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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 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 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 Lahiris story This Blessed House: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants.Its 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.

Tomorrows 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 Elies thesis?

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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I bought my husband a gift subscription to Powell's Indiespensable Book Club; he gets a staff-picked new release every couple of months. Recent ones seemed pretty religious "The Age of Miracles" , a debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker and "A Million Heavens" by John Brandon. 'A Million Heavens" was a really good read.

Hi, Joseph!Glad to see this thread. I read Elie's essay with interest. He says, "So you keep looking for the literature of belief. You find it where you can. In journalism like Eliza Griswolds Tenth Parallel, where Christians and Muslims encounter each other in acts of geopolitical soul-to-soul; in House of Prayer No. 2, a memoir in which Mark Richard, going over the trail of a bizarre life, sees signs from God here, there and everywhere."Memoirs are the place to look, imho. The stories of convent life by former nuns, e.g., make clear the reasons for the exodus from religious life. There are many available, including Pat Beasley's The Tears I Couldn't Cry. (She was a Daughter of Charity.) On the book's page at Amazon are other examples listed under "Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought . . . example among many would be Mary Rose Shaughnessy's online memoir. (She was in the Holy Cross order at St. Mary's Notre Dame.) Stories of ex-priests are also interesting, imho. "Crystal," a short story by Susan Hill is one example. liked the letters about Elie's essay. I agree with Patricia Mulcahy, who wrote about James Lee Burke. (I don't read his books, but my husband loves them.) I think editors, critics, et al. tend to ignore mysteries (just as they do the convent stories) because they're not important enough for those who think they're not important enough. The best mysteries I've read in a long time have a strong element of religion in them. They are by Peter May: The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, and The Chessmen. They're set in the Outer Hebrides -- the Isle of Lewis, and they are fabulous. And I agreed with Andy Davis's letter. "Thank God."

Also see Dominic Preziosi's take on Elie's essay at our Verdicts blog (where some dotComm regulars have already weighed in).

I've been reading the urban fantasy series "The Dresden Files", and there's a fair amount of Catholic stuff in them - a recurrent character who's a Catholic priest, a character who's a knight of some mythical order of the cross, even some angels make appearances, but there are also werewolves and vampires and demons too and if it was a movie the series would be rated R for violence/sex, so probably not a stellar example.

In the WSJ Gregory Wolfe responds to the Elie article:"Today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted. Perhaps a new Flannery O'Connor will rise, but meanwhile we might try listening more closely to the still, small voice that is all around us."

What Elie misses loudly is that book literature as a reflexion of the age is over. This is a digital social media world. So the rules have changed. At the same time, these are marvelous reflections and need a lot of reflexion to figure out.

Amazing. I just used" reflexion" in two different ways and did not realize it. ......

Daily communicant Andre Dubus II was a greatly admired short story writer. I haven't read him, but have seen great reviews of his work. He thought that all life is sacramental, and the Eucharist was central to his belief. I read that this is reflected in his work, sometimes explicitly.

I think the Japanese author Ayako Sono is a great contemporary Catholic author. I have read only two of her many novels -- because only two have been translated into English -- but both feature Catholic themes and characters and, in my view, both are great novels. I hope more of her work will be translated into English.

I am very surprised the name of William Peter Blatty did not come up. Sure, he is not a prolific author, sadly, but what he has produced over the years has always been of a high standard and he is a great writer. His latest full length novel "Dimiter" (2010) is wonderful and would make an excellent movie.

Also, Mary Gordon and Ron Hansen.

Joe, this is a very relevant post with its coverage of the faith in fiction. One of my first objections is the belief that literature, especially fiction, reflects all people who are religious. Especially those who have never heard of Merton, Percy, OConnor or Day and yet are living lives of deep Catholic faith. Is it like Origin contemplating who will be saved while the people are just concerned about Jesus Crucified. Memoirs of ex-priests and nuns do depict lives of people in faith but only of that select world. Rarely do we get a writer who can tell us how people who do not pay attention to these things live their faith? Although Robert Orsi does a nice job of those who are devoted to St Jude and the Madonna of 115th st. My point is that to often the literary world gives itself too much credit and influence while so many of the faithful are found elsewhere. So, to answer your question, I think Elie makes a lot of sense when he writes that fiction has today forgotten Catholics. My question is how influential were those former writers of the faith on the ordinary person in the pew. Or is the Catholic intellectual community just writing about themselves? Again, I believe your post is quite good and relevant and almost looks like a course. My thoughts are by no means settled as all of this describes a learning experience for one to grow with.

Also, nothing has been said about the many Catholics who read 'religiously oriented fictional types' and are inspired by them. Consider how many people---Christians and Catholics who read "The Shack" by W. Paul Young and are now looking at the subsequent book of daily reflections.Do Catholics have to have an 'explicit' type of fiction book about their experiences? Or have we grown to the point where we can relish the common religious experiences that all Christians cherish?

I don't believe that Paul Elie's article concerned only Catholics and Catholic themes in fiction.

What about Marilyn Robinson's, "Gilead"? Not Catholic. Religious down to its DNA.I read the Paul Elie article when it appeared. He has been saying this for sometime now (no harm in that), but it fits nicely with the NYTime's view of the world. I guess we'll see how Elie does with his own novel (didn't someone say he was writing one?).

A tad off subject: Does the moral compass of John Brennan (soon to be head of the CIA) remind anyone of the protagonists in Graham Greene novels?

I wonder to what extent the issue is one of definition. Paul Elie talks about Christian belief in "literary fiction." I know what he means, but there is a whole genre of "Christian fiction," with its own market, its own publishers, and even many specifically Christian bookstores. With some rare exceptions, genre fiction (mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, western), no matter how good it is, doesn't count as "literary fiction." So-called literary writers don't much venture into genre territory, although I suppose a few authors like John le Carr and Scott Turow can make claims to being "literary."

I would like to second Peggy Steinfels suggestion of Marilyn Robinson. She is a profoundly serious writer.

If you go to Amazon and search for Books > Literature & Fiction > Literary, the first ten that pop up dispel any notion that literature is "post-Christian."

I'm not qualified to speak to the larger question, but certainly contemporary authors like Barbara Kingsolver (e.g., "The Poisonwood Bible") and Louise Erdrich (e.g., "The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse") continue to put Christian belief at the center of much of their work.@Margaret Steinfels (1/13, 10:26 am) Not just John Brennan, but a large number of other figures at the center of our military and foreign policy adventures over the past decade. (Is there any way a demonstrated understanding of the lessons to be learned from, say, "The Quiet American" and David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" can be prerequisites for high military, diplomatic and political office? (he asked wistfully....)

I cite Brennan because his Fordham education likely introduced him to means and ends questions and just war strictures. If he was a participant in the "torture" discussions at the CIA, he would have had to give some thought to those sorts of moral calculations. Can we imagine Brennan, like Graham Greene protagonists, being drawn into scenarios where whatever objections he might have had (and raised) where overwhelmed by the march of events and the enthusiasm for the war on terror. Like many Catholics, Brennan may have been drawn into justifications for torture, i.e., better that one man suffer than thousands die. After all, the hit show 24 was framed around such a calculation. So will Brennan find redemption as head of the CIA? Will he call such thinking to a halt? Stay tuned for Graham Green's next....

A. G. Mojtabai is not Christian, but she is a compelling and spiritually alert writer. She holds her own among the best.

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