Shouting with a Still, Small Voice
Here’s a good interview Artur Rosman did with Gregory Wolfe of IMAGE, about art and Catholic religion in the present day. Excerpts:
Gregory Wolfe: Ideology. And the blinders that ideology imposes. What I find fascinating is that the two most prominent critics articulating the “decline and fall of Catholic literature” argument—Dana Gioia and Paul Elie—emerge, respectively, from political right and left. You’d rarely find them agreeing about public policy, but they’re certain it’s all been downhill since Flannery O’Connor.
Ideology thrives on what I’ve called “declinism,” the notion that things are not only bad but well-nigh apocalyptic. That’s because the bad guys are at fault and we good guys are the only solution.
For one, the “bad guys” are “the 60s and the post-Vatican II mess,” while for the other it’s repressive papacies and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Okay, perhaps that’s a little extreme, but caricatures are based on real features. I have great respect for both men and count them as friends, but this is my challenge to them: Take off the blinders and look around. There’s a lot of good work out there that needs your critical engagement and thus support. Writers are starving in garrets. Let’s give them a meal.
Elie has suggested that because I publish and edit a journal of contemporary literature I have a vested interest in arguing against the decline and fall thesis. But we all have vested interests. I have tried to not only point out who the writers and artists are but to articulate why I believe their achievements are enduring and worthy of deeper engagement.
The mid-twentieth century Catholic writers tended to “shout” rather than “whisper” for several reasons. For one thing, Modernism in literature loved the big gesture. For another, it was an era when the newly ascendant “master narratives” of modernity—Marxism and Freudianism among them—were clashing with the Judeo-Christian narrative in an intense way. Add to this that for the Catholic writer of the time the Church seemed adamantine (no shadows of dissent), a “sign of contradiction” against modernity itself.
Now flash forward to our own time. Postmodernism questions any and all master narratives, favoring smaller-scale, intimate stories over epics and dramas. Secularism, pluralism, and hedonism have brought about a huge loss of trust in authority, not to mention the authority of the Catholic Church (and that includes its adherents). People have lost touch with the teachings and traditions of their faith. Many people are really starting from scratch.
What kind of fiction would someone write out of this experience of reality? Novels about heroic martyrs to Communist totalitarianism? No, they would be writing out of this confused culture—one where God is discerned only in the still small voice: the whisper, not the shout.
I had never thought of it like that. I’m about to leave the house to go clean our church, and I’ll be thinking about this point. Read the whole interview here. And, if you like, subscribe to the Christian arts journal IMAGE, founded and edited by Greg Wolfe.