Faithless Fiction: Imagine

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

A few weeks ago I discovered an essay, published in 2012 in the New York Times by resident writer Paul Elie. The title asked, ‘Has Fiction Lost its Faith?

It’s a good question, and sparked another for me: What if? I tried to imagine a world in which literature never had any element of religious faith. Not the world of Fahrenheit 451, mind you,  in which books are illegal. No, this world has plenty of literature, just none with the slightest element of religious faith, no God-seeking. It’s a world without Jane Eyre, Monseigneur Myriel and Uncle Tom. There has never been a Binxs Bolling or a Reuven Malter, a Calpurnia, or an Atticus Finch. A world, I argue, less interesting than ours.

In modernist fiction there seems to be an idea that to be serious a novel must be devoid of any element or reference to faith in God, especially in the Judeo-Christian sense, unless the element is pejorative or comical. In other words, serious fiction must be atheistic in all its aspects. With some bright and shining exceptions, such as Eugene Vodalazkin’s ‘Laurus’, or Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Abide With Me’, a new canon of literature is developing out of this assumption, literature that is not only paler and flatter for the most part than its vibrant, multi-faceted predecessor, it has become conscious of itself in a way some readers find frankly juvenile.  As one novel-loving friend expressed it to me: modernist fiction is largely dark and depressing, its characters are sullen and sex-obsessed. Hearing this description, I couldn’t help smiling, thinking of the moment in the movie ‘Harvey’, when Veta, Elwood’s sister, feels similarly about her world, and asks, “Why don’t they get out? Take walks!”

Literature, fiction as art, has always been born of the desire to discover, to find out the how and why, to learn by creative means what evil exists in the human heart, and what good. The novelist is a spelunker, an explorer of caves, moving through the labyrinths of the human experience, seeing what can be seen by the light of a headlamp’s beam. I can’t help but see fiction without faith as dishonest discovery, which in my mind is no discovery at all. For the novelist who refuses to acknowledge the crucial role of serious faith, noble faith, in the human experience, is one who trains their gaze on a small corner of the cave and keeps it there. That novelist will never know, or be able to show us, what lies out of reach of the headlamp’s beam. It might be a vein of pure gold. Meanwhile, the reader is left to stare at a wall of stalagmites and wonder, however vaguely, what lies just out of the light. And this is where my writer’s heart begins to hope. For as long as the wondering continues, I believe there will be faith in fiction.

*Thank you to David Haigh and Marianthe Karanikas, fellow members of the Good Seed Literary Society, who so generously and thoughtfully considered this subject and shared their ideas with me.

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