Has fiction lost its faith? After Paul Elie’s December article by that title in the New York Times, Image editor Gregory Wolfe has responded in the Wall Street Journal with “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World.” Where Elie sees a great absence, a retreat of believable belief from the world of fiction, Wolfe sees a generation of writers who are approaching our predicaments from a perspective of faith that is equally compelling as that of earlier writers, except now adapted to a postmodern world in which “a still, small voice” is bound to be more effective than the “large and startling figures” that Flannery O’Connor once advocated. Wolfe writes:
In short, the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.
Mr. Elie quotes Flannery O’Connor’s manifesto: “For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” That made sense in the context of her time, when the old Judeo-Christian narrative was locked in a struggle with the new secular narratives of Marx, Freud and Darwin.
However, we live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive. So the late Doris Betts could say that for all her admiration of Flannery O’Connor, her own fiction had to convey faith in whispers rather than shouts. Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways. But obscure is not invisible.
Having read the two articles a couple of times, I’m left wondering: how much do they really disagree? Elie seems to grant Wolfe’s point about there being plenty of “whispers” and counterexamples. “So you keep looking for the literature of belief. You find it where you can,” he states toward the end of the essay. But he states, likewise, that even when he finds books with characters in whose life grace does seem to be at work, the way in which such action is depicted is perhaps mysterious, but not “in the theological sense — a line going off the grid of cause and effect, a portal to the puzzle of existence. I just don’t know what they believe or how they came to believe it.”
To my mind, the points of agreement and disagreement between these two authors suggest the following:
- They are probably both largely right, but, as Wolfe readily admits, each is responding to reality as he sees it from his particular perspective. Editing Image, Wolfe naturally is surrounded by writers and literature of belief that seem to give the lie to what Elie suggests. As a former senior editor at Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, Elie probably has had a different experience.
- Even granting all of Wolfe’s points, I think he is conceding (to some extent) to Elie’s conclusions when he states that “ faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.” Part of what Elie is saying is precisely that, to a significant extent, when it comes to literary culture, it is Christian literature that finds itself “surrounded” rather than doing the surrounding; it is most often the one responding, rather than the one being responded to.
- While Wolfe’s assertion that in a world where “any grand narrative is suspect” it is best to “convey faith in whispers rather than shouts” does seem very reasonable—indeed, it is the approach I tend to take in my own writing—it also strikes me that O’Connor’s “shouts” continue to be compelling to the contemporary reader. While the world O’Connor brings to life in most of her stories is very different from our own in its details, at its heart her sensibilities speak to people who think and feel like we do. It seems to me hard to argue the contrary. Perhaps we’ve just forgotten how to shout?
As stated above, these are all just points that I think are worth considering. I’d love to know what you, our readers, think of all this.