It’s impolite to talk about religion and politics, or so the old adage goes. Author Beth Webb Hart would agree. Despite having grown up in the South, where people don’t think twice about asking what church you belong to, Hart knows the relationship between civility and religious beliefs can be a prickly one.
“There is a question of how and when to share [faith] with others and how to share it in conversation and how to back off,” she says over the phone from her Tradd Street house. “I’m interested in faith and how it blends with the everyday workings of the world.”
That question is the premise of Hart’s latest novel, Sunrise on the Battery. The narrative follows Jackson and Mary Lynn, who grew up in meager circumstances around Meggett, S.C., before coming into money through real estate development. Just as the couple begins to emerge on the social scene in Charleston, the husband has a dramatic religious conversion and “basically commits social suicide.”
“The socially elite sort of come across this seriously religious, evangelist guy, and they don’t really know what to think,” Hart says.
The social paradox intrigues Hart, who personally had an “out and out conversion” while in college. She sees two radically different sides of religion. There is the pretty side, she explains, with white gloves and Sunday dresses. And on the other side is the grittier element of Christianity, the one that involves emulating Jesus, who had a habit of cleaning poor people’s feet and hanging out with prostitutes.
“You have these high churches, these beautiful churches, and it is all part of the social structure, but when you actually start to look at the life of Jesus and what the Bible says about reaching out to others, it can get uncomfortable really quickly.”
In one illustrative scene, Jackson brings a homeless man to their elegant house on Tradd Street. The homeless man arrives in the middle of Mary Lynn’s first luncheon for the Charlestowne Garden Club, the equivalent of her presentation into Charleston society.
“He smells bad and hasn’t showered,” Hart says. “It’s fun to create this tension and examine what religion should really look like.”
The question is one Hart is unsure of how to answer. In that way, she says her writing is therapeutic and can provide a surprising way out of a difficult situation. “I get in the middle of it and I hope there is some resolution or clarity, and in ways there seems to be,” Hart says. “So I get a lot out of it that way.”
Her books have one more common theme: They are always set in the Lowcountry. Hart has lived on the peninsula for 13 years, and says she still finds something new every time she walks the streets around her home South of Broad.
“Everybody loves to write about Charleston,” she says. “It’s one of the most beautiful cities.”
But her label as a Southern writer would have been unavoidable, despite her proclivity for her city of residence. Hart completed the creative writing program at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., which boasts a slew of Pulitzer Prize-winning Southern authors as their alumni. From there she moved to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she completed her master’s in fine arts. It is also where she wrote her first novel, a requirement for her senior thesis.
“I was in New York, but [the book] was all set on Edisto,” she says. “In a way, I wrote better about the Lowcountry when I was in New York than when I’m here. I just long for it and I think it just helps the story.”
Sunrise on the Battery is Hart’s fifth novel.