In an article in the New York Times Book Review last month, Paul Elie ponders why Christian belief figures, “as something between a dead language and a hangover,” in current fiction. He observes that the literary heirs of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy are strangely absent from the present class of MFA-credentialed young novelists now in vogue. And while Elie is right that it is a strange development, he misdiagnoses the reasons why.
“The current upheavals in American Christianity—involving sex, politics, money and diversity—cry out for dramatic treatment,” he writes. While Christian writers, “who do draw on sacred texts and themes see the references go unrecognized,” other novelists are, “depicting the changing lives of American Jews and Muslims with great success.”
But is the ultimate purpose of fiction to depict the changing lives of certain demographics, or give dramatic treatment to sex and politics in the church? One hopes not, for the sake of fiction. Maybe the absence of faith or even a curiosity about it among contemporary novelists has more to do with a basic misunderstanding of the point of both fiction and Christianity than with the perceived “upheavals” of the latter. After all, fiction that is interested in Christianity (or any other religion) primarily as a way to explore identity or politics is really not all that interesting. In fact, it’s rather boring.
A glibly-named NPR series that ran last week, Losing Our Religion, ponders why a fifth of Americans now choose not to identify with an “organized” religion. As you might imagine, the program does not delve very deep. But it is notable—not for what it thinks it reveals about American society, but for what it unintentionally reveals about a growing tendency in the American character, especially among young people. Listening to the interviewees talk about God, one gets the impression that their views are the result of ignorance and apathy, not a rejection of religion on its own terms. Simply put, they seem like they are bored of God—bored and blasé and for the most part unconcerned.
In an essay published a few years ago in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Jonathan Lethem responded to a negative review James Wood had written of his novel, The Fortress of Solitude, some eight years before, in which Wood complained that the reader never saw Lethem’s protagonist thinking about God or the meaning of life. Lethem’s response is telling, and helps explain why we don’t see more novelists taking religion seriously:
As for “thinking about God,” was there ever a more naked instance of a critic yearning for a book other than that on his desk? Can Wood’s own negative capability not reach the possibility that in some life dramas “God” never made it to the audition, let alone failed to get onstage? Pity me if you like, but I can’t remember even considering believing in either God or Santa Claus. The debunking was accomplished preemptively, preconsciously.
There’s not much reason to work out how you feel about religion if the question of God’s existence is preemptively decided in the negative. Perhaps the growing numbers of Americans who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated feel like Lethem; they didn’t have much interest in God to begin with. No wonder they have little stomach for grappling with the questions and contradictions of faith.
Same for novelists. If the question of God isn’t taken seriously, why bother exploring it in any depth? Let faith be a prop, a way to talk about politics, or just another aspect of one’s identity.
But part of why religion was always a compelling, even essential, aspect of literature is that novelists used to take it seriously—even those who didn’t, in the end, believe. The struggle to keep one’s faith, even in the face of suffering, and to be transformed by it, is one of the hallmarks of human experience: working out the inherent tensions between body and spirit, judgment and mercy, right and wrong—this is interiority par excellence, and exploring that interiority, making it come alive, is what fiction is supposed to do.
It is also, in a larger sense, what the practice of religion is supposed to do. But the prerequisite is to understand religion as a lifelong undertaking that obliges, and in fact requires, believers to grapple with their faith and fears and doubts. To do that, you have to believe there’s more at stake than your own identity or experience. If that were all there was to religion, it would be very boring indeed.
John Daniel Davidson’s writing has appeared in n+1, The Morning News, The Claremont Review of Books, The Millions, and elsewhere.