Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997) begins with a startling act of violence, then, in a landscape of confounding spirituality, unfolds the stories of several different women. The book was, in part, one woman’s answer to a question that will be familiar to anyone interested in the language of faith. How might religion be rendered in a fresh way to a largely nonreligious audience? Morrison wrote not as a (conscious) evangelist but as a mediator of time and place. She tasked herself with representing “the everyday practice of nineteenth-century African Americans and their children,” for whom faith was a profound motivating force.

In “God’s Language,” a lecture given at the University of Chicago in 1996 (and reproduced in her new collection The Source of Self-Regard), Morrison argued that hell was more easily imagined than heaven. She held up the work of John Milton, whose Chaos was more compelling than his Paradise, and Dante, whose Inferno “beats out Paradiso every time.” She concluded, “A nonexclusionary, unbordered, come-one-come-all paradise, without dread, minus a nemesis, is no paradise at all” — to readers such as ourselves, anyway. Morrison’s own Paradise was released to mixed reviews. I wonder if the hell/heaven dichotomy might be (liberally) extended here, possibly with Beloved as the resonant, shadowy counterpart.

With Paradise, Morrison wanted to “bear witness to the deeply religious population…and render their profoundly held moral system affective in these alienated, uninspiring, and uninspired times.” She wanted to illustrate, if not paradise itself, then the impact of the hope of it. From the aforementioned lecture, here was the problem:

Marketing religion requires new strategies, new appeals, and a relevance that is immediate, not contemplative. Thus modern language…is forced to kneel before the denominator that is most accessible, to bankrupt its subtlety, its mystery in order to bankroll its effect. Nevertheless it seems a poor substitute for the language it seeks to replace, not only because it sacrifices ambiguity, depth, and moral authority, but also because its techniques are reinforcement rather than liberation. […]

Is it possible to make the experience and journey of faith fresh, as new and as linguistically unencumbered as it was to early believers, who themselves had no collection of books to rely on?

I have chosen this task, this obligation partly because I am alarmed at the debasement of religious language in literature; its cliché-ridden expression, its apathy, its refusal to refuel itself with nonmarket vocabulary (or its insistence on refueling itself with marketing vocabulary), its substitution of the terminology of popular psychology for philosophical clarity; its patriarchal triumphalism, its morally opinionated dictatorial praxis, the unearned pleasure it takes in performability for its miracle rather than content; its low opinion of itself.

I find that last line staggering, and probably true. Did religious language lose faith in itself? Did it become so embarrassing to itself that it had to be buffed and made-over? I think of what a tall task it is to even mention religion to irreligious friends and family. I think, also, of how quickly the impulse arises to justify faith rather than letting faith do the justifying. In Morrison’s concluding remarks, she pressed in:

How can a novelist, in a land of plenty, render undeserved, limitless love, the one “that passeth all understanding,” without summoning the consumer pleasure of a lotto win? How to invoke paradise in an age of theme parks?

The answer, unfortunately, is that, so far, I cannot.

I have chosen in the meantime something else, some other strategy to concretize these informing, old-fashioned passions and conflicts. Not to use paeanistic, rapturous, large words, etc., but to reveal their consequences.

Here I would like to do what I have always done when the questions become answerable only in the act of storytelling. Begin the story.

She finished the lecture by reading the first line from her then-forthcoming Paradise and marking what appears to be a shift from talking about writing to actually writing. Which indicates, too, a humility, some surrender of control. (Elsewhere in the collection she says writing is an act of faith.)

I take from these concluding remarks a couple of things. One, illustrating the undeserved, limitless love of God is a worthy endeavor, possibly the endeavor — I’d say “of artists” but I’d also bet of everyone, in life and in love. I am also reminded that perception — from critics and acquaintances alike — cannot be controlled. Who if not Toni Morrison can control, whether with rapturous words or plain ones, how and when human language might represent God’s? More often than not, our language will be stupid, cruel, fleeting. Still, it’s the language we’ve been given, and it’s the language we can use. Like Morrison, we too can begin the story, choose a word, and wait for the consequence — and then perhaps God, with infinite, ever-surprising grace, will do something with it.