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Shouting with a Still, Small Voice

Here’s a good interview Artur Rosman did with Gregory Wolfe of IMAGE [1], about art and Catholic religion in the present day. Excerpts:

Artur RosmanThere is clearly no lack of high quality Catholic and Christian literature being published these days [2]. What then is the debate about the state of Catholic literature [3] really about?

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 [4] and Paul Elie [5]—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 [6],” 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.

More:

change_me

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 [7], 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 [8].

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.  [1] And, if you like, subscribe to the Christian arts journal IMAGE [9], founded and edited by Greg Wolfe.

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19 Comments To "Shouting with a Still, Small Voice"

#1 Comment By Thursday On January 21, 2015 @ 3:24 pm

I respect Wolfe’s work, but the Catholic writers writing now are not nearly of the caliber of those in the past. It is delusional to suggest otherwise.

#2 Comment By grumpy realist On January 21, 2015 @ 3:37 pm

Um, I think the recent lack of authority of the Catholic Church has far more to do with the whole sexual abuse scandal than the 1960s….

And they still can’t admit this. Everything wrong is to be blamed on the 1960s, as opposed to their own acts.

[NFR: You misunderstand. Yes, absolutely, the Church tore away massively at its authority with the scandal. But it’s not like there was a mighty bulwark of authority before 2002. All authoritative institutions have suffered a massive loss of authority since the 1960s. And here’s the dilemma: all societies have to have some authorities to function, but it is very difficult to believe in authority, often for very good reasons. Back when America trusted Walter Cronkite, was there any reason to believe CBS News was any less biased than it is today? Or is it the case that we were more trusting? Can you think of an institution you trust to generally do the right thing, in an honest way? — RD]

#3 Comment By Darth Thulhu On January 21, 2015 @ 4:24 pm

The monolithic Voice of any given Church has a much harder time, well, even existing in the modern era. Even the loudest shouting (such as, say, even the most hateful rants of Westboro Baptist types at soldier funerals) is easily drowned out (by biker gangs calmly revving their engines en masse).

Shouting an unchanging party line simply cannot work in the hurricane roar of endless stories and infinite distractions. Saudi Arabia and North Korea and the Fox wings of the Republican Party and the loopy college culture gulag of the week can all temporarily keep the surging ocean out for awhile with the most brutal repressions available to them … but the battering tsunami of Story is going to overflood all of their barriers eventually. Thanks be to God.

Only the quiet whispering and the local moments of communal storytelling are going to endure. Narnia and Perelandra will endure decades after Cardinal Whatsisname is dust and forgotten. Middle Earth is going to outlast the memory of every Pope and every grand mufti of the 20th Century by bounds.

So tell local stories, and build quiet whispers, and endure. Trust that the whisper will sometimes guide the hurricane. Know that God has unleashed the tsunami of Stories on the edifices of your persecutors just as much as He has unleashed them on yours.

Have Faith that your whisper will endure in this World, and guide you in all the worlds to come.

#4 Comment By charles cosimano On January 21, 2015 @ 4:31 pm

No matter who is doing it, this kind of thinking inevitably leads to really bad writing. It is too inside the ball park. Now, I say this as someone who never could understand the appeal of Flannery O’Connor, too Southern for my Northern sensibilities.

The key is write something that non-believers will want to read. Novels about “heroic martyrs to Communist Totalitarianism” only will make them laugh and root for the Communists because martyrs are lunatics by definition and they all deserve what they get.

The key is to write something that will hold a reader outside the clan. Gene Wolfe’s New Sun series is a perfect example, and he would be horrified to know that a short story he wrote in 1970 is one of the founding documents of Cosimanian Orthodoxy.

They need to start, however, by realizing that there is no great Catholic literature any more than there is great Baptist literature. The moment you put that word in, you no longer have literature, you have propaganda, and bad propaganda at that.

#5 Comment By Jeffersonian On January 21, 2015 @ 4:50 pm

They need to start, however, by realizing that there is no great Catholic literature any more than there is great Baptist literature. The moment you put that word in, you no longer have literature, you have propaganda, and bad propaganda at that.

Um, Charles, Pilgrim’s Progress.

[NFR: Dante? Milton? — RD]

#6 Comment By MC On January 21, 2015 @ 4:57 pm

The decline in great literature is general, not particular to Catholicism. Thus, the explanation should be a general one.

#7 Comment By grumpy realist On January 21, 2015 @ 6:20 pm

Well, looking back at history, I think this idea of some golden enshrined age where the authorities weren’t corrupt and didn’t have to be worried about is the real fallacy. Pick any time of history and I’m sure I’ll be able to root out at least one scandal and loss of authority. Authorities arise, get listened to, get corrupted, and then fall back into the noise. So it has been and so it will ever be. Teapot Dome scandal, anyone?

How many of us, when we talk about “returning to the Good Old Days when the authorities were trusted” mean that very short period called the 1950s. Furthermore, the 1950s as enshrined in TV shows, not as it actually was. And unfortunately, too many of our parents have confused sentimental nostalgia for memory.

P.S. If you want an organization that is still trusted, you need to look at one of the ones that have little power outside their own very narrow bases and don’t get slurped up into political power shoving matches. No one’s yet yelped about a scandal involving NIST, for example. Lord Acton was right.

#8 Comment By stef On January 21, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

Stop looking for Christian themes in “Catholic” or “Baptist” books. The Stand is an intensely Christian-themed novel, as is the TV show Lost.

#9 Comment By Bill R On January 21, 2015 @ 7:34 pm

There may not be much in the way of great Catholic literature these days, if by that you mean great literature written by Catholics, but there is clearly great Christian literature, that is, books by gifted Christian writers. I’m thinking in particular of Marilynne Robinson and her work: Gilead, Lila, and several others.

#10 Comment By charles cosimano On January 21, 2015 @ 8:40 pm

Um, Charles, Pilgrim’s Progress.

[NFR: Dante? Milton? — RD]

But that is my point. Dante did not set out to write propaganda. Neither did Milton.

They were writing religious literature inside the context of their particular culture. It is when you include the modifier, intentionally, that you get crap.

#11 Comment By ginger On January 21, 2015 @ 9:22 pm

“Can you think of an institution you trust to generally do the right thing, in an honest way?”

Not really. What do you mean by “believe in authority”? I believe it is possible to have authority without believing it is possible for most authority to police itself. Authority=power=tendency to be corrupted.

Our best bet is a system of checks and balances for institutions. But of course, that’s not an absolute guarantee against corruption, either.

Keep your eyes wide open and a healthy distrust for the ability of human nature to remain uncorrupted. Putting absolute trust in the authority of any human institution is nothing short of foolhardy and a recipe for disillusionment.

That doesn’t mean we don’t hope and trust the police will help keep the order in the community, but it does mean we keep our eyes open and take notice if the police are acting fishy. Nobody in this world is exempt from the temptation to behave badly. And those with power are all too often tempted to use it for their own benefit, frequently at the expense of abusing others.

#12 Comment By Chris 1 On January 22, 2015 @ 1:05 am

Dante did not set out to write propaganda. Neither did Milton.

Dante and Milton shared an understanding of how the world really is, of grace and sin, that have been replaced with a mechanistic understanding of nature and pathology.

Because Catholics share the common understanding of reality it’s not likely that they’d write fiction that would be different from anyone else’s fiction. Instead, fiction that attempts to be “Catholic” (or “Christian” for that matter) descends quickly into polemic and/or apologetic.

#13 Comment By Michael Guarino On January 22, 2015 @ 3:33 am

Well, looking back at history, I think this idea of some golden enshrined age where the authorities weren’t corrupt and didn’t have to be worried about is the real fallacy. Pick any time of history and I’m sure I’ll be able to root out at least one scandal and loss of authority. Authorities arise, get listened to, get corrupted, and then fall back into the noise. So it has been and so it will ever be. Teapot Dome scandal, anyone?

This point is so obviously true as to be trivial. The substantial matters are easy to identify. Did the social upheavals of the 60’s undermine institutional authority? Are institutions necessary at all? Do they assist in promoting human welfare? The answers to all of these are almost certainly “yes,” which means the follow up question would be: what should we do to rebuild or reinvent them?

Pointing out that the influence of authorities oscillate over long historical time frames is completely independent of any of those questions. Obviously institutional authority took a hit during the Civil War era in America. And obviously Reconstruction was necessary to assist in recovering them, among other things (integrating liberated slaves into free society, for instance). I don’t see why we should be bothered by those facts, except maybe to scale down our long-run expectations (which is a skill conservatives are well-versed in).

#14 Comment By Michael Guarino On January 22, 2015 @ 3:55 am

But that is my point. Dante did not set out to write propaganda. Neither did Milton.

They were writing religious literature inside the context of their particular culture. It is when you include the modifier, intentionally, that you get crap.

A lot of Christian literature that I remember from when I was a kid would be “religious literature inside the context of their particular culture.” The problem was that it was a bad culture: relentlessly bourgeois with a penchant for making sure no child lives an unsanitized life. I almost feel like they viewed art with suspicion unless it were clinically proven to reduce marijuana use or sexual misadventure.

It was not until I read Crime and Punishment out of curiosity in high school that I realized that this was not only unnecessary but totally bogus. It was profoundly Christian (there is a very persuasive reading of the novel in light of the Gospel of John), and the more so because its approach to human flaws and suffering was so vivid.

#15 Comment By Anastasia On January 22, 2015 @ 7:57 am

I’m no expert on the state of American letters, but it’s probably true that there aren’t many writers firmly grounded in Christian dogma whose work is an expression of that dogma (like Flannery O’Connor). But I find there are many young writers who seem to be spiritual searchers, and who express that search in the books they write. I’m thinking particularly of David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest, and Jeffrey Eugenides and The Marriage Plot (two books I happen to have read — there must be others). These may be the books that have the greatest impact today in terms of spiritual content because they capture the imagines of young readers who are also searching and are unhappy with the pat or shallow answers they get in some churches.

#16 Comment By T.S.Gay On January 22, 2015 @ 8:11 am

When was the last time anyone mentioned the Beatles lyrics as literature? Anyway Lennon had a friend whose focus was getting very narrow, and he wrote Dear Prudence. Maybe crap to most, but I seriously appreciate the intent and perspective.

#17 Comment By arrScott On January 22, 2015 @ 11:23 am

Hmmm. The most profoundly Christian novels I’ve read have all been of the still, small voice, the whisper not a shout, variety. Is this inherent in the true nature of the human encounter with the divine? After all, the still, small voice is a major theme in Scripture of the human encounter with the divine. (Although the deafening, blinding presence of God is also a theme as well, though for the most part present only in the earlier books of the Old Testament.) Or is it simply that as someone born in the 1970s, I’m just acculturated by postmodernism to find the personal story more persuasive than the grand treatise?

Anyway, some recent novels with powerful, if “quiet” by the standards of, say, a Milton, Christian messages that I found profoundly powerful:

The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman
The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury
Driftless by David Rhodes
Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann (includes a sheep’s-eye view of Christian faith in a community – literally from the point of view of sheep, the farm animals)

#18 Comment By Matthew M. Robare On January 22, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

This whole debate misses the elephant in the room: readership.

It’s one thing to point to X as an example of a contemporary Catholic writer, but does it matter if they’re not being read?

That’s fine if postmodernists love the “still, small voice” and modernists “the grand gesture”, but if you look at best-sellar lists or the lists of books most requested at libraries or the ones that rend the most on the internet you will find almost none of the writers Mr. Wolfe mentioned.

On the contrary, people love Evelyn Waugh and JRR Tolkein, GK Chesterton and Graham Greene. Their books are read and bought and borrowed today.

Catholicism and Orthodoxy are not highbrow faiths. The incense, the chants, the art, the vestments, the gestures — these are visceral things. They are lived and smelt and heard and touched. One does not need an education in art or music or literature to appreciate them the way one must study to appreciate a Turner Prize-winner or Cage or Joyce.

When the ruler of Kiev, a pagan Viking, decided to convert to one of the major faiths (it would be good for trade relations), he sent ambassadors to the courts of the Caliph of Baghdad, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Byzantine Emperor. The ambassadors, who were illiterate pagans like their lord, found nothing to their liking among the Muslims. Not only was there nothing really going on, but they forbid eating pork or drinking. Among the Catholics they thought that the churches were too dark and the singing too much like a funeral dirge (God knows what they would have made of the St. Louis Jesuits). But in Constantinople the patriarch pulled out all the stops in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Incense, gold, processing icons. Bishops, priests and deacons clad in silk and singing. The ambassadors reported that they thought they had left Earth and been granted a glimps of Heaven.

The lord of Kiev was sold and converted, becoming St. Vladimir and Russia is Orthodox to this day.

We latter-day unlettered peasants are in a similar position. Hold the highbrow stuff, make a Catholic superhero movie.

#19 Comment By hogtowner On January 22, 2015 @ 5:51 pm

A few observations here, somewhat disjointed (on mysmartphone on a bus).

1) The internet is a huge distraction from both sustained literary reading – and writing. Hence less of both (for me as well as generally).

2) Flannery O’Connor (for one) certainly saw her era as secular, post-Christian, and full of lousy sentimental cant (just read her Mystery & Manners essays). People just went to church more and had bourgeois habits re marriage etc).

3) Good stuff if you look for it. Pavel Chichikov’s poetry. Roman Hurko’s sacred music which fuses Orthodox & W classical. Films like Tree of Life, Unbroken, and Calvary, plus not-too-distant past movies like Straight Story, the Ice Storm, and A River Runs Through It.

4). I will freely admit to reading less fiction in recent years. Less attention span, more likely to surf the Net.