Belief, Religion, and Piety in Fiction
Thank-you to Andrew Sullivan for reminding me about that Paul Elie essay about faith and the novel (more specifically, Christian faith and the American novel) that Alan Jacobs commented 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 – 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 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.
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, Father Sergius, 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.