It is little surprise that many agnostic novelists are drawn to religion as a theme: it is dramatic, colourful, and it heightens moral dilemmas. Also, it is simply part of life. And the novelist of course seeks to represent a broad spectrum of human life. Many are inspired by George Eliot’s notion that the novel has a quasi-spiritual power to foster “empathy” between human minds, irrespective of their belief-systems. But can a secular novelist legitimately claim to know what belief is like? Let us here reflect on three of today’s best-selling novelists who take on religion.
One novelist who has praised Eliot’s approach is Zadie Smith. In her collection of essays, Changing My Mind, she calls Eliot “the secular laureate of revelation”, and says: “She seems to care for people, indiscriminately and in their entirety, as it was once said God did.” However, to my mind Smith demonstrates a novel’s limitations as she tries to depict the vibrant dance of contemporary multicultural life.
Her first novel White Teeth features some colourful Christians – including manic Mormons – and an Islamic fundamentalist whose narrow-mindedness is played for laughs.
Her next book, The Autograph Man, features a Chinese-Jewish man, juggling Zen, the Kabbalah and pop-culture obsessions. The Jewish aspect was seen by some as embarrassingly inauthentic. In her next, On Beauty, one of the main characters, Sir Monty Kipps, is a conservative Christian, but his religious faith is overshadowed by his political opinions. Another character, a teenager called Levi (an Old Testament name), discovers an eccentric form of Christian faith – and then more or less drops out of the novel. It feels like an admission of defeat: a religious character becomes unnarratable. As she has matured, Smith seems to have questioned her early ambition to represent others’ beliefs: her most recent novels make less attempt to tackle religion.
Jonathan Franzen has moved the other way. Having only shown moderate interest in religion in his previous writing, he has now embarked on a trilogy of novels in which it is central. The first of these, Crossroads, was published last September. It is set in mid-America around 1970; the story of Russ Hildebrandt, a minister at a liberal Protestant church, who is tempted away from his failing marriage by a flirty divorced parishioner. It’s the sort of territory the late John Updike made his own, but he was deeply interested in Protestant thought. One wonders whether Franzen, an agnostic, is cynically using religion to heighten the titillating drama. But in fact he shares Updike’s interest in the changing face of Protestant culture. We learn that Russ was raised a strict Mennonite, but sought a more politically relevant form of religion; he now tries to interest teens in “modern Christianity’s renaissance in social action”. But he cannot agree with his younger groovier colleague that teenagers should just hang out together. He wants to keep faith at the heart of the pursuit of social justice, but is told that his “metaphysical” prayers are off-putting, as is his awkward style of relating to the kids.
Franzen tells an engaging story about a side of modern religion, but sometimes it feels presumptuous. One is tempted to cry “cultural appropriation”.
You might expect religion to disappear entirely when today’s novelist writes in a more personal, autofictional mode. But interestingly it often still pops up. The latest example is Sally Rooney’s cult hit Beautiful World, Where Are You. Two literary-minded young women compare notes on the world. One of them, Eileen, is romantically involved with a man who is a practising Catholic, and she tells of accompanying him to Mass. She is bemused that there is another side to him, one that she is excluded from, as she finds religion absurd. But soon she asks him whether he prays, and wonders what she would pray about, if she believed.
A bit later, Eileen’s friend Alice, who so far seems just as secular-minded, admits to a deep attraction to “the nobility of Jesus”: “He seems to me to embody a kind of moral beauty, and my admiration for that beauty even makes me want to say that I ‘love’ him, though I’m well aware how ridiculous that sounds.” And then the sentiment is quickly shoved aside. But soon it returns: though she can’t bring herself to believe in God or “absolute morality”, Alice suspects that atheist materialism is no real basis for her belief in personal integrity and the power of art. Does religion just play the role of the handsome priest in the edgy TV comedy Fleabag? Is a flicker of religious interest something that makes a sassy young woman sassier still? I think not: Rooney seems sincerely drawn to religion, and it will be interesting to see where that leads her.
I think that the old-fashioned omniscient novel can look rather tired and shaky when it tackles religion. In Franzen’s skilled hands the result is engaging, but can he really respect these people whose beliefs he does not share? Can he avoid glib clichés? Rooney’s approach, closer to autofiction, feels fresher and more precise.
Ultimately one should give these novelists the benefit of the doubt: in their different ways they are reminding many people, including people with strong secular assumptions, of religion’s depth and force, and maybe even sowing a few surprising seeds.
Theo Hobson is the author of God Created Humanism: The Christian Basis of Secular Values (SPCK Publishing).
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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