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. Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what O’Connor called “Christian convictions,” their would-be successors are thin on the ground.
So are works of fiction about the quandaries of Christian belief. Writers who do draw on sacred texts and themes see the references go unrecognized. A faith with something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House”: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants.
All the while, 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. 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.
As you know, I’m not much of a reader of fiction, so I have no idea how accurate Elie’s complaint is. I remember reading Jonathan Franzen’s bestselling novel “Freedom” when it came out a couple of years ago, and thinking he really had done a good job diagnosing the anomie and aimlessness of American life when you are free to do just about anything you want but don’t have any way of knowing what you ought to do, but Franzen blew it in the end. I remember thinking at the time that there ought to be some character in this motley crew of lost souls that connects with God — not in a cheesy, altar-call way, but in, well, some real way. That’s what lost souls in this country still do in many, many places. It can be messy and barely coherent by one’s own standards, but it gives them a sense of purpose and order where there wasn’t either. I’ve known people like that. I’ve been like that. I got the idea, though, that for Franzen the novelist, all avenues of transcendence are closed, and so they were to his characters. Maybe he hated those characters. I closed the book thinking, “Is this all there is?”
The Elie essay made me wonder what kind of religious questions would be taken up in a good contemporary novel — I mean, what would a novel that accurately portrayed religious life as it is lived in the USA in 2013 be like? What do you think? I think it would be a lot like “Freedom,” actually. When you are free to choose the life you want, how do you know truth from falsehood? Put a slightly different way, in a culture that has ceased to believe in a destination, only in the ease of the journey, of what use are maps? We live in a country in which nearly half of us are of a different church or religion from the one in which we were raised. Everything is in flux. Yes, we are a more secular country than we used to be, but Americans are still very much a people who believe in God, and who believe in belief. Fiction writers who cannot relate to that don’t know their own country.
So, my question to you readers is: If a contemporary novel you wanted to read were to explore the experience of what it means to be a religious believer in America today (as distinct from ages past), what would it be about? I mean, what would be the question, or questions, its characters would be living out?
UPDATE: I failed to make it clear that in his essay, Elie is talking about Christian belief in particular, re: the contemporary novel. I’m pleased for non-Christian religious readers to say on this thread which themes from their own experience they would like to see addressed in a novel, but let me be clear that the non-Christian religious experience is not what Elie is talking about.