This essay by Paul Elie on the absence of convincing portrayals of religious belief in American fiction today is the sort of thing that people expect me to comment on — that on some level I expect myself to comment on — but that I’m not sure I’m really qualified to talk about. I don’t read enough contemporary fiction to be a good judge.
Elie’s chief argument is that American fiction today might have plenty to say about religion, but it rarely shows us, at least in a convincing way, what religious belief is like from the inside:
Randall Jarrell ruefully remarked that when it comes to poetry, you can get a conversation started around just about anything: the lives of the poets, the state of poetry, the craft of poetry — anything but a poem. In American fiction, belief is like that. Belief as upbringing, belief as social fact, belief as a species of American weirdness: our literary fiction has all of these things. All that is missing is the believer.
And he contrasts this situation to that of the not-so-distant past: “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.” He acknowledges Marilynne Robinson’s much-celebrated Gilead, but sees it as “more epistle than epic” and “historical fiction in mufti” — set as it is around the time that Percy and O’Connor were writing.
Is Elie right? I don’t know; maybe. I can think of a number of recent novels that portray religious belief from the inside, some of them set in the past in ways that don’t seem to me to disqualify them as genuine engagements with religious experience — Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy is the first that comes to mind — others with a contemporary setting: Oscar Hijuelos’s Mr. Ives’ Christmas, for instance. I know there are others I should read: my friend John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, gives high praise to A.G. Mojtabai’s Parts of a World, which just came out last year.
Interestingly, in 1995, the year that Mr. Ives’ Christmas appeared, Mojbatai published an essay in the Wilson Quarterly on the same topic Elie explores. She wrote,
It has been suggested that the positive view I take of religion is a minority position among writers. I hope this is not the case, but if it is — so be it. A New Yorker born and bred, I live now — by choice — out on the high plains of Texas, well beyond shouting distance of the cultural trendsetters on either coast. I live in the heartland among so-called ordinary people. I speak from this ground. I may be out of step with the literati, but I don’t think I’m out of touch.
It is my conviction that there exists today a religious hunger in our country and in our world so widespread that writers ignore or disdain it at our peril. I’m not talking only about the peril of backlash, of censorship and repression from the outside, but of something even more deadly that eats away at us from within: untruthfulness, shutting out the voices we don’t want to hear.
I don’t believe this hunger is encountered only in the Bible Belt; it’s to be found even in the great cities of the coasts. To be sure, it’s harder to make out in the midst of the clamor of a large city, and it’s also easier for writers to wall themselves off in enclaves of the like-minded if the population is large and diverse.
But Mojtabai acknowledges that even for her, writing about disconnection and loss is easier than writing about the nurturing, strengthening, consoling aspects of faith. Which, I suppose, was equally true of the stories of the mid-century titans that Elie cites. Faith, being the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, has never been easy to portray aesthetically. This is why Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling, has to throw up his hands in incomprehension when faced with Abraham’s trust in a God he scarcely even knows. In any time or place, a strong and vivid and truthful story about faith is a rare bird indeed.
By contrast, this seems to me a moment rich in strong religious poetry — but that will have to be a topic for another post.
UPDATE: D. G. Myers responds to Elie’s essay here.