An essay in last week’s NYTimes written by Paul Elie grabbed my attention, prodded me in the gut, and provoked some mixed reactions on my behalf. Written with a sensitivity to the oft-referenced ‘post-Christian society,’ Elie surmises that contemporary American fiction lacks the believer: “In American fiction, belief is like that. Belief as upbringing, belief as social fact, belief as a species of American weirdness: our literary fiction has all of these things. All that is missing is the believer.”
His argument and epistolatory tone largely stem from an understanding that a large swath of American literature has been overtly rooted in the Christian experience. In the standard junior year American literature course taught across the nation, students begin their fall terms reading Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which explores many of the issues that this ministry is dedicated to: Law and Gospel, human brokenness and weakness, and the possibility of redemption. In the coming century, little changed in American literature, as believable characters continued their struggle with belief, doubt, and the zig-zag journey from one to the other.
Half a century ago O’Connor framed the struggle to “make belief believable” as a struggle for the attention of the indifferent reader. The religious aspect in a work of fiction, she insisted, is “a dimension added,” not one taken away, and she explained how she added it: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
It worked: who can forget the nihilist evangelist Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood” or O. E. Parker in “Parker’s Back,” who gets the face of Christ tattooed across his shoulders? But we forget they are believers from the middle of the last century, created by a writer who died in 1964.
Since then, novelist and believer have traded places. These days it is real live religious people who seem always to be shouting — large and startling figures in the pulpit, at the rally, on the courthouse steps and outside the White House. In response, writers with Christian preoccupations have taken the opposite tack, writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively.
Perhaps this is the result of the uniquely American “do-it-yourself religion,” by which Elie means a religion developed through our personal journeys and experienced individually. From here, Elie offers a survey of authors and their respective contributions to literature espousing a DIY attitude. For many of the characters that appear in these novels, belief is less a central tenet than a badge on their sash or a diadem on their crown of thorns. As Elie demurely muses, “I just don’t know what they believe or how they came to believe it.”
Some solace may be taken in books like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which forces the DIY religion to return to the pews. Nevertheless, as Elie begrudgingly points out, this text is a return to a bygone era– from the Civil War up to 1957. As such, this novel that is laudable in its presentation believable religion does not couch such themes in a contemporary context. Similarly, Elie describes the novels of Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy present Christianity as a “a country for old men” where its lost tenets can no longer reckon with present realities.
Lo, there may be hope for us looking for grace in odd settings, love in hopelessly frustrating characters, and forgiveness in spit of the the most destructive relationships. In some novels, orthodoxy and belief act as characters driving the plot onward.
Better are the stories in which religion catches the characters, the author and the reader by surprise. In Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” a man getting drunk with a blind stranger puts the man’s hand on his own and traces a cathedral for him on a grocery bag after they overhear a TV program about the Middle Ages. In Denis Johnson’s “Beverly Home,” a recovering drug addict spies on a woman through a window as she showers and dresses. He sees a truly spicy scene: a ceremony in which her husband — they are Mennonites, she with head scarf and he with beard — seeks her forgiveness for some unspoken violation by falling to his knees and washing her feet.
These stories are not “about” belief. But they suggest the ways that instances of belief can seize individual lives. “Cathedral” has the efficiency of a parable: with the drunk leading the blind, the old Christian edifice comes skeletally into view. In “Beverly Home,” the addict in recovery is a proxy for the reader: a peeping Tom, a voyeur of other people’s beliefs, he discovers that those beliefs, strange as he finds them, join him to the believers in a way that changes him, for they suggest “that there might be a place for people like us.”
Upon finishing the essay, avid MBirds may feel remiss about the near absence of David Foster Wallace, who is only mentioned once and in-passing at that. DFW and others like him–Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen, who both earn shout-outs as well–write about convoluted and distorted realities not unlike our own. Parables in their own right, these stories may not overtly claim Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, but they do bring us to terms with human frailty and the need for some type of saving grace. What happens when DIY religion becomes a corporate venture with communities, friends, and families embarking on a journey to faith and redemption? Is it absolutely necessary for literature to be written from the pews, or can it, as some contemporary authors suggest, be written in the basements, on the street corner, and merely in the shadow of Cross?