Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

Jason Micheli —  February 18, 2013 — 4 Comments

1223-Jump-Elie-01-popupJames Davidson Hunter, a sociologist at UVA, writes convincingly about the causes of Christianity’s rise in the ancient world. The faith spread, Hunter argues, not by being a religion promulgated by the poor, as the popular myth tells it. The faith spread by being, almost from the beginning (think of the wealthy women mentioned in the Gospels as ‘sponsors’ of Jesus’ movement), a religion of the elite.

Christianity was from the get-go a religion of the culture-makers. Christianity changed the world because it so quickly changed the hearts, minds and worldview of artists and intellectuals who shape and change culture.

That is why Constantine was able to convert to Christianity. It was politically expedient to do so because the cultural elite of Rome were already largely Christianized.

For Christians to change the world anew, to influence culture and not just retreat from it, they need to reengage the arts and intellectual disciplines as Christians- and I’m not talking about those terrible looking Amish romance books you see in the ‘Christian fiction’ section at Barnes and Noble.

I’ve brought this up before and I bring it up again because of Paul Ellie’s article in the NY Times Book Review: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith? 

Ellie points out that fifty years ago writers like Flannery O’ Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Reynolds Price and even John Updike wrote ground-breaking, lauded fiction that was suffused with their Christian convictions. Today, Ellie observes:

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.

To Ellie’s reckoning, only Marilyne Robinson’s Gilead (click and buy it now!) counts as an analogous, contemporary novel with equal parts Christian sensibility and aesthetic quality. It’s a beautiful book in case you haven’t read it.

Following the contours of Hunter’s argument above, you could see the loss of faith in fiction as something of a harbinger. As art goes so goes popular culture. The absence of a credible Christianity in contemporary literature could portend a popular culture in which Christianity plays an even more marginal role:

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.

Ellie’s use of the world ‘frontier’ is a wise one for Hunter’s argument can point the other way too. Christianity finding itself on the margins, almost as immigrants in a strange new land, can be seen as an opportunity to reengage the faith in new, creative ways, to rediscover the ‘core’ of our story and convictions and to reemphasize the importance of training Christians to enter their fields of study as Christians.

This opportunity then is one not limited to the world of art and literature. It’s the opportunity which God, in God’s infinite sense of humor, has laid open to the whole Church.

Jason Micheli


4 responses to Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

  1. There’s plenty of Christian fiction out there. It’s just clunky and anti-intellectual. For the past thirty years, the family values movement has reconfigured the Christian understanding of what it means to live against the world. We are in the paradoxical circumstance in which Christians with lots of money are pretending to be lower class by watching NASCAR and eschewing highfalutin “culture.” Most rich Christians today have bourgeois instead of aristocratic values. If your sensibilities are anti-elitist, then the culture you produce is going to be the Jesus version of Danielle Steel or Brittney Spears. And when Christian culture looks like K-LOVE, it accelerates the secularization of high culture by making Christianity unthinkable to a thinking person.

    • Well-said. Hunter makes that same point in his book, which remains one of my favorites of the past few years.

    • First, Morgan, I agree completely with your main point. More, I think it is a point that goes well beyond this post and that it constitutes if not the main problem, than one of the main problems, in getting the educated “unchurched” into chuch. (Disclaimer: I’m one of the unchurched, dipping my toe in at Aldersgate). Although, I would say that instead of “anti-intellectual,” which would be refreshing, the current Christian fiction is simply unintellectual. And, I desperately hope that there are other options to “if your sensibilities are anti-elitist, then the culture you produce is going to be the Jesus version of Danielle Steel or Brittney Spears.” Actually, I know there are valid anti-elitist non-Brittany options. Though perhaps not in what you would consider “acceptable” Christianity. But, let’s not quibble yet.
      Next, when pressed to list my favorite fiction book (I’m a book seller), since 2005, I have mentioned “Gilead” in my top 3. I have purchased approximately 10 copies of Gilead at library book sales for anywhere from .10 – .50 cents (yeah, a dime. Wonder how much Marilynne gets, and what is the motivation for anyone with talent to write), and have given copies to friends and family. Not one person I have given the book to has read it. Not. One. Person. Yes, this reflects the fact that I have shallow friends, but there is a larger point. This book is transcendentally beautiful. I started crying at the first sentence, and didn’t stop until the end. And it’s Christian. How many people do you know who have read it? Seriously, stop for a minute. How many people? This is serious. This is the “most emphatically Christian character in contemporary American fiction” according to Paul Elie, whoever that is, but still. It takes tremendous talent to invoke Christian themes in fiction in a post modern world without sounding “cheesy.” Hats off to the Evangelicals for their accomplishment of degrading the entire Christian culture with their vocabulary and their phrasing, and an even more resounding chorus of “you suck!” to main-line Christians (and, yeah, more your age than mine, that’s right, I said it) for adapting it so readily. Because of them, it is far easier to invoke Christian themes in a darker way, hence Cormac McCarthy, whom Christians do their damnedest to claim, but who remains coy, and is, at best, more one of me than one of you. One of the problems, it seems to me, is that Christianity (present company possibly excluded) is going the opposite way of the dominant culture. Get out of your head that the way of the dominant culture is always bad. Do you think God sits still? Do you think He accomplishes nothing just because you’re moribund? As the current “info age’ smashes boundaries, it enlarges (hopefully) our ideas of who belongs in our “tribe.” Mainstream Christianity, meanwhile retreats into a smaller and smaller group, as they persist in judging who is and who is not Christian, who is more Christian, and the leadership get caught up in pedantic snares that are completely removed from the concerns of the laity. You’re not even safe from yourselves. You divide and divide some more, until you shrink into a small dot of insignificance. And you think that is what God is? While you are shrinking your borders to exclude everyone you can, while worrying that your numbers are diminishing, there are others, who claim the title of Christian, and expand. I know I’m a heretic (thanks, Jason), but honest to God, I’m only trying to help. Your generation has to be more creative, you have to find another vocabulary, you have to be LESS JUDGEMENTAL, you have to love more. You’ve been the hardest hit by the backlash from the “moral majority,” but from what I’ve seen you have the ability to hit back. So, do it. A lot depends on you. No pressure.

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