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Paul Elie on fiction without faith

Paul Elie has a cover essay in todays New York Times Book Review in which he posits that contemporary fiction has lost its faith.

[I]f any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. Half a century after Flannery OConnor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what OConnor 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 theUnited States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiris story This Blessed House: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants.

Its not stories of Catholic upbringings or knuckle-wrapping nuns that hes seeking (even today, there are as many novels of religious childhood as there are parochial schools and Bible camps), but work that plumbs the deeper question of belief and how belief can seize individual lives. Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" meets this criterion, in Elie's opinion, as does Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But not much else, maybe not even Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which Elie calls "representative, set in the past, concerned with a clergyman, presenting belief as a family matter, animated by a social crisis."

Is Elie overlooking anyone? He mentions Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo, but gives short shrift in my opinion to DeLillos story "The Angel Esmeralda," speaking of it only in the context of Underworld, the huge novel into which it was eventually absorbed, and boiling it down to the scene in which its nun protagonist sees the vision of a murdered girl on a billboard in the Bronx. The standalone version of the story (originally appearing in Esquire and later included in Best American Short Stories) lays much more groundwork for this climactic scene, with belief and faith in action at the forefront, not with what Stuart Dybek might think of as the primitivism, incantation and metaphor suggested by a paraphrase of that ending.

Dybek himself is not mentioned in Elie's essay, nor is Robert Stone (Damascus Gate and A Flag for Sunrise both come to mind). Nor is Richard Bausch's "Design," about the relationship between a Catholic priest and the dying pastor of the neighboring Baptist church, or Lydia Davis's "Pastor Elaines Newsletter," in which a non-believing narrator fastens on to a quote from Paul in Romans: "I do not understand what I do; for I do not do what I like to do, but instead I do what I hate. What an unhappy man I am."

I dont cite these as a way of suggesting Elie is purposely or neglectfully leaving anyone out, but rather as a way to continue the discussion. Are there writers out there today who make faith central to their fiction? Perhaps like Elie, I dont read contemporary fiction with the expectation of encountering themes of belief, but when those themes are present I do find myself engaged in a deeper way, if at first only out of surprise. And Elie himself reveals that he is about to get some skin in the game: he's at work on a novel with matters of belief at its core.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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I asume that the reason few writers write about belief these days is that few writers believe in the old sense of the term. I mean they view dogma as unworthy of rational assent and religious practices as superstition. Religion is no longer even an issue for them. Existential angst is a thing of the past.

And the audience has changed in much the same way - "sophisticated" readers no longer believe in dogma or are engaged in traditional practices. There's no one to write and no one to write for.

To be honest, this is the sort of "trend piece" one expects from the Times. He sort of takes a James Woodsian tour of recent fiction (Delillo! McCarthy!), meaning that he seems stuck on Big House publications, and his dismissal of Robinson seems wholly contrived along the rather arbitrary parameter that works set in the past must be dismissed (seriously, Robinson is one of the most lauded of contemporary authors, and her work is driven by Christianity; his rejection of her is just silly). Also, of course, is the simple fact that he's not actually interested in works dealing with faith, but rather works that deal with (and are motivated by) Christian faith (equating "faith" with "Christian" is, of course, a typically Christian move). I also find myself wondering what the point of the piece is. I don't see how it could really be part of a program (reinvigorating Christian literature?); it seems to just be another soft lament for the fact that the Sikhs are next door.

I agree with Abe. This is a strange piece. One almost gets the feeling the Elie is preparing the ground for his own novel, which will be offered to fill the gap that his own essay identifies. Then again, I'm sure someone will write a similar piece dismissing that forthcoming book in the way that he dismisses Robinson, and then they'll promise a novel that take belief more seriously than anyone writing today. Lather, Rinse, Repeat...Maybe this perpetual dissatisfaction with "belief" books simply points to something inherently unfulfilled about the life of faith itself. What writer could really "put it all together" for him or herself, let alone anyone else?

Eric --Which recent novels about belief -- whether looking for it or trying to live out a faith -- would yu recommend as highly as the works of, say, Bernanos and Greene? (I started Gilead nd found it dull.)

It seems to me that any discussion of belief today has to take a leaf out of the book of apologetics. It used to be that apologetics was a kind of intellectual scrap in which you tried to corner your opponent into belief. Then it became a matter of recognizing that the act of faith is far more complex than assent or not to dogma, much more an affair of the heart. So I would suggest that if today we want to look for novels that take belief seriously we should look at those where belief is encountered as an option, perhaps one taken or not, that holds out to characters and readers alike the possibility of a world shaped by faith, but just the possibility. So, for example, Rebecca Goldstein's 36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD takes religious faith very seriously, even if the protagonist is an atheist, and concludes that practices and emotions have far more to do with faith than arguments. It thus raises in attractive form a discussion/debate that centers around questions of belief and unbelief. I think Elie may be right that considerations of faith relative to established religion are thinner on the ground than they once were because, frankly, unquestioning belief within the context of organized religion, however admirable it might be, is dramatically dull. The tension that creates interest and spurs the imagination lies not in faith or atheism, but rather in the space between the two. To borrow Anne Lamott's oft-quoted line, "the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty." So unpacking the doubt/faith relationship is where drama and the imagination can have a field day. I suspect that Paul Elie's novel in process will be pursuing just that relationship, because where else will one find anything to hold the reader's attention? Expanding the discussion a bit, am I wrong that the initiative for treatments of faith might have migrated to movies? How about A Serious Man, Of Gods and Men or even The Master? Don't these raise serious questions not just about faith relative to God or organized religion, but to the much more important relationship to life? Here's a question: serene faith and committed atheism allow us to decode human life oh so easily, but being in the space between, how does that help us all to make sense of the challenges of existence?

Late to the party, but my sense was that Elie was calling for more/deeper exploration of the nature of faith in novels and a more thoughtful criticism of novels that do so. Perhaps I'm just not cynical enough ...Paul Lakeland's suggestion that discussion of faith has moved to the movies is a very interesting one. Perhaps it's not a new turn of events. "The Apostle" (Robert Duvall), one of my very favorites in this vein, came out in 1997. "Millions" is another interesting one.

Sorry, forgot to mention that the Patrick Melrose cycle by Edward St. Aubyn (mentioned on here some time ago) is an interesting exploration of faith, good, and evil, though my sense is that it is the kind of vague exploration that Elie objects to. I don't think Elie mentioned that series.

Religious themes in novels haven't beenlimited, of course, to considerations of belief or non-belief. As noted above there are also considerations of organized religion, considerations which often satirize it, and other themes having to do with the truth or falsity of religious belief. Another large theme was the attempt to live out the requirements of one's beliefs, a theme more likely to be found when belief was still strong in the novel-buying public. Given the waning of religious belief in our culture and the variety of beliefs among Catholics (a variety unknown before VII, or at least not spoken about), is this variety itself a theme which might be of particular interest to Catholic novelists and their potential readers? Or is it the function of novelists to explain contemporary experience to their readers? Are religious novels in particular at their best when describing/analyzing/ explaining the phenomenology of belief and non-belief?

Paul Elies essay asks, Has Fiction Lost Its Faith? But the question he addresses is more like Has Faith Lost Its Fictive Power? For Catholic writers like Flannery OConnor and especially Graham Greene, belief in the reality of sin was central to their fiction. But the disappearance of personal sin as a concern in the life of Catholics and their churchconfession is now a vestigial practicehas surely limited the role belief might play in contemporary fiction produced by Catholics and other religiously committed writers.

Indeed. To practice the Faith is to be tempted and sometimes to fall, i.e., sin. But Christians don't seem to sin anymore, they "make mistakes". I've read that in Scripture the word translated as "sin" is "hamarta" and that originally it meant "to miss the mark", which would be making a mistake. But the notion of sin is what Europeans have been brought up on, and now it has largely disappeared. No doubt this is a reason why the Christian/Catholic novel is in eclipse. Sin was awfully good material for plots.

You myopic Americans need to look north of the border if you want to read a Catholic novelist who takes faith seriously in his fiction. I'm talking about David Adams Richards who, in my opinion, is Canada's best contemporary novelist and one of the best anywhere. Michael Higgins wrote an excellent introduction to Richards in Commonweal, June 18, 2010.

I think of any novel rich with sin, or human frailty, and redemption, the meaning of life and so forth as incorporating faith as its implicit material. There seems to be a lot of material out there like that.

I have been reading the novels of Canadian author, Michael D. O'Brien. In my opinion, his writings are filled with the struggle of faith, Catholic faith in particular, in a modern world. His novels The Father's Tale and Theophilos are among the best novels I have read in recent years. Yet, I find that he is strangely ignored. The very large library system of Baltimore County did not have a copy of any of his books the last time I looked. I just went to Amazon and bought them.Based on another comment, I am now interested in exploring David Adams Richards.

Another fine Canadian Christian novelist of recent times was Robertson Davies.

I find both the Robinson dismissal and the ignoring of Ron Hanson to be strange indeed. Overallmost modern literature does act like the world is not Christian [western world I mean] or even that it exists as a factorLess directly Christian writers like Stone, at least are aware that it exists, it is the commercial culture which values sparkle over substance, and the trend makes for more boring product, art and things, than we had beforePolitical dialog also is grounding itself as well..........

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