Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Religion & Culture / Religious Studies


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Not Applicable

Advisor Role

Not Applicable


In the 1990s, Canadian readers were offered a new literary trend: the Atlantic Canadian Catholic novel. In this dissertation, I examine works from six authors whose writing reflects the scope of this trend and I argue for a consideration of their collective impact on our social imaginary. The bulk of my argument is devoted to an examination of the Catholic religious content in the five novels and one memoir: David Adams Richards’ Bay of Love and Sorrows (1998); Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees (1996); Lynn Coady’s Strange Heaven (1996); Wayne Johnston’s Baltimore’s Mansion: A Memoir (1999); Patrick Kavanagh’s Gaff Topsails (1996); and Michael Crummey’s The Wreckage (2005). These novels are indicative of what is more broadly referred to as the contemporary “return of religion” in Western discourse and politics. But what exactly does this revitalized religious discourse tell us? It is my contention that the rise of the Catholic novel in Atlantic Canada signals shifts in what we consider as the “religious” and the “secular.” I offer an account of this shifting religious-secular dynamic in my introduction.

While each of the works I study is unique, there are consistent theological constructs that are repeated through them all. I have called these consistencies a “theological aesthetic.” They include: firstly, the analogy of being—a specific linguistic pattern for considering the similarities and differences between God and humanity; secondly, the spiritual sense—a way of reading Scripture which allows for figures and events to take on significance that resonates beyond the literal element of the text; and thirdly, gathered time—a description of the way that eternity relates to temporal beings. These three aspects of the theological aesthetic offer insight into contemporary Western understandings of the relations between the secular (nature) and the religious (grace). I argue that instead of putting the emphasis on the extreme difference between nature and grace, as was done by the influential Protestant movements that underwrote the earlier Atlantic Canadian imaginary, the current shifts have allowed for a more broadly defined nature-grace continuum. To understand this shift we require a fuller distinction between what I call “Secular I” (as described in most earlier secularization theories) and “Secular II” (now sometimes referred to as the “post-secular”). In my final chapter, I offer an explanation of this shifting religious-secular dynamic through an historical overview of key texts in the Atlantic literary canon. I theorize the shift from a stable divide between the religious and the secular that was managed by a general Protestant ethos, to a more stringent privatization of religion. While many have naturalized the resulting secularism, I claim that this recent Catholic literary trend challenges our preconceived notions about what constitutes secular and religious contributions, and thus, frustrates any notion of purity on the side of the secular or the religious. Understood this way, the contemporary Catholic novel in Atlantic Canada, which could stereotypically be thought to express marginal concerns, reflects a post-secular innovation that represents a transnational critique of the Protestant structures that underpin our social imaginary.

Convocation Year