If Not Fiction, Then Nonfiction

Christmas Critics

“Never deny; seldom confirm; always distinguish.” That formula for disputation—Flannery O’Connor by way of Thomas Aquinas—was in mind often in 2013, a year in which I devoted a lot of attention to distinguishing.

After the New York Times ran an essay of mine about Christian belief and contemporary fiction, the disputations began. How could I say there are no believing novelists, or novelizing believers? Why, there is X, of course, Y pointed out. Z wrote to the paper to say, “What about me?” Then came file attachments and plus-size printed manuscripts from A, B, C, D, and E…most of the way to Z again.

Now, I hadn’t said there are no believing novelists, or novelizing believers. In an essay of a couple of thousand words, thick with examples, flagrant in the naming of names, I set out my strong sense that there is relatively little current American literary fiction set in the present in which the central questions of Christian belief are taken up dramatically. I spent most of the essay distinguishing between the fiction I say is missing and the kind we do have: set in the past, or treating religion as a cultural inheritance, or gesturing toward those questions through the faintest of signs and whispers, or engaging people of cloth and collar as agents of the quirky and inexplicable. And so on.

At the end of the essay I suggested where, lacking such fiction, we should look instead, beginning with nonfiction. Year in and year out, there are nonfiction books set in the present in which the central questions of Christian belief are taken up dramatically, and 2013 has been an especially rich year for such books.

Thomas Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes, Nathan Schneider’s God in Proof, Diarmuid MacCulloch’s Silence: A Christian History, Theo Hobson’s Reinventing Liberal Christianity: those four alone would make a banner year—and those are just the books, all published recently, that I’ve only just started reading.

The strongest of the books I have read have a noticeable boldness of form, a structural originality. They seem to prove the point about what art is and what it does: the very quality that makes these books literature is what makes them convincing.

Fred Bahnson was raised by missionaries in places from Nigeria to Montana, but also on his grandparents’ farms in North Carolina. When he graduated from Duke Divinity School, he set out to build Christian community in a way that came naturally to him: by creating a community garden under the auspices of a Methodist church in North Carolina. Over time Anathoth, as it is called, became a place where people of different races and religions mixed as in few other places in the South (or in the North, truth be told). And it became a place where the biblical imagery of garden and field, of sowing and reaping, regained its everyday meanings. “We took Anathoth’s mission from the book of Jeremiah: ‘plant gardens and seek the peace of the city,’ and here at the beginning of my fourth year I think we had that mission half right…. We planted so many things that churches from all over the South came to ask how they, too, could plant such gardens and seek the peace of the city. Anathoth had sprouted from an empty field, and on its best days it afforded a glimpse of the messianic feast.” So it is with Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith (Simon & Schuster, $26, 261 pp.). The book, about Bahnson’s efforts to open new portals in the soil, also becomes a soil of sorts where the reader’s interior life can find space and light and nourishment with which to grow.

I spent Holy Week in London, and the theocon talking points about religiously denuded Britain seemed disproven wherever I turned: in more Passion and Messiah performances than I could hope to attend; in the British Film Institute’s showing of Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew; in the live Passion (simulcast on large screens) at the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square; and in Francis Spufford’s -Unapologetic (HarperOne, $25.99, 240 pp.), which I found at the LRB Bookshop and read straight through from Friday to Sunday. I’ve been describing it to people as an account of Christian belief as David Foster Wallace might have written it, but that’s not quite right. It’s probably closer to Julian Barnes. It could have been subtitled The History of a Twenty-First-Century Man’s Deepening Attention to Religious Matters in 10 ½ Chapters. But the publisher’s own subtitle gets it pretty much right: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.

What makes this book a work of “unapologetics” rather than apologetics is the extreme indirection of its style. Spufford works through voice more than through straightforward argumentation. He begins with his own quarrelsome and contradictory inner life (describing himself as a representative person of today) rather than in established questions of religion’s place in society. He rephrases familiar arguments about religious belief idiomatically, and does the same for Christian doctrines, beginning with original sin, which he expresses through a comic abbreviation: “HptFtU” (the expanded version is not printable here). Now, those are all familiar moves of the apologist—and it is Spufford’s greatest achievement to make us forget that while we’re reading his book. Here he is on the initial embrace of belief, which somewhere else he compares to falling in love:

Do I feel better? It depends what you mean by “better.” As my godfather asked suspiciously when a nurse said it to him, “Better than what?” I don’t feel cuddled, soothed, flattered I don’t feel distracted or entertained. My fancy has not been tickled. I have not been shown cool huge stuff by a very big version of Jerry Bruckheimer. I have not been meddled with, or reprogrammed, or had my settings tweaked. I have not been administered a cosmic antidepressant. I have not had my HptFtU removed by magic. I have not been told to take it easy because I’m OK and you’re OK. Instead I have been shown the authentic bad news about myself, in a perspective which is so different from the tight focus of my desperation that it is good news in itself; I have been shown that though I may see myself in the grim optics of sorrow and self-dislike, I am being seen all the while, if I can bring myself to believe it, with a generosity wider than oceans. I’ve been gently and implacably reminded of how little I know a whole truth about myself. 

Even as I typed that passage I realized who Spufford’s most direct worldly ancestor is. It’s Nick Hornby, he of the energetic memoirs about football fandom and record-store haunting—and that’s just the beginning. In England, especially, Hornby is thought of as the progenitor of the male confessional, AKA “lad lit,” and he cleared a space for Spufford to write the book he calls “a defense of Christian emotions.”

Spufford’s attention to emotion is original and remarkable. But what struck me especially about the book on Holy Thursday in London—and what strikes me about it on the front edge of Advent in New York—is that it is about the central questions of Christian belief, the questions that I argued don’t figure much into contemporary American fiction. How does curiosity quicken into belief? Just what does the believer find herself believing? What about the sins of the church and Christian people, as beyond numbering as grains of sand? And Christ himself: What exactly is the nature of his challenge, and his example, after all these years?

Spufford asks these questions—asks them colorfully and dramatically. I would say his book, beautifully written as it is, reads like a novel, but it doesn’t. It is unapologetically not a fiction.

Published in the December 6, 2013 issue: 
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Paul Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (FSG), is writing a book about the music of Bach in the age of recordings.

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