[Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from a book event at First Things on March 19, 2010.]
I hope you guys all know that it’s a bit daunting having this much expert firepower trained on my little book–kind of like having the National Symphony Orchestra sit in on a first grader’s piano recital. I can only hope that if in the course of the book, or this talk, I commit any literary sins of the theological variety, all the eminent religious leader here will just do the obvious Christian thing—and keep quiet about them. Remember, it’s Lent.
The Loser Letters is a pro-religious satire of atheism, told from the point of view of a worldly and troubled twenty-something girl. It’s an unusual book by most standards, I guess. It’s also my first published fiction. Some of you might know some of my nonfiction work over the years from here at First Things—or from Commentary or the Weekly Standard or other tools of the great right-wing conspiracy. Of course certain people who disagree with that work will say that actually, I’ve just been writing fiction all these years anyway—so The Loser Letters in that sense isn’t anything new. So I guess to clarify matters, given the theologians among us, we should call this my first book of intentionally committed fiction.
So why write a book of intentionally committed fiction these days? In literary circles lately, it’s become common to compare the United States today with ancient Rome. So it seems apt tonight to go with that flow, and take as our starting point the ancient writer Juvenal. In times like these, he wrote just before the fall of Roman civilization, it is difficult not to write satire.
And that wisecrack actually explains how this effort got started—because faced with certain facts about the new atheism, it felt difficult not to make at least some fun of it. That movement itself, and its leading lights, needs no introduction, having introduced and promoted itself with enviable efficiency during the last few years. In the course of its long-running media extravaganza, this new atheism has also attracted much criticism, including by many learned and sophisticated people. Yet the one thing it did not attract was the one thing that provoked me to write The Loser Letters—and that is the fact that the new atheism is also so very easy to make fun of.
After all, just look at the big fat target it presents. This genre has made celebrities of a number of writers breathlessly proclaiming a series of thoughts about which nothing truly new has been said since, say, Friedrich Nietzsche. As A.F. Christian herself points out in the book’s Foreword, the new atheists have actually performed something of a miracle. They’ve made a lot of something, including money, out of what’s ostensibly a big fat nothing, i.e. God. (God, by the way, is known in the book as Loser, as you’ll hear shortly during the reading.) Their movement has repeatedly assailed religious people as self-righteous, ignorant of history, and humorless—all the while remaining self-righteous, ignorant of history, and humorless itself to quite a remarkable degree, as a pile of quotes dug up by A.F. Christian go to show.
Now, Ignatius Press has kindly played up the fact that the book draws from certain details of Dante’s Divine Comedy and CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, and so it does. But it has some darker and weirder influences, too, ranging from Mad TV’s Stuart Larkin and the characters on the TV show House to Manolo Blahnik shoes, cheetah leather mini-skirts, and other pop-cultural preoccupations of A.F.’s, among other ingredients. Like the rock-star atmospherics of the new atheism, the media culture that surrounds her makes this character a recognizable creature of her times.
So that is one way in which The Loser Letters can and should be read—as a volume poking some overdue holes in one more tremendously successful celebrity enterprise that’s gotten very big, and very full of itself.
On a second level which is also obvious, The Loser Letters operates like any other piece of fiction. It tells the story of a set of characters which begins somewhat mysteriously, and ends with that original mystery explained. We have a protagonist, this twenty-something girl A.F. Christian. Little by little, we learn the sometimes bizarre details of her life. She’s writing excited, star-struck fan letters to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Daniel C. Dennett and Sam Harris and all the rest of the new atheists, promising and ultimately delivering her own life story to them. As that story unfolds, we begin to wonder about this character. Why is she doing this? Where is she, anyway, in this place that she keeps calling rehab, where the only thing she has access to is her e-mail? Why are certain people giving her Rosetta Stone German to study? Who is this person she calls the Director, also known as the midget in the red cape? And what really happened with A.F.’s ex-boyfriend Lobo back in Portland?
Certain surreal details of the plot aside, A.F. Christian as a character is very much an Everygirl for our time—a stand-in for so many young women today who share the common experience of growing up with one set of moral teachings, abandoning those teachings when they arrive at college, and then spending years, often the rest of their lives, in what some experience as an existential wilderness. Tom Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons is the most memorable such character in recent literature. A.F. is a little like Charlotte, a few years after college and certain unfortunate personal choices later. Both characters apprehend clearly enough, to invoke one of Nietzsche’s most arresting images, that someone has indeed taken out a sponge and wiped away the horizon; but they don’t know what to do about it. It’s in A.F.’s burning need to do something that the drama of the book begins.
Like any other fictitious character, there is much that readers don’t know about A.F. As C.S. Lewis observes in the Narnian chronicles, we aren’t all given every detail of everyone else’s whole story, whether in real life or in fiction. On the other hand, by the end of The Loser Letters, readers will know everything that is most important about her, or so I hope.
So just as any reader, religious or secular, can read the book as a satire of the new atheism, so too can anybody grasp it as fiction is meant to be grasped—as the personal story of a set of characters, some of them mysterious at first, whose purposes become clear in the course of the story.
There’s also a third dimension to this text that I would like to emphasize here tonight to the Christian apologetics, and in addition the personal story of our heroine. That is what might be called the extra-religious leitmotif of the story. In A.F.’s testing of the new atheists, there emerges a thumbnail defense of Western Civ itself—and more particularly, of the absolutely indispensible role of Judeo-Christian religion in that same civilization.
It’s not our protagonist’s fault that she doesn’t know that history as well as she should—though she does manage to catch up. The Great Disruption of the 1960s, the abdication of so many standards and responsibilities by those in intellectual and moral authority, has made autodidacts of everyone who has gone to school since then—and A.F. is no exception. That is why her interior life is such an unholy mix of things that really don’t belong together—the history of totalitarianism, Facebook, texting, Biblical references, recreational drugs, popular music, Renaissance sculpture, and the Bravo channel all wrapped up in one. No one ever taught her—as most of us who went to universities post-1960 have also not been taught—to distinguish the high from the low, the passing from the permanent, even the ugly from the beautiful.
And so, in her obsessive pursuit of the books and articles and appearances of the new atheists, which she undertakes in an effort to make sense of herself, A.F. inadvertently embarks on something else—a sad, quick, but important journey through the shards of a once-coherent civilization, what T.S. Eliot called these “fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
This brings us to one final reason why some pushback against the new atheist view of the world seemed in order—because that movement aids and abets our cultural dumbing-down. On the new atheists’ telling, for example, religious history begins with some animal sacrifices among the Hebrews, fast forwards through the so-called dark ages up to say, Savanorola, takes a detour around Piux XII just long enough to slap a swastika on him, and ends somewhere with Monty Python and a Solstice party. It’s a portrait of Christianity that is beyond caricature—because actual caricature, from the Italian caricare meaning to load or charge, has to have some of the original substance in it; whereas some of what the new atheism reports about the history of religion is simply wrong. (Do other people here remember one of the most famous cartoons ever published by the New Yorker? It was by Saul Steinberg. It showed the map of the world as imagined by a Manhattanite—one in which the island filled most of the picture, with a few outposts—California, etc.—far, far out from the center of the frame. That’s the kind of historical tunnel vision we’ll have about Western civilization if we let the new atheists spoon feed their version to us.)
And so one final purpose behind writing The Loser Letters was just this—to give readers, even readers who are religiously tone-deaf or indifferent, the experience of a kind of Idiot’s guide to religion. It’s in part an attempt to say, look, here are just a few of the things you ought to know before you get to pat yourself on the back as the new atheists do for quote rejecting religion. These things range from the sublime to the ridiculous and everywhere historically between. People ought to know just what was going on in Mexico, for example, when Catholicism spread like wildfire through a civilization absolutely and unmistakably intoxicated with slavery, death, doom, and human sacrifice. They ought to ask themselves as A.F. Christian does in one especially detailed Letter why so much of the manifestly greatest art ever created—painting, sculpture, music, poetry—has been committed in the name of God or the gods. And they ought to have some rough understanding of what’s known in theology as natural law, and why some perfectly intelligent people think that certain aspects of the human condition themselves argue for theism. As A.F. Christian would be the first to say, nothing about any of this record proves anything about Loser’s existence. But it does mean that people really ought to know a lot more than many do when they sit down to decide these things.
The book’s ideal reader is someone like the image on the cover—someone with a laptop open, so that they can search Spanish Baroque or Gregorian chant or Whittaker Chambers or Renaissance sculptor Desiderio da Settignano or other details, as necessary.
In the end, then, the book is a small stab at all that, an effort to say that cultural literacy, in the phrase of E.D. Hirsch, doesn’t end at high school. It doesn’t end in college—in fact, unfortunately, it often doesn’t even begin there these days.
All of which brings us back to Juvenal, and why satire felt so appropriate—because the new atheism further feeds and encourages its own kind of intellectual and aesthetic dumbing-down. The new atheist version of history would have all of us believe that it all boils down to a few inexplicably stupid rules—as if all of Catholicism could be collapsed into the case against stem cell research, say, or all of Judaism into the mandated separation of milk and meat.
The reductionism of the new atheists is beyond belief, but it is not beyond some good clean fun—well, mostly clean fun; I’m not responsible for everything A.F. Christian decides to say and do. But fun, in the end, is the medium for the message. You don’t have to be religious to get it. Just being anti-anti-religious these days is good enough.
Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributing writer to First Things.