A collective of Dumpster-diving dropouts follows an “Anarchristian” creed on the edge of a student ghetto, and in the novel about them the faith is as sloppy as the sex.
In The New Yorker, a novelist describes his best seller as a work about free will written from a Catholic perspective — but the novelist is Anthony Burgess, dead almost 20 years, and his essay (about “A Clockwork Orange”) is a lecture exhumed from 1973.
This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: 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. Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what O’Connor called “Christian convictions,” their would-be successors are thin on the ground.
So are works of fiction about the quandaries of Christian belief. Writers who do draw on sacred texts and themes see the references go unrecognized. 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.
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.
I am the author of a book about four 20th-century American Catholic writers, and I am often asked who their successors are. Usually I demur. I observe that we look in the wrong places. I point out that Graham Greene and J. R. R. Tolkien were considered baffling in their time. I cite Matthew Arnold to the effect that ours is a critical age, not a creative one. I reflect that literature is created by individuals, not compelled by social forces.
Now I am 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?
The obvious answer is that it has gone where belief itself has gone. In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether. This development places the believer on a frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure; it means that the Christian who was born here is a stranger in a strange land no less than the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Soviet Jews and Spanish-speaking Catholics who have arrived from elsewhere. But few people see it that way. People of faith see decline and fall. Their detractors see a people threatening rear-guard political action, or a people left behind.
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.
O’Connor called for fiction that dramatized “the central religious experience,” which she characterized as a person’s encounter with “a supreme being recognized through faith.” She wrote that kind of fiction herself, shaped by her understanding that in the modern age such an encounter often takes place outside of organized religion — that in matters of belief we find ourselves on our own, practicing “do-it-yourself religion.”
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.
The most emphatically Christian character in contemporary American fiction is the Rev. John Ames, who in Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead” writes, in old age, to his young son as he prepares for death in 1957. More epistle than epic, the novel is historical fiction in mufti, with a strand of the story going back to the Civil War. And yet it arrived in 2004 as a tract for the times. It presented liberal Protestantism as America’s classical heritage; it set Ames’s wise, tender reverence against the bellicose cymbal-clanging of George W. Bush’s White House.
With “Gilead” Robinson took O’Connor’s insight about “do-it-yourself religion” back to church, creating a minister whose belief is believable because it is so plainly the fruit of a personal search. But the novel’s originality 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.
Those are the ways that belief figures in contemporary American fiction. Even today, there are as many novels of religious childhood as there are parochial schools and Bible camps. There are the complex domestic novels of Alice McDermott and Louise Erdrich, in which belief is a language of the tribe. There is the perduring local religion in the post-Faulkner worlds of William Kennedy and Toni Morrison: like the convent in Morrison’s “Paradise,” which is transformed from mansion to Catholic nunnery to redoubt for wayward women, belief is a fixture on the landscape even as its significance changes. “Religion was merely there,” the narrator of Jim Harrison’s novel “The Great Leader” says, “like cod liver oil, taxes, the beginning of school.”
In some fiction belief is part of the matrix, a rumor writ large. So it is in the work of Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy’s early novel “Suttree” (1979) has an effortlessly biblical flavor, but by “No Country for Old Men” (2005), religion is reduced to a reminder of last things. At one point, the “redneck” Sheriff Bell surmises that Satan created the narcotics trade to “bring the human race to its knees.” “I told that to somebody at breakfast the other mornin and they asked me if I believed in Satan. I said Well that aint the point. And they said I know but do you?”
DeLillo’s novels of plots and terror are shot through with a mystical sense that “everything is connected in the end.” DeLillo devised the grandest religious scene in recent American fiction: the Unification Church mass wedding at Yankee Stadium that opens “Mao II.” He framed the frankest justification for religion, from a nun in “White Noise”: “Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes.” He wrapped up “Underworld” with two nuns seeing a vision of a murdered girl on a billboard in the Bronx. But religious belief, in DeLillo, is finally unreal. The true believer in his work is Lee Harvey Oswald in “Libra”: a man in a small room, nurturing a scheme.
DeLillo and McCarthy are seen as prophets, but Christianity in their work is a country for old men, and in the work of their successors it is further diminished. Jonathan Franzen in “Strong Motion” depicted an anti-abortion preacher more convincing than the real ones (his ride is “a Town Car with a prolife 7 vanity plate”) and then stepped aside; Colum McCann depicted a hard-drinking radical friar with brotherly affection in “Let the Great World Spin,” but positioned him as just one colorful figure in the novel’s Krylon mural of 1970s New York. In “The Marriage Plot,” Jeffrey Eugenides (whose virgin suicides were Catholic girls) used his hero’s sojourn in India with Mother Teresa’s nuns as mock-heroic counterpoint to the serious business of a depressed genius akin to David Foster Wallace.
The novelist Thomas Kelly once told me that he thinks of Alice McDermott’s characters as cousins of his own. Obviously, plenty of people feel the pleasure of recognition when they read these writers’ novels. I know I do. I have been to church with these characters, have stood at font and graveside with them. But when I close the books their beliefs remain a mystery. Not in the theological sense — a line going off the grid of cause and effect, a portal to the puzzle of existence. I just don’t know what they believe or how they came to believe it.
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.”
“Cathedral” was published 30 years ago, and Carver’s successors make him seem a Solzhenitsyn of explication. Take David Means. In his story collection “The Spot” (2010), Means handles religion like the sludge in the Kalamazoo River, powerful enough to be toxic in anything more than trace amounts. The seminarian who becomes involved with the insurance adjuster in “Reading Chekhov” doesn’t have a belief in his head; the ex-preacher in the title story who once undertook to baptize a young woman in the Kalamazoo waxes eloquent about how he went about it, but the naked waif he baptized is as blank and passive as a porn character. “Go on, do it to me, make me clean or whatever,” she says, and he proceeds to drown her uneventfully.
This refusal to grant belief any explanatory power shows purity and toughness on the writer’s part, but it also calls to mind what my Catholic ancestors called scrupulosity, an avoidance that comes at the cost of fullness of life. That — or it may show that the writer realizes just how hard it is to make belief believable. So it is in “The Gospel of Anarchy,” a 2011 novel by Justin Taylor. The book is set at a commune in Gainesville where some young Christian anarchists pursue religion and sex without borders, inspired by one Parker, a lost boy and prophet. Parker’s gospel suggests a slacker’s Kierkegaard, and his friends’ professions of faith are clunky, too: “Was it possible then that it was our yearning itself that delayed him? Was the force of our longing acting as a barrier instead of a draw?” The novel uses multiple points of view, but the one that matters most — that of its narrator and part-time protagonist, David — is the least credible. Where his conversion away from online sex is a perfect piece of realism, it is hard to imagine that he (or anybody) would go in for this Anarchristian stuff.
Randall Jarrell ruefully remarked that when it comes to poetry, you can get a conversation started around just about anything: the lives of the poets, the state of poetry, the craft of poetry — anything but a poem. 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.
“It’s really something,” the Carver narrator tells his blind friend, as he ponders the cathedral he’s drawn. Maybe that “something” is enough. But if you think, as I do, that we look to literature to understand ourselves and our place on earth, then belief hasn’t been understood until the serious writers have had their say.
So you keep looking for the literature of belief. You find it where you can. In journalism like Eliza Griswold’s “Tenth Parallel,” where Christians and Muslims encounter each other in acts of geopolitical soul-to-soul; in “House of Prayer No. 2,” a memoir in which Mark Richard, going over the trail of a bizarre life, sees signs from God here, there and everywhere. In “The Children’s Hospital,” Chris Adrian’s fable about an offshore world as religiose as our own; in James Wood’s essays about unbelief as belief’s shadow and echo. In “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” where Dave Eggers’s account of his father’s Catholic funeral suggests why he cares about The Believer. All the while, you hope to find the writer who can dramatize belief the way it feels in your experience, at once a fact on the ground and a sponsor of the uncanny, an account of our predicament that still and all has the old power to persuade. You look for a story or a novel where the writer puts it all together. That would be enough. That would be something. That would be unbelievable.
This essay originally appeared in the New York Times