From Church to Birch: Finding Religious Salvation in the Natural World Of Literature


Where does one find God? Surely, religion is not always found in a church. Many biblical motifs, such as the wilderness, can be discovered just outside one’s front door. In the Bible, the wilderness is utilized to depict the search for divinity. A notable example of the search for natural divinity can be uncovered in the “Jesus and the Devil” verse. Many tests in the Bible take place in the natural world, in particular, the desert. This unforgiving, arid biome is where Jesus is tested by the devil, deprived of food for forty days (English Standard Version, Matthew 4.1-11). Nature represents an opportunity for religious self-reflection, whether it be enlightenment or torment varies. Jesus is being tested in the wilderness, the trials of God found more in the natural world than in any church or scripture. Additionally, deserts represent a lack of life forms, representing the struggle for divinity Jesus experiences with the devil as a result of a barren world, no life forms to hold the spirit of God in. In literature, the idea of finding God in nature is not uncommon. A significant example of religion entwined in the natural wilderness can be found in the transcendentalist movement of American literature. Beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson and followed by Henry David Thoreau, American transcendentalist writers sought to find divinity and religion right in their own backyards. In their essays, they recognized the important lessons about God nature teaches, if one is attentive enough. In Emerson’s essay IV entitled “Spirit”, he muses, “The aspect of Nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bent head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship” (Spirit IV). Similar to Jesus spreading the word of God, nature teaches devout lessons of worship unfound in a church, which Emerson and Thoreau embraced in their work and their lives. Influenced by the transcendentalist movement, American writers continued to find religious divinity in the natural wilderness. A generation later, Sarah Jewett brought the bible to the fantasy world of A White Heron. Sylvia finds purity in her natural world with the existence of the beautiful white heron, and with the other forest creatures as well. Jewett describes that “their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not” (1.1). Sylvia shares the divinity and purity that courses through nature with all the creatures in the forest, the fortitude of life forms representing the perfect place for religious purity. Even when sin is introduced and purity is threatened with the hunter, a trial similar to Jesus’s desert trial, Sylvia is able to resist the exploitative temptations because of her love of the natural world, and, hence, religious purity. Examples of the enchanted and religious divinity found in nature can be uncovered in other, more contemporary works of literature. The infamous contemporary work of literature of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is often criticized for being one of the worst writers of modern literature. However, when one takes a deeper look at her work, biblical motifs can be uncovered. Meyer utilizes the wilderness and its creatures to represent Bella Swan’s search for divinity and purity in the natural world. Bella had embraced the life of every other teenage girl, until laying eyes on the mysterious Edward Cullen, a creature of the forest and history unknown. It is in the forest where she first notices his sparkle in the sun, and their bond together solidifies. She heavily debates leaving the comforts of her mortal world for the immortal realm of the forests, but ultimately chooses to completely endorse herself in the everlasting natural world of the supernatural. This is a test, similar to how Jesus was tested in the Jesus and the Devil verse, a choice between the sins of normalcy and the divinity of the unknown natural world. When Bella is finally able to become a vampire later in the trilogy, she is finally free of social liberation, and gives birth to a child, Renesmee, as reputationally divine as Pearl from The Scarlet Letter. All throughout literature, to work as critically celebrated as Walden to novels as critically nitpicked as the young adult novel Twilight, wilderness illustrates the ability to find religious purity and answers in the natural world. By utilizing religious purity and looking to nature and the wilderness for it, many influential American authors are able to represent religion’s place in one’s own backyard. All one needs to do is step outside, and look for it.

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2 Responses to From Church to Birch: Finding Religious Salvation in the Natural World Of Literature

  1. anudaramola says:

    Great hook and closing! It really sandwiched your thoughts well. There are just a few minor grammatical mistakes, but other than that, I think this is an amazing response.

  2. justinhern says:

    Good job. I liked your examples from American Lit. A question I have is what made you choose the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert over other Bible stories? I feel like if you picked the story of the Garden of Eden or the Garden of Gethsemane it would have connected better with your examples, as they deal with more sprawling nature rather than the absence of nature in the desert.

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