Is There Such a Thing as a “Lutheran Novel”?

Is There Such a Thing as a “Lutheran Novel”? March 20, 2020

The best academic writing in the humanities, in my opinion, is the kind that makes a careful theoretical argument while simultaneously buttressing it with 3-4 deeply specific examples. In the closing pages of Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Alasdair MacIntyre describes the growth in and practice of the virtues in the lives of four diverse individuals—ranging from Trinidadian socialist author C.L.R. James to U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor. In Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, Anthony Kronman discusses the latent Spinozist philosophy permeating the paintings of the Renaissance, the poetry of Walt Whitman, and the fiction of George Eliot. And in his titanic The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, Eugene McCarraher traces the history of theological reception of capitalism—both positive and negative—through the works of John Ruskin, Henry Ford, Ayn Rand, Peter Drucker, and countless others. The genius of this approach is that it demands so deep a knowledge of the field under investigation that one can sift the representative exemplars from the inferior imitations.

Joseph Bottum’s slim new volume, The Decline of the Novel, is a masterful example of this approach to inquiry. Through close readings of Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann, and Tom Wolfe, Bottum outlines a fascinating and original thesis: the novel, as a genre of fiction writing, is a distinctly Protestant phenomenon, one that centers on the spiritual journey of individual human beings rather than describing the broad drama of social order.

Specifically, Bottum distinguishes between the chanson fiction of Catholic society and the roman fiction of Protestant-dominated culture. The former type of fiction—epitomized by texts like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Cervantes’s Don Quixote—frames the central narrative conflict around the individual’s performance of societal duties that transcend the individual self. The drama is as much communal as it is personal. The latter—as reflected in the dominant trajectory of Western literature—understands conflict as a matter of individual progress along some spiritual dimension or another, toward some kind of individualized resolution or realization. Dickens’s David Copperfield carries the day once he grows to maturity and exercises his rational faculties in the proper manner, overcoming the deceptive forces that surround him; similarly, Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons triumphs when she rejects the exploitative social patterns of her university setting and affirms her individual value and capacities.

The widely-reported decline of mainline Protestantism within America’s dominant elite culture, Bottum argues, closely correlates with the decline of the novel as a touchstone of wide-ranging importance. Bottum suggests that no novel of true cultural importance has been released: no one in New York or Washington, D.C. ever feels ashamed, at any given cocktail party, not to have read the latest literary masterwork. “Prestige television”—shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad—has filled that cultural niche. Exactly what worldview this television-oriented culture represents, Bottum does not say; it is enough to argue that the waning popularity of the novel goes hand-in-hand with a loss of faith in the traditional Protestant creed.

That thesis, at least, feels intuitively correct. But it nevertheless seems to me that the particular disjunction upon which Bottum’s argument relies does not perfectly correspond to the distinction between Catholic and non-Catholic; more accurately, it seems to reflect the gap between Catholic and Calvinist. Though plenty of criticism has been levied against Max Weber’s seminal argument that Puritan salvation-anxiety drove the emergence of contemporary capitalism, one can surely speak of the Calvinist tendency to seek evidence of one’s election to eternal life through one’s good works—and, more broadly, one’s desire to perform such works. This—not the Protestant critique of Rome per se—is the particular type of anxiety that animates the texts Bottum surveys, although the theological underpinnings never come fully into view.

Applying Bottum’s specific criteria, I find it difficult to conceive of a distinctly Anglicannovel, say, or—as is relevant to me—a uniquely Lutheran novel. (I would welcome thoughts on this front from my former professor and fellow Patheos blogger, Gene Veith, if he has any!) The existential anxiety and motif of spiritual progress that Bottum identifies as definitive characteristics of the Western novel don’t seem to logically correlate with the Anglican and Lutheran traditions, both of which share a distinct sacramental and ecclesological consciousness absent from the Reformed paradigm. I’m halfway tempted to suggest that the definitive narrative expression of Lutheran theology is the congregational hymn—a literary form harmonizing theological concerns with cultural ones (how else should one take Luther’s pleato “restrain the murderous Pope and Turk?”) as well as one that invites the participation of both clergy and laity, But that doesn’t seem to directly address Bottum’s question—what sort of fiction emerges from a given Christian tradition.

What say you, blog readers? Is the concept of a “Lutheran novel”—or, more broadly, a “non-Calvinist, yet Protestant” novel intelligible? If so, where might one find such a text?


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  • I’m happy to recommend some Lutheran novels! First, read Bo Giertz, “The Hammer of God,” which is about several generations of pastors having to deal with the peculiar theological aberrations of their times. The novel, which is much better than it perhaps sounds, plays off against those “Calvinist” tendencies that you cite. Also read the contemporary fantasy author Lars Walker. (I like “Wolf Time,” though his Viking sagas and Minnesota books are also good.) Also Walter Wangerin’s “The Book of the Dun Cow.” Also Frederic Baue, “The Pilgrim” (if you can find it).

    My daughter Mary Moerbe has compiled a list of contemporary Lutheran novelists, many of whom are working in the formula genres and are self-publishing, but some of those are well-done and fun to read (such as Ray Keating’s Pastor Stephen Grant series, about a James-Bond type CIA agent who becomes a Lutheran pastor, but still sometimes has to revert to his former life. Talk about being between two kingdoms!).

    For a fuller and more historic sampling of “the Lutheran novel,” we should go to Lutheran cultures. Namely, Scandinavia. (Germany is not nearly as Lutheran as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland, having major strains of Catholicism, Reformed, and liberal theology, though there are probably German Lutheran novelists. But Scandinavia had only Lutheranism for much of the time they turned Christian, and used to take that very seriously.) I’m not familiar, though, with Scandinavian novels, other than that of Bo Giertz, who is Swedish. I’ve intended to delve into that, though I suspect there are few English translations of what I would want to read.

    Not all languages have a strong literary tradition of fiction. English, which pioneered the realistic novel, certainly does. Russian does. French does. Most other languages pour their literary energy into poetry, though some of it is narrative or dramatic poetry that can also be characterized as fiction (Italy’s Dante, Germany’s Goethe, etc.).

    In terms of the literary critic whom you cite (and now I want to read), many of these Lutheran novels seem like a combination of the “chanson” (they are often medieval-like fantasy quests) and the “roman” (featuring individual rather than social redemption). Which would fit the Lutheran appropriation of both Catholicism and Protestantism.

  • Tom Hering
  • Mary Jack

    Hello, Mary Moerbe, GEVeith’s daughter, here. I’ve thought a lot about what the abstract ideal of a Lutheran novel would be: realistic yet possibly fantastic, sacrificial yet grace driven, sacramental and incarnational, delving into what is man, men, and creation, etc. Like my dad suggested, it would likely be both personal and communal. Yet much “wiggle room” in our Christian freedom.

    As my dad mentioned, I’ve started keeping a list of Lutheran authors as I find them (https://www.maryjmoerbe.com/living-lutheran-authors/). As my dad also said, the authors on this list admittedly tend toward genres rather than aspiring to be high literature or the Great American Novel. Although one gentleman I’ve worked with may be getting close. 🙂 I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many Lutheran pastors and pastors wives are on my list, although perhaps it’s just been easier to find and identify them, being one myself.

    I’d recommend “The Oracles and the Jewels” and do really enjoy Lars Walker, who peppers his works with mythological figures. There are some interesting pieces of historical fiction, including “Shadow among Sheaves.” “Scrooge and the Question of God’s Existence” might interest you as you are obviously a man of education. And, if you like allegorical elements, Michael L. McCoy has a series; I think I’d recommend “The Bestman, the Bride and the Wedding” as my favorite although it has some shocking elements.

    I run a website (maryjmoerbe.com) to encourage Lutherans to write and to share free Lutheran resources. I announce and review Lutheran books there, too. For a time, I had even hoped to put together a book of essays “toward theology of fiction,” but, alas, it hasn’t come to fruition. I can tell you that this summer there may be a Lutheran writers’ conference, Here I Write, which is very exciting to me (We will see if it gets canceled.). I’d like to help Lutheran authors keep better community with one another even as we can perhaps raise awareness of our works with readers.

    These days I’ve personally been very curious about Lutheran poetry, including but not limited to hymnody. I’ve self-published a book of poetry myself and suspect Lutheranism has a lot to offer through that medium. Sadly, much hasn’t been translated, either from Latin or German. 🙂 But I keep hoping the idea will get into the right ear.

    I’d love to raise my children with more Lutheran literature. At their ages now they mostly benefit from Kloria books, if you are familiar with them.

  • jsehrett

    Thanks to you all for the wonderful examples! Very much appreciated!

  • Raymond

    I think there are a couple of paths for this discussion: novels that include Lutheranism as a specific part of the novel’s scope, and novels that don’t necessarily discuss Lutheranism but are written in a Lutheran sensibility. (Is Lutheranism a word? If it isn’t I apologize.)

    Novels that include Catholicism as part of the novel’s milieu include Eifelheim by Michael Flynn and The Power and the Glory by Graham Green. Catholics also claim The Lord of the Rings as a Catholic work, written by a practicing Catholic and presenting a Catholic sensibility.

    Novels with an Evangelical focus would include the Left Behind series, or better or worse.