The Image Top 25 Contemporary Writers of Faith List

The Image Top 25 Contemporary Writers of Faith List September 9, 2013

Gregory Wolfe

“I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor.” That was the opening sentence of a recent piece by Randy Boyagoda for First Things magazine. It’s what journalists call “a strong lede,” especially when you consider that First Things readers are likely to revere the memory of Miss O’Connor. (He’s also tired of several other major writers from Hopkins and Dostoevsky to Tolkien and Eliot.)

Boyagoda used that jolt to call attention to what he believes is the dearth of contemporary literature that engages religious faith. As he puts it: “serious literary fiction largely occupies its very own naked public square.” To support his case, he cited a recent New York Times essay by Paul Elie, which makes a similar claim: “if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.”

While I’m tempted to engage the broader arguments these gentlemen make (my reply to Elie was published here), my goal today is more modest.

We believe the best refutation of Elie and Boyagoda is to put out a list of writers working at the pinnacle of artistic achievement—writers who not only grapple with faith but do so as honored members of the mainstream literary community.

Over the years we had received a great deal of positive feedback for our list of twentieth century writers of faith, so now that we’re over a decade into the twenty-first century, we thought we’d provide this list of twenty-five authors at work today.

We solicited nominations from the public and received around 250. The list below is taken from those nominations. The selection is not based on the number of nominations but on our collective editorial judgment.

Lists like this are enormously popular, but they are also deeply flawed and to some extent even arbitrary. For one thing, it is very difficult to make such a short list fully representative of every group and genre that deserve representation. We apologize in advance for these shortcomings.

Still, we believe the twenty-five writers on this list demonstrate that the rumors of the death of literature addressing faith are without substance—the result of people with ideological blinders on, leaving them oblivious to the rich literary experience going on around them.

Of course, the comment box is for your feedback—and we’re sure you’ll have plenty of it!

The Image Top 25 Contemporary Writers of Faith List
The permanent link to the list on our website is here.

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow; Hannah Coulter; That Distant Land

Scott Cairns, Compass of Affection; Philokalia

Robert Clark, My Grandfather’s House; Mr. White’s Confession

Annie Dillard, For the Time Being

Patricia Hampl, Blue Arabesque; The Florist’s Daughter

B.H. Fairchild, Usher; Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest

Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy; Exiles; A Stay Against Confusion

Mark Helprin, In Sunlight and in Shadow; The Pacific and Other Stories

Geoffrey Hill, Selected Poems

Andrew Hudgins, American Rendering; Ecstatic in the Poison

Mary Karr, Lit; Sinners Welcome

Julia Kasdorf, Sleeping Preacher; Poetry in America

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

Bret Lott, Jewel; A Song I Knew by Heart

Paul Mariani, The Great Wheel; Deaths and Transfigurations; Epitaphs for the Journey

Marilyn Nelson, The Fields of Praise, Faster Than Light

Kathleen Norris, Dakota; The Cloister Walk; Acedia and Me

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto; The Patron Saint of Liars; Run; State of Wonder

David Adams Richards, Mercy Among the Children; Friends of Meager Fortune

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead; Home; Absence of Mind

Richard Rodriguez, Brown; Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography

Elizabeth Strout, Abide with Me; Olive Kitteridge; The Burgess Boys

Christian Wiman, Every Riven Thing; My Bright Abyss

Franz Wright, God’s Silence; Walking to Martha’s Vineyard; The Beforelife

Adam Zagajewski, Mysticism for Beginners; Another Beauty; Without End: New and Selected Poems

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  • PeggyH1951

    Thanks for this, Greg. Keep speaking up. You’re one of the most important voices on this subject out there, and others will take you seriously. By the way, I’d love to read some of the material you linked to, but they all went to blank email pages.

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Sorry, Peggy. Links fixed!

  • marlyat2

    Philip Lee Williams of Georgia and Howard Bahr of Mississippi. You could do better by the South.

    • Gregory Wolfe

      No doubt!

  • Luke Arredondo

    Michael O’Brien is a great author as well. He’s more well-known among Catholics, and has written some tremendous high-quality literature which definitely engages the subject of faith in a very profound manner.

  • Chris

    Thomas Lynch?

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Good call, Chris. Eminently worthy of inclusion.

  • Francois

    I’m rather sick of Marilynne Robinson.

  • A Mac

    I like another southern writer: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher

  • Nick Ripatrazone

    Great, Gregory. Lott’s new memoir about writing as a Christian is instructive. Thanks for this.

  • Greg Garrett

    Good list, Greg. Robinson is for me head and shoulders above the other fiction writers–love introducing her work to priests and pastors.

  • I would add Susan Howatch, especially her Church of England series.

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Several people have mentioned her to us.

  • Morf Morford

    You missed Reynolds Price?

    • Gregory Wolfe

      We had a hard time deciding about writers who published most of their work in the 20th century. We also chose writers who are still with us. Tough calls.

      • PeggyH1951

        Oh, no! Somehow I missed Price’s death notice TWO years ago. His memoir A Whole New Life forever changed me.

  • adell

    Malcolm Guite?? 🙂

  • Mark Powell

    Denis Johnson. Hard pressed to think of a writer who more fearlessly engages doubt in the face of a staggering need to believe. Thinking especially of books like RESU. OF HANGED MAN, TREE OF SMOKE, and JESUS’ SON

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Yup, fair enough. Of course, I can’t help wondering who you’d delete from our list to get Johnson on, but yes, he’s a legit addition.

  • zoid hamilton

    great article, great list – like the fact that many if not most of these authors (at least the ones I am familiar with) write stuff that people appreciate regardless of their faith or lack of faith – tapping into “the universal” seems to be a measure of good writing and can build bridges. The flipside is the many atheist authors who write very “spiritual” books, tackling huge metaphysical questions, mystery, the search, etc.

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Who would you nominate for spiritual atheist writers?

  • Darian G. Burns

    Great list except for my asking where is Buechner?

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Another tough call as most of his work was published in the
      20th century, but we could have gone the other way. Thx!

  • John Barach

    Larry Woiwode belongs on this list. Still alive, still writing.

    I would also add Gene Wolfe, regarded by some as the greatest living science fiction writer.

    • Gregory Wolfe

      See why it should have been a top 50 list?

  • John Barber

    Fantastic list. I haven’t heard of a bunch of these – it’s always great to find new writers! Leif Enger would be a great one, too.

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Yessir! Thx.

  • larry

    Links still not working. The first three have a “Mailto” tag at the beginning.

    • taylorolsen

      Yikes–thanks, Larry. Fixed.

  • Nancy J

    I would agree I am ready for our greatest writers, if only when we find out their flaws, we can pray and hope they overcome them as we ourselves are trying to overcome.

    • Nancy J

      For our greatest writers to be alive…

  • Andrew David

    Greg, I see that you’ve listed the writers alphabetically, so I suppose I shouldn’t approach the first book on your list as if it were worthy of extra honor. But still, I must admit some shock and surprise to see Jayber Crow as the first novel that you would use in your arsenal against Elie and Boyagoda. We should tell Warren!

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Andrew: I said it was a collective decision. Or would you prefer me to dominate my staff?

  • Denise

    I love Ann Patchett, but I didn’t consider her a writer “of faith.” Obviously, I need to do my homework!

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Denise: She gave a great talk for an IMAGE conference many years ago about her Catholicism. It’s very evident in her first novel, less so in later books.

  • Wonderful list. Thank you!

  • ja

    Great list. Where’s Tobias Wolff?

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Great suggestion!

  • TE Cullom

    Thanks for the list, I love adding to my TBR pile! Suggestion: Heather King

  • RW

    Glad to Franz Wright on this list. I wonder what he would (or did) say.

  • Tim

    How did this list exclude Jerry Jenkins? Were 20 New York Times Bestsellers not enough? Also, what about Beverly Lewis?

    • guest

      Sometimes great literary fiction and popular fiction are not the same thing. I doubt these writers would put themselves on this fine list; also, most of their books were written last century.

  • Samuel Mitchell

    Is this for the USA only? If not what about Tim Winton, Les Murray (both of whom you’ve inteviewed) & P D James just to name a few…

    • Gregory Wolfe

      See my point about Winton above — same thing goes for Murray. Boy, I’m really tempted to just go ahead and make a top 50 list! Thanks!

  • Christopher Hingley

    I know no novelist who surpasses Tim Winton (Cloudstreet, The Turning, Dirt Music) in describing the little signs of God’s grace in the ordinariness of daily life.

    • Gregory Wolfe

      You are quite right. We restricted ourselves to those who were nominated but that’s just a sign that Winton still is too little known in North America. Thanks for this.

  • Troy Bronsink

    I look forward to reading the many suggestions! I often wonder where Paulo Coelho fits within this discussion. An open Marionite certainly qualifies as Judeo-Christian and yet his pluralistic approach could be the most telling of what post-Christian lit would look like for a Christian author (I know most of his material was last century but he didn’t make the 100 cut either). It gets me wondering how O’Connor and Percy would have incorporated the religion of the other were globalism and pluralism as pervasive as today? Had the misfit been Sufi would we think of it Christian lit? Thoughts?

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Troy, thanks! These are huge questions, far outstripping my capacity to respond via comm box. Two quick thoughts: first, I’m not convinced the phrase “post-Christian” is actually meaningful; second, Percy and O’Connor had a robust natural theology, meaning that they felt anything human bore witness to the nature of the creation (which means that it is often out of the mouth of an Other that truth is spoken, particularly to the jaded choir members). See O’Connor’s “A Displaced Person.”

  • Guest

    Troy, these are huge questions, far outstripping my capacity to respond via comm box. Two quick thoughts: first, I’m not convinced the phrase “post-Christian” is actually meaningful; second, Percy and O’Connor had a robust natural theology, meaning that they felt anything human bore witness to the nature of the creation (which means that it is often out of the mouth of an Other that truth is spoken, particularly to the jaded choir members). See O’Connor’s “A Displaced Person.”

  • Karen Butler

    So, so overlooked here is Walter Wangerin, Jr — he is not dead yet. And God willing, not soon.

    The Book of the Dun Cow won a National Book Award, for goodness sake!

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Thanks, Karen. As you can see, the number 25 was not sufficient to avoid overlooking great writers, which is, in a sense, part of our point.

  • Jeff Cagwin

    [agreed, Karen Butler, on Walter Wangerin, Jr!]