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Faith in fiction

Faith in fiction

Randy Boyagoda expresses dismay with the recent state of faith in fiction:

I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.

These writers brilliantly and movingly attest to literature’s place in modern life, as godless modernity’s last best crucible for sustaining an appreciation of human life’s value and purpose that corresponds to our inherent longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But what else do they have in common? They’re all dead.

Boyagoda suggests that there are few good recent examples:

While religion significantly matters in minor literary contexts today (as with the eccentric popularity of Amish romance novels) and in vulgar commercial contexts (as with Dan Brown’s books), serious literary fiction largely occupies its very own naked public square, shorn of any reference to religiously informed understandings of who and what and wherefrom we are, which represents a marked break from centuries of literary production informed by Christian beliefs, traditions, and culture.

Boyagoda welcomes the well-discussed Paul Elie’s essay for the New York Times Book Review, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith”, as a start to the conversation, but goes on to critique what was left out.

What do you think of Boyagoda’s points? Have you found relevant examples of faith within fiction?


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rick allen

I read very little contemporary fiction, but some years ago I read Mary Karr’s fictionalized memoir, “The Liar’s Club,” mainly drawn by its crazed East-Texas-in-the-sixties setting. I understand her latest, “Lit,” includes a rather unexpected conversion narative, though I must say I know it only through reviews and a rather long interview she did.


Sadly, also dead but much more recently, Madeleine L’Engle. Her faith is expressed in all her works, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Marshall Scott

Vicki Bozzola

Mary Gordon, “Final Payments”

David Guterson, “Our Lady of the Forest”

Kent Haruf (all his novels)

Mark Salzman, “Lying Awake”

Jessica Stone

It was a little frustrating reading that article, as the writer features work after work of contemporary fiction that features faith (including, as I was expecting, the incomparable Gilead), but for various reasons, none of them meet his apparently quite specific requirements. I feel like most of the article he’s saying, “this doesn’t count because … x”.

What’s interesting to me is the emphasis throughout on belief, as opposed to faith, despite the title. He seems to want a novel featuring a (non-clerical) present-day “believer” in a way that is persuasive about that belief.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see “belief” and “faith” as quite the same thing. And maybe as a society, we’ve grown more skeptical of one than the other. Personally, I’m much more comfortable describing myself as someone whose faith is very important to her than I am as “a believer”.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to seeing what he writes in his own book.

Nathan Roser

I would make a couple of points.

1) Some would say that if you’re looking for a current author that affirms a Christian universe, one need look no farther than J.K. Rowling. She clearly borrows from Tolkien, who was a committed Roman Catholic. I have heard some press the Potter books, and Rowling’s though, as far as a “Gospel According to Harry Potter,” which I think is misleading. Others are led astray by the surface fact that since Harry, Ron, and Hermione are wizards, and practice magic, magic is “anti-Scriptural,” so whatever Harry Potter is, it’s Satanic. I think that is misleading, too. However, Rowling’s fans, and she has millions of dedicated fans, would say she clearly upholds what might be called a traditional moral universe.

2) If we can stretch the thesis as far as films, I also know several people who would count Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” as a Christian film. The movie clearly borrows from Exodus, and if one thinks about how the Scripture allusion informs the movie, one would come to see it as a discussion of Christian existentialism, and a confirmation of realistic hope in the 21st century. I think it is certainly a better candidate for a movie about Christianity than the Star Wars franchise, because Lucas’s ideas of the Force are Manichean.

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