Last year around this time, Paul Elie dropped a debate-spurring essay (NYT) on the decline of Christian novels in America, which the Dish covered here and here. In a new interview with the magazine Dappled Things, Elie furthers the discussion about faith in fiction:
DT: The [Catholic] faith is in decline in culture—at least on the face of it anyway. After all that’s one of the reasons Pope Benedict called for the Year of Faith. That same lack of faith, it seems fair to say, is reflected in at least three kinds of readers out there. You have a readership with a fragile faith, a readership antagonistic to the faith, and a readership that’s simply indifferent. So if you produce a fiction that seeks to challenge the reader—the first sort of reader will pull away from the work because he feels threatened; the second will reject it outright as either unbelievable or even inhuman; and the third will simply shrug their shoulders and remain unmoved. How does a work of fiction which proposes a fictional component then capture these sorts of readers?
PE: I don’t go along with that idea at all.
I’m not sure I got it from publishing or writers, but I see the book is something written by one person sitting alone in a room and read by one person sitting alone in a room. To ponder that is to realize the variety of readers. Not only is it hard to break readers down into three groups in terms of their religious disposition, and many readers don’t know where they stand on these issues. …
Flannery O’Connor says you can do whatever you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much. She also said about her novel Wise Blood, “That belief in Jesus Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who prefer to think of it as a matter of no great consequence.” She was writing from the situation you speak of but she figured out how to do it. She figured out how to shape everything in the novel to sympathize with Hazel Motes, who is indignant about the abuses of Christianity which then lead to his attention to doctrinal impurity in Christianity. In so doing, he gives us a grasp of what an authentic Christianity would be. It makes you identify with that in spite of yourself as the reader. That’s what O’Connor was trying to do anyway.