Faith in Fiction: Should we Shout or Whisper?


Paul Elie

Has fiction lost its faith? After Paul Elie’s December article by that title in the New York TimesImage 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.

Read more.


Gregory Wolfe

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.



  1. Dena says

    It’s presumptuous of me to comment, really. I didn’t read Paul Elie’s essay and only just read Wolfe’s. More to the point, I haven’t read a lot of contemporary fiction (though I often wonder whether one has to read *everything* in order to claim familiarity.) Another reason it’s presumptuous is that I don’t believe it really matters whether faith shouts or whispers, it is there. Faith has indeed shifted from one God to another, but it’s still there. Life is not liveable without it, not for readers, nor for writers, not for anyone. What’s “missing” in much contemporary fiction is religion, not faith.

    I t seems to me that we are trying on new clothes all the time, new creeds, trying to find one that will fit, one that can successfully supersede religion. We placed all our hope in materialism, in science, in political dogma, in communal secularism, and now in a kind of relational-humanism. It hasn’t worked. Though this latter faith is heavily invested, it’s failing too. And so we escape into fantasy from a barrenness of spirit far worse than the ennui of earlier decades–using (abusing) media to assault the senses almost beyond their endurance and technology to titillate the intellect, rather than stimulate it. Sometimes I think we beat our hearts to death trying to get them to save us from our minds–as though we know something that we cannot bear to know. Relational humanism themes are tired already after only a decade or so, as though the trying-on and discarding ritual is speeding up too rapidly, and everybody seems obsessed with control. That may be why narrative seems reduced to mere craft.

    I don’t think either Elie or Wolfe are correct, though I agree they’re singing the same song in different keys.

  2. Bernardo says

    I’m curious, how would you define “relational humanism”? I think I have a vague idea of what you mean, but I’d appreciate some elaboration.

    • Dena says

      It may not seem “fair” to use a made-up term and not define it, but if a definition pre-existed, it wouldn’t have been necessary to make one up. But you said you have a “vague idea,” so I think you already know what it means. Personally, I think “relational humanism” is evidence of the total triumph of the feminine perspective.

  3. Christian Bryant says

    I stopped writing some time ago because I felt I was not illustrating my faith-based ideas well. I also was buying into what many articles were saying at the time about the “death” of the Catholic novel, and the constant question of “where are the Catholic writers?” got to me. However, when I actually started to seek out and read Catholic fiction, meet writers through groups like the Catholic Writers Guild and get involved in communities of Catholic book reviewers like, I began to realize that, like Wolfe’s assertion, Catholic writers are everywhere, though many at varying levels of faith and in different stages of their redemption; most of them writing with their faith more of a whisper in the story, even when the story itself shouts. I agree with Flannery O’Conner, though, and believe Catholic writers in particular should be shouting in this day and age, for too much of “what sells” in fiction is selling our souls as well. I think there are plenty of Catholic writers out there – they just aren’t all shouting, yet. And, forgive me, but once you expand beyond just Catholic material, I believe there is a wealth of Christian writing out there that does point to Christ as redeemer, and much of that even makes an appearance as the movie of the month on various television networks. Noting this, it may also beg us to ask the question, “When we finally shout, should we shout in just one language, or from one point of view, or from many and varied ones?”

    • Dena Hunt says

      I wouldn’t want the topic to water down into the tiresome “What is Catholic fiction?” question, but when “Christian” vs. “Catholic” comes up, whether it’s tucked away in a metaphor like “language” or not, one thing must be clarified: There’s no shortage of Christian fiction and no shortage of Christian publishers. Just take a look at the racks by the check-out line in the grocery store. And the CBA is very large, so are their conferences, meetings, etc. It’s not hard to find a publisher and not hard to be successful as a producer of Christian mass-market fiction. Just do not refer to priests, or sacraments, or anything Catholic in your story. Also, we’re talking here about mass-market fiction, not literary fiction.

  4. says

    There’s no getting around it; we live in a violent, loud, and sinful world. A whisper will not work, and in fact, the very idea is soaked with politically correct rhetoric. The committed Catholic writer must not only shout about the world, he/she must holler, without timidity, and with no apology. Think of Jesus in the Temple: He was furious. Was he whispering when He made a whip out of cords to drive out the merchants and money changers, or when he threw their coins onto the ground, overturned the tables, and then commanded the men who were selling doves to get out of His Father’s house? He used what was once termed ‘righteous anger.’ And I sincerely doubt He expressed that anger with a whisper.

    • Francesco says

      Well, He was whispering when He came to Elijah, on the mountain. And Jesus was not always overturning money changers’ tables. My answer, then, is that we need to BOTH shout AND whisper.

      • says

        But wasn’t He telling Elijah to get back to work? Of course, there’s a place for both. It’s whatever the situation calls for. If your much-loved child is playing in the street, in the middle of a danger, you’ll surely shout. Today’s culture, indeed Catholicism itself, is most definitely in the middle of danger. We need shouters.