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Poetry and story keep religion alive and well

By Andrew Greeley
Transaction Publishers, 281 pages, $32.95


Fr. Andrew Greeley has written some engaging books from a sociologist's point of view. This is not one of them. He has produced some works of important insight into the world of religion and behavior. This is one of them. The problem here seems to be the topic. Or perhaps the problem is this particular reviewer.

In this volume Greeley says religions "have endured for millennia because of their poetic elements: rituals, parables and stories." His case is well made, convincing. The book is well worth reading (this is not said in condescension). It simply must be noted that this isn't a book for the beach or other relaxed times. It is one to be worked with for optimum benefit to the reader.

The author begins by capsulizing several classical theories of the sociology of religion (Durkheim, Malinowski, Weber, Parsons, et al.), and indicates certain points of agreement with each of them, including Marx and Freud.

Greeley writes that religion "begins in experiences that renew hope, is encoded in the preconscious (creative intuition, poetic dimension, agent intellect, call it what one will) in symbols, shared with others in stories, which are told to and constitute a storytelling community, which enacts the stories in community rituals." Clearly this is a conclusion to consider repeatedly and from which to learn. There is much wisdom in that insight and much of the book is in logical support.

The religious symbol, we read, recalls some aspects of the ultimate meaning of life. The novelist-sociologist then says that "humans need both experience and reflection, both poetry and prose, both fiction and nonfiction." Precision, we are reminded, provides the details. Story renders the big picture. Religion is story before anything else.

And if so, story has a certain precedence over doctrinal convictions. Chapters 4 and 5 are a quite successful self-proclaimed attempt to "strike a mighty blow against the notion that religion is in decline." Faith and superstition both survive, thinks Greeley, and the Age of Faith may yet come. "Or perhaps it is always present."

In a chapter titled "The Persistence of Religion," however, the reader untrained in sociology may begin to find off-putting statistics, however necessary they may be to the author's intention. Charts and graphs begin to appear regularly, as does some sociological jargon. But the observations are important and provide us with data supporting the "religion as poetry" thesis.

Greeley tells of differences in the Russian religious revival (great) and that in East Germany (minimal) and of differences in general between Protestants and Catholics on such issues as suicide, social change, community, personal integrity and so on. Prayer gets special attention: its place in American life; religious poetry as a predictor variable; comparison of American findings with those of other nations.

One of the overall conclusions of this research is that religion is politically and socially important enough to be investigated regarding the functioning of American society. Those who think religion is no longer important in American society "are not only in error but blind to the facts."

For Greeley, "stories of God predict stories of human life." He tries to show that in this book and does so with success. But it is a slow read.

I await Greeley's inevitable letter to the editor.

Harry James Cargas, author of 31 books and countless articles, lives in St. Louis where he is a professor emeritus.

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 1996