The Vocabulary of Grace: Why Literature Needs God Now More Than Ever

The lady who runs my local second-hand bookstore is always up for a chat. A few weeks ago I popped into the shop with my friend Nat when I saw that Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, was available for $2. Nat has read more of Robinson’s work than I have, so when the lady in the shop got excited at my purchase, saying it was one of her all-time favourite novels, he was able to keep up our side of the conversation more effectively than I could have by myself. They talked about Housekeeping, which they had both read, and soon enough the conversation turned to Gilead, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a few years ago, which the lady said she had not really been able to get into as it was “too religious”. Nat laughed and said that religion was probably our area of specialty, and the conversation moved on from there, as it invariably does when the “R” word surfaces. I bought my book, assured by the lady that I would enjoy it, and we left the store.

Thinking back over the conversation now, I wonder: did she mean that she could not relate to the novel because it was too religious, or that she actually did not consider religion to be a meaningful subject for the novel? Either answer seems possible. Certainly, something that I found while teaching English Literature in a government school at the start of my career was that few of my students had the background knowledge of Christianity required to make sense, say, of W.H. Auden or John Donne’s poetry. What would once have been assumed knowledge now seemed arcane, obscure. Add to that the fact that religion – Christianity in particular – is largely seen now as irrelevant, if not counterproductive or, to take Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins’ approach, downright malignant and corrosive, and we can begin to see what the problem might be. If indeed religion “poisons everything”, then it stands to reason that few would see it as a meaningful subject for literature, unless it is for the purposes of critique, in the way that writers like Philip Pullman like to do. In this, however, lies a fascinating assumption: that religion is a clearly negative force and that it deserves only to be heard in order to be rejected. Few, I suspect, hold such a vehemently anti-Christian worldview, and so we probably need to look elsewhere to see why, in today’s society, our literature is almost completely devoid of theological content.

I am, of course, making my own assumption in even asking this question: namely, I am assuming, that religion is a part of life which should be reflected at least sometimes in the literature that we produce and read; and why not? While the Western world may be of the view that religion, Christianity in particular, is on the decline, the story being told in China and Africa, for instance, is altogether different; there, Christianity is a strong and vital force, constantly on the rise. So again I would ask: why, when almost everything else seems a permissible subject for art today, is Christianity rarely expressed or discussed? In his recent article in the New York Times (“Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”, 19 December 2012), novelist Paul Elie asks this very question, noting that in today’s society “Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time” merely “as something between a dead language and a hangover”. Elie writes:

It’s a strange development. Strange because the current upheavals in American Christianity — involving sex, politics, money and diversity — cry out for ­dramatic treatment. Strange because upheavals in Christianity across the Atlantic gave rise to great fiction from “The Brothers Karamazov” to “Brideshead Revisited.” Strange because novelists are depicting the changing lives of American Jews and Muslims with great success.

His point is a pertinent one. However, I would like to take it one step further. I do not just want to see literature that deals with the crises of faith in the twenty-first century, though there are enough of these to make for some very compelling literature. I want to see literature which reflects something that is in fact a reality for many people, that reflects the way that Christian faith remains a vibrant force within life, both in and outside of the West, and that the gradual fall of Christendom of recent centuries has by no means brought with it the fall of Christian faith itself, that many are in fact still managing to believe, and believe strongly, and in transformative ways, regardless of what the media will tell you to be the case.

Allow me to make a mildly polemical statement to illustrate my point. Imagine that in our society authors only depicted same-sex relationships in order to demonstrate the crises that they entail. I hardly need to explain why many in our society would find this reprehensible, and understandably so. Yet we have a situation today in which Christian faith seems only to be valid material for literature or drama if it is to be deconstructed, criticised or challenged. If we want literature to be inclusive, to reflect the whole of life, then it seems important that Christian faith have a place in the world that literature depicts. To deny it its place goes against some of our most dearly-prized twenty-first century values of tolerance and acceptance.

There are certainly some positive steps towards what I am arguing for. Douglas Coupland, most famous as chronicler of the disenchanted generation he termed “Generation X”, has also been very successful at depicting how people in a post-Christian society can encounter God. His novels Life After God and Hey Nostradamus! were especially effective, although approaching the question from very different angles. Life After God depicted “the first generation born without religion” and charted a number of fragmented story-lines until it arrived at one character’s climactic realisation that he “need[s] God”. Hey Nostradamus!, on the other hand, used a Columbine-type school massacre and a Christian girl who dies in it as the starting point for an exploration of grief, disillusionment and the regenerating power of grace. Neither novel is didactic or preachy; neither falls into the traps that make much Christian literature uninteresting and implausible. There are faults with Coupland’s style, and I suspect that he and I would not agree on all points of theology. However, his writing serves often as a good example of how literature can engage with Christianity without becoming moralising, sentimental or simply unliterary. Paul Elie also cites Marilynne Robinson as an exemplar of how to explore Christian faith in a manner that is subtle and plausible, “making belief”, to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s idea, “believable”. They are good examples, but they are still quite rare for what they represent: literature that is unafraid to deal with the stuff of Christian faith.

We are probably not helped by the realities of the Christian literary market. If you walk into an average Christian bookshop, you are unlikely to find much great literature that was not written by C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton, and in the first half of last century at that. Moreover, what high quality Christian literature does exist has almost always been written by those from a more liturgical tradition, suggesting quite an imbalance in the types of Christians who write, and write well: there are few Evangelical, Reformed or Charismatic novelists, dramatists or poets, despite the fact that they make up a large percentage of practising Christians in the West today. To take a brief survey of Christian literature down the ages: there are some Russian Orthodox novelists (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, to name a few), a number of Catholics (Victor Hugo, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Tolkien and countless others) and some High Anglicans (John Donne, George Herbert, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden). Of those who came from a more Reformed background, George MacDonald rebelled against his Calvinist upbringing, John Bunyan was a great theologian but not a great writer, Isaac Watts and John Newton wrote primarily hymns, and John Updike skirted the fringes of orthodoxy to a fairly perturbing extent at times. Only William Cowper stands out as a writer who was able to hold to an Evangelical faith while still being a great writer, and in our century Marilynne Robinson also remains something of a lone voice, while her theology also seems at times a touch obscure. There are, I am sure, others, but they are rare, which raises the question: is there a creative freedom which some Christian traditions allow that others do not? Historically, Catholics have done a better job of engaging with the world around them than other denominations, and unsurprisingly most of the great Christian literature of the past century was written by Roman Catholics or, in the case of Eliot and Auden, Anglo-Catholics. Christians of all denominational colours have continued to write, but few have managed to sustain creativity of style without compromising the substance of their faith.

Perhaps it is altogether a too difficult thing to do: to be uncompromising as a Christian while still being compelling as a writer, in a way that twenty-first-century society will find compelling. However, I am reluctant to be so easily defeated. I think the problem is twofold. On one hand we have an unwillingness from the general reading public to read “religious” books, an unwillingness that does not extend to other marginal topics. In a world where vampires (Twilight) and erotica (Fifty Shades of Grey) can dominate our bestseller lists, it does not seem that we are only willing to read about what we can relate to or have personally experienced. Besides, our constant interest in real-life stories shows that we are also not simply after escapism. Despite this, Christianity seems not to be a topic that our society is interested in. Writers who want to engage with religious faith in their work certainly have this obstacle to overcome.

The other side to the problem is that not many Christian writers are willing to hold firmly to their faith while being honest about its complexities and challenges. People are interested to read about the issues of Christian faith written by those who no longer believe or have rejected most of the stuff of orthodox belief, as these writers deal with faith in a way that seems astute and open-minded. Not many orthodox believers, however, are willing to write honestly about faith in a way that can connect with the world around them. To “make belief believable”, this is precisely what Christian writers need to do, not only so that the world can connect with what we have to say, but also so that we can depict Christianity in a way that is honest. The saccharine picture of Christianity that pervades a lot of Christian fiction and drama is neither interesting nor accurate. Christian faith is not solely the domain of American suburbia; in fact, where it most resembles the Christianity of the Bible is the way that it can occupy the hearts of Biker gangs and ex-prostitutes, the depressed and the disappointed, the world-weary and heartbroken. That is where the truth of grace and Jesus’ resurrection are most powerfully seen, and this is what Christianity at its most vital is truly about.

This is why Douglas Coupland has been successful in dealing with Christian faith: because he does not depict it the way many Christians would. There is still a long way to go, however. There are many social stereotypes we need to overcome. We also need to be honest with ourselves about what our faith looks, sounds and feels like. Furthermore, we need to be able to find a language to talk about faith that can catch the world by surprise, depicting Christianity as it really is but as few people in our world recognise it to be.

We could start, I suspect, by looking at the great Christian literature that we already have. We could start by looking at the Psalms or at Lamentations or Ecclesiastes or Job, books which deal honestly, grittily and uncompromisingly with both the stuff of faith and the struggle of believing in the teeth of reality; and they do so with a beauty, poetry and transcendence that puts much of our modern Christian literature – in fact, much modern literature of any kind – to shame. Perhaps, if we went back to our roots, we would find a vocabulary to talk about Christ, about sin and grace and resurrection, in a way that our world would listen to, for the simple fact that it was real, compelling and transformative. Perhaps then we would find a place for Christian literature in a world that thinks it does not want to read about faith. Perhaps then people would read about belief and find it, much to their surprise, altogether believable.

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