Sunday, December 23, 2012

Catholic Writing Front and Center

Catholics would do well to say a short prayer for Paul Elie this morning. It is not every Sunday morning that an openly Catholic intellectual writes the lead article in the New York Times Book Review. 

I am aware in writing that last sentence that (a) saying openly Catholic today may be somewhat like saying openly gay thirty years ago and that (b) there are those who consider Catholic intellectual an oxymoron.

Previously, I knew nothing about Elie except that he wrote The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a wonderful examination of four American Catholic writers: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. Also that upon reading the book, I wrote a post titled “Devour This Book” and then did something a bit odd: I made The Life You Save the patron book of this blog.

I had forgotten that. But Elie’s article . . .

The title is self explanatory: “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” Its thesis is clear from the opening paragraphs:

“Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time,” Elie writes, “as something between a dead language and a hangover. Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.”

In the middle of the 20th century, one could look around the literary landscape and see Christian authors like O’Connor, Percy, Reynolds Price, even John Updike. Now, “their would-be successors are thin on the ground. So are works of fiction about the quandaries of Christian belief.” There are 170 million self-identifying Christians in the USA, Elie notes. “It’s a strange development.”

If belief appears in contemporary novels, it mostly acts “obscurely and inconclusively.”

Today the United States is a vast Home Depot of “do-it-yourself religion.” But you wouldn’t know it from the stories we tell. The religious encounter of the kind O’Connor described forces a person to ask how belief figures into his or her own life and how to decide just what is true in it, what is worth acting on. Tens of millions of Americans have asked those questions. Some of us find ourselves asking them every day. But even in fiction, which prizes the individual point of view, and in our society, which stresses the individual to excess, belief is considered as a social matter rather than an individual one. When we talk about belief we talk about what is permissible — about the sex abuse scandal or school prayer or whether the church should open its basement to 12‑step everything. What about the whole story? Is it our story? Is belief believable? There the story ends — right where it ought to begin. 

There’s much more in Elie’s article, so read it.

You will have a second small reason to pray for Elie when he explains why he has written his article:

He himself is writing a novel “with matters of belief at its core. Now I have skin in the game. Now I am trying to answer the question: Where has the novel of belief gone?”

I will follow Paul Elie and his new novel and the quest of other genuinely religious novelists like Michael O’Brian to matter again in the mainstream of American literature.

1 comment:

  1. Paul Elie is a writer I've long enjoyed. I look forward to his venture into fiction.


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