On Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I read the following quote from the poet Dana Gioia, taken from an interview in a Jesuit journal. The quote:

I don’t think most people come to God (or most other core beliefs) through rational argumentation. They usually do the reasoning afterwards to explain to themselves and others why they believe. We experience faith, as we do almost everything else in life, holistically. We feel it with our emotions, intuition, and imagination as much as with our intellect. We even experience with our physical bodies.

The power of art is that it speaks to us in the fullness of our humanity. When the Church loses that capacity, it loses [its] ability to speak to most of humanity in its natural language. Theological arguments don’t even convince theologians to change their minds on a topic.

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll not be surprised that I emphatically agree with this. Believe it or not, I am convinced that the experience of Orthodox Christian liturgy and modes of thinking have dramatically heightened my awareness of this, given how intensely beautiful and sacramental Orthodox liturgy and life is. I’m not sure that I could have received The Divine Comedy, perhaps the pre-eminent artistic creation of Roman Catholic civilization, as a vector of divine grace, healing, and enlightenment, had my imaginative faculties not been honed and enriched by Orthodoxy. I’m sure I would have endorsed Gioia’s statement at any time in my previous life, as a theological or psychological proposition, but in all my personal tumult of the last decade, I have lived it.

But that’s not why I’m posting here. The magazine, The Jesuit Post, asked Gioia to name some contemporary Catholic writers of note. He responded:

Tobias Wolff, Ron Hansen, and Alice McDermott seem to me the three best living Catholic writers in the U.S. Each in a different way is profoundly Catholic. McDermott explores the sociological and psychological world of Catholics. Hansen writes spiritual narratives, only some of which are overtly Catholic in their subject. Wolff is almost never overtly religious, but his work is deeply Catholic in its moral concerns. Gene Wolf is a major talent in fantasy and science fiction. Richard Rodriguez is a brilliant essayist. I think these five writers all have a plausible claim to posterity.

If we move into the world of cultural Catholics, then there is a much larger group to choose from— Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, John Guare, John Patrick Shanley, Rhina Espaillat, X.J. Kennedy, even George R.R. Martin. But that seems to me a different literary tradition. There is a great essay waiting to be written on the differences between observant and cultural Catholic writers.

Emphasis mine. What a great topic for discussion here. What are the differences between observant and cultural Catholic writers? Anybody care to speculate? Please do not gripe or polemicize. Let’s explore the question.

To be honest, I don’t know enough about Catholic writing to say for sure. From the outside, my guess is that culturally Catholic writers are more likely to be reacting against something. Their imaginations were formed by the culture and rituals of Catholicism, even if they’ve rejected the religion. I am skeptical, though, about whether there is anything identifiably or meaningfully Catholic about any culturally Catholic writer whose imagination was formed after the postconciliar dissolution of that strong and distinct American Catholic culture. I could be wrong about that; there is certainly something distinctly Jewish about culturally (but not religiously) Jewish writers. Then again, Jews are a minority in America, whereas Catholics are members of the largest church in the country — though an increasingly assimilated one.

I don’t know, is what I’m saying. But I’m eager to hear from you readers who are better informed and more insightful about the question.

I’d also love to read a conversation about the difference between observant Evangelical writers/artists, and culturally Evangelical writers/artists. Is there one? How can you tell? I mean, what does it mean to be culturally Evangelical, but not religiously Evangelical. Seems to me that when Evangelicals lose their faith, the lose the culture too, but culture is, or at least has been, more tenacious within American Catholics, because the imaginative matrix of Catholicism gets down into your bones. Or did, before the Church became so Protestantized in so many places in America.

Let’s talk about it. Again, I insist that I’m not going to publish polemical comments, or comments that add heat but no light to this discussion. I’m going to be editing these closely.