The Curious Difficulty of Numinous Fiction

Why do so many Protestant writers on the numinous (or even the religious) come across disingenuous, cloying, or false? If, as Joseph Bottum and others have suggested, the novel is essentially a Protestant art form, why is it that those who take the Bible most literally and believe Reformed doctrine most fully write fiction most dreadfully?

Of course, there are manifold exceptions (Defoe, Austen, Brontë, etc.). Perhaps the better question is to ask why the world of doctrine and spiritual life, of a real and active God, so brilliantly articulated in Protestant sermons so often fails to animate our works of fiction? Bottum argues that the form itself, so encoded with the Protestant understanding of the individual’s relationship to God and the world (in which the inner, spiritual life is paramount), collapses under its own weight when too self-consciously attempting to portray spiritual realities. He writes, “To write a Protestant novel is, instead, to do something a little unnecessary, a little verging on the redundant. And when a deliberately Protestant novel fails, it often fails because it seems didactic and preachy, engaged in what the art form itself promises that readers can take for granted.”

In the twentieth century, particularly the post-war era, the literary voices in Britain and America most able to capture the realm of faith  were overwhelmingly Catholic—Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, William M. Miller (A Canticle for Liebowitz). The best “Protestant” writers of the period were mostly secular in life and work—Robert Penn Warren, Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, etc. Serious Protestant writing flowered in extremes of abstraction or concretion: poetry (Eliot and Auden) and theology (Lewis, Stott, etc.).

City scenes--St. Paul's Chapel

Looking heavenward in a material world.

Among these Catholic writers, themes of faith are handled in very different ways. Greene’s The Power and the Glory is a very Catholic story about a very bad Catholic, but God comes across convincingly (though subtly) as the main actor. Miller imagines how the Church can continue and rebuild society after a nuclear holocaust. O’Connor’s short stories are memorable for the violent intrusion of grace into the lives of smugly self-satisfied characters (through the theft of an artificial leg in “Good Country People” or a high-velocity book to the forehead in “Revelation”). Waugh and Percy’s characters (Charles Ryder, Binx Bolling, Will Barrett) explore dead-ends of selfish personal fulfillment, reaching beautiful resolution by the merest hint at conversion.

Why in this barbaric, scientistic, hypersexualized modern world (to which Scripture has so much to say) have Catholics rather than Protestants (particularly Bible-drenched evangelicals) handled the interaction between God and Creation so much more believably? This is a line of questioning that I’ve wrestled with for a long time (as a member of that most insufferable class–aspiring writers) and one that seems of peculiar importance in a day that promises less and less attention to traditional modes of Christian discourse.

Dana Gioia described Catholic writers as having “religious insights usually emerge naturally out of depictions of worldly existence rather than appear to have been imposed intellectually upon the work. Catholic literature is rarely pious…. Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints.” In response to Gioia, D. G. Hart said that (perhaps as a consequence of two kingdoms theology) “Protestants intuitively know (but often refuse to admit) that novels don’t need to be Christian…. Some of the worst novels have tried to be redemptive, while some of the best don’t make the slightest reference to religion, let alone sin and grace.”

Both are on to something. I see American Protestants (possibly flowing from our relentless pursuit of sociopolitical relevance) so very afraid to be disliked that they cannot boldly depict the world as it is, the world for which Christ died. When we do try, we so easily fall under temptation to the didactic. We have heard far more sermons than we’ve read stories, and the one-two punch of exposition-application is so ingrained that it gets shoehorned into every work. But a story is not a sermon (however good a sermon); they are separate forms with separate aims.

Fiction at its best leads through meandering passages of soul and mind, exposing that which we dare not name. The Protestant love of creeds and certainty that makes our preaching powerful can impoverish imagination toward the world beyond our congregations. The heart is never as sure as the mind, and writing which fails to leave room for doubt is somehow only half human. A historic squeamishness with art (following a strict reading of the second commandment) which we are now too desperate to overcome has not helped matters.

Are there Catholic distinctives that give Rome’s adherents a knack for pulling this off better? Maybe robust sacramentalism, the routine transformation of matter to the metaphysical, makes the divine intersection of the mundane or sudden shapeshifting of a soul from reprobate to devout easier to describe. A spiritual sense of reality, in which a priest’s mumblings actually absolve sin and demons must still be exorcised, makes for a less strained approach to the supernatural, where God’s great concern is not with personal sins of commission or omission but a grand battle against the hosts of Hell. The discipline of verbal confession itself gives intimate knowledge of the rabbit trails of sin in one’s heart.

Are there prospects of fresh and powerful storytelling bubbling up? Some of the best literature of recent years is very Protestant, but of very distinct flavors. The milieu of Leif Enger’s superb Peace Like a River leaves the comfortably cessationist mainstream far behind (to the point of many reviewers reasonably placing the book in the genre of magical realism). The Congregationalism of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Trilogy is far more focused on man’s capacity to live well than it is on God’s sustaining power.

So, can a powerful novel that shows God’s power, man’s sin, and Christ’s redemption through real and relatable characters and a coherent plot ever emerge from a devout, theologically conservative source? Time will tell. Bottum notes that all good novels possess “a drive toward artistic unity, and an ambition for the book to be revelatory commentary on the human condition.” That condition has by no means been fully plumbed, so there is yet opportunity for prophetic exploration of the labyrinth of mankind for God’s great glory.

UPDATE: I’ve posted some further thoughts in response to off-blog comments here.

6 thoughts on “The Curious Difficulty of Numinous Fiction

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  2. Interesting thoughts, Justin. I wonder if the conversation could be broadened to account for Protestant art not just novels? Do Protestants tend to retreat from the arts in general because art is ambiguous and mysterious?

    Beyond that, I wonder if the author’s personal religious affiliation really matters. Shakespeare could have easily been Catholic, Protestant, or atheist, but his depiction of the human soul is peerless. In other words, I would much rather see Protestants reading Hamlet than Peace Like a River regardless of the author’s doctrine.

    • In other words, I would much rather see Protestants reading Hamlet than Peace Like a River regardless of the author’s doctrine.

      In art, shortcomings of consumption certainly lead to shortcomings of production. I’d say also that an author’s personal religious affiliation is secondary to the religious vision the work represents. For instance, I’d rather read Shakespeare on the relationship between law and grace (in, say, The Merchant of Venice) than a writer earnestly pleading for the reader’s acceptance of a like-minded viewpoint.

      I think I touched on some of your other questions here:

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