What makes for vibrant Catholic literature? Is there something missing in Catholic literature today?
A lively discussion on the subject has been unfolding over the past two years. Paul Elie started the discussion with a 2012 piece arguing that we are seeing a decline in serious engagement with faith. In “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” he writes: “This refusal [in contemporary fiction] 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.” Dana Gioia agrees that there is a problem, arguing in “The Catholic Writer Today” that “although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting.”
Gregory Wolfe dissents, arguing in “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World” that there is in fact a vibrant literature of faith, but that “Today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted.” He continues the conversation in an Ethika Politica interview, where he suggests that we are failing to recognize the good Catholic writing that’s out there: “People have lost touch with the teachings and traditions of their faith. Many people are really starting from scratch. What kind of fiction would someone write out of this experience of reality? Novels about heroic martyrs to Communist totalitarianism? No, they would be writing out of this confused culture—one where God is discerned only in the still small voice: the whisper, not the shout.”
What are we to make of this disagreement?
In my first post in this series, I argued that we need a Catholic literature that is eucatastrophic—and that, I would suggest, is the key to the riddle.
Gregory Wolfe is, I think, correct in noting that the voice of the Catholic writer today is not absent, but is speaking in a whisper. However, I would suggest that the “whisper” cannot stand as the only, or even the primary, expression of faith if we are to have a vibrant Catholic literature. Over against the Christian writers who grapple with doubt and uncertainty, we also (alas) have a considerable body of popular writing that presents the faith in a sentimentalized, way, afraid to tackle difficult questions or present a nuanced picture of reality: the equivalent in fiction and film of Thomas Kincade paintings, and about as artistically compelling.
The result is that the imaginative presentation of the faith tends to appear in two extremes: a doubting, hesitant faith that emphasizes the brokenness of the world, or a sentimental, simplistic faith that denies the extent of the brokenness of the world.
If I have to pick between the two, I’ll choose the first: Brideshead Revisited wins out every time. But why should this be my only authentic option?
J.R.R. Tolkien’s great novel The Lord of the Rings—which is, I would argue, the greatest novel of the 20th century—shows us a different way. In my memoir, Not God’s Type, I write:
Imaginatively, Tolkien’s Middle Earth always felt right; it had the ordinary pleasures and disappointments of life as well as the high excitements and fears. It had a place for both hope and disappointment, achievement and failure. Like the world I lived in, Middle Earth had greater depths than I could take in at any given moment. It was a world in which there is darkness, but also real light, a light that shines in the darkness and is not extinguished: Galadriel’s light, and the light of the star that Sam sees break through the clouds in Mordor, and the ray of sun that falls on the flower-crowned head of the king’s broken statue at the crossroads.
We must recognize the reality of darkness and suffering, and the difficulties that surround faith in our culture today. If we move too quickly to assertions of faith, then we fall into the trap of unbelievable, sentimental piety, or (paradoxically) we seem less confident that what we believe is true and can stand up to tough questions. But we should not feel that the dyscatastrophic voice is the only authentic one (as Roger Thomas notes) or that devout faith necessitates clumsy didacticism.
There ought to be a way to write from a conviction, deeply rooted, that the Catholic faith is true and that this truth informs every aspect of our lives; from a recognition that we are members of the body of Christ, that we receive and are sustained and transformed by God’s grace, and that we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Our Lord’s death and Resurrection are not just possible stories, but are fact; we do not merely receive some easing of our conscience in the sacrament of confession, but the real forgiveness of actual sins; we do not merely encounter an idea or a hope or a possibility of Christ in the Eucharist, but Christ himself. All this is scandalous to a postmodern, hesitant age—embarrassing at times even to other Christians. So be it.
If we are to have a eucatastrophic literature, then, one of the questions that writers can ask is: what kind of story could I tell, what kind of poem could I dare to write, that is grounded in these things being really true?