I demonstrate, in ways that can be applied to other works and other characters, how the reading of fiction can inform the pursuit of the spiritual life.