Rod Dreher muses about the decline of religious culture and its implications for “culturally” religious art:
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.
A few thoughts.
First of all, what about Catholic writers from ethnic minority groups? People like Oscar Hijuelos, or Richard Rodriguez - these are Catholic writers, right? And they are certainly culturally distinct. And Catholicism is part and parcel of that cultural distinction – but not the whole of it.
Of course, Hijuelos and Rodriguez are interested in religious and spiritual questions in a fundamental way – they may just be names to add to the list of properly Catholic writers. But take someone like Junot Diaz. The culture he comes from is emphatically a Catholic culture. And I wouldn’t say that he’s reacting against that as a central concern – not in the way that, say, James Joyce was thoroughly formed by but reacted strongly against Irish Catholicism. But neither is his work consciously coming from anything like an explicitly Catholic perspective (indeed, I suspect he would consciously reject such a perspective, though obviously I don’t know that).
Mentioning Diaz brings me to a second point: many people have absorbed some of their worldview through other writers without themselves being strongly committed religiously-speaking (or even, necessarily, knowledgable). In Diaz’s case, Tolkien clearly means a huge amount to him, and not just as a matter of nostalgia for his childhood. Dreher would, I’m sure, agree that Tolkien was a deeply Catholic writer. How do you “score” that kind of influence on a writer? What would you say about an avowedly non-religious writer who was plainly influenced by Dostoevsky?
To pick another example, film noir is a distinctly Catholic-inflected genre of film. (Most people would describe the world of noir as godless, but I would argue that the god that is absent from the world of noir is the Roman Catholic god, which is why I say it’s a Catholic-inflected genre.) So how do you “score” a modern director or screenwriter, who may or may not have any authentic religious concerns of his own, who creates a film that is, if anything, hyper-conscious of the pulp-Catholic substrate of the genre?
Now, about Jewish writers. Judaism is simply less theology-centric than Catholicism, and as a consequence you can be a religiously observant Jew who writes books about religiously observant Jews and your fiction may still be Jewish primarily in the sociological sense. Take, as an example, Kaaterskill Falls, by Allegra Goodman. This is a very good novel to read if you want to get a feel for the dynamics of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. It’s also a good novel qua novel. But it isn’t god-haunted in the way that, say, Graham Greene’s or Flannery O’Connor’s work is. Or, for that matter, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s – even though Singer was less observant than Goodman is. I’d say similar things about Nathan Englander: that he’s interested in Jews and Judaism, but if he’s haunted by anything, it isn’t by God. History, maybe.
An interesting phenomenon to end on is Jewish writers who, in search of a spiritual inspiration, wandering into foreign fields precisely because that’s the best way to find their way home. Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America, for example, is fascinated by Mormonism precisely because of its link to archaic Judaism, which (though politically very problematic) appears more spiritually nourishing than the Judaism that actually exists in the contemporary world.
And, per my comment about noir and Catholicism above, I’d encourage a more enterprising soul than myself to do a study of noir conventions and Christology in Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union. This is a book that is Jewish from (as they say) the soles of its feet to the top of its head. But it’s also the story of a detective, wandering in a hopelessly fallen world, who discovers that the messiah just may have come, but his own people killed him (or, anyway, drove him to suicide) because he would not bring the kingdom the way they expected. That story sound familiar to anyone else?
If I had to pick a recent novel that best expresses contemporary American Jewish spirituality, it would be Nicole Krauss’s book, The History of Love, a fable about the possibility that nothing is ever irrevocably lost, and that, even if by an extraordinarily circuitous route, what is bashert ultimately always comes to pass. Most likely by means of a book. I didn’t love it, because I don’t experience the universe as behaving that way, and I get irritated by people who do (perhaps precisely because I can’t). But I can’t tell you how many of my friends loved it.