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Monday, 2 November 2015

Fiction Reading for Theologians & Theology for Fiction Readers

Sometimes Thomas Aquinas is boring, and sometimes Stephen King is boorish. While the first attempts to present truth without drama, the latter attempts drama without truth. Wouldn’t it be nice to have both? Isn’t there a place where theologians and fiction readers can meet? Happily, we have the following novels, which I’ve curated out of no other logic than that I found them the best fictional explorations of Christian themes so far in my short life. I suppose, though, this post itself should have a better justification than that. So, briefly, here are my reasons.

Reading contemporary literature, I get the strong impression that authors are shirking their responsibility to wrestle with realities in a way that makes for growth, spiritual or otherwise. A while ago Flannery O’Connor, protesting the focus on technique and story structure in the American MFA programs, said, “We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.” How much the MFA degree has impacted modern fiction, I can’t say—though I suspect is has, and drastically. I do agree, though, with O’Connor’s priorities. Why settle for mere competence, mere entertainment, mere story, when these things could also serve a greater purpose than themselves? I’m not talking about didactic, or moralizing, literature. I’m talking about literature that gives us the excitement of life as a spiritual excitement.

Simone Weil wrote an essay entitled “The Responsibility of Writers.” It’s brilliant, but it obviously forces a mandate on writers that most will refuse.

“The good is the pole towards which the human spirit is necessarily oriented, not only in action but in every effort, including the effort of pure intelligence… The literature of the twentieth century… consists in describing states of the soul by displaying them all on the same plane without any discrimination of value, as though good and evil were external to them, as though the effort towards the good could be absent at any moment from the thought of man. Writers do not have to be professors of morals, but they do have to express the human condition. And nothing concerns human life so essentially, for every man at every moment, as good and evil. When literature becomes deliberately indifferent to the opposition of good and evil it betrays its function and forfeits all claim to excellence.” (The Simone Weil Reader, 289)

Weil gives the example of Proust, who “makes many attempts to analyze non-oriented states of the soul.” His 4,000-page novel In Search of Lost Time is considered one of the best, if not the best, work of literature in the 20th century. Such is the state of critics’ spiritual priorities. I have only read the first volume, Swann’s Way, and it is breathtakingly beautiful; I feel like Keats did about Chapman’s Homer: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.” Still, Weil’s incisive comment rings true for me, and I suddenly feel an absence in Swann’s Way of something essential.

In summary of this insight, I turn to Wayne C. Booth, a writer and critic whose moral sensibility I envy and who wrote these perfect assessments of what contemporary readers and writers seem to value in literary fiction:

“To defend the moral intent of the author is in itself no more conclusive than to show that he wanted to write a masterpiece. In this matter, curiously enough, the ‘intentional fallacy’ is committed by many critics who avoid it otherwise: if a novelist’s intentions are ‘serious’ rather than ‘commercial,’ or if he has set out to reveal filth rather than to celebrate nobility, many seem to feel that they should give his work at least some credit, however slovenly its technique may be...” (386). 

“We are told again and again that the novelist could not help turning inward to his own private world of values because there was no outer world left to which he could appeal. But even if consensus has declined—something in itself hard to prove, in spite of our ready clichés about it—surely artists must accept some of the responsibility for the decline themselves. If the loss of consensus forced them into private value systems, private myths, it hardly could be said to have forced them into the kind of private techniques I have discussed… One possible reaction to a fragmented society may be to retreat to a private world of values, but another might well be to build works of art that themselves help to mold a new consensus” (The Rhetoric of Fiction, 393).

Hear hear! Without further ado, then, I present ten books that I do think take on these responsibilities of the artist in this fragmented Waste Land of a world. My intention is, I’ll admit, to give those readers about to pick up Eat, Love, Pray, or The Stand, or a John Grisham or Dean Koontz novel, another option. Just as no one should play laissez faire with truth, neither should we play laissez faire with fiction; so accuse me of bias, of prescribing taste, of whatever. No one will be able to deny the connection between fiction and truth after reading just one of the following novels, and seeing that, find something missing in so much of the literature out there.

[Please note—before you get all high strung at the absence of The Brothers Karamazov and The Lord of the Rings—the simple fact that you must get rid of the sun (two suns in this case) in order to see the stars.]

Ten Novels

[1] Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger
This is more than a novel—it is spiritual direction at its finest. Salinger is a writer who knows  how to dramatize intellectual crises, a writer who can take those truths we find ourselves indifferent to in the everyday and bring us into that rare state of exacerbated yearning, hope and vulnerability in which they seem real again and take on the lustre of immediate consequence. Franny is a university student and actor on the verge of a breakdown. She is sick of all the ego—the cloistered, preening, self-affirming university ego—around her. “Sometimes,” she complains, “I think that knowledge—when its knowledge for knowledge’s sake, anyway—is the worst of all. I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while—just once in a while—there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom.” I will not spoil the climax. But the fact that there is a climax in a “novel of ideas” should be indication enough that this book is worth a read.

[2] Silence, by Shusako Endo
“Father, have you thought of the suffering you have inflicted on so many peasants just because of your dream, just because you want to impose your selfish dream upon Japan?” In Silence, Endo has pulled together all the coarsest questions of faith and suffering, knotted them into a ball, and thrown them at the reader’s face. Here we have a Portuguese priest in a foreign country, oppressed by the feeling of uselessness, dreading the state’s violent anti-religious authorities, confused at seeing a spiritual master’s apostasy… As we read, Endo shows us the difference between the solutions that Christ did not bring and the redemption that he did.

                                     [3] East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
“I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this,” said Steinbeck of East of Eden. Indeed, this is a novel that has passed through fire and become something more; it’s not just a “good hard look at reality,” not just a poetic celebration of the Salinas Valley, not just a gripping plot or character study. It takes all these up to become, with The Brothers Karamazov, a tour de force of enacted theology. The novel follows two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, in their intergenerational pantomime of the feud between Cain and Abel; at the heart of this 600-page complexity, then, is a story of the consequences of rejection and the mystery of freewill. Reading East of Eden, one becomes aware of the irony of arguments for or against such freedom, for its center can in no way be outside us. Where is it then? Steinbeck’s magnum opus wrestles the dark angel of fatalism on behalf of us all—and comes out marked. “What is the word again?” “Timshel—though mayest.”

[4] Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor
You can’t have a list of theological novels without Flannery O’Connor in it somewhere. No other author has spent so long and hard a time problem-solving the representation of grace in fiction. Grace, indeed, is for her the very point of fiction: “There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment,” she writes elsewhere. In Wise Blood, O’Connor creates a vehemently anti-Christian character, Hazel Motes and shows us how his being haunted Christ, who darts from “tree to tree” in the back of his mind, is part of his very integrity. Thus O'Connor dramatizes a journey towards redemption as only a writer who has masterfully combined both “competence” and “vision” can.

[5] Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams
Charles Williams is the lesser-read member of the Inklings (you know—C. S. Lewis, Tolkien…). The reason? He’s dense. He’s unconventional. His novels have been described as “supernatural thrillers.” In this novel, William’s finest achievement, we have Wentworth, a historian who little by little is damning himself to hell. For Williams, as for Lewis, that is the only way you end up there: through little and big choices in which you relinquish your ability to love. But what Williams is doing here is unique—he’s not a theologian arguing that “making bad decisions can have eternal consequences”; rather, his aim, as T. S. Eliot puts it, “is to make you partake of a kind of experience that he has had.” The plot, accordingly, follows a dream-logic in which breath-taking and haunting passages appear like flashes in a jungle of meaning; there’s a relentless forward motion, a superfluity of weighty intention. The reader finds himself wondering, On what level of reality is this or that event happening? Williams, it is clear, is so attuned to spiritual truths that he has trouble separating the mundane from the eternal for us common folk.
[6] Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
On putting this book back on the shelf, I had the feeling of having met a great and beautiful soul. I would anticipate our meeting in heaven with excitement but for his being—it is so easy to forget—a fictional character. Really, this book doesn’t need me to  argue for it. Just read the Norman Denny translation. (As a side note, I don’t know by what convention the title has gone un-translated, but it really should be called “Outcasts.”)

[7] Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
For a while I had trouble with the idea, which seems so obviously true to me now, that there was an essential spiritual structure to the human being—in other words, that there is a “human nature,” that we are created in such a way that certain things lead to our flourishing while other things lead to our confusion, our decay, our death. One cannot escape Crime and Punishment without being convinced of this. One of way of describing the arrogant, self-involved Raskolnikov is a “spiritual explorer,” a man pushing the limits of what a human self can mean and do. His murders and his self-concealment can be seen as a forays into the outskirts of the human spirit, expeditions to discover the limits of the world of the self. What Raskolnikov finds is a guilt that won’t disappear, indeed a guilt that strengthens into a light shining on a depth of createdness in himself that he had not seen before. “The darker the night, the brighter the stars, / The deeper the grief, the closer is God!” writes Dostoyevsky. Part of his genius is that he recognized the need for such “negative revelations” in an age of religious disillusionment. This is why it is inaccurate to call Dostoyevsky an “existentialist.” He is a storyteller of the life of the spirit. Crime and Punishment is the story of Raskolnikov’s discovery of a desire for reintegration, for health, and with it Dostoyevsky shows us what stories can give us that we cannot get elsewhere.

[8] The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy
In The Moviegoer, Percy tells the story of a man sensitive enough to be aware of how mired he and is peers are in the heavy “everydayness” of life and of the consequent “possibility of a search”—but socially and historically dislocated enough from any religious or wisdom tradition that his sensitivity manifests as a distortion. Sound familiar? Percy taps into the essential spiritual situation of our post-enlightenment, post-modern world. He has found something so characteristic of who we are that just his simple presentation of the situation reverberates with all the mystic power of an epiphany. Our question is no longer “What are we searching for?” but one prior to that: “What is the search?” 

[9] The Farthest Shore, by Ursula LeGuin
“I set before you life and death. Choose life.” That’s Deuteronomy. That’s God speaking. Interesting, isn’t it, that God has to tell us which to pick? You’d think it’d be obvious, but it’s not. Life and death both argue convincingly for themselves, as anyone whose been depressed or in despair knows. Consequently, life needs to be continually reaffirmed. LeGuin’s fantasy novel, finds a way to reject the darkness and to accept joy—with integrity. Anyone who thinks that fantasy cannot be high literature may be embarrassed by their prejudice after this book. It is a beautiful story that, like life, argues for itself convincingly if you give it the chance. And so I’ll say no more. (Except that you may want to read The Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, the first two in the series, in advance.)

[10] Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis
Till We Have Faces is easily—easily—Lewis’ best work, of his fiction and non-fiction. There is no other author who deals so charitably and accurately with the theme of self-deception; neither is there an author who does so as grippingly, entertainingly, or movingly. The question of suffering, for Lewis, always comes back to self-deception and the distortion of love. In Till We Have Faces, Lewis shows us how we participate in creating the very problems we rail against God for, become embittered over—and sell our souls to have solved our way. 

Other Worthy Titles:
The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
The Death of Ivan Illych, by Leo Tolstoy
The Diary of a Country Priest, by George Bernanos
The Brothers K, by David James Duncan
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene
Gilead; Home; and Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather
The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic


  1. In Truth & Reality you can read all of the great literature of the world for forever and a day, but none of it will make a jot of difference to anything.
    So too for so-called "theology".
    Why not include The Orpheum Trilogy too? The all-encompassing cultural significance of which is explained in this introductory essay:
    An overview of the 3 books can be found here:

    Book 1 - The Mummery Book is introduced here too:
    Book 3 - The Scapegoat Book is introduced here:

    This excerpt from The Mummery Book is also very relevant re the necessity to fully come to terms with the fact that death rules to here, and that you cannot practice Right Life until you have transcended your fear of death, because until that has been "accomplished" every aspect of ones psycho-physical body-mind-complex is darkened by a hell-deep fear-and-trembling:

  2. Great selections! Did you think of adding Tart's "A Secret History?"

  3. Great selections! Did you think of adding Tart's "A Secret History?"