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So “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” Questions Raised By Elie’s NY Times Article

So “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” Questions Raised By Elie’s NY Times Article

by Mike Duran · 19 comments

Have you followed the responses to Paul Elie’s NY Times article, Has Fiction Lost Its Faith? His basic assertion is that Christianity has become “something between a dead language and a hangover” in American literature. Elie:

Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. 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.

Apparently, the article evoked a lot of responses from novelists and readers, some proclaiming that faith in fiction is alive and well. Like novelist Elizabeth Hand who writes:

Paul Elie says he’s searched in vain for contemporary American literature that deals with questions of religious belief. He may be looking in the wrong places. Many science fiction and fantasy writers of the last few decades have explored the topic, in books set in our own world and time as well as in imagined ones.

Hand then goes on to list offerings from the sci-fi genre that contain faith-related content.

The most substantial rebuttal came from Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image Journal, whose piece Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Wolfe suggests the notion that our age is “devoid of distinguished writers exploring religious themes” is a perception that is “encouraged in the media.” Wolfe:

In short, the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.

Mr. Elie quotes Flannery O’Connor’s manifesto: “For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” That made sense in the context of her time, when the old Judeo-Christian narrative was locked in a struggle with the new secular narratives of Marx, Freud and Darwin.

However, we live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive. So the late Doris Betts could say that for all her admiration of Flannery O’Connor, her own fiction had to convey faith in whispers rather than shouts. Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways. But obscure is not invisible.

Which leads to Wolfe’s basic point regarding faith in fiction: “…when you look, you find.” It’s out there. We just need to look for “whispers” rather than “shouts” of faith.

It remains a fascinating discussion. The exchanges prompted a couple of questions which I’d like to pose for your consideration.

One: Why is it that when faith and fiction are considered in mainstream, general market circles, CBA / ECPA books and authors are rarely mentioned? Read through all three of these articles and there is no mention of any mainstream Christian fiction author. Sure, they are different markets. But is there THAT big of a divide between fiction written by Christians, for Christians, and literature written apart from that animus? Either there is a conspiracy against blatant, explicit Christian fiction, or we have effectively cordoned ourselves from the general reading public. Which may itself be evidence of Elie’s point:  Christian fiction is “something between a dead language and a hangover” in American literature.

Two: If you have to look hard to find religious themes, as Wolfe asserts, how effectively religious are they? Are Christian fiction writers not subtle enough to be counted as making legitimate contributions to American literature? Then again, how low can one “whisper” their religious theme before completely abandoning that theme all together? So while I agree with Wolfe’s observation that “we live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect,” the question we faith writers need to ask is, How much of our “grand narrative” must we compromise in order to reach the “postmodern world”?

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Bobby B January 25, 2013 at 7:31 AM

The author only talks about, I don’t know the right term… “high-brow fiction.” All you have to do is find the name “David Foster Wallace” in an article and you know you’re going to be dealing with an opinion that often sticks its nose up at the peasantry of the literary world. Only a certain segment of the reading population is concerned with these types of novels. CBA may not be mentioned, but neither is science fiction, fantasy, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, on and on you can go. None of us are cool enough for the Old Gray Lady and her haughty little book club.

You can talk about Christianity all you want but the mainstream’s really only interested in stories of Christianity in crisis. People of faith in crisis. Well, in a faith crisis. I think, ultimately, the mainstream likes the fact that Christianity, as we’ve known it for the past half century or so, has been taken down a notch in the cultural tableau. Faith crises point to this. Muslim and Jewish stories, as the author alluded to, have their little segment of the culture and when stories about those subjects come out, it’s just chalked up to diversity. But since the US has been defined as Christian for so long, the conversation has changed: the Big Man (cultural Christianity) has been humbled and those are the stories we’re interested in.

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Kat Heckenbach January 25, 2013 at 7:40 AM

Mike says, “Either there is a conspiracy against blatant, explicit Christian fiction, or we have effectively cordoned ourselves from the general reading public.”

I don’t think the “either” belongs there. I think it’s both. I don’t know for sure which came *first* though. But I believe these two ideas work in concert with each other. If it started with mainstream discrimination of Christian fiction, then the Christian publishers/writers went, “Fine, we’ll go have our own party over there.” If it started with the Christian market segmenting itself, then the mainstream said, “Good riddance and don’t come back.”

Also, I think you make a great point about shouting vs. whispering. My statement above refers to the shouters. I think the whisperers are all over the general market. I think they are also discriminated against in the CBA.

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Kessie January 25, 2013 at 9:01 AM

I read this article and have been pondering it ever since. I thought I just wasn’t educated enough, because I’ve never read the books cited (I don’t really enjoy gritty). But I see “stealth Christianity” everywhere in the secular market. I can’t count the number of childrens’ books that have sneaky stuff in them (Harry Potter has Bible verses, the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, the one about owls, had all kinds in it, and so on).

The marketplace of ideas is going strong. I just think more Christians need to publish in the secular market. Of course, that means improving our storytelling and writing skills …

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Iola January 25, 2013 at 1:14 PM

When the Harry Potter books came out, many ministers and Christians blacklisted them because they dealt with witches, yet you are accusing them of ‘stealth Christianity’.

I’d say that means the balance must be about right.

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Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) January 25, 2013 at 9:03 AM

I’m surprised that Doris Betts considers her books whispers. I can recommend her Hound of Heaven to anybody.

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Alan O January 25, 2013 at 11:39 AM

Why is it that when faith and fiction are considered in mainstream, general market circles, CBA / ECPA books and authors are rarely mentioned? As Bobby B said, it’s because the topic under discussion here is limited to Literary fiction. To quote from Elie: “This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time.” And, “belief hasn’t been understood until the serious writers have had their say.”

As a reader, I appreciate both literary (serious) and commercial fiction, and I don’t feel the need to cling to one camp and disparage the other. But… I do recognize and acknowledge the basic distinctions. And if you love literature…real literature…then you’re living on skimpy rations in the CBA.

You asked: “is there THAT big of a divide between fiction written by Christians, for Christians, and literature written apart from that animus?” My answer is: Sure.

Particularly when you specify that word, “literature.” You’ve analyzed the core CBA demographic repeatedly here, and that market does not support “literature” any more than it supports “speculative.”

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Jason Brown January 25, 2013 at 12:04 PM

All of this is making me think of a completely independent (i.e., not even released through an indie publishing group) book called Through the Fury to the Dawn by Stu Jones. Post-apocalyptic thriller that, even though it had very explicit Christian themes that the author was not ashamed to show, it also had some pretty heavy swearing and some graphic violence. In his author’s note, he admitted that a lot of Christians would be turnedd by the extreme content while non-Christians would be turned off by the explicit Christian and Biblical themes. It’s sad that we’ve gone from an era when G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor could have swearing to any degree in their stories and still be considered classical to an age when we’ve got so legalistic that one single “minor” swearword and we deem it “not Christian,” no matter how explicit/sound the Biblical values of the story would be. And, no, TTFTTD doesn’t whisper its faith, it screams it out very, very loudly. Just as loudly as the raw, extreme human nature that’s presented in the story (heavy drug content, R-rated lingo, heavy slurs, cannibalism, toxic mutants, etc.).
It’s why I’ve told people that, when I write a book of mine, I don’t rely on the CBA standards of what makes a “Christian” book “Christian” at all. Too clean-cut, making me too paranoid to use it effectively.

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Rebecca LuElla Miller January 25, 2013 at 12:30 PM

Why is it that when faith and fiction are considered in mainstream, general market circles, CBA / ECPA books and authors are rarely mentioned?

I don’t know about elsewhere, but this particular article seems to hone in on literary works, not big sellers–otherwise he’s remise for ignoring The Shack and the Left Behind series. I suggest “commercial fiction” is a better measure of the culture as it is and literary fiction, of the culture as it will be.

If you have to look hard to find religious themes, as Wolfe asserts, how effectively religious are they?

Good question. And yet those who look, find. Christians find Christ in Aslan, and non-Christians find a great hero. Does the imprecision of what one reader finds mean that the religious themes need to be more overt, more blatant, more preachy? I don’t think so. I think the themes need to be there and to be executed well. How effective they are, then, is really a matter of how God chooses to use them, don’t you think?

Becky

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Jesse Koepke January 25, 2013 at 6:43 PM

“If you have to look hard to find religious themes, as Wolfe asserts, how effectively religious are they?” This is a question I have been asking myself for a while. How much of Jesus needs to be in my stories for them to be “valid”? Personally, I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule, but rather one that needs to be asked for each story. Ask the Lord how much of him should be in the story; if it’s a lot, don’t take him out, and if it’s not that much, don’t force him in. And I think you have to define what “effectively religious” means for your story. If your goal is to walk someone through salvation, then you should probably be a bit obvious about things. I think Rebecca put it well when she said, “How effective they are, then, is really a matter of how God chooses to use them”. We do our part of telling the story that God has put on our hearts well, and then trust him to do the rest.

Which makes me think of Kessie’s comment, ” Of course, that means improving our storytelling and writing skills …” Maybe the fact that we have to mention that is part of why Christian fiction isn’t mentioned. (Mike, this is absolutely no critique on your writing, as I unfortunately haven’t had the chance to read your books yet.)

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Nicole January 26, 2013 at 8:35 AM

“Which makes me think of Kessie’s comment, ” Of course, that means improving our storytelling and writing skills …” Maybe the fact that we have to mention that is part of why Christian fiction isn’t mentioned.”

The secular critics can’t engage full-on Christian novels well-written or poorly written. Some of them shudder at the mention of God, let alone Jesus, in literature. As far as the writing itself goes, if you haven’t read talented Christian authors, it’s not because they aren’t out there. I won’t bore you with the long list of truly gifted writers who have chosen to do their literary writing in the Christian market. The well-worn excuse that CBA novels are inferior to secular novels is old and worn and simply not accurate any longer.

I don’t really get his point, I guess. Literature always evolves in its approaches to topics. Whether it shouts or whispers, it’s still a statement to the times and cultures of this world. I think the investigation of Christian novelists is often limited to some of the more well-known commercial fiction writers who aren’t necessarily a representation of the whole, just the more prolific. We have virtually all kinds of faith writers, certainly not limited to the insinuated type(s) mentioned as afterthoughts in the writing jungle.

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Kat Heckenbach January 26, 2013 at 8:52 AM

“The well-worn excuse that CBA novels are inferior to secular novels is old and worn and simply not accurate any longer.”

I’ve been saying for ages it’s a math thing. Most books in the ABA aren’t fantabulous, but since there are sososososososososo many books out there, that the top 10% is a really large number–so many you’d need several lifetimes to get through them all. There are simply far fewer CBA books than ABA, so the CBA’s top 10% of books look really small in comparison and you end up sludging through more bad writing to try and find good ones. (Just picked 10% out of the air, btw, but I think it’s a reasonable number to use for illustration of my point.)

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Alan O January 27, 2013 at 7:15 AM

Kat, I see a couple issues here.

In the sense of “good writing vs bad writing” (i.e., craft)…I would agree with you totally. Numbers are a huge part of the ABA vs CBA dynamic, for two reasons: I have often thought of it in terms of High School sports… The big schools, from metro areas, have better teams. First, because they are drawing from a far larger pool of potential talent, and the odds of their districts containing truly talented athletes are better, based on population. On the other hand, in a small, rural school district, you might be fortunate to have one really gifted player emerge, given the sheer probability..Second, these numerical realities mean that the competition is more fierce in the larger school districts. If you want a starting role in a Big School sport, you had *better* be good, because there are plenty of other accomplished athletes fighting to take your place. In the small school, the pressure to compete is less, because as long as you are “good enough” to play, coach will let you. Ultimately, that pushes the athletes in the Big Schools to excel (or fail)…so you end up with more highly skilled players, overall.

On the second issue, I agree with D.M: Literary fiction is no more “good” or “bad” “worthy” or “unworthy” than are Romance, Suspense, Western, or Speculative categories. It’s a type; a genre, with its own conventions and reader expectations. And as a genre, it hasn’t shown to have a huge fanbase among the CBA demographic. By the numbers, Christian Literary occupies a small niche. Much like Speculative, you’d see more Literary fiction in the CBA if the core CBA audience demanded it.

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D.M. Dutcher January 26, 2013 at 12:13 PM

But this is literary fiction though. The CBA has people like Dom Delillo, Michael Chabon, J.M. Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, etc? Most of what the CBA seems to me to put out is genre fiction, and I’m okay with arguing they are as good as secular fiction in most genres. But they are talking about highbrow literary fiction, and I’ve never even heard of a CBA author tacking it. Genre romance does not equal highbrow fiction.

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Jesse Koepke January 26, 2013 at 1:41 PM

Points well taken, Nicole. And thanks for calling out my wide generalization. I certainly don’t intend to demean the many Christian authors who are working hard on good, well-written stories.

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Nicole January 26, 2013 at 3:18 PM

Jesse, not intending to call you out in my comments. Just so many criticisms waged against truly good, gifted even, CBA writers gets old. They’re out here. I guess I am calling out the elitism of D.M. Dutcher’s “highbrow literary fiction” comment because highbrow literary fiction seems to rely solely on its ability to string meaningful words together, although many times forfeiting real story and often in the secular realm is void of three dimensional provision. The secular realm isn’t afraid to enlist the “benefit(s)” of the supernatural, but it’s determined not to implicate God in the process. To enshroud it all in grandiose literary style doesn’t make it better than literary genre writing. But the “highbrow literary fiction” attachment makes the statement that it’s somehow a higher form of writing, and that’s simply not always true.

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D.M Dutcher January 26, 2013 at 9:49 PM

Highbrow literary fiction is a style of market. That doesn’t make it good or bad, and there’s a lot of it that people would consider dreadful. My point was not that genre fiction is inferior to it, but that you don’t see it in the CBA. We don’t have Christian MFA graduates or teachers at Wheaton publishing experimental or highbrow-style works for Baker House or Zondervan. His point is more that we don’t see faith in a specific genre, but I’m not sure even then it’s particularly on-target.

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Nicole January 27, 2013 at 8:02 AM

Thanks, D.M. Appreciate the amplification of your point. I agree. I guess I would say there are several MFA authors in CBA, but it’s interesting that one of them chooses to write noir-ish literary crime fiction (although he insists it doesn’t stick to absolute noir qualifications), and another author who’s not (to my knowledge) an MFA but has chosen in the past to do some interesting “magical realism” in his highbrow literary efforts but has now resorted to writing some impressive series “pulp” crime fiction which still sports that literary style.

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Marcia January 27, 2013 at 4:32 PM

1. Because:
-They’re mainly talking about serious literary, not genre, fiction.
-CBA books are marketed to a very narrow demographic — a very white demographic, and a not-highly-educated one. Especially in today’s world, these factors make it negligible in the eyes of many.
-CBA books have, or for good reason are perceived as having, an evangelical agenda. Not merely a Christian agenda, mind you, but an evangelical one. By contrast, the mainstream at least believes that they are considering books that EXPLORE faith issues, but have no pro-religious bias.
-CBA books are, or for good reason are perceived as being, inferior in art and craft. Yes, there may be many excellent writers aiming for or publishing in the CBA these days. But they have not yet been able to overcome the general reputation of inferiority in the CBA. And if they can’t make money for the companies because what they write is too far from what the narrow demographic will buy, that reputation won’t change. Even if there is change, I expect it will be slow. Yes, there is that big a divide.

2. Very effective. Just because they are stealth doesn’t mean they’re not there. If there were subliminal demonic messages in books, do we think they would not do their dirty work? Right now, violent video games are under scrutiny as possibly having a hand in shaping young men who commit mass shootings. It always amazes me that Christians are so quick to sniff out the subtle impurities in art but can’t see God-glorifying content unless it’s blatant. If the devil can work undercover, how much more the Holy Spirit? Jesus didn’t spell out the meaning of his parables to anyone except his close disciples. To everyone else he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

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