All the key Christian issues are explored within the context of the Anglo-Catholicism in which James Agee was raised in the early years of the twentieth century in the American South. Agee particularly examines Mary Follet’s religion as a crucial ingredient in how she faces the sudden death of her young husband. Her reaction to the death, however, indicates that she may be the captive of a mistaken Christianity that fails to cope with grief or loss and instead feeds the sin of spiritual pride.
In addition to exploring Mary’s religious convictions, Agee uses the novel to explore an entire family that is divided on the issue of religion. Hannah is a stoical believer; Mary is a grandiose believer; and Joel is angry at God. Andrew, in contrast, is angry at the Church but seems to be in touch with spiritual impulses. The individual nature of each family member’s view of religion tells Rufus that beliefs and values ultimately come down to the single self. As Rufus begins to work things out for himself, however, he struggles with the problem of evil, which surfaces within his family in the wake of the death of his father and also in his neighborhood through issues such as racism and bullying.
Even as Agee’s novel explores false or hypocritical religiosity, the novel’s pervasive mood is one that suggests that the ordinary days and hours of our lives possess a sacred aspect. Similarly, Agee also introduces into his narrative a sense of spiritual humility in the face of the mystery of life and death.