Has The Novel Lost Its Faith?

Dec 23 2012 @ 7:49pm

My old friend Paul Elie recently penned a long New York Times essay on the decline of great Christian novels in America. A summary of his case:

This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: as something between a dead language and a hangover. 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.

Alan Jacobs, while thinking Elie "maybe" is right, emphasizes the perennial difficulty of writing faith-informed fiction:

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.

Meanwhile, D.G. Myers finds Elie's treatment of Marilynne Robinson, whose work brims with Christian themes, especially puzzling:

Her masterpiece, Gilead, would seem to be exactly what Elie is calling for. He dispenses with it, though, by placing a rigorous condition on the novel of belief. Gilead, he says, is “highly representative” of the American novel’s abandonment of religion: it is “set in the past, concerned with a clergyman, presenting belief as a family matter, animated by a social crisis.”

It is not immediately clear why a setting in the past should disqualify any novel from the category “of belief.” Perhaps the greatest religious novel ever written by an American—Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop—is also set in the past. So too Vardis Fisher’s Children of God, Janet Lewis’s Wife of Martin Guerre, Frederick Buechner’s Godric, Brian Moore’s Black Robe, and Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy. There have been enough historical novels of religious faith written by Americans that Elie’s demand for contemporaneity begins to seem arbitrary.