Five long essays loosely stitched into a complex, suggestive book. Gunn, who teaches religion and American studies at Chapel Hill, is a pedestrian writer but an agile thinker, and some of the speculative leaps he takes here are superb. After a detailed historical survey of the three ""generations"" of modern critics (their approaches characterized respectively as pastoral/dogmatic, apologetic, and analytical who have studied the relations between religion and literature, Gunn offers his own interdisciplinary vision. Underlying every literary work he sees a ""commitment to vital possibility,"" i.e., a half-conscious, quasi-religious faith in a world that transcends the range of immediate perception. Again, literature, like religion, speaks, or at its best can speak, to the ""deepest sense of ourselves,"" which is shaped in turn by whatever we find supremely meaningful. Finally, the basic intuition which structures any literary work functions analogously to the religious notion of ultimacy. Moving on to American literature, Gunn observes an essentially religious pattern in the response of our writers to the ""Other""--to any mysterious presence, immanent or transcendent, which lies beyond the limits of the self. He pursues this encounter with otherness through Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and poems by Dickinson, Stevens, Frost, where the protagonists, regardless of how they perceive the ""Other"" (Ahab's outrage, Gatsby's awestruck longing, etc.), are forced by it to redefine or even to recreate themselves. Gunn's arguments are sometimes too cerebral, and he tends to exaggerate the impact of literature on everyday life. But he's locked horns with some mighty issues, and the result is uncommonly interesting.