Faith-Tinted Fiction: Some Tips for the Engaged Catholic Reader

Not Much About Mary

You’d think that in this post-secular age, faith-related fiction would be hard to come by, but of course it’s not. Au contraire. It’s booming. Besides the titles produced for the flourishing evangelical “Christian fiction” market, there’s no dearth of religiously-themed novels on the secular fiction shelves these days, either.

Here are some thoughts on a few titles that might, for good or for ill, draw the interested eye of the engaged Catholic reader.

First, what is it we’re looking for here? Acclaimed Catholic novelist Ron Hansen explains it nicely in his new essay collection, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays On Faith and Fiction:

…A faith-inspired fiction squarely faces the imponderables of life…Such fiction is instinctive rather than conformist, intuitive rather than calculated; it features vital characters rather than comforting types, offers freedom and anomaly rather than foregone conclusions, invites thoughtfulness not through rational argument, but through asking the right questions.

So, it seems, fiction that’s reflective of faith need not necessarily be explicitly about faith. Nonetheless, as we browse through the new fiction shelf, we can’t help it if our attention is first drawn by a couple of books that do, indeed to concern themselves with such matters.

(By the way, Hansen's collection is worth a look. All of the essays included have been published elsewhere, either in journals or other essay anthologies, so if you're a reader of religiously-themed stuff, you might want to check out the table of contents before you buy, to make sure you haven't read most of the pieces before.)

Our Lady of the Lost and Found: A Novel of Mary, Faith and Friendship by Canadian writer Diane Schoemperlen draws our eye with its lovely cover, complete with a reproduction of Salvador Dali’s Madonna of Port Lligat.

The synopsis grabs us as well: a female writer is visited by Mary, not in a blaze of glory, but with a suitcase, a sensible black dress and a request for a place to stay for a week’s vacation before the pressures that the month of May always bring her way, for obvious reasons.

The novel, unfortunately, does not live up to its promise of being a fictional version of the doubting-modern-woman-encountering-traditional-faith genre popularized by the likes of Kathleen Norris, Annie Lamott and Beverly Diorfiro. The book turns out to be less a novel than it is a collection of rather straightforward essays, mostly on Marian apparitions, framed by the conceit of this modern Marian visitation. The Catholic reader won’t be offended, but nor will she be particularly enlightened: the essays cover mostly familiar ground, and the fictional material doesn’t draw us in. Mary is engagingly presented, but her impact on the fictional writer’s life is perhaps a bit too tastefully understated to bear any lasting impression. Frankly, I skipped huge portions it in order to concentrate on the scenes between the writer and Mary, but those weren't terribly engaging either.

Something Familiar

Moving further on down the shelf, we come to another promising title: All We Know Of Heaven by Remy Rougeau. Oh yes, we’ve heard of this one: it’s the novel about the monastery, written by the Benedictine monk. He was on the CBS Morning News, and wrote a week-long “Diary” segment for Slate online magazine. This one might be interesting.

A slim novel, somewhat reminiscent of other slim novels about religious life (the superior Lying Awake by Mark Salzman and Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen – by the way, I'd recommend all of Hansen's novels, except for the most recent, Hitler’s Niece. It was hard to see the point of that one), is an account of a young Canadian monk’s passage from the novitiate in a Cistercian abbey in Manitoba to a point a bit beyond his final profession.

The young monk’s journey is related through a series of episodes that reveal the details of monastic life as well as the nature of his own struggle to understand what it means to be holy. The death of an elderly monk, the pyromania of another, the amusing visit of a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks, the presence of an fleeing criminal on monastery grounds are all well-told tales with an affectionate eye for detail, as well as careful attention to how these episodes impact the young monk’s spiritual growth. Some readers, however, might be offended by the chapter concerning Brother Antoine’s struggle to understand chastity, since it involves a homosexual infatuation.

All We Know Of Heaven is nicely written, but in a way, it is more of a series of set pieces than an engrossing novel. It’s as if we’re watching a movie when we already know the ending: Yes, the young monk will discover the miraculous in the ordinary, and will leave us with a warm appreciation of life with his brothers. Of course.

A Question Of Faith

For a change, we turn, without thinking about it too much, to a book that doesn’t seem to be about faith at all: It’s called Empire Falls, and we’re reading it because we’re crazy about the author Richard Russo’s other books, especially Nobody’s Fool and Straight Man.

We’re surprised, though, because as we read, we find what we didn’t expect at all in the midst of the fine writing, humor and fully rounded characters we did expect: Mystery and faith jumping out at us from every page.

Empire Falls is, in short, the story of a declining Maine mill town. At the center of the tale is Miles Robey, the manager of the Empire Grill. Miles is, as his name suggests, mild, to an extent that deeply annoys those who love him most. He’s got plenty do deal with: his wife has left him for the proprietor of a local gym, his daughter is feeling displaced and lonely, the local police chief, a childhood enemy, seems to be trailing him for an unknown reason, and the town matriarch, Mrs. Whiting, who owns the abandoned mills as well as the Empire Grill itself, keeps him on a tight leash, which is more than we can say for her cat, who leaves Miles with some kind of wound every time he’s called for an audience with his boss. His only comfort at the moment is the love of his daughter and his Catholic faith, a faith which is drawn in realistically subtle (and respectful) tones throughout the book.

So why does this novel fulfill Ron Hansen’s definition of “faithful” fiction more than the other, more explicitly religiously themed novels? Because it seems a lot more like life, that’s why – a life that’s complicated and rich, sketched with writing that doesn’t manipulate us, but rather draws us into the lives of characters we follow with the hope and compassion their creator obviously feels for them.

In Empire Falls, everyone seems to be grappling with a single question: Do we choose who we are or are we fated to live out our lives in a certain way? And no matter how we answer , what in the world are we supposed to do with who we’ve turned out to be?

It’s a question of meaning, which is of course, in the end, nothing but a question of faith.

Amy Welborn is a popular Catholic author and blogger. Her most recent books include Here and Now and The Words We Pray, which are available on her website. This article was written in 2004.

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