Maybe nothing. Maybe the novel of belief is perfectly alive and well, though of a different character than the kinds of novel produced, inter alia, by Waugh, Greene, Percy and O’Connor in the last century.
Or maybe it has all but disappeared from the literary landscape and is sorely in need of a renaissance.
Such are the lines of an intriguing debate that got kicked off late last year when Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save You Might Be Your Own, a fourfold biography of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy, and the more recent Reinventing Bach, published an essay in the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” With his eye mainly on novels having to do with Christian belief, Elie proclaimed: “If any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.”
Speaking sed contra, however, was Gregory Wolfe, editor of the literary journal, Image, and of the recent volume of essays, Beauty Will Save the World, in a Wall Street Journal essay entitled, “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World.” In his essay Wolfe countered: “the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that–a myth.”
Elie acknowledges that there are writers working today who touch on Christian belief in various ways, but they do not do so, he goes on, in ways that show the faith’s “explanatory power.” He observes that contemporary American fiction, for example, treats of belief “as upbringing, belief as social fact, belief as a species of American weirdness: our literary fiction has all of these things. All that is missing is the believer.”
What of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead? Is this, for Elie, just the exception that proves the rule? Not quite. In an interview I had with Elie last week, Elie, paraphrasing Flannery O’Connor’s quip about Faulkner, referred to Robinson as the “Dixie Limited” among contemporary American writers. But still, in the Times piece, Elie wrote that Gilead’s “originality conceals the fact that, as a novel of belief, it is highly representative: set in the past, concerned with a clergyman, presenting belief as a family matter, animated by a social crisis.”
For his part, Wolfe has no reservations about including Gilead, among the works of many others, in the list of contemporary works that should be lauded for the way they deal with matters of faith. But Wolfe in his essay is not so much interested in amassing counterexamples to Elie’s thesis. The real issue with the contemporary literature of belief, he contends, “has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.”
Wolfe alludes to Flannery O’Connor’s justification of her approach to fiction via the grotesque: “For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” O’Connor’s “high concept” approach to dealing with matters of belief in her fiction, says Wolfe, “made sense in the context of her time, when the old Judeo-Christian narrative was locked in a struggle with the new secular narratives of Marx, Freud and Darwin.” Today, however, in our postmodern world, all the grand narratives are suspect and all the institutions suspect. “So the late Doris Betts could say that for all her admiration of Flannery O’Connor, her own fiction had to convey faith in whispers rather than shouts. Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways. But obscure is not invisible.”
Responding to this point in my interview with him, Elie rejoined: “If you say there is a “whispering generation,” why are they whispering?” What is it about the faith that causes it to be whispered about? True enough, admits Elie, we live in a culture that is growing more and more suspicious of grand narratives such as Christianity. Yet there are still tens of thousands of people who “have no trouble at all” with the grand narrative that Christianity presents. Elie wonders why “all that material hasn’t come into play so much” in works of literature.
So what do you think of these arguments?
Does postmodern culture, as Wolfe thinks, direct writers of fiction more toward “whispers” rather than “shouts,” to the obscure, subtle ways in which faith works in such an environment? In our interview Elie quoted O’Connor: “Subtlety is the curse of man; it is not to be found in the Deity.” Should we then follow Elie in asking for more robust narrative accountings of the explanatory power of Christian faith?
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