The novel of religious faith—or, rather, its disappearance—has been much in the literary news lately. Since the death of Walker Percy a quarter century ago, no American novelist of comparable stature has emerged, it is said, to pack flesh and blood onto the life-altering experience of "something beyond myself" (as the British novelist Muriel Spark shyly described the religious sensation). The last American fiction writer to shout her Christian convictions at the top of her voice was Flannery O'Connor. But now, it is said, while ordinary Christians may bellow from pulpits and political rallies, American fiction has become like the churches of Europe—hushed and almost empty of believers.
That is a premise that is around today, and I’m not sure it holds up to scrutiny. Oscar Hijuelos, Ron Hanson, Tony Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, even Don Dellilo have written novels with religious connotations. To be sure, faith is not as overt in these novels as say in novels from the prior generations, but it’s there subtly. But nonetheless, Myers has a point; religious literature is not as conspicuous as it used to be.
Myers goes on to cite a debate between Paul Elie and Gregory Wolfe, where the two take sides on this issue.
The main combatants in this cultural clash have been Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (a 2003 collective biography of four postwar Catholic writers), and Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image, a literary journal founded to publish work concerned with the faith traditions of the West. A year and a half ago, Elie declared in the New York Times Book Review that religious belief shows up in contemporary fiction, if at all, merely "as something between a dead language and a hangover." Great religious novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Brideshead Revisted are barren of living offspring—except perhaps for the novel Elie admitted that he himself was in the process of writing. Replying in The Wall Street Journal, Gregory Wolfe scolded him for looking in all the wrong places for the wrong thing. "[W]e live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive," Wolfe said. "Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways."
That Elie essay in the NY Times Book Review can be found online and read here. The Wolfe Wall Street Journal essay can be read here.
Elie proposes that religion, though still paramount in American life, has regressed in fiction because of various social changes in the culture.
[Flannery] O’Connor called for fiction that dramatized “the central religious experience,” which she characterized as a person’s encounter with “a supreme being recognized through faith.” She wrote that kind of fiction herself, shaped by her understanding that in the modern age such an encounter often takes place outside of organized religion — that in matters of belief we find ourselves on our own, practicing “do-it-yourself religion.”
Today the United States is a vast Home Depot of “do-it-yourself religion.” But you wouldn’t know it from the stories we tell. The religious encounter of the kind O’Connor described forces a person to ask how belief figures into his or her own life and how to decide just what is true in it, what is worth acting on. Tens of millions of Americans have asked those questions. Some of us find ourselves asking them every day. But even in fiction, which prizes the individual point of view, and in our society, which stresses the individual to excess, belief is considered as a social matter rather than an individual one. When we talk about belief we talk about what is permissible — about the sex abuse scandal or school prayer or whether the church should open its basement to 12‑step everything. What about the whole story? Is it our story? Is belief believable? There the story ends — right where it ought to begin.
Myers, however, supports Wolfe in that religious fiction has not disappeared from the literary scene, but has been altered stylistically.
I find myself on Wolfe's side, and not merely because he quoted me in the Journal. Elie commits the error that so many commit in talking about religion: he reduces it to the confession of belief, which must be uttered in a voice loud enough to be heard over the fashionable din. But there is plenty of perfectly good religious fiction, Wolfe reminded Elie, which conveys its faith in "whispers rather than shouts." Elie was dismissive. Why the need to whisper? "It's not like we're in England or Mexico where priests are being hunted," he scoffed in a later interview. But this misses the point. Although religion in what Terry Eagleton calls its "doctrinal inflection" may once have appealed to intellectuals and writers like T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, and Robert Lowell, for whom conversion was a reawakening of the mind, it no longer does so. The generation of young Americans just now rising to notice is surrounded by an intellectual élite which jeers that religious belief is the death of intelligence. For the Roman Catholics among them, the scandal of clerical sex abuse was an occasion of profound disgust, which led even the most devout to muzzle their faith. The public display of religion has come to seem as false and insincere as public displays of affection.
Other than the clerical abuse reference (it was disgraceful, but how silly the claim that it led to muzzling our faith), I tend to agree with Myers. Religious fiction is being written, though not in the same overt manner as it was in the past. Religious fiction will always be written because great novels show the transcendence of mortality, and religion, at least through Christianity, since that is what I know, is the fullest means of showing transcendence.
Wolfe, who publishes the magazine Image, (I used to subscribe in its early days when I used to read print magazines), summarizes it this way:
In short, the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.
Mr. Elie quotes Flannery O'Connor's manifesto: "For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." That 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.
However, we live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive. 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.
I don’t disagree with Wolfe’s conclusion, but I don’t think it’s fully accurate or complete. Now here is my perspective as to why today it’s more of a whisper than a shout, as it used to be. I think it’s more mundane than the intellectual struggles that Wolfe portrays back in mid twentieth century. The reason I see is that today writers of literary fiction do not want to be identified—or more accurately, “pigeon-holed”—as genre writers. There are lots of Christian contemporary writers, but they mostly form a genre, and if you want to be considered “literary” you have to, fairly or unfairly, transcend being labeled genre fiction. I think it’s the market today that has indirectly muted overt religious fiction.
All three essays, Myer’s, Elie’s, and Wolfe’s are excellent reads and all three—even Elie’s in dissent—cite writers where faith plays a part in the fiction. You might want to read them to find some new writers to read.