Faith and fiction
As its annual nod to religion, the NY Times Book Review gave space to Commonweal-contributor Paul Elie to discuss fiction and faith. Early paragrphs set out the theme developed and discussed:
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.
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.
Tomorrow’s Book Review publishes several articles in response to the essay, most of them suggesting other places to look for evidence of religious interest in contemporary fiction, two of them expressing a certain glee at its absence. I myself would second the letter-writer who praises the work of James Lee Burke, largely overlooked because considered “genre-writing.” Are there other examples? Or do you agree with Paul Elie’s thesis?