Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Religion Under the Dome

This week in my Literature of the Public Life class, we are talking about the representation of religion in Stephen King's Under the Dome (for earlier discussions of my teaching of this novel, see here).  My students did an excellent job of identifying the major ways in which God and religion function throughout the novel--as a propaganda tool, as a way of exposing hypocrisy, as something that is associated with insanity, as something that doesn't actually exist, as something involuntarily relied upon in times of trouble.

As quickly became clear (and as my students had already suspected), the representation of religion isn't all that positive--and in fact, it's quite easy to read Under the Dome as a fairly strong critique of organized religion or even a depiction of a world where religion no longer matters.

But this, I think, is too easy.  Pointing out that Big Jim Rennie is a giant hypocrite is like shooting fish in a barrel.

No, I think religion functions in a much more interesting and subtle way, thanks to a passage near the end of the novel, on p. 975 of the paperback version.

[spoilers follow]

In this scene, the police force has gotten into a shootout with Andy Sanders and Chef Bushey at the WCIK radio station/meth lab, and on p. 975, the narrator describes how the gospel song "We'll Join Hands Around the Throne" is juxtaposed against this carnage.  This image called to mind another song--Simon and Garfunkel's "Silent Night/7 O' Clock News," in which the familiar Christmas carol is played together with the audio track from the news from August 3, 1966.  Have a listen:

This song always sends chills up my spine.  The familiar, soothing words of this most peaceful of Christmas carols slowly become overwhelmed by the everyday disturbances and horrors of the evening news.  While the news on its own might seem normal, even boring, having it played on top of this song that symbolizes ideal peace emphasizes how short of the ideal it falls.

As I suggested to my students this morning, I see something similar going on in Under the Dome.  The constant references to God serve as a reminder of what the ideal is and how fall short the residents of Chester's Mill have fallen.  This is not to say that the novel is endorsing any particular religious belief, but instead, that it uses cultural associations of God as a perfect being as a standard against which to measure the increasing darkness of the residents of Chester's Mill.

This idea is also much more compatible with other themes in the novel--themes of shame and repentance that we see time and again in the flashbacks of many of the major characters.  Barbie regrets his actions in Fallujah, Julia regrets her attitude in school, Piper Libby remembers her anger with shame.  Certainly, this repentance is not depicted as a religious one, but these actions of regret and apology are given a significance and a sacred importance in the novel.  While there might not be room for the religion of Big Jim in the world of Under the Dome, there is still room for repentance, and hope, and belief.

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

By Jen Miller