Berkley Forum

Call it Fiction—or Call it Religion and Culture in Dialogue

Responding to Religion and Culture in Dialogue

I’d like to reflect on the Berkley Center’s first decade by considering two novels of the years just past: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004) and Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (2015). Chronologically, the two novels bracket the decade. Thematically, they speak to present concerns: the changing character of Protestant Christianity in the American heartland, and the fresh claim of Islam in the heart of Europe. It’s hard to imagine two novels superficially less alike; but their seeming unlikeness has led us to overlook a common approach that works in counterpoint to the prevailing account of religion in our place and time.

Gilead
is tender, retrospective, ardent-reverent, and distinctly American. This dying heartland pastor’s valedictory letter to his still-young son begins in the 1950s and looks back, to his boyhood, and to his father’s boyhood, and to the years just before the Civil War when the issue of slavery divided father from son. Its most striking quality is the sincerity that Rev. Ames and the novelist share, as they share a confidence that the Christian point of view is credible, interesting, complex, and familiar enough that the reader—Ames’ son, reading the letter; the person of our time, reading the novel—will feel a spark of recognition.

Submission
sounds like a bad joke of the priest-and-an-imam-in-a-boat variety. When the Muslim party comes to power and restructures the Sorbonne along Islamic lines, what is François to do but become a Muslim? After all, he was bored with things as they were—bored with his girlfriend, with teaching, with politics, with Paris. After all, religion makes no difference to thinking people, so why not go along with Islam to get along? Offhand, ironic, the novel has the feel of a sketch, with Islamist militias, halal markets, and headscarved women penciled in along dotted lines extending out from the present to 2022.

Gilead
and Submission seem profoundly unlike each other because they are profoundly unlike each other. And yet together they are set squarely against the assumption underlying most current discussions about religion: the assumption that religion is a social problem.

This assumption, long fermenting and multiply sourced, came to market after the World Trade Center was destroyed by Islamist terrorists in 2001. All of a sudden Western societies had a religion problem. Conservatives who had spent two decades pushing against the notion that religion is a private matter suddenly had partners on the left. Liberals who had spent a couple of decades inveighing against religiously inspired violence suddenly had partners on the right. Overnight, the questions “What do I believe?” and “What do I consider believable?” were displaced by the questions of what to do about society’s religion problem, from Islam-inflected fanaticism to the health-insurance policies of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The two novels speak to this state of affairs with an individual voice and point of view.

Shortly after Gilead was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, the American Scholar published an essay by Marilynne Robinson called “Onward, Christian Liberals.” George W. Bush had been re-elected president, after campaigning on what Robinson called a “neo-fundamentalist” story of Christian America under threat. Per contra, Robinson reminded her readers that much of American liberalism was brought into being by liberal Protestants: colleges and universities, abolition and women’s suffrage, the idea of economic inequality as a “social sin.” Taking up a thread of religious experience from the nineteenth century, she told a story in which people phobic of Christianity could recognize themselves. That is what she had done in Gilead: in the reader’s encounter with Rev. Ames’ religious belief, believable for the narrator, becomes believable for the reader, if only for a little while.

As Submission begins, François has lost interest in the Symbolist novelist Huysmans because Huysmans’ later work involves his conversion to Catholicism. And yet François still believes in literature: “...only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit ... a spirit from beyond the grave...” When the Sorbonne is reconstituted as an Islamic university, he is out of a job, and the louche professor becomes a seeker. He feels he is “completely lacking in spiritual fiber.” A social scientist tells him that the capacity for transcendence is genetic: you’ve either got it or you don’t. And yet his voyage out from riot-ravaged Paris turns into a pilgrimage. At Rocamadour, he recognizes the power of the Black Madonna as distinctly religious, not just cultural. At an abbey where he once did research, he is shocked when a monk remembers him. When a colleague observes that “Only religion ... could create a total relationship among individuals,” the idea strikes him as credible: the transcendence he has sought in literature is there in religion, too.

If all this had been embedded within the story of a Sorbonne professor’s conversion to Catholicism, Houellebecq would have been celebrated as a French Walker Percy. Because the conversion is to Islam, everybody figures that he is pulling our chain. He is—but not only. Sure, François’ conversion to Islam is improbable—but no more so than Rev. Ames’ late marriage to a young former prostitute. Sure, François converts because doing so gets him his job back at triple the salary and with a harem to keep him satisfied sexually—but Muslims all over the world submit to Allah in part for the worldly incentives. Sure, his conversion is tenuous and halfhearted, but as such it is more convincing than an about-face would have been. Sure, neither character nor author are wholly sincere—but it seems a crude prejudice on the reader’s part to assume that a famous French writer’s novel depicting Islam as attractive to a native Frenchman, a successor to Romanesque Catholicism, must not be taken seriously.

Prior to publication (and prior to the murders at Charlie Hebdo), Houellebecq characterized François’ search, and his own, as more sincere than not—and his approach is more akin than not to Marilynne Robinson’s approach. Taking up a thread of religious experience from the nineteenth century, he tells a story in which people phobic of Islam can recognize themselves. In François’ monologue he makes Islam believable; and in the reader’s encounter with the novel religious belief, credible for the narrator, becomes credible for the reader, if only for a little while.

Religion is a social phenomenon in many respects, and in many respects it is a social problem. And yet these monologues complicate the assumption that the encounter of religion and culture takes place mainly in the social sphere, where religion is primarily a problem to be solved. Gilead refutes the idea that liberal Protestantism is “exhausted” because it has lost numbers and influence: in this book, one believer—Rev. Ames—is more persuasive than any poll data. Submission is a big non to the view that Islam claims vast numbers of immigrants in Europe because it serves them as a social anchor in a strange land. Cynical François comes to see Islam in religious terms: as a portal to transcendence, one that enables the individual—native or immigrant—to enter into real relationships with other people.

Religious beliefs in our time are put to the test in the testing ground of the individual. These two novels dramatize the point. They remind us that our religion problem won’t be solved in this decade, or the next—and that our religion questions won’t be settled or banished as long as there are people, in life and art, who grapple with them personally.
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