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Theologian explores spirituality, sacramentals in Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon’

| Friday, February 7, 2020

Members of the Saint Mary’s community gathered in Carroll Auditorium to hear M. Shawn Copeland, noted theologian and Boston College professor emerita, speak on spirituality in Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.” This talk was the first of the Center for Spirituality’s spring lecture series.

Early in her lecture, Copeland explained that she wanted those who study literature to know theologians such as herself do not intend to make works of fiction suit their discipline’s needs.

Gina Twardosz
Dr. M. Shawn Copeland, Boston College professor emerita and a noted theologian, spoke on the spiritual significance of Toni Morrison’s novel “The Song of Solomon,” Thursday.

“Quite frankly, I want to ward off any suspicions that may lurk among professors in English and American literatures — professors and students who may be concerned about theologians instrumentalizing or distorting fiction,” Copeland said.

Her overview of the novel distinguished it as more driven by culture than action.

“‘Song of Solomon’ really is a psychological novel,” Copeland said. “It’s much more concerned with an examination of the inner lives of its characters and their responses to historical and familial circumstances than it is with action.”

Because of its focus on these themes, “Song of Solomon” encourages readers to better understand humanity, she said.

“Literature teaches and tutors us, coaxes and coaches us — all of us — even theologians in the mysteries of the human mind and human heart … well-written, demanding novels challenge,” she said. “They resist reduction both to naïve literalism and overblown symbolizing. Theology and literature draw our attention to what is vital and important, turn us toward what is transcendent, toward what transcends us toward the potentialities of our own self-transcendence.”

Copeland explained the novel’s major characters and their history. With the aid of a family tree, she explained the connections of the Dead family, around whom “Song of Solomon” is centered. She then gave an overview of the plot before launching into the novel’s connections to spirituality.

“Some of you may find the notion of spirituality and relation to ‘Song of Solomon’ surprising, and others may think linking the novel to Catholicism or Catholic spirituality to be dubious or odd, or perhaps flat-out wrong,” she said. “I understand spirituality as a way of life, a way of living, a way of being in and moving with and through the world.”

Catholicism is a religion, Copeland said, but also a spirituality.

“This way of life and living extends the word made flesh through community and communion, in and through and beyond time,” she said.

She noted several examples of characters in “Song of Solomon” who take on their own spiritual journeys. Among them is Milkman, one of the novel’s main characters. Events in his life “fundamentally and profoundly” changed him, she said.

“What began as a material quest evolved into a spiritual journey. Milkman has found a treasure far more precious than gold,” Copeland said. “He has found his family’s history … a powerful and empowering spiritual gift.”

Another character through whom Morrison explores spirituality is Pilate, Copeland said.

“The way in which Pilate Dead lives her life — the way she is, the way in which she moves in and with and through the world — this was as a developed and developing relationality to sell others, the world and the transcendent … because human living always is fragile practice in fleshing vulnerabilities and virtues, judgements and decisions, surrender and discipline, atonement and conversion,” she said.

The character of Pilate also introduces readers to sacramentals, another of the lecture’s themes.

“In particular, [Pilate] introduces us to reliquaries, containers for precious or sacred objects,” Copeland said. “Sacramentals remind us of and orient us toward transcendence. … Such signs include physical objects, some candles, rosaries, medals, relics, statues and music.”

These signs were among the things that helped Pilate sanctify her time, Copeland said.

“‘Song of Solomon’ is indirectly didactic,” she said. “The characters of the novel illustrate what it means to value family, venerate ancestors, cherish children and old people, honor friendship … and respect all those encountered along the way.”

Following the lecture, questions from the audience revolved around the themes of Catholicism and African American culture.

“This is a heavily cultural novel, and if you’ve only thought of black culture as pathological, then you’ve really missed out on something important,” Copeland said. “There are a lot of subtleties here that black people don’t all master. Mastering your culture, really appropriating it fully, is really a lifetime project. Few people are really able to do this. This is why novelists are so important.”

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