It’s always storytime

by
03 October 2014

Fiction offers a rich seam for the exploration of matters of faith and doubt, says Andrew Tate

ISTOCK

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 scripture.

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 Wrath.

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.

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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 scrutiny.

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 2008).

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