Baldwin’s Religion

Douglas Field’s Pentecostalism and All That Jazz: Tracing James Baldwin’s Religion is probably one of my favorite articles that we’ve read so far. I appreciated how this article made sense of Baldwin’s understanding of religion and it allowed me to think about how growing up in the Baptist Church has affected my perspective of religion. I agreed with Baldwin’s argument of how the church as an institution can be contradictory and produce a lack of self love. I’ve seen how the Baptist church can condemn its members and I’ve seen how the Baptist church can be a safe haven. The point that I resonated with the most is that you can be critical of the church and still be very Christian or religious. I also appreciated the history lesson on jazz music and the Pentecostal church. I think that being involved with music in any aspect can be religious or spiritual. I also never thought about how religion can lead to passivity and I think Field makes a great point when he states, “Baldwin suggests that piety not only leads to passivity, but that it damages personal relationships” (446). I feel as though this happens with a lot of religious people who blame their actions on God instead of taking responsibility for it. Further it is often people who claim to be the most Christian that I’ve seen do this. It also turns people away from faith in anything when people of the church continuously act hypocritically. Baldwin’s practice of an anti-institutional spiritually shifted my interpretation of part one of Go Tell It on The Mountain. I didn’t think that this novel was going to be critical of the church. I knew that religion was going to be a theme in the novel but I didn’t think the criticization of the church was going to be a central point of chapter one. I am curious to see how Roy’s and John’s paths diverge or connect throughout the rest of the novel. 

Field also addresses Baldwin’s ideology of salvation through the love and support of one another. He states, “Baldwin’s most radical rewriting of Christian–or at least spiritual identity–is to place emphasis on salvation and redemption, not through God, but through a love that is founded on the sharing of pain” (450). Can we be saved through each other? If God is the ultimate judge, do humans have the agency to save each other in a religious sense? I am not sure if Field meant for this to be taken quite literally. However, I am taking Jesus and Salvation for my second theo requirement right now so that could also be a reason why I am reading so deeply into this statement.  The purpose of this article is to address Baldwin’s opposition to the church. However, I did not expect his interpretation of his use of religious language in his writing to be taboo. He states, “In Baldwin’s later fiction, nakedness is holy, but the fear of judgment is replaced by the act of complete surrender to another lover. This authentic sexual love becomes itself an act of both revelation and of redemption” (452). Baldwin’s idea of a holy sort of love is what we would associate as traditionally taboo, which makes his work all the more thought provoking to me. Field is quick to acknowledge that Baldwin is not talking about sexual gratification, but more of a spiritual sexual love that is received by both people involved. I have seen If Beale Street Could Talk and I think the movie captured this aspect of a spiritual love. I loved how the article ended by reiterating that “Love, then aided and nurtured through gospel music, becomes the bedrock of Baldwin’s new religion. Irrespective of class, gender or sexuality, love becomes, for Baldwin, a redemptive act” (453). Further, “Love, spiritual love, is the new religion. For it is ‘love’, Baldwin concludes, ‘which is salvation.’” I think Baldwin’s understanding of religion is digestible, coming from the perspective of someone who is a Baptist Christian and his philosophy makes a lot of sense to me.

3 thoughts on “Baldwin’s Religion”

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post. Like you and the previous comments, I agree that Field’s piece definitely offers a unique insight and perspective on religion. I am Catholic and have been practicing Catholicism my whole life. I know that there is a lot of controversy surrounding Catholicism and the Catholic Church going on right now, making it hard for someone like me to defend my religion. However, both Baldwin and Fields readings for this week showed me that religiosity is subjective no matter what Church or religion you identify with. Like Baldwin does, I have realized that there is power in defining your own beliefs, love, spirituality, and more. Although the institution of religion, which is manifested in many different ways, may not necessarily promote the best ideals and beliefs, as Field states and as Baldwin demonstrates through his literature, you can still maintain the spirituality and belief that comes with religion no matter what the religion is.

  2. Like you, I also enjoyed this piece by Field. I found it to be especially important to my understanding of the life and work of James Baldwin, contextualizing him within a far greater space- religion. As a Christian myself, much of Field’s commentary resonated with my personal experience, as you also mention. With that being said, I really appreciated your highlighting of the sentence on passivity, blame, and hypocrisy in religion. These unfortunate, but arguably now inseparable features of religious institutions like the Catholic Church, have often brought me to tense moments with my own faith. For this reason, I appreciated Fields’ thorough exploration of Baldwin’s spirituality because I think there is something so powerful about defining religion for oneself, rather than letting it become something inflexible that must be followed and only defined by others.

  3. I completely agree that Field’s essay is a fantastic insight and with the points you made. I particularly appreciated how you touched on love and blame, as blame is something that comes up a lot in Go Tell It on the Mountain, be it the father’s blaming of John for Roy’s injuries, Elisha’s blaming of the devil for his emotions, or in general people’s blame of God for misfortune. Blame has always fascinated me in religious contexts because it seems so paradoxical. In full disclosure, that culture of blame and passivity is one of the reasons why I left the Catholic church, and why I tend to be on Baldwin’s side of organized religion. Finally, your last section reminded me of the phrase “God is love”, in regards to how Baldwin views salvation and redemption. I personally find many ideas of salvation to be self-serving, whether they are positive or negative, but Baldwin’s version of spiritual love is quite wholesome.

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