Religious Dimensions in Literature
By Edited by Lee A. Belford
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
In 1896 Christian fiction reached its nadir with the publication of Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, a novel drenched in enough bathos and sentimentality to discredit once and for all the urge to write a Christian novel. The lugubrious results of this particular foray into the land of belles lettres can be traced directly to the Reverend Sheldon’s total innocence of literary talent. That In His Steps has been bought and read by millions of Americans since 1896 proves only that piety often outruns the development of discriminating literary taste.
The writing of Christian fiction of exceptional merit imposes a heavy burden upon its practitioners. The talent must be there — that sheer ability to call up the precise word and weld it to its brothers to form sentences that, through the measured grace of their cadence, can move one by turns to pity, fear, laughter, and tears — but the art demands something more. How, for example, does one portray the supernatural convincingly? Can the ineffable be rendered effable? Can Christian virtue be incarnated in characters who embody goodness yet remain believable? Can the Christian writer — committed as he is to the proposition that Truth exists and that mortal man can to some degree fathom it — resist the temptation to use his fiction as sugar-coating for the pill of propaganda? The Christian novelist who subjects his fiction to the ulterior motive of preaching the Truth proves as tiresome as the Marxist who manipulates his cast of characters to promote the doctrine of dialectical materialism. Given these difficulties, it is no wonder that Charles Sheldon and dozens of other soi-disant Christian novelists have achieved little more than to provide a diversion for believers who browse occasionally beyond the pages of their Bibles.
At times writers of a Christian sensibility have triumphed over these difficulties and have entered that exclusive realm where profound insight into the wisdom of Christianity joins artistic merit to produce fiction of a higher order. One thinks of the Frenchmen Bloy, Bernanos, and Mauriac, who explored the labyrinths of despair; of the English disciple Graham Greene; of Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian Nobel Prize winner; of Flannery O’Connor, whose short stories marry the grotesque to the sublime in a felicitous union; and of Shusaku Endo, the Japanese novelist who read his Mauriac and Greene and then created his own world where certitude and doubt wrestle for man’s soul.
Religious Dimensions in Literature offers essays by several scholars on three more novelists who belong to this splendid company — Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and Walker Percy — as well as pieces on T.S. Eliot, and on “post-Christian” writer, Albert Camus.
In an essay published some years ago under the title “Notes for a Novel About the End of the World,” Walker Percy wrote:
The novelist is less like a prophet than he is like the canary that coal miners used to take down into the shaft to test the air. When the canary gets unhappy, utters plaintive cries, and collapses, it may be time for the miners to surface and think things over.
Though they do not utter plaintive cries or collapse in a heap, Percy and the other writers discussed in Religious Dimensions in Literature do, like the miners’ canary, sense that something is amiss and that we had best scramble out of the pit as quickly as possible. They are — to change the metaphor — doctors of the soul, skilled diagnosticians who have taken the measure of the spiritual sickness that saps and enervates the man who lives in this late — some would say dying — age of Western civilization.
What do these men tell us about our era and, not incidentally, about the nature of man and his relationship to what editor Lee Belford refers to in his Preface as the “beyond”? To use another of Percy’s images, they send us messages in bottles that wash up on the beach of the island on which we are castaways. These messages convey “news,” information of the utmost importance, for it involves matters of life and death.
Charles Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve warns (as Edmund Fuller lucidly reveals in his essay) of “the reality of the will to evil and the corruption of the inherently good through the operation of that will.” In Till We Have Faces, a book not as widely read as some of C.S. Lewis’s other works, the master of Christian apologetics infuses the myth of Cupid and Psyche with a profundity that Apuleius’s original version scarcely suggests; as Nathan Starr points out, Lewis transforms the myth into “a frightening exposition of the dangers of an enveloping love,” a sin not easily recognized, but no less vicious for its elusiveness. T.S. Eliot ranks with the greatest of English poets of the 20th century, but his dense and difficult poetry has intimidated many readers; yet no Christian writer of the modern era has so fully grasped the despair of a people cursed to wander the “waste land” of the spiritual desert. Perhaps Ruth Whitford’s illuminating essay will entice more Christians to grapple with the complexities of Eliot’s poetry.
Ellen Douglas’s essay on Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman will — one hopes — bring more readers to a novelist who has paid a price in popularity for his refusal to run with the pack of littérateurs that inhabits the Northeast. No American novelist of our time has better captured the poignancy of the wayfarer’s search for a home in an indifferent world. Percy’s five novels seek an answer to the question he himself posed years ago: “Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century?” And finally, Camus — Camus, the moral non-Christian who touched the tenderest spot of Christianity: the failure of its adherents to live up to its noblest ideals. As Thomas Merton — himself a Christian who perceived the gap between ideal and reality — reminds one in his provocative essay on Camus’s The Plague, in this “post-Christian” era not all the prophets are Christians.
So we are deep in the shaft and the canaries are stirring restlessly; perhaps we should surface and think things over.
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