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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.
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.