"Is this heaven?" asks Shoeless Joe early on in the novel. "No, it's Iowa," replies Ray. In reality, however, Ray's magical baseball field has many of the characteristics of the Christian heaven, and Ray himself resembles an apostle of Christ, proclaiming the "good news" of salvation to all who believe. Seen in this light, Shoeless Joe appears to resemble an extended religious parable that creates, out of the rituals and artifacts of baseball, the trappings of a new religion, with much of its creed borrowed from the traditional elements of Christianity. While it is tempting to see the novel in this way, Kinsella is careful to repudiate the idea that baseball can be worshiped as a religion. He does this by contrasting Eddie Scissons and Moonlight Graham, highlighting the different role that baseball plays in each of their lives. Also, close analysis of Ray's heavenly Iowan field suggests that its saving values of love and hope rest on political and social underpinnings that may bring their universality into question.
The parallels between Ray's enterprise and that of an evangelist inspired by Old and New Testaments are unmistakable. Ray is a Moses bringing his people to the promised land, flowing with milk and honey. The promised land happens to be Iowa, lyrical descriptions of which occur on and off throughout the story. And in Ray's magical, blessed baseball field, he offers healing sanctuary first for Shoeless Joe, an outcast and a sinner, just as Jesus made a point of eating with tax collectors (the outcasts of his day) and sinners. Ray also brings to enlightenment his long-lost brother, Richard, who resembles the prodigal son in the story told in Luke's gospel (Luke 15: 11-32). And like any good evangelist, Ray goes out in search of the lost sheep, as in the story told in Matthew, chapter 15, about the man who leaves his ninety-nine sheep to search for the one sheep that is lost, and rejoices greatly when he finds it. The lost sheep in Shoeless Joe takes the form of J. D. Salinger. When Ray finds him, Salinger epitomizes the error made by the third servant in the parable of the talents related in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 25. This is the servant who was given one talent (a unit of currency) by his master and buried it in the ground rather than doing as the other servants did—using what they had been given and so multiplying it. Kinsella's Salinger is a brilliant writer, blessed with the ability to touch people deeply with his words, but he has chosen not to share his gift with others. In the language of the New Testament, he is hiding his light under a bushel instead of letting it shine out. Ray, the baseball evangelist, must try to awaken him from his spiritual torpor.
Ray succeeds even better than he must have expected, for not only does Salinger, at the end of the novel, promise to let his light shine (that is, to write again), he is also the one who is permitted to experience the rapture. This is a reference to the Christian belief, based on a passage in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians (4:17), that when Christ returns, believers will be caught up in the air to meet him. The equivalent in the novel is the invitation the baseball players extend to Salinger to join them after the game. They permit him to enter whatever spiritual world they inhabit when they are not hitting and fielding baseballs. This is a world the nature of which Ray can only guess at, but there are strong hints that Salinger will there have all his buried hopes and desires met.
In short, then, Ray's baseball field is the medium through which the ideal, transfigured, paradise state emerges and is made known. It is a condition, a state of consciousness, in which instead of being recalcitrant to human desire, life takes on the very shape of the fulfilled wish. It is similar to the description given in the Book of Revelations about the new Jerusalem that is made manifest after the return of Christ: "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (21:4). As Annie says in the novel, "It's so perfect here."
Should we, then, worship baseball, the most perfect of games, embodiment of beauty and granter of our desires, a stable point of reference in a changing world? The perhaps surprising answer Kinsella gives is no. He is careful to point out that this quasi-religious world, just like its Christian counterpart, has its devil. And that this devil is ready to tempt the baseball lover, promising everything but leading him astray. The devil comes in...
(The entire section is 1885 words.)