Rabbit Room Discussion: "Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?"

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A few months ago I saw a very interesting  piece in the New York Times called “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” It was written by Paul Elie, the author of a most excellent quadruple biography of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day, titled The Life You Save May Be Your Own. (Elie is also an editor at Flannery O’Connor’s publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Elie’s article generated a lot of discussion when it was published last December; now, in the spirit of better-late-than-never, I offer it up for discussion in the Rabbit Room. Contemporary literary fiction, Elie argues, treats Christian belief “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.

It’s a strange development. Strange because the current upheavals in American Christianity — involving sex, politics, money and diversity — cry out for ­dramatic treatment. Strange because upheavals in Christianity across the Atlantic gave rise to great fiction from “The Brothers Karamazov” to “Brideshead Revisited.” Strange because novelists are depicting the changing lives of American Jews and Muslims with great success…

Now I am trying to answer the question: Where has the novel of belief gone?

The obvious answer is that it has gone where belief itself has gone. In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether. This development places the believer on a frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure; it means that the Christian who was born here is a stranger in a strange land no less than the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Soviet Jews and Spanish-speaking Catholics who have arrived from elsewhere. But few people see it that way. People of faith see decline and fall. Their detractors see a people threatening rear-guard political action, or a people left behind.

Elie goes on to make an interesting point about Flannery O’Connor’s well-known claim that the novelist with Christian concerns has to shout and use large, startling figures to get the attention of indifferent readers. These days, Elie says, real-world believers are shouting more and drawing larger, more startling figures–from pulpits, in political rallies, on the Internet. “In response, writers with Christian preoccupations have taken the opposite tack, writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively.”

There’s our beloved Marilynne Robinson, of course. But, Elie argues, “[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.” It’s hard to find literary fiction that depicts Christian people wrestling around with what it means to be a Christian person in the twenty-first century.

Even here, in the Rabbit Room, where we are intensely interested in what it means to be a Christian person in the twenty-first century, none of us who write fiction are writing about the world where we actually live and move and have our being. Andrew is writing about Aerwiar; Jennifer is writing about The Island at the Center of Everything; Pete is writing about the Revolutionary War; I’m writing about feechiefolks. To widen the net to include Hutchmoot speakers, Walt Wangerin has told stories about talking animals, Phil Vischer has told stories about talking vegetables, Nate Wilson writes about dragon’s teeth, and Leif Enger writes about the 1960s and earlier.

I’m not being critical. We write about these things because we want to write about them, and our readers seem to like reading about them. Even if  authors with Christian convictions were writing piles of literary fiction about twenty-first century America, many of us would still be reading fantasy and historical fiction because that’s what many of us in the Rabbit Room community like to read. Still, it’s an interesting question: why are so few Christian authors writing straight non-fantastical novels about twenty-first century America?

I realize that “Christian publishing houses” publish lots of contemporary novels. I would prefer to leave those books out of this conversation because they are published for and marketed to a specific subculture and don’t really aspire to speak to the culture at large. I hope our conversation doesn’t become a discussion of the relative merits of the fiction to be found at Lifeway stores.

You can read the rest of Paul Elie’s very insightful and nuanced essay here. My summarization and quotation don’t do justice to it. For additional reading, you might check out this article from First Things by Randy Boyagoda, which is what reminded me of the Elie essay in the first place. (The first sentence of Boyagoda’s article reads, “I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor.” But it gets better.)

I’d love to hear the thoughts that are provoked by this thought-provoking article.

Note: NYTimes.com is a subscription site, but it lets you read 10 articles per month for free. 

Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


60 Comments

  1. Carrie

    These are questions I’m asking myself. I don’t know if I am the one to write the contemporary stories, but I believe they should be written.

    The question this whole discussion raises for me, though, is whether those stories are being written, but are not being published. I was talking this past week with editors and agents who pointed out the strong bias *against* Christian themes, ideas, characters, etc., in contemporary fiction. In the current publishing culture, is it possible to introduce those themes, ideas, characters, etc., and still get published by a mainstream publisher?

    If so, how? Sally Apokedak, a literary agent with the Les Stobbe Literary Agency, had some great thoughts on that. She’s committed as an agent to getting Christian authors and books with biblical themes into the general market. She encouraged weaving a biblical worldview into stories, and pointed to examples of more liberal groups carefully doing so with their worldviews over the past 30 years – gently introducing characters with their ideas in to books and television, as secondary characters, and portraying them in a positive light. Over the course of a generation, the pubic’s views on the issues these characters represent have changed.

    Sally challenged us as writers to do the same thing with Christianity and a biblical worldview. We are now living in a post-Christian nation; but we can change the views of a whole culture in the span of a generation if we actively work to introduce real, genuine Christian characters who wrestle with contemporary issues in wise and gentle ways.

    Good questions, Jonathan. Great topic for discussion!

  2. Melissa Ortega

    I read Boyagoda’s article last week and my first thought when he gave that the long list of authors he’s tired of hearing about (Lewis, Chesterton, Dostoevsky, and the like) and mentioned the commonality “they’re all dead” is that they also all predate the creation of the Christian publishing industry. (I know, I know! No rant following, I promse!) On a POSTIVE note, I feel that there are authors (as well as other artists) finally transcending that dichotomy – which all but wiped out the presence of any spiritual conversation in the “regular” bookstore world for a couple of decades at the least.

    My hope from what I’ve seen of the increased interest in spiritual conversation is that Christian authors realize that they don’t have to tip toe anymore. (I have to remind myself of this all the time) That SEEMS to be happening as authors like Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, among others are talking openly about their belief (and its evolution).

    I know that I, personally, am definitely trying to write a “set-in-the-now” and “in-this-place” book which is full of some of that mythopoeic wonder while being relevant to the everyman in the “now” and “real” day-to-day world – because that’s the kind of book I want to read. Unfortunately, I my skills are lacking, but if I’m trying to do it, certainly others are as well! Someone more talented than I am!

    Neil Gaiman’s books are definitely of this ilk. Although not written from a Christian worldview, they prove that readers WANT this type of book – and I think they would be open to books from a Christian perspective *if* the story is a GOOD one.

    If I were to respond directly to Boyagoda, I would say that there are authors missing from his list that consistently get mentioned in the same circles – and they are most assuredly alive. They aren’t “ideal” but they are proof that the artistic climate has rewarmed to books of a God-searching nature again.

  3. EmmaJ

    A thought provoking question and challenge, Jonathan. “Something between a dead language and a hangover” – I had not thought of it in those terms, but now that I read that… it’s so true. I’ve read the Jhumpa Lahiri story he mentions and I see his point that it is so iconic in illustrating where we are right now with dealing with these topics.

    I’ve talked about a similar issue with some friends before. One element that we observed (thinking of movies) is that there seems to be an element in today’s Evangelical church that makes people uncomfortable with subtlety, with anything less than providing neatly tied up endings and characters that are virtuous or sinful in ways that are more caricature than authentic. I think _Bella_ actually handled hard topics well, but somehow it seems telling that the team behind that film was Catholic, not Evangelical. I feel like there’s some strand in Evangelicalism that really throws a wrench into story-creation. Maybe too much of a feeling of responsibility for the audience grasping the message? And just the idea of communicating a message… that is also counter-productive. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from Hutchmoot 2010 was the Proprietor’s thoughts on this topic – it’s our job to create works of truth and beauty. Let God do what he wants to do in people’s hearts with that.

    There are definitely writers who explore issues of faith, struggle, etc. in non-fiction, but yeah… where are the gifted people who would give us powerful fiction exploring those topics in authentic ways? Is it that no one is writing it? Or that it is being written, but not published? I’m afraid the above-mentioned market for a certain type of fiction marketed to Christians may, in fact, come into it – maybe the existence of that genre marginalizes other writing by Christians. If it doesn’t fit into that category, maybe publishing houses and booksellers don’t know what to do with it. Someone needs to write something really, really awesome and break the mold. Follow in the footsteps of Chesterton, O’Connor, etc. and write things that will give the bookstore a good challenge in figuring out where they fit on the shelf. (I’m thinking of experiences I’ve had looking for Chesterton at Half Price Books – the clerks never seem to know exactly where he’ll be. The one place I’ve never found him, though, is the strange ghetto of pastel-toned historical novels about people whose existential struggles and romantic entanglements are both neatly resolved by surrendering to faith.)

    I don’t seem to have much talent for fiction, myself, but if I were a betting woman I would bet that there just might be someone in this community who does have that gift.

  4. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    I think there’s a lot of faith books in YA. A couple of years ago I helped start an internet book award with the hope of finding general market books with Christian themes…and the category where they consistently can be found is for young people.

    Otherwise, yeah I think it’s pretty slim pickings.

  5. Melissa Ortega

    Emma J – “I feel like there’s some strand in Evangelicalism that really throws a wrench into story-creation. Maybe too much of a feeling of responsibility for the audience grasping the message?”

    YES. I can attest to this! I just had this conversation with a group of artists last night who are getting ready to perform a play in October and there were those among us who were afraid the story we’re doing wouldn’t be obvious enough – and they asked if we would have an alter call at the end.

    I tried to explain that this “just wouldn’t happen” by remind them that Jesus often told stories he didn’t explain. He would sometimes explain to his disciples in private, but let his audience leave without an explanation. He allowed the story to work it’s “magic” or revelation in the moment that was ripe for each individual that heard it.

  6. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I want to agree with Elie on all this but I find myself wondering if his view of the past isn’t a bit rosy. Sure, the past gave us Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and O’Conner, but we have those authors’ great works after they’ve been filtered out from the chaff. Was there really a golden age? After all, today we’ve got folks like Buechner (Bebb), Berry (Port William), Potok, Martel (not strictly Christian perhaps but certainly depicting authentic struggles), Endo (recently dead and writing about the 17th century, but fairly contemporary in terms of application), Dillard (I’d argue The Maytrees fits the bill, though Dillard’s certainly gone a bit wacky), and many more that I’m sure I’m forgetting or haven’t yet read.

    Maybe he’s right. Maybe not. I just find myself wondering if fifty years from now people will look back on the great Christian writers that came out of our own time (that we may not even recognize yet) and say the same kinds of things.

  7. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    But, Pete, one of the main points here is that Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and O’Connor were all writing about the time and place where they lived. Berry is great, but he’s writing about an earlier era. I assume Buechner was writing about his own time in Bebb (I haven’t read it), but that was 40 years ago. Maytrees, I see, has a “post-war” setting. Potok? I don’t think he would appreciate being included in a discussion of Christian authors. And the contemporary application of Endo’s seventeenth-century story doesn’t change the fact that it’s historical fiction.

    Most of the people in your list, Pete, have a chance of being remembered in fifty years as great Christian authors. We agree on that. But it’s still an interesting question: why aren’t they writing about their own time and place?

    Amy, what YA books do you have in mind that have Christian themes?

    EmmaJ, you bring up an interesting question when you say that somebody needs to write the kind of books that store owners find hard to categorize. That idea terrifies publishers. And not without reason. It is hard for bookstores to sell books if they don’t know what shelf to put them on. That’s just a hard fact of the business. On the other hand, there are a lot of books being sold these days in venues other than bookstores.

    Melissa O, here’s hoping you succeed in writing an excellent novel set here and now.

  8. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    My point, though, was that that Berry, Buechner, Dillard, Martel, etc., have all written contemporary novels that struggle with Christian ideas. They are all living authors writing about the world they (we) live in. I don’t necessarily disagree, I’m just pushing back a little.

  9. Matthew Benefiel

    I think it’s a combination of many things. There probably are works out there, but they aren’t well known yet; most likely due to publishing and publicity. Could it also be that in we as Christian writers are trying to run from our current struggles? Sure they show up anyway in our books, but masked a little or embelished and woven to be a little straighter and less curved than our real struggles.

    I know it took me years to uncover Christian music that truely spoke to my soul, music that like the sermons and bible studies I heard, told me my true state then gave me encouragement and hope. Andrew’s music has been around a while so I was blind to it, but I also think his music has grown in the recent years (at rabbitroom.com is a testimate itself). But there is so much popular Christian music out there that makes me sad, it just doesn’t speak to Christian struggles, but simply tries to put a positive spin on a hard life, without referencing the hard life.

    My first attempt at a book had more obvious Christian content in it and it was liked by some and hated by others (too hamfisted), so it certainly is a hard art to master to weave a story that speaks so loudly of Christian belief, but manages to attract the audience that so often these days doesn’t want Christian belief “shoved down their throat.”

  10. Carrie

    EmmaJ: “If I were a betting woman I would bet that there just might be someone in this community who does have that gift.”

    I was thinking that very thing as I left this conversation earlier to go make my lunch! This is a community that handles with such grace the tough issues, the places of disagreement. There certainly is a strand within contemporary Evangelicalism that struggles with subtlety and with being gracious. Both of those are necessary in the art of telling great stories that will be recognized as such.

  11. Sam Snow

    Have Christians neglected Dystopian fiction? I feel that if Christians had any say on any topic it would be the coming future (not the distant future a la “Left Behind” and “The Last Jihad”). This obvious wouldn’t be our present time, but it would be something other than the fantasy/historical novels that seem to give the appearance that we’d rather pine for a lost generation or run away to an imaginary land (both of which I do on a regular basis). Maybe there are Christian Dystopian novelists out there, but the good and accurate ones seem to be coming from non-Christians (M.T. Anderson for example). Please let me know of any!

    EmmaJ — “One element that we observed (thinking of movies) is that there seems to be an element in today’s Evangelical church that makes people uncomfortable with subtlety, with anything less than providing neatly tied up endings and characters that are virtuous or sinful in ways that are more caricature than authentic.”

    Bingo! couldn’t agree more, though, I would add that we can get away with direct messages and caricatures if we do it correctly. Charles Dickens, who in the very least considered himself Christian, mastered both a “preachyness” and fantastically obvious characters that needed no more introduction than their name. The real issue, I feel, is that the authors pre-judge the characters for the readers, and readers hate this. Even in Dickens we know exactly who is bad and good, but he still allows his characters to maintain their own individuality without feeling the need to “perfect” that character. Thus, he allows for his characters to be immortal, yet obvious. In short, subtlety is much needed, but if we are feeling a need to get a message across directly, it can be done. Easier said of course…

  12. EmmaJ

    @Jonathan Rogers… I also see your point about financial viability – everybody’s gotta eat and baby needs a new pair of shoes.

    I guess I don’t necessarily mean works that entirely defy categorization. Just that there would be books written by people of faith that are not automatically assigned to an obscure shelf that only reaches a limited audience – I want to see thoughtful books that honestly deal with issues of faith on the regular fiction shelf because they’re just good books.

    @Pete – Annie Dillard is wacky? Oh! Say it isn’t so, please.

    @Matthew Benefiel – “Masked a little or embellished and woven to be a little straighter and less curved than our real struggles.” Yes. Why is it that we want to spiff things up so? Fear that life with Christ will seem less attractive to people? Or that our imperfections would reflect poorly on Him? But they are true, and hiding them only lends an air of suspicious inauthenticity.

    I’m not saying, either, that I want every I book I read to explore the depths of evil in the human soul. Because that would also be really not fun or profitable. But not everything that is meaningful, even beautiful, is attractive.

  13. April Pickle

    I’m not much of a writer or a reader, but I this is thought-provoking stuff and I’m glad it’s being discussed.
    1. I’m wondering if the same thing happened in Britain during the lifetimes of Tolkien and Lewis, as Britain became “post-Christian.” If the dominant genre is not discovering (to quote Lewis) “all that quivering and wonder and infinity which the literature that he calls realistic omits,” perhaps Christian authors run to a different genre? I wonder if the fantasy genre becomes inundated with poorly-written works (not happening in the Rabbit Room, of course), will there be another swinging of the pendulum toward contemporary fiction?
    2. If the contributor of this post wishes to write a contemporary-fiction novel, I will be at the front of the line to buy it. Well, as long as it is set in the South and has at least one alligator in it.

  14. Dustin

    I agree with a lot of you. Melissa’s posts were ones I resonated with the most. Especially thinking through that there is a “Christian market” these days and the effect that has. And I realize Jonathon Rogers that you want leave the “Christian publishers” out of it but I really think that’s the answer to this question. I don’t think the question is, “Why aren’t Christian’s writing about 21st century America” because they are. The question is much broader than that: Why are only Christians reading them?
    Art will always be created from the artists deepest longings and we will always write, paint, design, what have you, with the Old Story woven in. It’s a need put there by the Creator to create in His name. So if we can’t avoid telling the Story regardless of how bluntly or subtle then the question becomes “who else will read this?” The answer depends on what publisher you run to, or what audience you seek to invite in to your art.
    I’m not even saying that it’s not a valid question but I think you already answered it: money. Think about the books that do exist that talk about Christianity in the 21st century. They’re all amazingly blunt about faith and therefore only market to a certain bracket of people. For some reason we can’t write contemporary stories that are just that: stories. We are forced by culture (or subculture) that if you write a “Christian story” that it has to have a message. I think people hear them as sermons so don’t bother.
    Sorry that was a ramble and a rant — it’s my nature.

  15. Helena

    I’m no expert on this topic, but the question is intriguing. I often wonder if Christians in America aren’t going through a sort of identity crisis. I know that I, personally, am pulling away from the “we-have-all-the-answers” brand of Evangelicalism in which I was raised. As I do so, I also pull away from the urge to have an absolute answer for every question.
    I don’t want to write about being a Christian in a contemporary setting, because I can’t make much sense of it. Perhaps I’m the only one. It’s far easier for me, as a writer, to remove myself several steps from the modern world. It’s easier to see the larger picture in a fantasy world, easier to find meaning, even without an altar call on the last page.
    Maybe it’s proof of my lack of insight, or my cowardice. Maybe I only want to escape. I don’t know. But I can certainly commiserate with writers who find it easier to express themselves in other eras and other genres.

  16. sally apokedak

    Still, it’s an interesting question: why are so few Christian authors writing straight non-fantastical novels about twenty-first century America?

    Maybe because it’s hard to get them published. There are three sacred cows in the general market—abortion, homosexuality, and feminism. Any Christian character in this century has to have some opinion on these issues. And if he holds to the traditional scriptural view, his story will not be published in the general market probably. Look at DC Comics canceling Orson Scott Card’s edition of Superman when he wasn’t even writing about homosexuality or Mormonism. Because of his beliefs on an issue, and because he has vocalized those beliefs instead of keeping them to himself, his issue of Superman was cancelled. How much faster would the issue have been cancelled is Superman was a Christian who held to a traditional interpretation of scripture.

    So if a person writes about a Christian man who, say, struggles with his son’s homosexuality, he has to have the character decide that God made his son gay and it was good for him to engage in homosexual acts and be happy. That book would be published. And it would be published if the Christian character treated his son terribly—tied him to a tree and quoted scripture to him while he beat him. But if the character loved his son but maintained his belief that homosexuality was sinful, the author would have a hard time finding a publisher, I think.

    We are materialistic so maybe someone could write a novel about a guy who has an epiphany and who quits his corporate job and goes to work in the inner city at a mission.

    Because I’m a genre reader I’d love to have mysteries with Christian detectives where the Christianity is just part of life and not what the book is about. And I’d like other genres with Christian characters, too. I’d like to see Christian characters in contemporary books, just being normal people–flawed but not particularly bigoted and hateful as some believe us to be. What I’d really like is to establish that there are people who are educated and intelligent who still believe that the Bible is God’s word. Who still believe there is such a thing as absolute truth. I’m a little tired of movies that portray Bible believers to be ignorant at best. Far too often Christian characters in films are pedophiles and serial killers. I know many people who believe the Bible is God’s word, and who hold to a conservative, traditional interpretation of Scripture, who are loving people. I’d like to see some books with those people as main characters and secondary characters.

  17. sally apokedak

    You did just fine, Carrie. I was merely trying to expand on it a bit. As you’ve guessed by now…this is the issue I love to rant about. 🙂

    It was lovely seeing you at Philly! Hope we get to be on staff together at other conferences, too.

  18. Eowyn

    @Sam Snow – good point. Dickens wasn’t subtle, but he made preachyness interesting.

    @Melissa Ortega – I haven’t read any of Neil Gaiman, but I do know a bit about him. Interestingly, he is a big fan of Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton, so he’s not working on an entirely atheistic framework, there. He once co-wrote a book with Terry Pratchett, and they dedicated it “To G.K. Chesterton: A Man Who Knew What Was Going On.”

    Pratchett, as well, engages with many Christian themes in his satirical series: Discworld. While Pratchett, at least, is an atheist, it is really interesting how much he clings to the ideas of justice and meaning which he believes are fantasy – lies breathed through silver. (“Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder…and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.”) Sometimes this leads him to very despairing conclusions, and it really feels like he’s longing for something bigger. (“And yet you act as if there is some…rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.”) Pratchett’s stuff is incredibly popular – I’d imagine lots of people would respond to similar work that instead concludes morality is not a delusion.

  19. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Yes, Sam Snow brings up a very interesting point with Dickens. I love Dickens, yet he breaks many of the rules of good writing that I hold dear. He’s wordy, preachy, un-subtle, overly sentimental. Yet I forgive all of it; those foibles aren’t just forgivable but charming in light of the incredible energy of his prose.

  20. Eowyn

    @Sally apokedak – I love Christian detectives too. I haven’t found a satisfying Christian book detective since Father Brown, though – which was modern in its day. P.D. James is a Christian, though, which doesn’t turn up in her detective fiction, but does in her dystopian book The Children of Man (which I haven’t read yet.) However, she is certainly Of Another Age, being…92 now? And still writing, which is just so dang awesome.

    I do think the TV show Foyle’s War has a detective who is, if not a Christian, very friendly to it. But it’s set in the 1940’s.

  21. Eowyn

    @Jonathan Rogers – Kind of a flaws of genius thing. Chesterton (who had his own problems) wrote a terrific biography of him in 1906 (which revived public interest when Dickens had just about dropped off the literary radar, I believe). One of his lines is: “In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight that thing enjoys Dickens.”

  22. sally apokedak

    @Eowyn

    I’ve never seen Foyle’s War, but one of the thing that bugs me about TV shows and movies and books these days is that often the token Christian character does not hold to orthodox Christian beliefs, and he almost never has a good reason for believing in God.

    For instance the FBI guy on the show “Bones” is a Catholic guy who believes in God, but he can never really answer the scientific woman very well, because he’s just emotional and superstitious. He doesn’t read or obey the Bible, he simply believes in God because he’s overly emotional. The scientist is shown as a sad women with no ability to believe in wondrous things. But she’s still the winner when it comes to seeing clearly. Christians are depicted as foggy-minded, child-like, and superstitious.

    Maybe this strays from Jonathan’s original question—why aren’t we writing contemporary novels of faith?

    But I wonder if people today can’t tell the difference between Christianity and Islam. Both have sacred Scriptures, for instance. And both call for self-sacrifice on the part of the faithful. (Yes, they call for those sacrifices for different reasons. But the world may not know that. Carrie has an interesting story about this.) I’m afraid Christianity is just one of many, as Elie says. One of many superstitious religions embraced by people with an emotional need for religion.

    Either that or it’s seen as a religion for intolerant bigots who hate gays and women and poor people.

    Either way, we need to write stories where Christians are seen as intelligent, thoughtful, loving, and kind. And if we steer away from hot-button issues, we may be able to get the things published.

  23. Shawn

    First time I’m commenting here, so I’ll say that first of all, I’m so glad I’ve found the rabbit room! I appreciate all the discussions I’ve read so far.

    I’ve approached this question from a different angle, as a movie lover. I’ve noticed that “Jesus movies” depict our Savior as a model who just walked out of a shampoo commercial. For the modern-day settings, Christian films are preachy and simple. The answer to everything is, well, Jesus. While this is true, none seem bold enough to approach their audience and delve into the story, go deep.

    Hollywood is excellent at developing characters, when Hollywood wants to be. Of course, this usually flies in the face of truth, but sometimes they get it right… albeit with gratuity.

    A friend who is also a writer asked me if I approached my stories with what entertains me first, or if I began with an ideal and worked my way backwards.

    I suspect the solution is to avoid that either/or. Why should something that relates truth not be inherently engaging? In other words, tell your story from your heart. Let the technical proficiency follow after the work is done, to compliment it, not control it.

  24. Heather Rose

    This post has prodded me to try writing contemporary fiction. Personally, I’ve only just started getting back into writing fiction at all, and when I do it’s always an allegory or metaphor or something like that.
    But every time I read a contemporary novel, I get to a point that I think:
    “This character’s story would be so much better if he met Jesus.”
    There needs to be more stories that follow a character who is learning about a Biblical walk, or is a strong Christian, or is transformed by his salvation. These stories are the ones that feed us.
    Now, rather than state this fact and stop there, I’m now going back to a story that I need to finish writing.

    Thank you, RR.

  25. yankeegospelgirl

    One difficulty with writing a novel set in the 21st century is how to enter a world of Facebook, twitter and texting without creating something that feels trite. How do you write a story that feels like it has some substance in a setting where the characters are texting each other? It’s a bit of a challenge.

  26. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Zach, Graham Greene is getting left out because he goes back even farther than Flannery O. The original questions revolve around what Christians are writing right now. In my case, there’s an additional reason I don’t have anything to say about Graham Greene: I’ve never read any of his books.

  27. Lisa

    Thanks so much for this article. It encapsulates much of what I have bemoaned for ages. I do think that part of the answer is the publishing side – the difficulty of finding a mainstream publisher to take on this type of work from an unknown author has got to be immense. It all comes down to money, doesn’t it? What will sell? And how many Christian writers are subtly and not-so-subtly influenced by Mammon as well? Writing to “the market” – the Christian one, in it’s own rigid box, or the secular one, where people of faith are marginal, freakish characters (or the “expendable cast members”)? I don’t know – I don’t mean to be critical. I am in this writing game myself and recognize the difficulty and challenges well. Te fact that this article is based upon one in the New York Times gives me some hope that perhaps things will start to change.

  28. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    And YGG, you make a good point about social media and other technologies. I’ve often said that the first step in plotting a story is to figure out why your characters don’t have cell phones. They can either live in a pre-cell phone era, or they can live in a fantasy world where cell phones don’t exist or they can find themselves in a part of the world with no cell phone towers, or they can lose their cell phones. But if they have cell phones, when they get in trouble, they just call for help. End of adventure.

  29. EmmaJ

    @Jonathan – exactly! I was just thinking about YankeeGospelGirl’s comment above and about to return to this discussion to comment on the issue of technology. Specifically, the aspect I was thinking of was that it would be a challenge to write about life now and not reference technology, as it so much a part of the fabric of every day life. Yet referencing texts as having any importance in personal relationships seems so… banal.

    And then the other aspect is that things change so fast, by the time something is published, the technology may well be already en route to relegation as an obsolete anachronism – today’s smart phone is tomorrow’s pager. (As an example, I’m thinking of a blog post of mine from a few years back, even the title of which now seems strangely quaint in light of the advent of the smart phone, which was then not even a blip on the average person’s radar screen: http://chelseamorning.xanga.com/339982264/item/.)

    From a far distance, out-of-date technology is charming (I’m thinking of horse drawn carriages and party-line phone systems). In the near distance, it just seems stale.

    I’m curious to see how some of you clever fiction writers might take up the challenge to talk about life now, including the aspect of technology, in some fashion that comes off well.

  30. yankeegospelgirl

    Thanks for the comments guys! I will say that I think technology becomes cool in certain types of stories, like thriller/crime/intrigue stories. But if you’re writing something that doesn’t depend on geek toys and techno-coolness, it feels like more of a clash.

  31. yankeegospelgirl

    By the way, someone mentioned a lack of dystopian fiction—I already recommended Michael O’Brien, and I think that commentator might be interested in his dystopian series. Big apocalyptic thriller novels, but way better written than Left Behind. I hesitate to even make the comparison, except that they’re also set in an end-times context.

  32. Taryn Hayes

    Fascinating conversation! I’ve enjoyed the RR’s posts in the past, but haven’t been a big participant in discussion – mostly because I feel that everyone else’s wisdom is wisdom enough 😉

    But, I wanted to chime in on this conversation and say that I agree with the many thoughts and concerns that have been raised here. Our world today is as agenda-driven as it was in years’ past, but the agenda today is firmly anti-evangelical Christian. And at the same time, evangelical Christiandom is more and more driven by carnal materialism. The authors of the past (O’Conner etc) had the freedom of writing in a world where the premise was generally accepted, if not respected. There are far more philosophical obstacles to an excellent, biblically-grounded contemporary novel finding its way to the NYT bestseller list than ever before. Coupled with the apparent demise of publishing houses, the way forward is even gloomier.

    BUT … I do wonder if this is in fact not a really good thing. After all, the greatest strides in Christian history took place under the most trying of circumstances – not in the strength of man, but in the power of God … proving that the glory is all God’s. So, while I do feel despair, I am hopeful too that soon the Lord will bring revival of the magnitude of eras like Whitefield and Edwards again.

    (an aside: interestingly, my own book was traditionally published by a small, but growing, publisher here in South Africa – their trick seems to be diversifying genre and market. Not sure how this will pan out in future and it’s a bit weird having my book advertised on the same page as some of their other titles, but I was really interested to see that they were unafraid to embrace a contemporary novel that was so outspoken about the gospel message … a sign of the times, perhaps? or just madness!)

  33. whipple

    A bit late in coming to this discussion, but nevertheless —

    It occurred to me to peruse my own shelves to see if I had any specifically secular ideology ensconced in modern fiction. Just looking for a ‘control group,’ you understand. However, I’m fairly hard-pressed to find any. The most modern novel I own is probably Accordion Crimes by Proulx (a great read), but it spans about a century within its pages, finally coming right up to the present. The dearth of ‘non-genre’ fiction is just my own proclivity as a reader, I’m sure. As I’m looking for a comparison, though, would anyone be willing to throw out the title of a secularist novel completely set in the modern era without a hint of the fantastical?

  34. Leanore

    I would say…leave out the technology. If a story can’t be told on the basis of plot, setting, and character, then the story line won’t be moved forward by continual references to technological devices or media.

    My husband is not a coffee drinker. I am. We both started reading the same book, and he was rather put off by references to drinking coffee, making coffee, buying coffee, getting together for coffee…in this make-believe world, seemingly, there was a continual ecstasy of caffeine. While it’s true that a lot of people rely on coffee as a mental stimulant, a daily ritual, and a social institution, it doesn’t make a very good scaffold to hang a story on. It gets in the way; it makes the story seem artificial. I think the same thing might be true with our technology and social media. And I think that might be the test of the quality of the writing – how well can a contemporary story be told when it is not dependent on devices?

  35. yankeegospelgirl

    I see your point Leanore, but what if you’re writing (for example) a coming-of-age/love story about highschoolers? If you’re setting it in the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine that they would never communicate with cellphones or other forms of social media. I agree that the story shouldn’t hang on that, of course. Maybe the simplest solution is to set in a relatively modern era, but before the internet (1980s perhaps). Or be vague about when it’s set.

    Then again, you could just stick to Amish romance novels. That takes care of the technology issue without any fuss!

  36. Janna

    I humbly submit Madeleine L’Engle and Katherine Paterson. Are they too far in the past? Or have they been overlooked because they usually write YA?

  37. Melissa Ortega

    L’Engle wrote many adult novels, not just YA – and was rejected repeatedly for being too religious until the success of Wrinkle in Time. I think she’s an excellent example.

    The funny thing is, the conversation here is very like the one that sprang up in the original Rabbit Room near Oxford. How does one “make it past watchful dragons” in a culture laden with philosophical dragons? The Inklings decided mythopoeia – or layered, reflected, created mythology (which leads to more fantastical than realistic stories) – was the way to do this. I’m not so sure that’s changed.

    Considering the fantastic success of the Harry Potter series (rife with Christian themes), the Hunger Games (also thick with “Christian conscience”), City of Ember (Plato’s Cave anyone?), and so forth, it seems that for now, this particular genre which takes the reader out of his conflicted world of properly labeled faces and into places where the image and morals are seen and not heard is still working best at bringing the Gospel into focus.

    Perhaps realism (in literature at least) is an illusion. It is too like us for us to find truth in it – we wallow in our own presupposition, prejudice, tradition, theology – but give us an elf and we let go of all that and say “I spy a hero! I spy a villain! I spy TRUTH!” Readers rarely disagree on who the hero is in a story. Nobody cheers for Voldemort, unless they need therapy.

    The more aggressively opposed our society becomes to its own self, the more it craves worlds which are right-side-up. And I think that’s still where we are – maybe more than ever. The world is facing disintegration of lesser identities and having to claim to what it values at its core – for us, that’s Jesus. It is for them too, they just don’t know it!

    And these invisible worlds – like invisible hobbits – slip more easily past dragons. Unfortunately, this works the other way too. While spirituality is playing a MUCH larger role in fiction right now with the superstardom of Gaiman, even (ugh) Stephanie Meyers and the like, it isn’t necessarily good theology that’s slipping by. That’s why “we” need to up our game. Considering the success of the aforementioned authors, I don’t think publishers would reject the books because they have a Christian leaning – I honestly think most of them are too ill-educated to always recognize it – I doubt they have any clue that Gaiman’s books (or shows like the blockbuster, game-changing LOST) are laden with scientology, and at the least, theosophy. Stephanie Meyers was able to slip lots of *potentially* good theological quandries into a story about a girl who meets a vampire (not Edward) who became one himself when he, as a devoted priest, was chasing down other vampires in centuries old Italy. That story could have been really good (very Lilith, if you will) but instead it went tweeny and strange – and the theology was ill-formed. BUT IT BLAZED a path for other books to come along with different, more redemptive discussions (and relationships!) tucked in their pages that won’t be immediately be rejected *simply* for being religiously themed.

    There are others. Harry Potter may have saved a generation, imho, but the absolute treasure in those books has been, in the most part, largely wasted by the church.

  38. Helena

    Melissa…I love your comment! I have a small problem with L’Engle (though I love her books), because she does lump Jesus in with the leaders of other religions. And I agree that it is tragic how much the church has missed in the way of gleaning truth from a wide variety of stories. We’ve chosen to fear and censor rather than rightly divide.
    I wonder about what it means, exactly, to write a Christian contemporary novel, or any Christian novel for that matter. Does the gospel have to be presented in full? What about just the nature of God or man’s need for redemption or the concept that God is Creator? How much of this are we supposed to sandwich into the course of one small narrative without finding we’ve only written a religious pamphlet or textbook?
    What kinds of stories are we supposed to tell? I’m still not sure. And if I write a story brim-full of universal truths and someone misconstrues them and applies them to another belief system, have I failed?

    Someone also commented recently on the “unreality” of our world, and I believe they’ve hit it. I was talking with my husband the other day about how bizarre it is that we should have to be REMINDED to observe nature and find the glories of God there. How absurd! That our age should be so completely defined by unreal things, digital images and interactions and such, provides a serious conundrum for the would-be writer of contemporary Christian fiction.

    I also wonder about our lack of cultural identity in America. Traveling abroad, I’m always so jealous of the relatively unified sense of self that people of other cultures enjoy. Culturally, I’m not sure being an American means much more than eating wings on Super Bowl Sunday and punching people in the face when they get the last discounted Elmo toy on Black Friday. If you’re trying to detail a journey toward God, it seems reasonable to use elements of culture to move the story along. But we don’t have one.

  39. Melissa Ortega

    “I also wonder about our lack of cultural identity in America. Traveling abroad, I’m always so jealous of the relatively unified sense of self that people of other cultures enjoy. Culturally, I’m not sure being an American means much more than eating wings on Super Bowl Sunday and punching people in the face when they get the last discounted Elmo toy on Black Friday. If you’re trying to detail a journey toward God, it seems reasonable to use elements of culture to move the story along. But we don’t have one.”

    I couldn’t agree more. And this probably belies some of the struggles of contemporary art by Christians coming into its own. Christianity in America especially seems to be facing a – I won’t call it crisis, because I think much of it is actually good – change in their identity. I think they (I am included in this!) are figuring this out in safer places – like fantasy because, oddly enough, those worlds are safer. Truth is, by necessity, stranger than fiction.

    How can we write who we are when we don’t know who we are?

  40. Taryn

    Helene, your comment intrigued me: “I also wonder about our lack of cultural identity in America. Traveling abroad, I’m always so jealous of the relatively unified sense of self that people of other cultures enjoy. Culturally, I’m not sure being an American means much more than eating wings on Super Bowl Sunday and punching people in the face when they get the last discounted Elmo toy on Black Friday. If you’re trying to detail a journey toward God, it seems reasonable to use elements of culture to move the story along. But we don’t have one.”

    I wonder if your experience of American culture is so because you are immersed in it. As an outsider, I often long for the kind of identity that I observe in the US. In South Africa, where I live, I also feel a kind of disunity in culture. But upon reflection, I wonder if that’s because I’m too close to the culture to see it? Kind of like it is when we can’t recognise family resemblance in our kids that others pick up immediately? Or how every other country has an accent but we don’t? My own problem is that my focus tends to be on the disunity rather than the unity. It was an exercise in healing to write a contemporary Christian novel set in my own country in that regard. I think that the US has amazing cultural cues and experiences that make for enticing plot-movers. In fact, I’ve read some beautiful contemporary Christian fiction stories (that *aren’t* Amish romances) that are deeply immersed in American culture. Elizabeth Musser’s books are case in point. There is something to be said for writing what you know. 🙂

  41. Helena

    Melissa, perhaps we can call it “birth pangs” instead of a crisis. I truly wonder what God is doing in the church in America, but I’m excited to be part of it, even if it is scary and awkward and uncomfortable at times.
    Taryn, your comment is quite fascinating. Would love for you to expand on “I think that the US has amazing cultural cues and experiences that make for enticing plot-movers.”

  42. Jonathan Rogers

    Helena, you make some excellent observations, but I’m going to have to take exceptions to your remarks about American culture. I can’t imagine anyone who has lived in this country reducing its culture to hot wings on Super Bowl Sunday and fighting over Elmo dolls. For better or worse, this is an outlandishly rich and diverse culture we live in–an embarrassment of riches for a writer. Another reason it’s a shame Christian people aren’t writing a lot of fiction about it.

  43. Leanore

    Yankee Gospel Girl – If we’re going to write about Romeo and Juliet in the 21st century, naturally they’re going to communicate by way of electronic devices instead of by Shakespearean emoting beneath balconies in the moonlight. Maybe I should have said that it needs to be minimal – unless the whole story is, for instance, about getting sucked into the dark side of the media and how that wreaks havoc on the soul…from a truly Christian perspective. And, then, there is a true encounter with God, and how that transforms the soul…but there is still a struggle with sensuous appetites and the pull of that dark media side that never goes away.

    Anybody want to write that story? I give you the plot. If I wanted to write fiction, it probably wouldn’t be that. 🙂

    Now I need to go back and catch up on all the comments from #44 – 52. They all look fascinating.

  44. Matt Conner

    Hey I just wanted to chime in here since I’m the “contemporary fiction guy”. Now I anointed myself with that designation, so trust me as far as you can throw me on this one.

    Anyway, I will agree that I haven’t found any contemporary Christians writing fiction. But if you bump your head against library walls wondering who is worthy of your time as a current writer, you’re really missing out. It’s almost all that I read at this point is current general lit. and I’ve got way too much to read.

    *Jhumpa Lahiri has already been mentioned and if you’ve yet to read her short stories in Interpreter of Maladies or her novel The Namesake, they’re both wonderful and pretty quick (in case you get cooties from leaving historical and/or fantasy worlds for too long).

    *Julian Barnes is quickly becoming a personal favorite. “The Sense of an Ending” was my favorite read last year. His reflections on death, life and mortality in “Nothing To Be Afraid Of” was something I read immediately after the former and I’ve got 4 more Barnes’ books on my “to read” shelf.

    *Dave Eggers is likely my favorite author. Just finished Hologram for the King which was classic Eggers. I’ve read them all at this point and his first book, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”, is the place to start.

    J.M Coetzee writes the most compelling tales of loss and redemption and won the Nobel Prize in 2003. “Disgrace” was especially moving (and a quick read as well). I read anything Paul Auster writes for his ability to write what people think and feel in such visceral ways. Josh Ferris, Jonathan Tropper, Jonathan Saffron Foer are all some of today’s best young compelling authors. Philip Roth can be quite disturbing for some here I’m assuming, but man if The Human Stain or American Pastoral aren’t among the best books I’ve ever read…

    Then of course the obvious. Ward Just. Cormac McCarthy. Michael Chabon. Richard Russo.

    Anyway all of this to say that while there might not be a glaring “look at this award-winning woman who is a Christian” on the shelves winning an award in 2013, there are some brilliant fiction writers right now saying as much (at least to me) on what is beautiful and true regardless of what they personally say that they believe out loud (if at all). I’m not sure I get any real need to have someone labelled as a Christian out there for us to accept what they write or even need to claim them. Perhaps all truth is God’s truth o rmaybe that quote is a slipper slope for some.

    All I know is that reading these authors illuminates what is meaningful as much as reading a book by C.S. Lewis or Jesus or St. Holyman

  45. Matthew Benefiel

    Wow! I go on a business trip and then a camping trip and come back to find a blazed trail. Interesting to me was on my business trip I ran into a fellow Christian who was telling me about how his son (now 20) planted an avocado seed at age 12. They soaked the seed, planted it in a pot, and when it grew farely large planted it outside. It looked to be growing well until a hard frost hit it (sounds like a book study we did on RR recently, though different fruit) and it had to be cut back to the roots. Now 12 years later it is 30 feet tall and finally has fruit, large fruit from what I’m told. His son is coming over to try the first of these fruits and learn a good lesson that many things take time to bear fruit (apparently avocado trees do take about 8 to 12 years to grow and produce fruit).

    I asked my fellow Brother if I could have the book rights and he said absolutely and he would even read it. Who can resist the title “The Avocado Tree.” Perhaps a story about a coming of age (I know it’s been done) in a world full of facebooks, texting, and Clouds, and how one has to sift through all the noise to find the things that truely matter.

  46. Lisa

    I think the discussion about technology is a bit of a distraction. If you are a contemporary writer, these things are part of the landscape you write about. Look at science fiction – it’s full of technology and yet there still is tension and suspense and all the other things that make for good writing and a satisfying plot.

    I think Marilynne Robinson is an important part of this discussion, even though it has been mentioned that her book, Gilead, was about an old man looking back on his life and therefore was not “contemporary” in the strictest sense. However, she did win the Pulitizer Prize for that book, in the year 2005. So I do think that this means that an overtly Christian book can resonate well in our culture, and can be recognized as an important book worthy of the highest honour that can be given, as long as the writing itself is excellent.

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