Fiction and Faith in Ten Contemporary Writers

Readers of fiction inside and outside
the church have been wary of the
role that faith plays in the novels
and stories they read; the first because
they prefer affirmation and dislike negative
portrayals, and the second because
they think that a writer’s faith-commitment
is deleterious to fiction.
Writers Cover
In
this collection of interviews with ten
American novelists, (Eleanor Taylor
Bland, David James Duncan, Terence
Faherty, Ernest Gaines, Philip Gulley,
Ron Hansen, Silas House, Jan Karon,
Sheri Reynolds, and Lee Smith), Dale
Brown, director of the Buechner Institute
at King College, exposes these
attitudes, illuminating for us the
achievements and perils of fiction that
dares not only to treat religion affirmatively
but in some cases also critically
and negatively. In the introduction,
Brown argues that “contemporary writers
are no less preachers than their kindred
in previous epochs. Their freight may be
different, but it is still freight. And it is
worth our lives, perhaps, to discern just
what the crates contain.” These writers, he
assures us, offer us “the same old consolation
and instruction, pleasure and preaching,
that good literature has always provided,”
and that “the teachings that emerge
in stories like these are equally powerful
for the churched and the unchurched, the
ardent practitioners of faith and the darkest
doubter.”

In this volume each interview is prefaced
with a brief biographical introduction,
a full page photograph of the writer, and a
dated list of the writer’s books. As the subtitle
suggests, these writers range in their
own attitudes toward the place of Christian
faith in their lives and writing from
skepticism to ambivalence to embrace. All
have been acquainted with Christian faith
in some form; some have stayed with their
religious commitment, others have moved
on to other forms of Christian faith, and
others have moved away from the faith to
non-institutional forms of spirituality.

Among the writers interviewed, a prevalent
view appears to be that the institutional
church has serious limitations as a spiritual
home, even though many of them remain
uneasily within it. David James Duncan,
for example, remarks that “Christianity
is tired,” and considers himself “a devout
non-Christian.” Silas House thinks that
his “major problem with the church overall
is that so much of it is man-made,” but feels
“blessed for having been raised Pentecostal”
even though “it’s really messed me up
in a lot of ways.” Jan Karon says “Mainline
Christianity is deformed–walking on
crutches, hobbling, dragging itself along, still managing to survive.” Ron Hansen remains a practicing Catholic who believes
that “faith-inspired fiction squarely faces
the imponderables of life,” and doesn’t feel
that there is “much profit in skepticism and
doubt.” Lee Smith tells Brown that as she
gets older, she is “more drawn to church,
to the more organized, traditional kinds of
religion that I had gotten away from for a
while.”

Even the writers who have reservations
about the church honor the spiritual dimensions
of life that often appear in their
novels: spiritual exploration and discovery,
guilt, forgiveness, healing, community, caring
for others, hope. Despite his distaste
for orthodoxy, for example, the progressive
Quaker writer Philip Gulley says that his
“Harmony novels suggest that all things
work together for good….These are books
about joy. . ..” Ron Hansen agrees that his
“lens” as a writer is “sacramentalist,” and
that his characters explore “ceremonies of
graced moments–external signs of an internal
grace.” Silas House says that the
“entire message” of one of his novels “is
that forgiveness is the whole thing.” Jan
Karon confesses that the “only agenda”
(which is not belabored but “just falls out”
of her fiction) is “to let people know God
loves them.”

Brown does an excellent job not only of
evoking the writers’ views on this central
issue of how faith relates to fiction but also
how they view other relevant matters such
as fictional technique, publishing, and
teaching. The interviews are consistently
interesting and illuminating, and the book
as a whole fulfills Brown’s hope that our
“encounter with these folks” in the conversations
“will add good books to your reading
lists for years to come.”

Francis Fike is professor emeritus of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and is a contributing editor
and former poetry editor of Perspectives.