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When I was a campus minister at Michigan State University I was in a small group that met weekly to discuss religious fiction. (Thank you will, Steve, Amy, and anyone else it that group.) We read a work of fiction each week, and met to talk about it. I always left feeling filled with insights and understandings and different questions. Fiction can express things non-fiction cannot say. There's a time for metaphor when, as Philip Wheelwright said, the steel nets of literal language fail.
There I met Shusaku Endo, and his novel "Silence." Is "Silence" the greatest book I have ever read? Maybe.
We read Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Updike and Walker Percy, Doestoevsky, and Tolstoy.
We dined on the works of Annie Dillard. Her "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" remains one of the top ten books I have ever read. And "An Expedition to the Pole" is forever carved on the spiral walls of my DNA.
We read Flannery O'Connor.
I am filled with memories of those discussions which, in me, began years before that as J.P. introduced me to C.S. Lewis. We met weekly to discuss our common faith as expressed in fantasy, and Lewis's heart-breaking, revelatory Till We Have Faces.
Today's nytimes has a beautiful, fictive essay by Paul Elie entitled "Has Fiction Lost its Faith?" If you are a Jesus-follower who loves and looks for fictive expressions of the fact of Christ and our shared religious experience, you need to read this.
Elie writes: "If any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. 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,” their would-be successors are thin on the ground."
Elie surveys the religious fiction landscape and uncovers what is now there, and the shape it takes. He writes:
"Where has the novel of belief gone?
The obvious answer is that it has gone where belief itself has gone. In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether."
This is correct. Yet there are significant pockets of Jesus-following among the young. I am in touch with some of this.
Read Elie's beautiful essay.
Pray for the coming of the next Flannery O'Connor.