Missing believers

Forgive me. But every once in a while I latch on to the esoteric between debates about the designated hitter rule in baseball and the funniest Bugs Bunny cartoon. 

Paul Elie was invited recently by the New York Times Sunday Book Review section to provide a commentary on “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” Elie is the author of a book on Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day and Flannery O’Connor as Catholic writers The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage">(“The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17). 

To simplistically summarize his argument, Elie states that literary fiction — what the chattering classes would call “serious” fiction — has lost its faith, particularly if you are referring to the Christian faith that 170 million Americans take seriously. 

“This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: as something between a dead language and a hangover,” he wrote. 

At the heart of the trouble is that American authors of contemporary literary fiction do not see belief — Christian belief — as believable. And in so doing, it is impossible for them to describe a believer in a fictional portrait. 

Instead, I would argue, we get the literary equivalent of the Killer Albino in Dan Brown’s pop drivel “The DaVinci Code.”  

Most believers in serious fiction nowadays — if they exist at all — are caricatures of believers spouting caricatures of belief. They are simplistic, sordid, scheming or suicidal. 

I know what Elie is looking for — serious fiction that “dramatizes belief the way it feels in your experience, at once a fact on the ground and a sponsor of the uncanny, an account of our predicament that still and all has the old power to persuade.” Or, as he quoted Flannery O’Connor, “the dramatization of a person’s encounter with a supreme being recognized through faith.” 

OK, this is getting esoteric. But the great yawning gap in serious fiction today is that belief is gone because belief can’t be expressed by an author that never believed. Or, at least, never believed as an adult. 

All fiction is really stories based on very simple queries: Who am I? What does life mean? How am I to live it?  

These are the questions, as Pope Benedict XVI explains, that every generation has to answer. 

If you take faith and belief out of the equation in looking to answer those questions, you have little or nothing left.  

The characters become simply soulless, empty suits.  

Which makes contemporary fiction, no pun intended, so unbelievable. Because I don’t care who a person is — atheist, “none,” agnostic or believer — belief must be wrestled with. 

In 1963, Wilfred Sheed published “The Hack.” It’s a novel where a guy is essentially cracking up because he is losing his faith. However, in today’s serious fiction he would crack up because he found faith. 

Sheed wrote of his protagonist mulling, “The merits of the, so to speak, Catholic Faith. He was so tired of all that, didn’t want to argue. If you could just give it up for a year, you might get excited again. But you weren’t allowed to give it up so much as a week. It got in your teeth and hair.” 

That’s what Elie is searching for in a description of a believer — belief so central to the core that it “got in your teeth and hair.” So much so, that when Sheed’s character loses his faith, there is nothing left to him. He cracks up. 

You don’t see much of that today in literary fiction. Just yawning gaps instead. 

So, I think that the designated hitter should be banned from the World Series. Keep it to the all-star game. It’s meaningless anyway. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania. 

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