Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Christianity and Fiction--literary fiction

"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."

So begins a long and prophetically-voiced piece in the NY Times not long ago, something written by novelist Paul Elie. Don't know him, but he had a point--no, let me correct that: he has a point. What he was arguing is that literary fiction--a genre not exactly burgeoning in our national culture--is notably missing any substantial consideration of "the Christian faith."

What Elie notes is that the absence of Christianity from literary fiction is strange, given the fact that faith plays abundantly active roles in the lives of most of usl. After all, "the current upheavals in American Christianity — involving sex, politics, money and diversity — cry out," he says, "for ­dramatic treatment."

Mr. Elie then gives what he calls "the obvious answer": "In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives."

I'm all ears for this whole argument. For more years of my life than I care to admit, I've thought long and hard about what being a Christian and a fiction writer really means. I don't know if I've done it right or not, but I know it's always been both a concern and a joy.

But when Elie says that Christianity is of "marginal or no consequence in a great many individual lives," I wince because I'm wary of sweeping judgments. What, pray tell, does he know about the vitality of the Christian faith in me or you or the chick in the Chevy or grunt at the end of the bar? It's one thing for him to rail on writers, another to claim American Christians are shallow as shale. He may be right, but he's obligated to make the case.

No matter. He then goes on the bring Flannery O'Connor to the foreground as a model of artful fusion, capable as she was of creating masterpiece fiction without skipping a beat on testimony. He also lauds Marilyn Robinson, whose work, I think, is almost divine. He's right about both, of course. And then, thoughtfully and well, he creates a comprehensive course in contemporary literature, naming a dozen or more highly-regarded novelists whose works cite religiosity or use merely, you might say, the furniture of faith.

It's clear he's not content or happy. "All the while," he says at the end of a very thoughtful essay, "you hope to find the writer who can dramatize belief the way it feels in your experience, at once a fact on the ground and a sponsor of the uncanny, an account of our predicament that still and all has the old power to persuade." It really is a fine article. He says he'll keep looking. "You look for a story or a novel where the writer puts it all to­gether. That would be enough. That would be something. That would be unbelievable."

"Unbelievable" is a bit of a odd word on the end, but that's okay, something to think about. The title of Elie's essay is "Has Fiction Lost Its Faith," and it's really worth reading.
Tomorrow: Greg Wolfe's response to Elie in the Wall Street Journal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"People of faith", "Is belief believable?"? I believe and have faith in Webster's New World Dictionary. Is poetry scientific, or just fun word games? No one listens or hears if you are really serious. Mr. Elie sounds like he is really smart, I guess.