Literary Loss of Faith: Literary Criticism as Doomsaying

I noticed the article Has Fiction Lost Its Faith? by Paul Elie in The New York Times. It initially interested me, but the more I thought about it I felt irritated by it. I did like the idea about making belief believable, as Flannery O’Connor originally explained it.

What irritated me was the simplistic conclusion. It reminded me of the articles I constantly come across about the world coming to an end in some way or another. Books will disappear and along with it reading. Before that, people worried books would make oral culture disappear. Before that, people worried oral culture would make cave paintings disappear. People used to fear-monger about how the first land-line telephones would destroy American society and corrupt the youth. Then they said that about the television, and then cable, and then the internet.

It just goes on and on endlessly. The world is always ending and yet it never ends. The world of faith, of miracles, of gods ruling on earth, of humans and animals as a brotherhood, of the fairyland still being accessible, etc; all of it is always in the past, always declining, always disappearing. For as long as civilization has existed, there have been prophets of doom proclaiming the decline of civilization or some particular tradition.  It has been millennia of failed predictions and disproven criticisms.

This article expresses a related kind of rhetoric. The hypothesis stated as fact is that faith is disappearing from literature and that this somehow implies a deeper problem or malaise, a societal corruption or moral decline or weakening of serious thought, or something like that. People have been worrying about the loss of faith at least since the Protestant Reformation and probably long before that. This obsession is particularly strong in America where religion has had some of the strongest roots in all the world. If faith truly was weakening, no one would even write an article like this or want to read it because no one would give a flying fuck.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m neither religious nor anti-religious. It’s not the substance of the argument that annoys me, rather the style and structure of it. It’s so simplistic and predictable, so tired and cliché. If society is collapsing from internal decay, it is weak journalism like this that is a sign of the coming apocalypse… except journalism has always been this way, as long as journalism has existed… so, I guess no apocalypse for the time being. I’ve always thought that if and when civilization finally collapses or modern Western society declines to a point of no return, it probably would come from a confluence of events and conditions that no one would or could foresee.

I doubt that there are fewer authors of faith. A better query might be: Have the literary gatekeepers lost their faith? If the great Christian writers of the past were writing today, would they be published by the major publishing companies, would the mainstream critics review their works, and would they make it on Oprah’s book club list?

Then again, I don’t even know that those are good questions. This article, after all, was published in the mainstream media. It is a literary gatekeeper who, in his dual role as journalist and fiction writer, is complaining about this literary loss of faith. It’s like Republicans claiming other Republicans are secret Democrats for not being right-wing enough or nationally viewed MSM pundits complaining about the MSM being liberally biased. It’s a rhetorical trick to manipulate one’s audience.

In this case, the critic of literary loss of faith is setting the stage for his upcoming novel about faith. This means he is offering the solution to the problem he portrays as a threat. How convenient.

In criticism of the article, the following are two good responses.

D.G. Myers writes in The Novel of Belief:

It is not immediately clear why a setting in the past should disqualify any novel from the category “of belief.” Perhaps the greatest religious novel ever written by an American—Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop—is also set in the past. [ . . . ] There have been enough historical novels of religious faith written by Americans that Elie’s demand for contemporaneity begins to seem arbitrary.

[ . . . ] Elie also stipulates that the novel of belief be a novel of Christian belief, which leaves out of account the remarkable turn toward religion on the part of Jewish novelists [ . . . ]

There is no possible stipulation, however, which can explain Elie’s neglect of Christopher R. Beha’s extraordinary What Happened to Sophie Wilder. I’ve called the novel a modern saint’s life. It has everything Elie is looking for—the living language of religious faith, a distinct and conclusive personal transformation under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the acceptance of religion’s explanatory power, a commitment to the established Church instead of the Do-It-Yourself religiosity that so many Americans seem to prefer, an ethical quandary that is directly caused by Christian faith, an emphatic and unembarrassed Roman Catholic character, and best of all, it is entirely contemporary in its setting—but its author is young and not yet famous (he will be), his publisher is a small house (not like Elie’s own Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and it does nothing whatever to confirm the trend away from novelistic belief which Elie is at such pains to illustrate. Even worse, Beha’s novel may be part of a countervailing trend toward anew Catholic fiction, which rejects the literary Catholicism of Flannery O’Connor for predecessors like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh instead.

Abe Rosenzweig comments (from an article by Dominic Preziosi):

To be honest, this is the sort of “trend piece” one expects from the Times. He sort of takes a James Woodsian tour of recent fiction (Delillo! McCarthy!), meaning that he seems stuck on Big House publications, and his dismissal of Robinson seems wholly contrived along the rather arbitrary parameter that works set in the past must be dismissed (seriously, Robinson is one of the most lauded of contemporary authors, and her work is driven by Christianity; his rejection of her is just silly). Also, of course, is the simple fact that he’s not actually interested in works dealing with faith, but rather works that deal with (and are motivated by) Christian faith (equating “faith” with “Christian” is, of course, a typically Christian move).

I also find myself wondering what the point of the piece is. I don’t see how it could really be part of a program (reinvigorating Christian literature?); it seems to just be another soft lament for the fact that the Sikhs are next door.




3 thoughts on “Literary Loss of Faith: Literary Criticism as Doomsaying

  1. Doncha think humans are hardwired both to seek novelty and to fear it? Holding onto “what is” in fear of “what’s next” is, to me, just part of human nature, to the extent there is such a thing.
    Or, in Spiral Dynamics terms, we could say that Blue always will bemoan any departure from “tradition.”
    I am glad you are analyzing and highlighting, because it’s always good to be expanding awareness, even about stuff that is inevitable for some people — it might not be inevitable for others — and your irritation is harmful biochemicals in your body, LOL!
    Blessings to you and wishes for a most wondrous and delightful 2013, Ben!!

    • You’d think that I’d have a more accepting attitude about such things. It’s so freakingly predictable as to merit no more than a yawn.

      I suppose seeking and fearing novelty is part of human nature. But then again no more a part of human nature than my irritation in response to it. Maybe there will always be the complainers. And maybe there will always be those like me complaining about the complaining…. at least until civilization does actually collapse and there will be no more than a whimper, so I’ve heard.

      It’s the way of nature. Don’t fight it. Everyone has to play their part in the big melodramatic stage of life. Onward civilization, may the game play on! ;I would respond in kind and tell you blessings as well for 2013, but everyone knows the world is ending this year… just a few more days left. 😉

  2. There are two points I was thinking about after writing this.

    First, the doomsayers are probably missing the forest for the trees. People complain about the obvious things which usually are the inconsequential things. Meanwhile, it is the thing you don’t see that will most likely get you.

    I already said that in the post and I think it needs emphasizing. When you focus on this problem or this change, you’ll overlook the major shifts that are so hard (if not impossible) to discern because we all are part of such shifts. The world is always changing and their is no objective vantage point or neutral position.

    Second, what the doomsayers get particularly wrong is often about change itself. Change can be good or bad. Even seemingly bad change in and of itself probably isn’t worthy of doomsaying. Change is change, no one knowing what will become beforehand.

    What we can be certain about is that humans are adaptable. That is the crux of the matter. It’s not necessarily that some change will come along to which we won’t be able to adapt. I suspect the ultimate human failing is that we can adapt to almost anything. We come to adaptability challenges because of all the numerous adaptations we made along the way in getting to that point.

    I’m willing to bet that humans could still survive after destroying nearly all life on earth. The question is would we want to survive after that happening. But the question would be moot because such a hypothetical future would include people who didn’t know the world prior to the change. We adapt so well because our memory is so short.

    Our short memories is also the reason we keep repeating the same basic prophecies of doom, each time creating entertaining visions of apocalypse.

    This maybe brings me to a third point.

    People seek visions of apocalypse because they are looking for meaning. Because they have failed to find meaning in their lives, they seek it in melodrama writ large. Emotion becomes our replacement for meaning… for it is easier to evoke emotion than to live a life of meaning in the mundane details of existence.

    Life is mundane. Most people live lives of boredom because they have created lives of boredom. The thing about boredom is it feels safe. The problem is comforting safety is built on a resistance to change. So we envision apocalypse as the ultimate change that can’t be denied or avoided, a deus ex machina to save us from the narrative corner we’ve written ourselves into.

    This is why our complaints are so often petty and predictable. Looking at the big picture of actual reality is daunting. It demands courage and innovative thought.

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