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”?