Faith in Faithless Fiction?

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Regular readers of the Center for Gospel Culture know that we are fiction fans. Furthermore, we don’t shy away from grappling with contemporary fiction. Though signs of life and redemptive narrative arcs can be hard to come by on the “New Releases” shelf, there is perhaps no better running record of our culture’s existential vacuum than the novels and short stories being written as we speak. Want to tune your ear to the tensions, questions and longings that your neighbors are experiencing? Read contemporary fiction. Want to grab hold of language that can meaningfully communicate the paradoxes of the gospel to skeptics at gut level? Contemporary fiction is the lexicon.

There is no lack of appreciation for fiction among thoughtful, believing readers, but there is a catch. Randy Boyagoda gets at it in his recent Firsts Things article, “Faith in Fiction“:

I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. . . .These writers brilliantly and movingly attest to literature’s place in modern life, as godless modernity’s last best crucible for sustaining an appreciation of human life’s value and purpose that corresponds to our inherent longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But what else do they have in common? They’re all dead.That’s a painful paragraph if, like me, some of your favorite authors find themselves in Boyagoda’s crosshairs. Though I don’t think he’s suggesting that we abandon these great writers of faith (deceased as they may be), the rest of Boyagoda’s article essentially drives home a dual point: we need religious readers of contemporary fiction as well as religious writers of contemporary fiction.

That’s a painful paragraph if, like me, some of your favorite authors find themselves in Boyagoda’s crosshairs. Though I don’t think he’s suggesting that we abandon these great writers of faith (deceased as they may be), the rest of Boyagoda’s article essentially drives home a dual point: we need religious readers of contemporary fiction as well as religious writers of contemporary fiction.

After interacting with Paul Elie’s “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” and David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Boyagoda concludes:

Insofar as it can reveal the fullness and wholeness of human experience, insofar as it can reveal ourselves in our inner lives and experiences of time and event as being created by and for love, literature doesn’t lie. It testifies to the ultimate truth of ­human existence: We are not, in the end, alone. The challenge for religiously minded—literary readers it to put down Flannery and her friends for a while and take a leap of faith into contemporary fiction.

Though we must read the old-standbys so as to avoid “chronological snobbery” and a myopic focus, we must also read the new-standbys–those writers that say things with which we do not resonate, those writers with whom we do not agree. Yes. It will be a different, difficult reading experience–probably far less comforting and enjoyable than slogging through faith-ridden Percy novel. But, if all goes well, this new kind of reading will make us better listeners, which in the end might just make us better writers, which in the end will, I hope, lead to contemporary fiction that is not nearly as emptied of faith as it presently seems to be.


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