To conflate a quote from one Oscar Wilde play with the title of another, nowadays to be earnest is to be found out. Earnestness in secular literature has been gauche for years, but one of the greatest literary sins is frank depictions of religious belief. God forbid the writer who chooses conviction over irony. A character who authentically believes in God is strange, mad, or a liar. Sometimes all three.
How did this happen? Literary history is a story of responses and rejoinders, and the nineteenth-century ancestors of the modern Catholic novel were, in the words of D.J. Taylor, “straightforward toeings of the party line.” Today the pendulum has swung in the complete opposite direction, where straightforward faith cannot be presumed. Religious art tends to be self-consciously devotional or distant.
It has been this way for some time. As far back as 1992, Paul Giles wrote, “what we characteristically find in American Catholic writers is a conflict between a desire for integration and a compulsion toward isolation: between an urge on the one hand to collapse the old ethnic order and work one’s way into American society by adopting the conventional behavior patterns of energetic individualism, and a residual sentiment on the other that insists these secular and materialistic values are not ‘genuine’ and never can be.”
Giles’s description perfectly captures the ethnic Catholic sentiment that seeps into the work of Don DeLillo and Flannery O’Connor, but as the shadow of postmodernism extends to the present, Catholic writers are no longer ashamed of their rosaries—they don’t own any.
Take for a recent example the novels of self-described “agnostic Catholic” David Lodge. In The British Museum Is Falling Down, Catholicism is the source of outmoded sexuality, a cultural millstone in the form of the rhythm method. Adam and Barbara Appleby already have three children and don’t want another, but as practicing Catholics, they have little recourse. In Therapy, Catholicism is a source of nostalgia—what his characters believed in before they grew up. The novel’s usage of church symbolism—from the Virgin Mary to religious pilgrimage—remains firmly in the world of ironic symbol rather than credible belief.
The earnest religious literary work is pious and unembarrassed about faith. The characters might struggle with belief; they might even lapse into doubt. Yet overall, earnest religious works exist as spiritual stories in a secular world, and not as stories in which belief is mere symbol. Perhaps the last fully earnest Catholic novel was published nearly ninety years ago in 1928. Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly is a vestige of another literary era. Mr. Blue is a mystic: part modern-day St. Francis, part itinerant monk. His eccentricity and unbridled joy might first confuse the contemporary reader, but the largely forgotten book is worth revisiting in the age of ironic religious fiction.
The novel is narrated and framed by an acquaintance of Blue, who is both fascinated and confounded by his saintlike subject. In a more contemporary work, this narrator would be dismissive of Blue, but in Connolly’s vision, the narrator adopts a generous tone. What makes Mr. Blue fully earnest is that both the characters and the novelist are earnestly Catholic. An earnest character in the hands of an ironic writer would feel like parody. Mr. Blue, however ebullient, never becomes a joke.