The Problem With Waiting, Part 2

The Problem With Waiting, Part 2 January 7, 2014

book in churchContinued from yesterday.


Gioia seems to be suggesting two conditions necessary for a resurgence of Catholic literature. The first is the arrival of a “few innovators” who will provide a “cultural catalyst,” and the second is that the “Catholic writer recover confidence in his or her own spiritual, cultural, and personal identity.” Reasonable enough, right?

However, if I understand him correctly, due to the “vast impoverishments” in the arts and the Church caused by the “schism between Christianity and the Arts” things are looking pretty bleak for a renaissance anytime soon.

I say this based on the lack of generosity (and, frankly, taste) among Catholics and Catholic institutions with cultural influence and monetary wealth, and due to the fact that we (apparently, the mediocre) are essentially being told to sit tight and wait until innovative saviors come along. I think this is the exact opposite of what our approach should be.

As Randy Boyagoda says in his fine First Things essay, “I’m actually sick of hearing about them . . .”–“them” being O’Connor, Merton, Percy, etc. They are dead. They are not coming back. So what are we going to do?

I’m not suggesting that I, or anyone I know for that matter is the second-coming of O’Connor, Merton, or Percy. (That’s a foolish thing to hope for, as far as I’m concerned, like waiting for the next John Coltrane or Andy Warhol; their voices and visions are so distinct as to be irreproducible.)  What I’m suggesting is that we start embracing the many skilled literary writers who also identify as Catholic—practicing, lapsed, Latin Rite, schismatic, I don’t give a damn, here comes everybody, right?—and stop waiting around for those few innovators that Gioia speaks of.

Waiting creates a situation that breeds philistinism; a sense of not good enough; a sense of who do they think they are?  In other words, waiting creates complainers and explainers, instead of do-ers. And that kind of attitude will just prolong this torpor.  I know because I’ve fallen into it, too.

Might this be what has happened within the Catholic press and the Catholic intelligentsia?  Have these communities, in light of all the Church’s bad press and dwindling cultural influence, become even more insular, exclusive, and, in the end, torpid?

Waiting is antithetical to the creation not just of art, but of community as well. This is what Lewis Hyde (author of the The Gift) has been writing about for the past four decades. One cannot wait for some inspired genius to come along and save us; the creative act must engaged in and shared openly, freely, regularly, and un-self-consciously, without concern as to whether it is “innovative” or whether it will serve as a catalyzing force.

Hyde writes, “…the gift [of creativity] is lost in self-consciousness.  To count, measure, reckon value, or seek the cause of a thing” will kill any possibility that the work will become a true catalyzing force, because such art is selfish and fails to “draw each of its participants into a wider self.”

It’s pretty to think so, right?  But that’s not the most challenging part.  Hyde’s biggest challenge to us is his view that because the most affecting art is made when one conceives it as a gift—unasked for; made without any expectation of a return—it subverts all expectations about life as a free-market capitalist: that time is money; that the manufacture of things should be governed by principles of supply and demand, instead of by need. Which is to say that though art is not necessary, we need it.

That’s not to say that we should embrace well-intentioned mediocrity, but it is to say—and here I agree 100% with Gioia—that we need patrons, patrons who challenge, motivate, and support individual artists, not just  “the Arts” in the form of big checks for brick and mortar projects.

I’m hesitant to bite the hand that feeds me, but not since I was an undergrad at Notre Dame eating in South Dining Hall has a Catholic institution really fed me. I’m being a bit hyperbolic, sorry. The wonderful folks at St. Peter Clavier Catholic Worker House in South Bend fed me and many others much less fortunate than me. Gregory Wolfe’s ecumenically-minded journal IMAGE, while not able to pay its contributors what the Condé Naste glossies pay, feeds me, and many others, artistically and spiritually by providing a venue for religious writers and artists to publish work that is, first and foremost, good art.

Interestingly, the institution that has done the most to feed me as an artist lately is secular. The University of Southern California’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies selected me as a fellow and is paying me, and five other early career writers, a nice stipend to encourage the completion of a book project. On top of that we are meeting four times over the next two years for weekend-long seminars led by Gregory Wolfe to discuss our work, share our progress, and discuss the ways that our various relationships to Catholicism (and they are various) inform our artistic lives. Let me emphasize that again, a secular institution in La-La Land is taking the lead in promoting Catholic literary culture in the United States.

You should know that I did not finish this piece that morning in the coffee shop. Despite my best intentions, I could not force it into existence before making the walk back to campus to teach. Deadline blown and running late for class, I had to take the shorter, more direct route along the highway. It had begun to snow again and the wind blew such that it was hard to see, but I knew that my students would understand.

Though I don’t work at a religiously affiliated school, it is a school dedicated to the arts, and so it is a religious institution of a kind; a place where no one is waiting for the next few innovators to come along, because there is a sense that everyone here is an innovator. This is especially true when you consider the etymology of “innovative”: “to introduce as new,” from Latin innovatus, past participle of innovare, “to renew, restore; to change,” from in- “into” + novus “new”. Meaning, “make changes in something established.”

In other words, there is an unspoken but commonly held belief that to make at all is an act of renewal and restoration, or as Flannery O’Connor had it, all art is “incarnational,” a glorifying of what is such that we see it anew, appreciate it—value it.

Catholics are not the only ones who have lost this sense of the importance of incarnational making; it is a first-world problem—perhaps the biggest first-world problem, because it represents a disavowal of our common humanity, our shared spiritual poverty, a condition that leads to a belief that we are our own light, a belief explored and critiqued in our most lasting art.

Let me humbly, then, submit an alternative solution for recovering the kind of spiritual, cultural, and personal identity Gioia speaks of: We must move forward and throw off whatever self-consciousness, self-loathing, and guilt we might feel for remaining Catholic, being an apologist, or even just telling people, as I admit I sometimes do in certain situations when someone as just uttered something profoundly anti-Catholic, that I was “raised Catholic,” and make art.

As Father James Schall points out, quoting William Styron’s Set This House on Fire, “You sin in this guilt of yours. You sin in your guilt.”

But “even sin serves.”  And even the most virulent anti-Catholic must admire, or at least stand agog, at this theological tenet. It is an understanding of humanity that we need, lest we fall further into despair.

To me, this is what makes a writer Catholic, his or her ability to embrace the subversive power of small-c catholicism, interested in the way that all things that rise, and even those that fall, converge.


David Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull). He is the Director of Creative Writing at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan where he lives with his wife, fellow Good Letters contributor Jessica Mesman Griffith, and children, Charlotte and Alexander. His essays and reviews have appeared in Image, Utne Reader, The Normal School and online at He blogs at Pyramid Scheme.

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  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Thanks for this very thoughtful presentation of the problem, as you see it. I’m also Catholic and a writer, but I don’t share your pessimism. I think with gratitude of major contemporary Catholic poets: Adelia Prado in Brazil (whom I’ll be writing a post about soon); and Denise Levertov, no longer living but still contemporary. I’m grateful that Levertov converted from agnosticism to Catholicism, because it helps me understand her later work, but I’d have been just as grateful if she’d become Episcopalian or Presbyterian. It’s the conversion to a specifically religious sensibility that seems important to me.

    As for a loss of interest in religious art, I just don’t se it that way. For instance, the Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts has just been published, an enormous volume weighing about 10 pounds (which I know about because I wrote one of the short chapters).

    In any case, I certainly share your conviction that we must just keep on keeping on. Write, publish, and let go of the desire for Flannery O’Connor to reappear among us!

    • Dave Griffith

      Thanks, Peggy. I’m glad to learn about Adelia Prado (I’m not familiar with her work, but I will seek her out) and this Oxford Handbook. But let me clarify, I don’t think I’m being so much pessimistic as realistic. Actually, I’m feeling pretty hopeful and enthusiastic, but my hope and enthusiasm is tempered by my own experience in the trenches, so to speak.

      As for a loss of interest in religious art, I don’t see it that way either. Let me give you an example, everyone is interested in spiritual autobiography these days, and that’s good. However, what most readers want is something routinized, something 12 step-ish, some program that when you come to the end of it there you are–saved, whole, happy, content. Of course, you and I know that that’s not the way it is. I look at my wife’s spiritual autobiography, co-authored with Amy Andrews. It is a devastatingly beautiful knock-out of a book, but because two young women wrote it, and because it has a certain kind of feminine-looking cover (not their idea), and because it doesn’t follow the kind of formula that mainstream publishers feel they need to turn a profit, it gets passed over in favor of stuff like the Happiness Project and the Carlene Bauer’s novel Frances and Bernard and whatever is new from Anne Lamott. It’s a shame. My point is this: There will always be a place in the mainstream for certain kinds of religious writing–writing that is not too dogmatic or too theological–because as a culture we often treat matters of faith in a removed academic and anthropological way: isn’t it interesting how someone who is Christian can also be an artist.

      In my experience it fascinates people that one can be Christian and an artist in much the same way that we are fascinated by art by prisoners or art by refugees. I’m preaching to the choir here, but I just want to make sure that my essay isn’t misunderstood as pessimistic. What I’m reacting to is a situation in American Letters and in Catholic culture in which art that is trying to seriously grapple with deepest mysteries of faith and being human (pain, suffering, and violence spring to mind) has a hard time finding an audience, because the cultural gatekeepers are either intellectually lazy and/or are made nervous by the idea of their name (as an agent, editor, or publishing house) being associated with it.

      I think this why there’s been so much hand-wringing over the loss of a Catholic literary influence. We’re still sitting around decades later wondering, “what happened?” Well, my sense is that what happened is that we became much much more comfortable as a culture with the IDEA of a dead Flannery O’Connor and a dead Dorothy Day and an electrocuted Thomas Merton–prophets all–because they can no longer implicate us and make us feel complicit the way they would still be doing if they were alive. As a result, and here I think I’m agreeing with Greg Wolfe’s First Things essay on anorexic readers, we have lost our taste for the challenging literary religious work being written today. Instead we savor pap.

      I’m sorry I’m rambling on here. You’re not the enemy here. I deeply appreciate your work and the supportive comments and insights you lend to me and so many other writers. I guess I would just close with this thought. The Oxford Handbook you mention, while I certainly would love to have a copy–that’s just the kind of thing I geek-out on, lists at $150.00 (Amazon has it for $112) and so sets any comprehensive and serious consideration of religious art out of reach of most. Two steps forward, one back?

      • Peggy Rosenthal

        Yup, Oxford is crazy to be charging $150 for the Handbook on Religion & the Arts. (Amazon does have the kindle edition for $30.) But Oxford prices many of its books astronomically; I don’t know what they’re thinking.

        I do concur in your report from the trenches (and that’s a bummer about Jessica’s fine book). Levertov lost some of her readership when she converted to Catholicism.

        And yet… I wonder if popular culture hasn’t always preferred “pap,” to genuine explorations of life’s meaning. I’m always pleasantly surprised when a major publisher puts out an exploration of religious questions: like Penguin publishing the novel “Our Lady of the Lost and Found.”

        I was delighted to see Greg Wolfe mention Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe in today’s post. I happen to be in the middle of reading it for the 3rd or 4th time. It does everything we’d both want a really fine novel to do, engages religious questions in a most engaging way, and it’s widely read, too. I suppose this is the exception that proves the rule. But, still, I’m grateful for it — and for your thoughtful presentation of this important subject.

        • Claire Mooney

          Isn’t it rather presumptuous–not to say curiously narrow-minded in this context and others–to maintain that a “genuine exploration of life’s meaning” must be “an exploration of religious questions” or to imply that literature that fails to include religious questions is “pap”? For that matter, popular culture almost by definition wouldn’t strive for the kind of seriousness you yourself seem to crave. Religious ≠ Serious ! Furthermore, to dismiss anything popular (as represented by your blanket term: “always”) as pap smacks of a superciliousness that one might rightly find patrician and even offensively so. Finally, Amazon is selling The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts (and why the ampersand in your second reference to it?…just doesn’t fit!) for $112.48 right now. For a 564 page/ 2.4 pound tome, what would you expect? Oxford University Press is a business, and I am sure you would prefer that it stay in business. Or are you above that too?

          • Dave Griffith

            Claire, you ask a good question:

            “Isn’t it rather presumptuous–not to say curiously narrow-minded in this context and others–to maintain that a “genuine exploration of life’s meaning” must be “an exploration of religious questions” or to imply that literature that fails to include religious questions is “pap”?”

            Genuine explorations of life’s meaning have been written that do not approach life from a strictly religious perspective, but that’s a different conversation–one that I would be happy to have.

          • Claire Mooney

            Thank you for your affirming reply, Dave. I too would like to have that other conversation, which I suppose is why I raised the question yesterday. Perhaps you can initiate that conversation at some point in a new posting here. My own leanings are for inclusiveness in attitude, in conversation, and in literary choice, rather than an exclusiveness which sees one genre or one motivation for literary endeavors as a standard that does not admit other genres or motivations for serious writing. I appreciate your catholicity.