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Autobiography, Biography, and Theological Questioning  

John D. Barbour

Autobiography and biography (which together will be called “life writing”) raise theological questions in ways different from systematic or constructive theology. These forms of life writing tell a story that may or may not be correlated with traditional doctrines. They integrate the first order discourse of symbol and narrative with secondary hermeneutical reflections that interpret and analyze the meaning and truth of religious language. The probing and disturbing questioning in a profound autobiography such as Augustine’s contrasts with the assurances and settled answers expected of theology by religious institutions and communities. Particular religious questions shape specific genres of life writing such as Puritan discourses, nature writing, or African American autobiographies. The theology in autobiography may be either explicit or implicit and involves both questioning and affirmation, as may be seen in works as different as Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. Conversion has been a central theme and shaping influence on Christian texts, even when authors challenge this focus and create alternative forms. A central theological question posed by autobiography concerns the authority of individual experience when it contrasts or conflicts with traditional norms asserted by orthodox believers and ecclesiastical hierarchy. In spiritual autobiographies by contemporary writers, we see serious attention given to communal norms for life stories and a search for a distinctive personal apprehension of what is sacred. Autobiographical writing has been stronger in the history of some religious traditions than in others. Yet in the modern world, almost every culture has produced life writing that questions or challenges established patterns of thought and practice. In contrast with autobiography, sacred biography has been an important part of every religious tradition, usually describing an exemplar to be revered and imitated. Its strong didactic interests often curb theological questioning of established norms. While modern scholarly biographies often mute theological questions, some writers raise normative issues and argue for why the subject’s life should be valued. As well as the theology explored within life writing, many works reveal a theology of life writing, that is, beliefs about how this kind of writing may bring the author or readers better understanding of God or deeper faith.



Daniela Campo

Xuyun 虛雲 (?–1959), also known in the West as Empty Cloud, was a famous Chan master and one of the principal monastic leaders of modern Chinese Buddhism. From the end of the Chinese empire to the first decade of the Maoist regime, Xuyun engaged in the physical reconstruction and institutional reform of six large monasteries of the Chan tradition. In his monasteries, he reintroduced disciplinary rules, meditation practice, and precept transmission and trained new generations of monastics. A former ascetic and an expert Chan practitioner, Xuyun led extended meditation retreats and instructed both monastic and lay Buddhists in the kan huatou method of meditation. Known as a miracle worker, he directed religious ceremonies and public rituals all over the country, attracting huge numbers of followers. Relying on his charisma and on his great authority at both a religious and an institutional level, this master actively worked for the transmission of Chinese Buddhism and helped shape its transition to the new social and political conditions: his long-term engagement in the preservation of the rules of Chinese monasticism and systematic effort to ensure the reproduction of Chinese Buddhism in general and of the Chan school in particular through Dharma transmissions can also be singled out among his most important contributions to modern Chinese Buddhism. Xuyun also was, and still is, one of the most revered Buddhist masters of the 20th century across China and the West. He acquired the reputation of a modern eminent monk during his lifetime, particularly after the 1953 publication of his autobiography—a work that fits neatly into the hagiographical tradition of the biographies of eminent monks, in terms of not only its themes, aims, and target audience but also its sources and its editorial method.


Muslims and Literature in North America  

Adam Yaghi

Muslim Americans have been producing literature and culture since the arrival of early waves of enslaved Muslims in the New World. Irreducible to a single entity, and yet victims to inexplicable omissions, they and their heterogeneous literary productions cannot be understood without proper historical contextualization. Tracing literary manifestations of Muslim Americans’ presence in the United States from before its inception into the 21st century not only uncovers popular American misrepresentations of Islam but also unveils rich Muslim American narrations that attempt to negotiate an often-contested Muslim America. Any critical treatment of this body of literature at this early stage can be neither comprehensive nor exhaustive. After all, Muslim American literature is not yet a distinct field or area of study and as such, seeking to authoritatively define the scope of what falls under the phrase “Muslim American literature” might prove a challenging task. Some common parameters, however, range from relying on the declared religious identity of examined authors, the religious themes pervading their texts, and the presence of Muslim sensibilities, to other parameters. In this context, Muslim Americans, Muslims, and Islam are heterogeneous identities; representations therefore vary based on political and other considerations. Indeed, Muslim American literary representations tend to oscillate between narratives and counter-narratives with vast gray areas between. Nonetheless, Muslim American literary productions demonstrate how a continuous intersection of different forces and currents informs the story of Muslim America: from religion, imperialism, and resistance to belonging, dynamic self-identification, and competing narrations. Muslim American literary texts also frustrate stereotypical misrepresentations, highlight Muslim American anxieties, expose oppressive regimes, debate nationalistic and alternate notions of citizenship, and regularly engage in multiple critiques. Still others ultimately reproduce orientalist, imperialist, or Islamophobic portraits. Muslim American literature therefore allows for and explores the possibility of multiple intersectional identities and critiques that move beyond imagining identity as constructed merely of a cultural, racial, political, religious, or class background. Muslim American literature further provides fertile ground for critiquing Western and hegemonic interests in a complex and transnational form.