The ongoing conversation about contemporary literature and faith that I have been having with Dana Gioia and Paul Elie across half a dozen print and online venues, though it has touched on a dozen different issues, ultimately comes down to one: “absence” versus “presence.”
The question Elie has raised, you may recall, is whether we currently have novelists who “treat the main themes and the big claims made for religious belief.”
That claim has been subject to a series of challenges. Why does Elie focus on fiction to the exclusion of other literary genres, such as poetry and creative nonfiction? Why does Elie eliminate from consideration novels set in the past, like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead? Why won’t he concede that a writer like Alice McDermott, who writes about the past, nonetheless presents us with contemporary narrators whose struggles to believe come in the form of trying to understand the faith of the preceding generations? Why won’t he examine in detail the lists of books that fulfill his rather restricted criteria—lists that include a number of books he says he hasn’t read?
It is very tempting at this point to rush down the rabbit hole in pursuit of various minor issues. It is also tempting to point out that we are living in a time when any cultured person’s “Top Ten” lists of greatest living artists would contain world-class artists of faith or those who grapple with faith: Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy in fiction, Sir Geoffrey Hill and Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer in poetry, Richard Rodriguez and Annie Dillard in nonfiction, Arvo Paert in classical music, Bruce Springsteen and U2 and others in popular music, and so forth.
But I think the deeper question has to do with why so many people feel that we live in a time of absence.