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Fictional Faith

Paul Elie's Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?
Fictional Faith

One of the most subtle romantic comedies of this year was the Nicole Holofcenter written and directed Enough Said, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini. The wonderfully realistic dialogue and situations experienced by the two main characters rang so true to my own thoughts and feelings about growing older and being in love that I was spell-bound during the entire film. I am happily married and have been for 43 years, but nevertheless the lives of these two divorced mid-fifties (?) people consistently paralleled what I imagine the thoughts, the questions and the feelings of two such people would be as they attempt to date and learn to fall in love all over again. These characters are winsome, thoughtful, fearful, good and sinful, just as a Christian would expect and hope them to be.

Except for one thing. Neither ever bows to the notion that faith or religion might play a part in their lives.

I also recently saw a second powerful film on the other end of the genre spectrum from Enough Said. The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott and starring an A list ensemble cast, depicts the seediest, most destructive characteristics of human nature through the lens of the drug trade in southwestern America. In a thriller framework characters lie to, cheat, and gruesomely murder each other. Faith is portrayed here, though, as the provenance of the weak and the afraid.

Paul Elie’s article, which appeared about this time last year, is an interesting and informative essay about both these aspects of American cultural life and its strange relationship to faith, dealing in this article with the American literary scene. On the one hand, the vast majority of American novels seem to ignore religious life altogether. On the other, the novels that do depict it show a faith that is at best distant and truncated from the faith that I know, at worst bearing positively no resemblance to it. Elie writes that when faith is portrayed, and he does admit this is rare enough, it is done so as “something between a dead language and a hangover.”

The article does more than simply note American culture’s lack of Christian authors, comparing the American literary scene to that of fifty years ago, when at least there were authors like Updike, O’Connor, Percy and Price. It laments the lack of the “novel of belief”, books containing stories of those struggling with their faith directly and fully as part of the warp and woof of life.

And this lack is seen by Elie to concern particularly the Christian faith and its disappearance from American literature. As he puts it: “A faith with something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story ‘This Blessed House’: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants.”

But Elie’s article, having set the stage with these depressing overtures, then spends the substance of the essay reviewing recent American literature and its portrayals of Christian life in everything from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and the works of Cormac McCarthy to the novels of Jonathan Franzen and Dom Delillo’s White Noise. A few of these directly depict the struggle of the Christian to live in the world, but even so moving and excellent a novel as Gilead with its chief character John Ames’s painful search for meaning “conceals the fact that, as a novel of belief, it is highly representative: set in the past, concerned with a clergyman, presenting belief as a family matter, animated by a social crisis.”

Readers will not agree with everything Elie writes, but his is a call for more young artists to answer the challenge of Flannery O’Connor from years ago for “fiction that dramatized ‘the central religious experience’” which she characterized as a person’s encounter with “a supreme being recognized through faith.”’ This, he believes, is rare yet necessary, as hard as it is to do in a world where serious, thoughtful belief is so often misunderstood and even more often eschewed. It requires a language that is hard work to build, a language that will make real experiences that are completely alien to the scientism of our age. And perhaps that language requires a discussion among all of those who care about the shallow and insipid nature of our society.

Just such a discussion could be fostered by this article, and I hope some of the readers of this note will use it for that purpose. Even Elie’s survey of what few religious story tellers there are today in fiction circles makes the effort of reading it worthwhile.


This article can be found here.

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