Writing in the Age of Unbelief

Writing in the Age of Unbelief January 21, 2013

Years ago I was at a panel discussion featuring several Catholic authors when someone asked the question: “As artists, do you struggle with orthodoxy?” The panelists leaned forward in their seats, looked at one another, and began nervously laughing.

When they regained their composure, the answers were not memorable.

That’s not to say the writers were not thoughtful or up to the task—they were all at least a generation older than me, very well published and well respected—and it was kind of a punk question to ask—but my heart was burning for at least one of the panelists to say no. 

As a young writer whose unabashedly Catholic book was about to be published by a hip, secular indie press, I hoped that Catholic writers were on the cusp of a renaissance. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own had just been published to great acclaim, and Image was beginning to show up in bookstores across the country alongside elite secular journals.

My wife’s first essay for Image had gone on to receive an honorable mention in Best American Essays. My little book was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, and with very few exceptions, received complimentary notices in secular publications.

But I noticed that every single author on the panel shied away from being labeled a Catholic writer. It was still perceived as a kiss of death.

That was almost ten years ago, but I remembered it vividly when I read Paul Elie’s New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”

Elie reveals something I had never known about Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, one of the first works of literature I read on my own: In a 1973 lecture (over a decade after the book’s publication), Burgess “describes his best seller as a work about free will written from a Catholic perspective.”  Elie goes on to write:

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.

Less than a month later, Image’s Gregory Wolfe, writing in the Wall Street Journal,  rebuts Elie’s exaggeration.  Citing over two decades of experience publishing a who’s who of what he calls “believing writers” (Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Elie Weisel, Mark Helprin, and Mary Karr (a Catholic convert), Wolfe asserts:

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.

I see it both ways.

I agree with Elie that these days, when writers reference scripture and theology, or evoke explicitly religious imagery and symbols, it often falls on deaf ears and blind eyes.  I also agree that we’ll never again see a confluence of writers like O’Connor, Merton, and Percy having such a broad cultural impact.

I’ve found sustenance in the community of writers and readers of Image and enjoy acceptance among a group of writers my age who are not religious.

That renaissance of Catholic writing I once hoped for may not have happened, but however secularized our culture has become, issues surrounding faith have not been, and will never be banished from literature.

Karen Swallow Prior, Professor of English at Liberty University, writing in response to Elie’s article, is excellent on this point. Prior, whose scholarly work centers on the novel, reminds us that as a form, the novel has always been about unbelief.

She writes that the novel “was the outgrowth of the passing of the age of belief into the age of unbelief…. It is the form of an unbelieving epoch, even if it took a few centuries for that latent feature to surface.”

In other words, the kind of search for meaning that the novel offers has, over time, naturally and understandably drifted away from religious ways of understanding who were are and why we are here, just as the culture has.

Perhaps this is why I, a writer with an MFA in fiction, have turned almost exclusively to the personal essay and memoir. My first publication appeared in the “Confessions” section of Image, a section that is set apart from the “Essays” section. While I never asked about that distinction, it seems clear to me that it is a nod to spiritual autobiography, the genre started by St. Augustine.

My sense is that confessional nonfiction helps the writer (and the reader) to examine his conscience. The examination of conscience is a very important spiritual practice for Catholics. Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander come to mind, as does the late Joshua Casteel’s book-length essay Letters from Abu Ghraib.

The language Catholics use to define the examination of conscience is very close to the language writers use in personal narrative.

If what Elie says is true, and the novel (what Prior calls “our most relevant literary form of contemporary culture”) is languishing as a medium for discussing faith, then perhaps we should look to literary nonfiction—personal essay and memoir.

I am drawn to the genre because it allows for spiritual self-evaluation in a way that fiction performs either at a remove, or in a secret deeply personal way, possibly known only by the author. (This seems to be Elie’s point regarding Burgess’ novel.)

For me, writing essays is a means of understanding how my actions are in keeping or at odds with my faith, and how I can maintain faith in the face of tragedy and atrocity. For me, these are the questions of our day.

Given the attention memoir—and confessions—have received in the last ten years (James Frey and Tiger Woods) and even last ten days (Lance Armstrong, and now Manti Te’O), might it be that personal narrative, and not the novel, has become the most relevant cultural—and spiritual—form?


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  • Yes…finally…someone who recognizes memoir writing as more than just an attempt to talk about ourselves!! Memoirists discuss faith by sorting out their own mess on paper and showing readers it’s possible to make it out of challenges alive and intact! We show where our joy comes from and how grace and mercy are truths, not just happenstances. Thanks for tackling this issue!

    • Thanks for the comment, Cathryn. I love your line about grace and mercy as truths, “not just happenstances.” This is one of the things that nonfiction writers struggle with: trying to accurately portray a sense of the causes, effects, and correlations between our actions and fortune. Not that fiction writers don’t struggle with this, but nonfiction writers are limited by our own powers of insight and perception, which are often clouded by pride.

  • Elizabeth winder Noyes

    The necessity for me to attempt a memoir was shown me by my abysmal attempts to turn my self into a fictional character. Ironically my MFA thesis some years ago was a short story collection titled “I Can’t Find My Lufe”! Thanks for this.

  • Dave, thanks for this thoughtfully probing post. While I myself write personal narrative and not fiction, I want to put in a good word for the fiction of faith. I find it alive and well in the novels of, say, Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott, Alice Munro, Mark Salzman, Gail Godwin, Louise Erdrich, Erin McGraw… Of course, good fiction won’t deal head-on with matters of faith the way personal narrative can, there’s something about a fine, spiritually grounded novel that draws me in –more than memoir does. Yes, fiction can seem more real than “reality.”

  • Thanks for the comment, Peggy. To be clear, though, I’m not writing off the novel by any stretch–I have a novel project waiting on deck after I finish my current project. Perhaps one the conversations yet to be had are the ways in which the contemporary writers represent the inner-lives of their characters and their motives for doing what they do. I would love to read a book on that subject. Thanks again.

    • Barbara Lewis

      One place to begin that conversation might be by comparing Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever and Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, written a century apart. Both books explore a catastrophic event (one an act of God; the other of man), and rotate between characters, trying to answer the same question: why did this terrible thing happen? The two books begin in much the same way, as if a scientific approach might explain the inexplicable, Martin stating: “On the night that it happened—July 5—the sun didn’t set until 8:33,” and Wilder: “On Friday at noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” Thornton looks to God to explain evil but Martin lays the blame for evil squarely on our shoulders, a poignant telling but an enormous burden for modern man. Another difference between these two books is that Thornton tells his story from a distance, whereas Martin dissects the individual’s heart up close. Thornton also talks about the individual in his story as they can’t be separated from their community, whereas Martin talks about individuals in his fictional community as if they are absolutely isolated from one another, a portrait that perhaps helps to explain the evil act. These two books struck me as a way to try to explain what has happened with God and novel in the last hundred years.

  • I’m glad to see your most recent comment, because somewhere in there I became worried that you were challenging Christian writers to stop using the novel as a platform.

    I agree that very little has impacted and challenged me the way memoirs and spiritual non-fiction have: Augustine, a Kempis, Fenelon, Brother Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, all have left their visible mark on the way I view and engage my faith.

    But in terms of working out my own issues – the “fear and trembling” part – this is still done for and by me largely through fiction. There is something about creating characters who can then have the dialogue that I am unwilling to have with myself, or somehow cannot articulate with any one other person in my life except for the one I put on the page. In this way, I see the novel as still being a very much needed corner of Christianity in literature, where people can go and observe the honestly of faith being fought through. The Brother’s Karamazov remains so important to me for this reason, and Doug Worgul’s recent title, Thin Blue Smoke, is another example of this.

    The magic of Christianity – and I believe society is moving in a direction towards accepting this on a large scale – is that the authority is not in the propositions but in the narrative itself. Narrative will always be an indispensable part of the Christian witness and, in conjunction with what you have argued here, it must continue to be practiced by people of honest faith.

    • Lyle, thanks for this. I couldn’t agree more with your statement that “…the authority is not in the propositions but in the narrative itself. Narrative will always be an indispensable part of the Christian witness…” Good, well-wrought stories with compelling characters, fiction or non, are hard to debate, because the writer is asserting that “this happened and now we must deal with the consequences.” The reader has no time to say “now, hold on, did that really happen?” We are moved to suspend disbelief and follow. My comment–really, it’s a question–that personal narrative might be the most culturally relevant form right now was not meant as a slight to fiction, but it is to point out that as a culture we seem hungry for personal narratives about spirituality. It reminds me an excellent essay by the film scholar Vivian Sobchak who, writing in an essay about the ultra-violence of 1960s film (Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, etc.) and how it was a response to the violence of that period, says that she and her friends flocked to these films because they needed to be close to death. They were very scared of it (naturally), but they were also very curious about it and wanted to confront it. I see a similar thing going on right now. People are hungry for stories in which people, actual people, are able to believe despite the senseless violence all around us.

    • ‘Honored to have my name and book included in this important and illuminating discussion.

  • As a philosopher who has a blog about how to believe in God without faith, it is my position that it is FAITH that the modern mind rejects and not necessarily belief in a living God if He can be convincingly be revealed in the language and metaphor of science and evolution. I do agree that in literature, narrative nonfiction is the most powerful medium to express religious belief. Great article

  • Thank you. This was exactly what I needed to read. I’ve been struggling for some time now with how torn I feel between writing novels (which was going fairly well for me for a while, until I hit a semi-crisis last year), and personal essay and memoir, which is the form I’ve always been most drawn to. This article articulated precisely what’s been going through my mind (right down to the influence of “The Life You Save…” and the recent Op-Ed piece in the NYT). The novel is just opaque a tool for me as a writer, I find, to get at the things I’m trying to get at. As a reader, I connect more immediately (and lastingly) with personal essay, memoir, and biography, and as a writer it’s where I’m most at home. But memoir has, as you pointed out, taken some serious hits in recent years. I guess I just need to suck it up and do it anyway, damn the torpedoes and so on. Thanks again.

    • Beth, your experience that the novel is “opaque” resonates with me. As I say in my post, I began as a fiction writer, and in some ways, deep down, I am still one: I think of myself as character; I believe in dialogue and scene to carry the action forwarded; I believe something needs to happen–it can’t just be all mediation and navel-gazing. In fact, I’m still with Lyle (see above) that “[t]here is something about creating characters who can then have the dialogue that I am unwilling to have with myself, or somehow cannot articulate with any one other person in my life except for the one I put on the page.” However, it seems to me that the dearth of religiously-themed novels, or novels in which the characters struggle earnestly with their faith, is in many ways about what writers feel, as Flannery O’Connor once said, “they can make live.” O’Connor was able to write those stories and novels because she knew the terrain so well: she was a Catholic artist and intellectual living in the largely Protestant South. The tension and alienation she felt was not ginned up; it was the stuff of daily life. So, if a writer does not feel that faith is possible for him or her–or worse, that it is not intellectually credible–then it will be very difficult for that writer to make characters who are believers, or who are struggling to believe, live. My experience with contemporary literature, by which I mean from the 70s onward, vis a vis religion is that it is treated ironically. There are notable exceptions, of course, and there are all kinds of historical currents that explain why this is, but all I know is that if I have a hard time imagining the mind of my character–if I’m not sympathetic in any way to him/her–then it just won’t happen. But this is what is great about the art of fiction. There are people out there who can do this, who have it in them to write compellingly about the lives of the spiritually conflicted. My decision to begin writing nonfiction came as the result of a need to speak frankly about spiritual matters, and to examine my conscience and my faith. That said, I have a novel (half-done) about a young man who is an incurable liar, but he believes that he is a sinner and that he should repent. The problem is he can’t–he’s so tangled in a web of lies that if he begins to reveal the truth he will have nothing left. There are scenes in churches, people say grace at meals, he reads Kirkegaard and St. Francis–he even prays from time to time–but he just can’t muster the courage. I imagine that religious folks will read it. I imagine that it will prompt conversation about the struggle to believe, but I don’t know that it will appeal to the tastes of the atheist reader. And I know why. It’s because the stakes will not seem high enough. It will not pass the “so what?” test. How to make this person sympathetic, despite the fact that they hold on by their fingertips the seemingly dim hope that Jesus was born, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again? That’s where the art comes in, of course.