Writing something academic about the current state of Christian thought in contemporary U.S. literature? This is an article I wish I’d known about in grad school: Paul Elie’s 2012 New York Times article, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” It’s wonderfully quotable, concise, and readable. Perfect material for framing one’s own questions and arguments about whether “The God ‘question” is receiving its due in contemporary U.S.-based fiction.
He argues that “If any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature” (para 4). Alongside scholars like Dana Gioia and Dennis Taylor, Elie sees our literature’s post-Christian turn as anomalous to mainstream U.S. cultures, in which religious themes are still a major influence. He theorizes that although the average American claims some manner of Christian identity, she does not take faith seriously. Furthermore, there is an entire generation emerging who know Christianity only as an artifact. He uses the marvelous example of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “This Blessed House” as an example of how monuments of the Christian tradition often decorate our homes, but have little significance beyond comfort or aesthetics (para 5).
The Christian faith of here and now is, of course, hard to define. On one hand, there is the commonplace experience of Americans raised in loose connection to a church community they no longer visit. There is also what Elie calls “a vast Home Depot of ‘do-it-yourself religion.’” To put this in my own words, rather than trusting those seemingly-outdated communities of organized religion, we see faith as a practice we prefer to–or perhaps must–sort out on our own. We feel we must build it for ourselves, according to whatever resources are ready at hand, or whatever guidebook is most popular at the moment. As the spirit(s) move us.*
And finally we come to that slim category: fiction that takes traditional faith narratives seriously. Elie references Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” (1982), David Means’ story collection The Spot (2010), and Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy (2011) as examples of literature with Christian questions at heart. He marvels that these wrestle honestly with faith. But these and a handful of other examples do not, finally, meet his full criteria for fiction that speaks to the heart of U.S. Christian experiences, because they do not grant faith any “explanatory power” (para 25). Of other texts that take on God questions, he laments that the books are not really “’about’ belief,” but interest themselves more with what happens to people in moments when belief takes hold.
Elie concludes with a hope that many of us share, that some writer out there will “put it all together” with enough rhetorical prowess to “dramatize belief” (para 28). This is, in part, a call to action: Christian fiction writers, take up your pens and dust off your keyboards! Crucial narratives of our time have not yet been written, and no one is going to write them for us. There is important work to be done.*
*image copyright Jim Warner 2013
**image copyright Moongirl (n.d.)