Response to the NYT: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

Recently in the New York Times, writer and editor Paul Elie bemoaned the lack of depictions of Christian faith in modern fiction. He trotted out numerous examples of past masters (Flannery O’Connor, Anthony Burgess, etc.) and then mentions how current literary novelists simply don’t, apparently, have faith in Christianity. They don’t depict it because they don’t believe it.

In part, he said:

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?

Well, to be blunt, it’s gone to those genres you look down upon. You know, the books people actually read: fantasy, science fiction, horror and romance.

Elie adds, The most emphatically Christian character in contemporary American fiction is the Rev. John Ames, who in Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead” [published in 2004, and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize–AB] writes, in old age, to his young son as he prepares for death in 1957.

Illustration from Paul Elie’s NYT essay.

Really? I mean, I can instantly think of two other examples of Christian faith depicted, rather emphatically, in recent fantasy novels that meet all Elie’s vague criteria. One is by me: in The Hum and the Shiver, from 2011, I have Craig Chess, a young Methodist minister new to his post and faced with the task of reaching out to a group of people who don’t believe in the same things he does (they have beliefs, but that’s another topic). Craig’s Christianity is genuine and heartfelt; further, he uses it as the touchstone for all his actions. He is content to let his Christianity show by example, not by proselytizing or haranguing. And this gets results: the novel’s protagonist, a young woman known for her past sexual exploits, is willing to honor his beliefs in their courtship. He neither demands nor expects her to change, and because of that, she both loves and respects him (and importantly, doesn’t change just to please him).

The other example is Miserere: An Autumn Tale, by Teresa Frohock. In this novel, she creates a cosmology that incorporates all the world’s religions, and more, shows them working together. The only place they don’t get along, in fact, is on Earth. In this universe, prayer functions as a real power that gets real results, and the strength of a prayer is measurable and crucial. Hell is a real place, and so is Heaven; and free will, the ultimate gift from God, has consequences. But there’s also redemption, God’s other ultimate gift, available to those who want it bad enough to truly change themselves and embrace the standards they have sworn to uphold.

I asked Teresa her thoughts on her approach to religion. She said, in part:

“I had to abandon the group-think mentality in order to write Miserere. I also want to be very clear: when I see or use the phrase “Christian belief,” I think of the teachings of the Christ and I automatically eliminate from my mind the trappings of doctrine and dogma, which were essentially organized and formulated long after the Christ’s death. Christian belief—as in love being the one rule of the law, protect the weak and those who stand outside the mainstream—those were the essential teachings of the Christ, and those beliefs heavily influenced Miserere.”

So, Mr. Elie, perhaps you should not bemoan quite so loudly. “Emphatically Christian” characters are all around you, just not in your myopic view of literature. Or, to paraphrase: there are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Elie,* than are dreamed of in your limited literary philosophy.

*I was unable to find any website or contact information for Mr. Elie. I would love to include his response, if any.

7 Comments on “Response to the NYT: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”

  1. Pingback: Questions | Tiny Cat Pants

  2. Great post, Alex! I can think of a few more Mr. Elie might try, from the urban fantasy genre. Jim Butcher’s Dresden series often confronts Dresden’s struggle with his own faith as he works alongside a Knight of the Cross and a priest. In Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, Mercy’s Christian faith plays a huge role in protecting her from the local vampire shenanigans. Ditto Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series which, in its early books at least, shows Anita struggling mightily to balance her Christianity with her job as a killer. Tip of the iceberg. And, yes, in my own UF series, Christianity plays a role–it’s hard to have the ultimate evil without also having the ultimate good.

  3. Excellent response! Perhaps this is a case of literary genre snobbery? Fantasy, sci-fi, and romance get such short shrift, but like you said, these are the books people actually read. There are as many excellent authors in these genres as in any other (and as many bad ones, to be fair). Anyway, religion is a difficult subject to tackle, so it’s good to see books where it’s done well and the picture isn’t quite so bleak as Mr. Elie paints.

  4. Miserere is the first book that leaped to mind when reading that article, yeah. And there are others (besides hers and yours) but these stand out immediately. There are more, if Mr. Elie just looked over on the genre side of the fence…

  5. Firstly, I’m surprised to hear that the editor of the NYT would bemoan lack of Christian faith in modern fiction. If he’s going to bemoan, why not bemoan lack of Religious faith or spiritual faith? Even though Christian faith is closest to my own if I had to chose any religious faith, I’m still surprised given NYC is comprised of possibly every religion in existence. I was once given an assignment to read John Huston’s book, Religions of Man. It was then I realized what Teresa Frohock knows; that all world’s religions, or worlds’ religions can work together because they share a very similar core. I believe in faith but my main objection to organized religions is the devisiveness they unnecessarily promote. I boggles my mind that Paul Elie contributes to that devisiveness.Further, one thing one of many things I like about your book, The Hum and the Shiver was that your methodist minister was able to honor his faith while transcending the devisions created by it’s dogma.

    In my view, like you also mention, he lives Christ’s teaching rather than the subsequent dogma created after Christ’s death, especially noticeable to me in the 20th and 21st Centuries (not to mention the Crusades.. Spanish Inquisition…) has indeed become ‘group think” which can also be found flowing fiercely through all denominations, spiritual orgs, schools and cults of all kinds as well. I unwittingly belonged to a cult in the 80’s (less malevolent than most, but still requiring group think and behavior). I realized I did not have a mind of my own.

    Many who reject religion out of needing a free mind, might ultimately return to the religion of their childhood, not because they ‘should’ but because of gaining enough free will to separate the wheat from the chaff and finding enough truth and value to want to participate in church fellowship and traditions without a need to convert others to their way of thinking.

  6. I saw this article this afternoon and thought it relevant to this discussion–just a little more food for thought. Philip Pullman on writing imaginary beings: “If you use the square root of minus one, which doesn’t really exist — I mean, you can’t see the square root of minus one. But you can use it in a lot of different contexts to give meaning and expression to all sorts of ideas that do have very rich consequences, such as chaos theory, for example. So the comparison I was making was between the square root of minus one and angels and demons that don’t exist, because if you use those in a story, again, you can do certain things with those that you couldn’t do without them. John Milton, when he wrote Paradise Lost, could not have done it without the use of angels and devils…. So if some censor were to come to him and say, ‘You can’t use these beings in a story, they don’t really exist, you must only write stories about human beings that do exist,’ well, we’d be without a great work of literature.”

  7. And don’t forget…the Dark Faith anthologies, which actually look at the whole idea of faith through the lens of dark fantasy and horror.

    On a separate note, I saw Miserere and I was like, wait? Don’t I have that? And I look on my bookshelf and there it was, courtesy of Chicon. Bumping this up on my to-read list!

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