Have the Literary Arts Become Too Secularized?

Last week, Gregory Wolfe — the founder and editor of Image and author of Beauty Will Save the World — wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he pushed back against the claims of some — e.g., Ruth Franklin, Paul Elie — that secularization has grown triumphant in literature in recent years. He writes:

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.

Wolfe claims that spiritual and religious themes have taken a subtler, less pronounced position in modern literature, but they are no less present.

…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.

Wolfe mentions several examples, including Christopher R. Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder and Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy. Personally, I was reminded of Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, which is replete with spiritual themes — and was nevertheless acclaimed by Time as one of 2002’s best novels. But Enger’s presentation of such themes is gentle, unassuming, and haunting, which falls right in line with Wolfe’s conclusion that right now, “the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted.”

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