FICTION has often been regarded with suspicion by Christian
readers. This might seem odd for a religion that is rooted in
reverence for the word. Hostility to the imagined worlds of earthly
writers was once encouraged by preachers, however, who saw literary
creation as a challenge to the sacred truth of divine
The novel is the most mutable of literary forms: it dances
between elitist and popular cultures, and its penchant for
including scandal, as well as sanctity, has blessed fiction with a
rather disreputable status.
Indeed, in the late 19th century, Henry James claimed that,
although the "old superstition about fiction being 'wicked' has
doubtless died out in England . . . the spirit of it lingers in a
certain oblique regard directed toward any story which does not
more or less admit that it is only a joke".
More recently, the literary critic Terry Eagleton has argued
that the realist novel "is as nervous of religious debate as a pub
landlord". Yet the biggest twin influences on the novel in English
are the King James Bible, and the Puritan spiritual memoir.
John Bunyan's great allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress,
describing the journey of a soul from ruin to redemption, provided
a pattern for many later, less obviously religious texts. These
include Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, W. M. Thackeray's
Vanity Fair, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of
The "awakening conscience" narrative crucial to Bunyan's radical
Protestant world-view also makes possible the picaresque
(mis)adventures of Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders. Early
Gothic romance, such as James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and
Confessions of a Justified Sinner, frequently satirises the
extremes of religious zeal, but also depends on an awareness of
Christian concepts of grace.
Such novels, and their sometimes theologically inclined
inheritors, including Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian
Gray, blur the distinction between sacred and profane in a way
that is reminiscent of Jesus's most disorientating parables.
If Jane Austen's and Anthony Trollope's clerical figures are
frequently comical, George Eliot - famed for her religious
scepticism and journey away from Evangelical certainty - treats
piety with nuance. Eliot's fable-like Silas Marner and the
beautiful Middlemarch are particularly good on the light
and shade of a life of faith.
BEYOND the shores of Britain and its Empire, 19th-century
literary fiction is replete with questions of God's absence, and
presence: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and
Herman Melville's Moby Dick, for example, are both quest
narratives, in which the language of faith - and its possible
repudiation - is subject to robust and sometimes angst-ridden
The 20th century, and the advent of literary Modernism, brought
forth much scepticism about traditional Christian belief. James
Joyce, for example, kicks against nation, religion, and language in
his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but also
acknowledges his dependence on the Roman Catholic spiritual
tradition in which he was raised.
Rebellion is not the sole response to religious orthodoxy for
20th-century novelists. G. K. Chesterton and Graham Greene, for
example, are two of the most famous recruits to Roman Catholicism.
Greene's novels, most famously The End of the Affair,
engage with the "strangeness" of God's mercy.
The bold juxtaposition between violence and moments of epiphany
are fundamental to Flannery O'Connor's Southern Gothic style, again
informed by a full-bodied Roman Catholic spirituality.
In the later 20th century, David Lodge and Donna Tartt both
continue elements of this tradition in their exploration of the
fine line between faith and religious despair.
Tim Winton's God-haunted narratives, including Cloud
Street and Eyrie, are similarly unflinching in his
poetic and frequently sublime evocations of domestic or solitary
life in his native Western Australia.
The early 21st century has brought the emergence of writers
prepared to engage with biblical texts in a bold spirit. David
Maine's The Flood and Fallen retell foundational
stories from the book of Genesis in a dynamic fashion. Perhaps the
most subversive element of both books is their candid rendering of
the dialogue between God and human beings.
Few writers evoke the sacred mysteries of everyday life more
delicately than the American novelist and cultural commentator
Marilynne Robinson. Gilead, a kind of rewriting of the
parable of the Prodigal Son, is a work of melancholy joy which
reminds us that fiction can represent the complex inner life of
believers with precision rather than propaganda.
In Britain, Jenn Ashworth's The Friday Gospels and
Carys Bray's A Song For Issy Bradley indicate that the
novel remains a rich, multi-voiced space where questions of belief
may be addressed in a complex, witty style.
Dr Andrew Tate is Senior Lecturer in the Department of
English and Creative Writing at Lancaster. He is the author of
Contemporary Fiction and Christianity (Continuum