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Belief, Religion, and Piety in Fiction

Thank-you to Andrew Sullivan [1] for reminding me about that Paul Elie essay [2] about faith and the novel (more specifically, Christian faith and the American novel) that Alan Jacobs commented [3] on so ably at the time and that I had intended to weigh in on, and never got around to. I’ll get around to it right now.

In the original Elie essay, somewhat more than passing mention was made of Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead [4] – necessarily, as the book would seem to be a huge exception to the rule that contemporary fiction can’t “do” religion other than as sociology. Elie disqualifies it on the grounds that it is set in the mid-century past and concerns a member of the clergy – so it isn’t really about faith as it is lived now. Inasmuch as there is a reason for it to exist today, in our time, it’s by way of contrasting the lost world in which Ames lives with our own: “It presented liberal Protestantism as America’s classical heritage; it set Ames’s wise, tender reverence against the bellicose cymbal-clanging of George W. Bush’s White House.”

But that’s a peculiar reading of the novel, which is centrally concerned not with Ames’s personal history – “belief as a family matter” – but with a theological precept. Specifically, with the doctrine of election [5] as understood in the Reformed tradition, and what that doctrine implies for somebody who is, or appears to be, a “bad seed.” All the history that Elie sees as the true purpose of the novel – the “social crisis” of race relations that he sees as “animating” the liberal protestant faith – is there to open out the central theological problem into a social context, but Ames isn’t wrestling with his or anybody’s views on race. He’s wrestling with the reality of a bad seed, one John Boughton, his best friend’s son and his own namesake. And John is wrestling, too – indeed, it is his own struggle that puts the question to Ames in the first place.

That question doesn’t go away, ever – that’s one point of the historical arc that we see in the background. This is a novel about serious Christian belief in a very difficult precept, and how that precept drives action in a personal and a social sphere – but fundamentally it is about the precept itself. If this isn’t a novel of belief, then nothing is.

Meanwhile, I want to nominate another relatively-recent novel as a serious novel of belief, and specifically one about how religion is lived now: David Foster Wallace’s monumental novel, Infinite Jest [6].

Elie most clearly lays out his understanding of what makes for a proper novel of belief in this bit about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction:

O’Connor called for fiction that dramatized “the central religious experience,” which she characterized as a person’s encounter with “a supreme being recognized through faith.” She wrote that kind of fiction herself, shaped by her understanding that in the modern age such an encounter often takes place outside of organized religion — that in matters of belief we find ourselves on our own, practicing “do-it-yourself religion.”

Today the United States is a vast Home Depot of “do-it-yourself religion.” But you wouldn’t know it from the stories we tell.

Infinite Jest is a complex book, with a baffling (I would argue failed) narrative structure. But the clearest narrative thread in the book is the story of Don Gately, thief and addict, who is saved by the twelve-step culture. Moreover, that culture – and the question of recovery, understood in spiritual terms – saturates the novel, and is central to its most fundamental questions. This is not a nostalgic or elegiac story about recollecting a time when faith “worked.” It’s about now, and what faith means now. And what it means is deeply wedded to the narrative of recovery.

What Infinite Jest isn’t is orthodox in any sense. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to provide any description of what “higher power” might be involved in Don Gately’s recovery – it’s not even clear that Gately himself “believes” in any such power. But that, it seems to me, is a reflection of a certain reality, and I don’t see why it’s a mark against it as a novel of faith. Faith, in our time, often looks exactly like this – rather the opposite of what it looks like to Marilynne Robinson’s minister, but that’s just the way things are.

Wallace, of course, did not experience that kind of salvation from the inside. He wasn’t testifying. But I think we should distinguish the novel of belief from the pious novel. A novel of belief should concern itself with the lived experience of belief, with showing that experience to us, making us understand it from the inside. A pious novel testifies to said belief. That doesn’t mean it has to be a weak novel –  Tolstoy wrote any number of magnificent pious novellas – The Death of Ivan Ilych [7]Father Sergius [8], etc. – so it’s clearly possible to write great fiction in the modern age from a pious position. But I don’t think that’s a requirement to meet Elie’s criteria.

A writer has to write from the inside about what is on the outside – he has to think himself into other minds, other bodies, other ways of living. Gately’s inner life comes off as powerfully real, something Wallace understood deeply from the inside, even though Gately’s character is far removed from his, and his character arc bore little resemblance to Wallace’s own (though perhaps, in a bizarre way, it was aspirationally relevant to him).

I must admit, I both do and don’t want to believe Elie is right, personally, about belief and American storytelling today. I both do and don’t want to believe it, because one of the scripts I wrote that I’m most fond of is engaged precisely on the territory that he says isn’t being tackled. It’s about belief – and the transforming power of surrender to the divine – and it’s also about the sociology of religion in America today (not at all the same thing). I’d like to think it’s a story he’d appreciate. And I’ve gotten pushback from some producers on the grounds that it’s “too religious” or I don’t do enough to “explain” this foreign world to audiences. I’d like to think that only means I’m on to something – that I’ve got a story that “needs to be told.” And yet I not only don’t feel the script I wrote is foreign to audiences – I don’t feel it’s foreign to contemporary cinema. Of course I believe it’s a unique snowflake; but I don’t think it’s the only snowflake in the blizzard.

In any event, I’d love to take another turn around the park on this particular topic, with Alan or with any of my respected interlocutors.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Belief, Religion, and Piety in Fiction"

#1 Comment By RobF On January 28, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

I realize it was a throwaway line and is tangential to your topic, but I would love to hear more about your perspective on the failure of the narrative structure of “Infinite Jest”. I agree, completely, that the Don Gately thread was easily the most compelling and accessible story within IJ. I think I don’t really understand or enjoy post-modernism, but is it not part of the ambition of post-modernism to frustrate our expectation of story (narrative structure)? Is IJ a great book? Could DFW have fixed its narrative structure without breaking that which makes it great? Is “post-modern” merely a synonymn for “failed narrative structure”?

#2 Comment By Aaron Gross On January 28, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

Well, I think you’re both wrong about Gilead. It isn’t centrally about Jack and the theological concept of election, though that’s a crucial part. Nor is it primarily some socio-political commentary about race relations in America. The central character is Ames, and what’s central to the story is his reaction to Jack. And race is absolutely pivotal to Ames’ spiritual story.

The Reverend Ames is a well-meaning but unreliable narrator. Gilead is more about his folly and sinfulness than about his wisdom. His own spiritual limitations and blindness lead him to miss Gilead’s “big story” – which is about race – until Jack’s final talk with him at the end of the book. Throughout the book Ames unintentionally misleads the reader, for instance when he dismissively mentions a certain racial incident in Gilead; Ames’ grandfather recognizes the importance of that incident, and storms out of church indignantly when Ames’ father ignores it in his sermon. But the narrator doesn’t see any importance in it.

At the end, after hearing Jack’s story, Ames partly realizes how wrong and sinful he and the rest of the “liberal” people had been – again, that’s wrong and sinful about race. This is the passage where he writes that Gilead might as well be located on the floor of Hell, or something like that. But even then Ames’ self-realization is only partial. He’s still complacent and un-self-aware even in his self-reproach. But his final insight, limited as it is, is brought about by race.

Gilead is not “about” race, but race is crucial to what it is “about.” It’s even more integral to the plot than is Jack’s struggle with election and damnation.

#3 Comment By Noah Millman On January 28, 2013 @ 2:33 pm


I’m not going to say anything about what post-modernism is, because I really don’t know – that’s one of the most malleable terms out there.

Does a non-traditional narrative or even an anti-narrative have to fail? No. Do I think Infinite Jest fails, narratively speaking? Well, it failed for me. I can’t tell you how the failure of massive chunks of the novel to resolve served the novel. That might be my failure, of course. But most of the people I’ve talked to who loved the novel as I loved it loved it in spite of the structure, not because of it.

#4 Comment By Noah Millman On January 28, 2013 @ 2:46 pm


I think we can have it both ways. Why does the whole business about race matter for Ames’s understanding of Jack? It’s what enables Ames to really understand, deep down, that he doesn’t know who are the elect. He’s gone his whole life pretty sure that Jack is a bad seed, one of the damned. And there’s plenty of evidence to back that judgement up – heck, at least half the time Jack concurs.

But on the subject of relations between the races, Jack – whose relationship with a black woman is still pretty caddish – throws a light on the sins that Ames doesn’t see, that he accepts as just part of the order of things. That’s the difference between Jack’s sins and the sins he more readily accepts: Jack’s transgressions also disrupt the settled order of things. The doctrine Ames still believes in at the end – the concept of election – was used by him to hide from himself his own sin, a sin which, in turn, allowed him to dismiss Jack from his concern for so many years.

Point being, I’m not sure we disagree about how to interpret the book, though we may disagree about what we find distinctively pleasurable about it. And I may just be more generous towards Ames than you are, and more interested in Jack.

#5 Comment By Aaron Gross On January 29, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

I was really interested in the character of Jack too, of course. Aside from that, even if you weren’t too interested in him on the first reading, you have to be interested in him on the second reading, because the ending re-frames everything that came before.

I do think you’re over-emphasizing the importance of election in Gilead, though. It was way more important in Home. Jack’s arrival in the former novel shakes up Reverend Ames, and ultimately leads him to some partial self-awareness, but a lot of that shaking up is just mundane, non-theological stuff. For instance, Ames’ (unacknowledged) jealousy over Jack’s easy but innocent rapport with his wife, a rapport that he himself never had with her.

I’m probably less generous towards Ames than some readers. That’s because I think the plot uses a “surprised by sin” device: We’re reading about a truly admirable man, but we see everything through his own unintentionally distorted narrative, which we tend to accept at face value because he’s so trustworthy and insightful. At the end, when we see just how unreliable his narration was, we put ourselves in a similar position to Ames of re-evaluating everything we thought we knew. But just as Ames is still partially self-deceived even at the end, we know that we’re still self-deceived as well.

#6 Comment By Anderson On February 1, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

A less literary, but no less surprising, recent novel with a positive faith component is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Haven’t read anything of his after that, so I don’t know if he’s kept it up. It’s not a major theme in the novel, but there are quite a few nods in that direction, which in these secular days tend to stand out.

I particularly liked the nice Californian couple who were secretly (i.e., without their friends’ & neighbors’ knowing) taking their own children to Sunday school & church.

#7 Comment By mark stewart On March 23, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

another less literary but effective in putting together a plot from today’s headlines read, Imperfect Harmony by Stew McAuley, makes very readable use of inspirational elements with the protaganist upholding virtue and honor. Even with a slight, gritty feel, it’s a nice comparison to a lot of other new fiction that communicates from the gutter…