It started with this essay by Paul Elie in the NYT:
This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: as something between a dead language and a hangover. Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what O’Connor called “Christian convictions,” their would-be successors are thin on the ground.
So are works of fiction about the quandaries of Christian belief. Writers who do draw on sacred texts and themes see the references go unrecognized. A faith with something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House”: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants.
Is Elie right? I don’t know; maybe. I can think of a number of recent novels that portray religious belief from the inside, some of them set in the past in ways that don’t seem to me to disqualify them as genuine engagements with religious experience — Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy is the first that comes to mind — others with a contemporary setting: Oscar Hijuelos’s Mr. Ives’ Christmas, for instance. I know there are others I should read: my friend John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, gives high praise to A.G. Mojtabai’s Parts of a World, which just came out last year.
Interestingly, in 1995, the year that Mr. Ives’ Christmas appeared, Mojbatai published an essay in the Wilson Quarterly on the same topic Elie explores. She wrote,
It has been suggested that the positive view I take of religion is a minority position among writers. I hope this is not the case, but if it is — so be it. A New Yorker born and bred, I live now — by choice — out on the high plains of Texas, well beyond shouting distance of the cultural trendsetters on either coast. I live in the heartland among so-called ordinary people. I speak from this ground. I may be out of step with the literati, but I don’t think I’m out of touch.
It is my conviction that there exists today a religious hunger in our country and in our world so widespread that writers ignore or disdain it at our peril. I’m not talking only about the peril of backlash, of censorship and repression from the outside, but of something even more deadly that eats away at us from within: untruthfulness, shutting out the voices we don’t want to hear.
I don’t believe this hunger is encountered only in the Bible Belt; it’s to be found even in the great cities of the coasts. To be sure, it’s harder to make out in the midst of the clamor of a large city, and it’s also easier for writers to wall themselves off in enclaves of the like-minded if the population is large and diverse.
But Mojtabai acknowledges that even for her, writing about disconnection and loss is easier than writing about the nurturing, strengthening, consoling aspects of faith. Which, I suppose, was equally true of the stories of the mid-century titans that Elie cites. Faith, being the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, has never been easy to portray aesthetically. This is why Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling, has to throw up his hands in incomprehension when faced with Abraham’s trust in a God he scarcely even knows. In any time or place, a strong and vivid and truthful story about faith is a rare bird indeed.
By contrast, this seems to me a moment rich in strong religious poetry — but that will have to be a topic for another post.
Within a broader historical and cultural context, even the term “novel of belief” might be considered an oxymoron, given the genesis of the genre. The novel was the outgrowth of the passing of the age of belief into the age of unbelief. It is the literary form that developed as an expression of the modern subject: the record of individual, particular and progressive experience. In both form and content, the novel embodies the rise of the individual, and with that, the individual’s quest for identity – for with the detachment from the body religious comes the loss of just about everything else that forms an identity.
Thus the novel is the literary form that embodies the modern condition, a condition that can include belief, but is not, broadly speaking, defined by it. So while there may have been novels of belief, the Novel has always been about unbelief – even despite the fact that its earliest authors (Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding) were, interestingly enough, themselves committed believers.
So, on one hand, the disappearance of belief within the most relevant literary form of contemporary culture is a worthy cause for reflection. On the other hand, this is, perhaps, the novel’s destiny. It is the form of an unbelieving epoch, even if it took a few centuries for that latent feature to surface like a whale in the swimming pool of contemporary culture.
But just as matter is never destroyed but only takes a different form, so too goes faith. While faith as a subject may have disappeared from the fiction of today, faith is inherent in its form.
I agree with Elie that these days, when writers reference scripture and theology, or evoke explicitly religious imagery and symbols, it often falls on deaf ears and blind eyes. I also agree that we’ll never again see a confluence of writers like O’Connor, Merton, and Percy having such a broad cultural impact.
I’ve found sustenance in the community of writers and readers of Image and enjoy acceptance among a group of writers my age who are not religious.
That renaissance of Catholic writing I once hoped for may not have happened, but however secularized our culture has become, issues surrounding faith have not been, and will never be banished from literature.
Karen Swallow Prior, Professor of English at Liberty University, writing in response to Elie’s article, is excellent on this point. Prior, whose scholarly work centers on the novel, reminds us that as a form, the novel has always been about unbelief.
She writes that the novel “was the outgrowth of the passing of the age of belief into the age of unbelief…. It is the form of an unbelieving epoch, even if it took a few centuries for that latent feature to surface.”
In other words, the kind of search for meaning that the novel offers has, over time, naturally and understandably drifted away from religious ways of understanding who were are and why we are here, just as the culture has.
Perhaps this is why I, a writer with an MFA in fiction, have turned almost exclusively to the personal essay and memoir. My first publication appeared in the “Confessions” section of Image, a section that is set apart from the “Essays” section. While I never asked about that distinction, it seems clear to me that it is a nod to spiritual autobiography, the genre started by St. Augustine.
My sense is that confessional nonfiction helps the writer (and the reader) to examine his conscience. The examination of conscience is a very important spiritual practice for Catholics. Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander come to mind, as does the late Joshua Casteel’s book-length essay Letters from Abu Ghraib.
The language Catholics use to define the examination of conscience is very close to the language writers use in personal narrative.
If what Elie says is true, and the novel (what Prior calls “our most relevant literary form of contemporary culture”) is languishing as a medium for discussing faith, then perhaps we should look to literary nonfiction—personal essay and memoir.
I am drawn to the genre because it allows for spiritual self-evaluation in a way that fiction performs either at a remove, or in a secret deeply personal way, possibly known only by the author. (This seems to be Elie’s point regarding Burgess’ novel.)
For me, writing essays is a means of understanding how my actions are in keeping or at odds with my faith, and how I can maintain faith in the face of tragedy and atrocity. For me, these are the questions of our day.
Given the attention memoir—and confessions—have received in the last ten years (James Frey and Tiger Woods) and even last ten days (Lance Armstrong, and now Manti Te’O), might it be that personal narrative, and not the novel, has become the most relevant cultural—and spiritual—form.