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Dan McInerny faith

Daniel McInerny

Maybe nothing. Maybe the novel of belief is perfectly alive and well, though of a different character than the kinds of novel produced, inter alia, by Waugh, Greene, Percy and O’Connor in the last century.

Or maybe it has all but disappeared from the literary landscape and is sorely in need of a renaissance.

Such are the lines of an intriguing debate that got kicked off late last year when Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save You Might Be Your Own, a fourfold biography of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy, and the more recent Reinventing Bach, published an essay in the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” With his eye mainly on novels having to do with Christian belief, Elie proclaimed: “If any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.”

Speaking sed contra, however, was Gregory Wolfe, editor of the literary journal, Image, and of the recent volume of essays, Beauty Will Save the World, in a Wall Street Journal essay entitled, “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World.” In his essay Wolfe countered: “the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that–a myth.”

Elie acknowledges that there are writers working today who touch on Christian belief in various ways, but they do not do so, he goes on, in ways that show the faith’s “explanatory power.” He observes that contemporary American fiction, for example, treats of belief “as upbringing, belief as social fact, belief as a species of American weirdness: our literary fiction has all of these things. All that is missing is the believer.”

What of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead? Is this, for Elie, just the exception that proves the rule? Not quite. In an interview I had with Elie last week, Elie, paraphrasing Flannery O’Connor’s quip about Faulkner, referred to Robinson as the “Dixie Limited” among contemporary American writers. But still, in the Times piece, Elie wrote that Gilead’s “originality conceals the fact that, as a novel of belief, it is highly representative: set in the past, concerned with a clergyman, presenting belief as a family matter, animated by a social crisis.”

For his part, Wolfe has no reservations about including Gilead, among the works of many others, in the list of contemporary works that should be lauded for the way they deal with matters of faith. But Wolfe in his essay is not so much interested in amassing counterexamples to Elie’s thesis. The real issue with the contemporary literature of belief, he contends, “has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.”

Wolfe alludes to Flannery O’Connor’s justification of her approach to fiction via the grotesque: “For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” O’Connor’s “high concept” approach to dealing with matters of belief in her fiction, says Wolfe, “made sense in the context of her time, when the old Judeo-Christian narrative was locked in a struggle with the new secular narratives of Marx, Freud and Darwin.” Today, however, in our postmodern world, all the grand narratives are suspect and all the institutions suspect. “So the late Doris Betts could say that for all her admiration of Flannery O’Connor, her own fiction had to convey faith in whispers rather than shouts. Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways. But obscure is not invisible.”

Responding to this point in my interview with him, Elie rejoined: “If you say there is a “whispering generation,” why are they whispering?” What is it about the faith that causes it to be whispered about? True enough, admits Elie, we live in a culture that is growing more and more suspicious of grand narratives such as Christianity. Yet there are still tens of thousands of people who “have no trouble at all” with the grand narrative that Christianity presents. Elie wonders why “all that material hasn’t come into play so much” in works of literature.

So what do you think of these arguments?

Does postmodern culture, as Wolfe thinks, direct writers of fiction more toward “whispers” rather than “shouts,” to the obscure, subtle ways in which faith works in such an environment? In our interview Elie quoted O’Connor: “Subtlety is the curse of man; it is not to be found in the Deity.” Should we then follow Elie in asking for more robust narrative accountings of the explanatory power of Christian faith?

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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10 replies to this post
  1. This article does indeed raise a very intetesting set of questions, and I hope others respond to it, since I am curious what possible thoughts arise regarding this matter. Speaking for myself, I have the general impression that our times are not merely wanting for good faith literature, but for thoughtful literature in general. I hope I am grossly mistaken.

    I cannot speak to the matter from personal experience, because in the main, I have been reading theology for the past two years due to having been a candidate for Communion and Confirmation. It has become a habit, so even though I had my Communion and Confirmation last April, I still instinctively seek out works of theology.

    In this time, the only novels I read were Issac Asimov’s and two books of CS Lewis’ space trilogy. Now Asimov is thoroughly atheist, but not secular, as all of his novels can be read as running scientific commentary on theological issues. Lewis, a man of faith, touches on the same issues, albeit from a philosophical perspective. I suppose this is a good illustration of what Dr. McInerny references as the “narrative” that existed between secularism and faith prior to our “post-Christian” literary age.

    And here is the crux of the problem: it is not that secularism has won out, but that the narrative has dried up and lost its impact in the life of Western Civilization. Find me an athiest of the caliber of Camus , Asimov – even Ayn Rand – in today’s literature. I don’t see them.

    Instead, I see either a vulgar slew of popular literature about vampires, zombies and the like or – in what passes for higher literature these days – a wave of brutalism posing as existential contemplation, not to mention a horribly boring infusion of gay literature which relies on controversy to mask shallowness and idolizes the archetypical Smerdikov from Dostoievski’s Brothers Karamazov.

    Naturaly, my point of reference is a bit skewed, given I live in Poland, where a concentrated wave of anti-Catholic literature has been popularized over recent years to the point that it is hard to find a book that isn’t about spousal abuse resulting from patriarchy and the struggles of gay people for tolerance (naturaly no books about the far more common struggles of gay people with guilt and self doubt).

    It has come to the point that when I want to browse a bookstore for anything worthwhile, I have to ride around Warsaw going to various Parish bookstores. This is not because I seek Christian literature per se, but because I seek thoughtful literature, and nothing remains of Greco-Roman and Jeudeo-Christian culture except the Catholic Church. This is sad, but the commercial bookstores have become incubators of political correctness and thus sell… boring literature by and large.

    I really hope that I’m wrong, that I’ve been out of college too long, have too much work, don’t talk to the right people, and that my habit of re-reading the great books is born of ignorance of excellent modern literature, not of its demise.

    Nevertheless, it’s not good when the only works of contemporary literature I tend to praise are my father’s two recent books of poetry and then… . what else? What is there to read?

  2. If modern Christian literature is merely adapting to a changing culture as described, in what practical respects would it be different were it persecuted outright? Were it persecuted by a hostile elite, members of that elite would publish as little of it as possible, we would read less of it, and writers would need to boil it down, cloak it, camouflage it and make it take on protective colouration until it was non-threatening enough to get published, just as Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson had to bow and scrape and shuck and jive to get work in white establishment films. Either it hardly exists because virtually no one wants to buy it, or because publishers won’t touch it, or both. The notion, that Christian-lit is getting so subtle and clever that we cannot see it anymore, is unconvincing to me.

    • s masty: You’ve done a great, if unintentional, job of parodying every struggling writer’s lament: “If they won’t publish my work, it means I’m being persecuted!” If you truly believe your analogy between Christian authors and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, I suggest you begin work immediately on a book called “CHRISTIAN LIKE ME” to illustrate the ways in which our society discriminates against Jesus-Americans. Just because authors don’t paint in colors bright enough for you, or shout in voices loud enough for you, doesn’t mean they’re not trying to communicate: maybe you need to get your vision and your hearing checked.

      • Mr Schifflett, there are many social and economic reasons for the decline of good art. Commissioning editors now tend to have degrees in Media Studies rather than literature or history, so they are less likely to know good when they see it. Family-owned publishers with a less driving need for profitability are fewer (ie Faber, Murray,Knopf, et al), and the megalithic corporate owners now want profits big and fast; thus their terrified editors form committees to minimise personal risk, committees go for easy wins with celebrity-driven productions and the biggest tend to shun anything likely to attract the opprobrium of media Progressives. Rarely does something truly imaginative sneak through (Rowling comes to mind). This process is no mystery in the UK (and is endemic at the BBC), but perhaps everything is as nice in America as you say, and an otherwise global economic and cultural process has mercifully escaped you all. I hope so.

        • s masty: I didn’t think we were talking about “the decline of good art” or “megalithic corporate owners [who] now want profits big and fast”–I don’t disagree with you in the least on that latter claim in particular. I was responding to your claim that the current situation couldn’t be any worse for Christians if they were being actively persecuted, and I just don’t think that’s the case. I apologize, by the way, for the unnecessary sarcasm in my previous response; that tends to be my ongoing sin, against which I have to (but don’t always) guard.

  3. Forgive me for taking a weaselly way out, but I think both Ellie and Wolfe are right. There are novelists working today – Wendell Berry, Brett Lott, Tim Gautreaux, and Ron Hansen for example – whose work comes from a deep and abiding Christian faith. Their novels and stories, however, do not “shout” about faith. On the other hand, there is something to Ellie’s argument that books and stories in which faith is a central plot element or aspect of character development are conspicuously absent in mainstream publishing. I would assert that that absence is due more to secular university writing programs and publishers uncomfortable with conspicuous displays of faith than to writers not presenting such stories. Small journals like “Dappled Things” ( and Wolfe’s “Image” are full of them, though I do not know what the submission files of these two journals look like.

    I wonder what kind of reception a novel written along the lines of “Wise Blood”, “Love in the Ruins”, “The Last Catholic in America”, “Diary of a Country Priest”, or “Vipers Tangle” would get in any major publishing house today, or from some tenured professor working the Iowa Writers Workshop. I suspect it would be rather chilly.

  4. I’m not entirely sure what people want, or what they’re objecting to, when it comes to “Christian literature”. There are a lot of Christian books, including fiction, that sell quite well–they may not constitute “literature,” but there’s no lack of publishers or audience for them. Are people unhappy because such books tend to be found in self-described “Christian bookstores”? Is it literature you’re bemoaning the dearth of, or Christians? Why should it matter whether Christians write novels or whether novelists write about the Christian faith? And since Flannery O’Connor’s books are still on library shelves, and so are Walker Percy’s, and so are Robertson Davies’–again, I don’t see the problem.

    For whoever is thirsting for contemporary Christian literature, some would direct you to the novels of Cormac McCarthy. I’d suggest you read through Philip K. Dick’s “VALIS” trilogy (and then go back and read his other stuff). In recent months, I’ve read Jose Saramago’s THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST and Jim Crace’s QUARANTINE and then THE TESTAMENT OF MARY by Colm Toibin–true, those are all historical fictions, but why should that matter so much? And I can’t begin to tell you how much contemporary poetry is explicitly religious, even Christian, and of course even more of it is suffused with religious implications–start with Mary Oliver, perhaps, and go from there.

    Finally–if Paul Elie (whose book THE LIFE YOU SAVE I read, and loved) wants more Christian novels, let him write one; he’s a terrific writer, and I’m sure he can do it. And let everyone else who feels an absence of good Christian literature do the same.

    • With all do respect, Jack, I don’t think “The Testament of Mary” is a good example of what Ellie says is lacking nor what Wolfe says is being whispered in novels, short stories, and poetry. That book, if Mark Shea – a very orthodox if often zealous Catholic convert – is to be believed, shouts that Christians are dolts – – :

      “Bravely facing the applause of the UK and New York media, Tóibín advances the absolutely original thesis that Jesus was totally misunderstood by his corrupt, repressed, knucklehead disciples, who got all het up about him for no particular reason and did the whole “Son of God” schtick after his death. Tóibín’s Mary lives alone in Ephesus, relying on these disciples for her daily bread, marinated in judgmental bitterness, and filled with sullen contempt for everything. This Mary has no belief in her son’s divinity, natch. He is described as something of a charismatic kook, propelled along to his doom by his “misfit” disciples, whom Mary can’t stand.”

      Citing this novella in a discussion about faith in literature strikes me as helpful as citing Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” and Phillip Pullman’s “Golden Compass” books because they include Catholic caricatures. Shea’s review continues,

      “The claim that The Testament of Mary is the Christian story “told from Mary’s point of view” is a total lie. The Blessed Virgin Mary known to us from, you know, the people who knew and loved her and spoke of her with great tenderness and love in the New Testament is nowhere in sight in this—one must be blunt—viciously dishonest little screed. What can we learn about Mary from this book? Absolutely nothing whatsoever. This is the Christian story told entirely from Colm Tóibín’s point of view, using a figure called, for convenience, “Mary”, as a sock puppet for the author’s torrent of hatred against the Church and, in the end, against Jesus. Because, of course, the thing about Mary is that the thing is never about Mary. ”

      Given some critiques I’ve seen of Saramago’s book, the same thing may be said about that novel. It may be well written, and it has “Jesus” in the title, but that doesn’t make it a book that treats faith seriously, or at least not in the deeply significant and transformative manner that Ellie says is absent and Wolfe says is whispered.

      You’re right that O’Connor and Percy are on bookshelves and in libraries. So what? Neither Wolfe nor Ellie are talking about what’s been available for years. They are well aware these books are available. Has there been well written literature by people of faith? Yes, answer both men. Are new stories with depth and meaning being written by people of faith? No, answers Ellie. Yes, answers Wolfe. That’s the debate.

  5. Mr. Crandall: Well, I knew I was asking for trouble with the books I cited, and for all the reasons you detail. All I can tell you is that Mark Shea has his opinion about THE TESTAMENT OF MARY and I have mine; in my view, “vicious little screed” describes Shea’s review a lot better than it does Toibin’s book. My notion of faith includes, and perhaps even favors, doubt, questioning, and puzzling over the humanity of figures like Jesus and Mary. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea (it’s apparently not Mark Shea’s) but some of us do enjoy it. You’re right, of course, that I sidestepped the debate, mostly because I don’t get why it matters–or, more precisely, because it doesn’t matter to me. I prefer whispers to shouts anyway.

  6. VALIS is full-blown Manichean Gnosticism. Morality out the window, reality is just a “hyper-dimensional interstitial alter-verse”, blah…blah…blah… Be wise, tread carefully. Gnosticism of libertine character, shall be the last enemy.

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