Arts & Entertainments: A Novel
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D. G. Myers
Redefining Religious Fiction
The novel of religious faith—or, rather, its disappearance—has been much in the literary news lately. Since the death of Walker Percy a quarter century ago, no American novelist of comparable stature has emerged, it is said, to pack flesh and blood onto the life-altering experience of "something beyond myself" (as the British novelist Muriel Spark shyly described the religious sensation). The last American fiction writer to shout her Christian convictions at the top of her voice was Flannery O'Connor. But now, it is said, while ordinary Christians may bellow from pulpits and political rallies, American fiction has become like the churches of Europe—hushed and almost empty of believers.
The main combatants in this cultural clash have been Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (a 2003 collective biography of four postwar Catholic writers), and Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image, a literary journal founded to publish work concerned with the faith traditions of the West. A year and a half ago, Elie declared in the New York Times Book Review that religious belief shows up in contemporary fiction, if at all, merely "as something between a dead language and a hangover." Great religious novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Brideshead Revisted are barren of living offspring—except perhaps for the novel Elie admitted that he himself was in the process of writing. Replying in The Wall Street Journal, Gregory Wolfe scolded him for looking in all the wrong places for the wrong thing. "[W]e live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive," Wolfe said. "Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways."
I find myself on Wolfe's side, and not merely because he quoted me in the Journal. Elie commits the error that so many commit in talking about religion: he reduces it to the confession of belief, which must be uttered in a voice loud enough to be heard over the fashionable din. But there is plenty of perfectly good religious fiction, Wolfe reminded Elie, which conveys its faith in "whispers rather than shouts." Elie was dismissive. Why the need to whisper? "It's not like we're in England or Mexico where priests are being hunted," he scoffed in a later interview. But this misses the point. Although religion in what Terry Eagleton calls its "doctrinal inflection" may once have appealed to intellectuals and writers like T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, and Robert Lowell, for whom conversion was a reawakening of the mind, it no longer does so. The generation of young Americans just now rising to notice is surrounded by an intellectual élite which jeers that religious belief is the death of intelligence. For the Roman Catholics among them, the scandal of clerical sex abuse was an occasion of profound disgust, which led even the most devout to muzzle their faith. The public display of religion has come to seem as false and insincere as public displays of affection.
It doesn't follow that provocative and satisfying religious fiction is not still being written. Perhaps the best examples are the work of two young Catholic novelists still in their thirties—William Giraldi and Christopher Beha. They established themselves immediately with first novels of extraordinary power and prowess. Giraldi's Busy Monsters (2011) chronicles the spiritual adventures of a lapsed Catholic ("the most devout Catholic of all") who crosses the "line into a whole new mode of existence"—murder, mayhem, the search for Big Foot and ghosts and ufos. Written in the facetious style of the early Evelyn Waugh, Giraldi's novel nevertheless has a serious Christian purpose. It explores the emptiness of postmodern lives: "Our silent Savior's broken body: in that believe? How? Which way? Is it each way? But we can't hold it. So in the lifetime of our discontent we worship one another and then wither when left." Busy Monsters has already been listed by one critic among the 100 greatest Catholic novels of all time.
Beha's What Happened to Sophie Wilder was the best American novel of 2012, although it was shamefully overlooked by the publicists and buzz-mongers who hand out the annual book prizes. A brazen attempt to revive the saint's life as a literary genre in an age of unbelief, Beha's novel also dramatizes the enigma of Christian humility when viewed from a secular perspective. After the experience of being "taken over" by the Holy Spirit during mass at a small church, Sophie Wilder renounces her past enthusiasms and devotes herself to the care of her dying father-in-law. She is gennathei anothen—"not 'born again,' exactly, but 'born from above.'" What happens to her as a consequence is so foreign to postmodern sensibility that an alternative ending must be written. The result is a two-sided novel of unforgettable insight into the religious life.