Learning to Say “God”: Christianity in Recent Literature

Among Winter Cranes
The Quarterly of the Christian Poetics Initiative
Vol. 2 Issue 3
Summer 2019

Learning to Say “God”: Christianity in Recent Literature
By William Gonch

William Gonch is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at the University of Maryland, where he works on religion and secularity in 20th Century American Literature. His dissertation, Religion, Secularity, and Postsecular Interpretation in 20th Century American Literature, investigates the influence of modernism and the social sciences on religious literature in the 20th Century and argues for using the metaphor of translation to understand how religious writers interacted with a secularizing literary marketplace. 

Christian symbolism is all over recent fiction. The protagonist of Toni Morrison’s Beloved is saved from possession in a moment explicitly compared to a baptism. The end of Don DeLillo’s White Noise shows us an old German nun who does not believe in God but tells the protagonist that our world still needs to think that people believe. David Foster Wallace’s portraits of Alcoholics Anonymous repurpose the Christian language of sin, redemption, and dependence on God, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy puts the dramas of forgiveness and repentance at the center of its plot.

Nevertheless, Christian ideas—as opposed to symbols—are hard to find in recent fiction. In 2012, Paul Elie claimed that “Christian language figures into literary fiction in our place and time…as something between a dead language and a hangover…Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what O’Connor called ‘Christian convictions,’” few writers write as they did (Has Fiction Lost its Faith, NYT 12/19/2012). The realities that animate Christian lives—grace, sacrifice, forgiveness, doubt, conversion—don’t animate much recent fiction. Instead, Christian symbols and even ideas serve as cultural signals to locate a novel in a particular time and place. The Eucharist might indicate a Catholic culture in the way that worn booths and chipped plates in a diner indicate a lower-class setting, but the Eucharist is no more important than the plates. Alternately, Christianity can serve its accustomed role as the rigid and authoritarian culture against which the protagonist rebels. But if Christianity persists as a period piece and an object of rebellion, why is it so hard to find it as a live presence in our fiction?

“Faith in Faith”

Of the many reasons for this, I’d like to focus on one: what the critic Amy Hungerford called “faith in faith.” Hungerford suggests that the faith informing recent American literature is not Christianity but a kind of religious trust in the act of faith itself. Christian symbols and practices proliferate, but they no longer carry their original meaning. They become in a sense interchangeable, so that literary representations of Christianity come to resemble President Eisenhower’s line explaining the relationship between religion and American democracy: “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” The act of faith, not its content, matters.

Faith in faith poses an unusual challenge to Christian writers because it admits the trappings of Christianity while quietly replacing its content, or indeed, as Hungerford argues, emptying faith of content. Our problem is strangely like one found in Samuel R. Delany’s science fiction novel Babel-17. The protagonist, Rydra Wong, meets a character with a murderous past, known only as “the Butcher,” whose native language contains no words for “I” or “you.” This lack has robbed him of the ability to recognize that he has a self, that others have selves, and that all these selves have dignity and deserve respect. Rydra begins to teach him about personal pronouns, and in a wonderful scene he mixes them up, thinking that “I” always refers to Rydra and “you” to him. He tells his story in disorienting language: “Lonely on Rhea, you were, even with all the money. Lonelier on Dis; and in Titin, even with the other prisoners, you were loneliest of all. No one really understood when you spoke to them. You did not really understand them. Maybe because they said I and you so much, and you just now are beginning to learn how important you are and I am” (157). By confusing these words and their referents and forcing us to decode their dialogue, Delany asks us to take a hard look at what we mean when we say “I” and “you.”

The word “God” can be as indeterminate and disorienting as Rydra’s “I” or “you.” It means something so much greater and more specific than the impression it makes on our minds when we hear it or read it that we pass on without pausing to register Whom we mean. And it is used to mean so many things. For many people it means a super-powerful entity who watches us—basically Zeus except there is only one of Him. For others it is purely a metaphor, standing for their wonder or for a felt connection with the world, as it becomes for Emerson: “I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (Nature, Chapter 1). 

The same thing is true of many Christian words, symbols, and experiences. “Sin,” when it doesn’t merely mean “sex,” often means something like “breaking the rules.” It’s no surprise that the word sounds silly and outmoded, but the decayed meaning of sin makes it hard to represent the sense that we are meant for more than the way we have lived. For Christians, God and sin are things in the world. If they become nothing more than a particular culture’s expression of the universal sense that our lives have meaning and we should have faith in something, they have stopped meaning themselves. Faith in faith, then, becomes a strategy for excluding Christian teaching and experience while pretending to include it; it is the shape of our secularity. 

This problem has been around for a while; when Matthew Arnold suggested that poetry could replace religion he expressed a version of this same repurposing of religious language. Despite this legacy, which empties religious terms of their substance, we can turn to Christian writers of the 20th Century who invented new literary forms to translate words like “God,” “grace,” and “freedom” into English while upholding their meaning. Flannery O’Connor’s greatness rests largely in her ability to represent grace, baptism, and prophecy as things new and strange; when in “A Circle in the Fire” she retells the story of Nebuchadnezzar and the three Jewish men in the furnace, for example, she tells it from Nebuchadnezzar’s perspective and conveys his sheer incomprehension at God’s act. Willa Cather represents secular intellectuals whose attempts to understand Christianity founder; the brilliant Godfrey St. Peter of The Professor’s House never really understands his devout, peasant-pious Catholic seamstress, but she saves his life anyway.

Similarly, perhaps the great challenge for Christian writers today who would write against a ‘faith in faith’ perspective is to suspend comprehension, to prevent us from hurrying on toward what we “know” Christian symbols and experience must mean. For in that slowing down we might read the “law” that Chesterton said is “written in the darkest books of life”—that “if you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” (The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Chapter 2).

William Gonch
Ph.D. Candidate, English
University of Maryland
wgonch@gmail.com

Image Credit:

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Momoyogusa = Flowers of a Hundred Generations.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-cb13-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99