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27 November 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:31am

The books of revelations: why are novelists turning back to religion?

There is a sense that, in recent years, novelists have formed part of a rearguard action in response to Richard Dawkins’s New Atheist consensus. Philip Maughan talks to Marilynne Robinson, Francis Spufford and Rowan Williams about God in literature.

By Philip Maughan

Close to the end of White Noise, Don DeLillo’s 1984 novel about a professor of Hitler studies who will do just about anything to ease his fear of dying, an elderly nun reveals the secret truth about faith. “Do you think we are stupid?” she asks Jack Gladney, bleeding from the wrist at a Catholic hospital following a botched murder attempt. “We are here to take care of sick and injured,” the old nun explains in a halting German accent. “Only this. You would talk about heaven, you must find another place.”

All the crosses, devotional images of saints, angels and popes that line the walls of the ward exist merely as set dressing. “The devil, the angels, heaven and hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse,” she says. “As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak.”

“I don’t want to hear this,” Gladney moans. “This is terrible.”

“But true,” the nun says.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the unlikely popularity of religion in contemporary fiction. So far this year we have seen the strange sanctification of a thalidomide victim who died in childhood (Orla Nor Cleary in Nicola Barker’s dazzlingly manic In the Approaches), an avowedly atheist dentist lured to Israel by the leader of an underground sect (Joshua Ferris’s Man Booker-shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour), a high court judge, Fiona Maye, ruling on whether a hospital has the right to administer a life-saving blood transfusion to a teenage Jehovah’s Witness (Ian McEwan’s The Children Act) and, most recently, the voyage of a prim evangelical on a mission to outer space (Michel Faber’s Book of Strange New Things).

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When you consider these alongside the large volume of books about Jesus published in the past few years – Colm Tóibín’s gory reimagining of the Gospels in The Testament of Mary, the enigmatic youth David from J M Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, James Frey’s damaged Ben Zion in The Final Testament and Philip Pullman’s warring twins in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – you get a sense of bewildered fascination, of a sore that continues to itch.

Religion, and Christianity in particular, has become mysterious again. It no longer functions as a shorthand for ideas that everyone recognises. It demands explanation. For novelists, religion provides characters with awkward, counterintuitive ethical commitments (“Would it please God,” Fiona Maye asks the teenager in The Children Act, “to have you blind or stupid and on dialysis for the rest of your life?”). It supplies supple universal themes: covenant, self-sacrifice, prophecy – the lone voice that says “no” when the crowd says “yes” – plenty of ground for conflict and an almost boundless cache of cultural artefacts with which to play. Finally, it offers something that might fairly be described as “the sacramental”.

“How many novels, one way or another, end with a solitary person going to build a cairn on a hillside, or laying a sandwich on their dead wife’s grave?” asks Francis Spufford, a senior lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London and the author of Unapologetic, a book about the emotional intelligibility of 21st-century Christianity. “It’s the unwitnessed, self-invented ritual act which we are to understand as carrying the weight of human meaning, a kind of opening to the numinous, even if we don’t want to talk about what the numinous might be.”

I spoke to Spufford in a small coffee shop tucked under the concourse at Liverpool Street Station in London. His wife, Jessica Martin, is an Anglican priest. When I brought up DeLillo’s German nun – “The non-believers need the believers. They are desperate to have someone believe” – he recognised the sentiment. “Vicarious belief is one of the things the Church does for post-Christian Britain,” he says. “It’s a very familiar pattern in my wife’s ministry: that people who don’t believe are glad that she does. It means something for them, and their dead, to be prayed for.

“Possibly one of the things that is happening is a reckoning with the fact that Christianity might actually vanish. It’s no longer, ‘Do I want the nasty nuns to stop lecturing me about sex?’ Of course you do. But: ‘Do I want it to be gone?’ That’s a different question.”

There is also a sense that, in recent years, novelists have formed part of a rearguard action in response to the New Atheist consensus that emerged after Richard Dawkins’s God Delusion was published in 2006. The aggressive incuriosity and self-righteousness exhibited by the more militant end of the movement seemed to devalue the freedom of thought required to write a novel. “I never quite understood why you would read fiction to understand the human condition,” Dawkins surprised nobody by saying in 2013. One other thing that unites writers with believers is a sense that the truth can be story-shaped.

“It’s extremely hard to convince a New Atheist polemicist that the standard way of understanding scripture is one that allows for it to be metaphorical,” Spufford said. “It’s the fundamentalists who claim the Bible is a handbook or a scientific treatise who are the marginal ones.”

Deterministic ideas, whether theological, political or scientific, produce novels in which destinies are sewn up and moral questions tidily resolved. When Nick Hornby read Gilead, the second novel by the American writer Marilynne Robinson, he wrote in the Believer magazine: “For the first time I understood the point of Christianity – or at least, I understood how it might be used to assist thought.” He is not the only one for whom that book has had the effect of a conversion (James Wood in the New Yorker was reduced to “a fond mumbling”) – not a conversion to Christianity, of course, but to a new understanding of religion’s place in human culture and intellectual activity.

“Serious religious thought brings one to the farthest limits of the articulable,” Robinson, who has just published her fourth novel, Lila, told me recently. “A good analogy would be to the best contemporary science. In both cases the vastness of reality is assumed, and the value of pondering the imponderable assumed also. Religion interprets the cosmos in the light of the human presence in it, not only as observer and interpreter, or as an extreme instance of the refinements of which evolution is capable, but as protagonist, collectively and as individuals.”

Novelists seek out what is challenging, knotty and intractable and seek to transfer that energy on to the page. This is what Chekhov referred to as the task for all writers: not so much the solving of a problem, but its proper presentation. In McEwan’s novel, the religious world-view is presented as straightforwardly wrong. The transfusion case is foreshadowed early in the book by two others – Haredi Jews squabbling over their daughter’s religious education, devout Catholics who must separate Siamese twins – in which, the author makes clear, deluded parents needed to be straightened out by the secular court. The narrative often defers to dry legal precedents, downgrading the motivations of its characters and reducing the possibility of tension. The book suffers because McEwan fails to appreciate the complexity of the problem.

Robinson’s first three novels – Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004) and Home (2008) – are close readings of seemingly unremarkable lives set in Idaho, the state where Robinson was born, and Iowa, where she now lives and teaches at the Writers’ Workshop. Her characters are basically unknown outside their rural settings, where they nonetheless dwell on many of the same questions vexing the nation at large, whether political, spiritual or moral. The former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams believes it is her development of robust, coherent voices, “rubbing up against each other”, that prevent Robinson’s books from becoming one-sided narratives, written “from the inside”.

In last year’s Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, Williams described the part that language plays in defining our understanding of the universe, and God. “To recognise fictional representations of human agents is to recognise the ignorance we share with them and the terrible fallibility of self-representation,” he said. On a wet October afternoon I took the train up to Cambridge to ask Williams, now Master of Magdalene College, what else ties religion to fiction.

“It’s extremely important that Christian scripture is irreducibly in narrative form, and plural narrative form,” he said. “It’s not one text. It’s lots of texts. And to add to the Russian-doll picture, the Gospels are stories about someone who tells stories. The growth of the novel came out of a strong sense that there are things you can only communicate in narrative shape.”

But how might this apply to a writer less concerned than Robinson with matters of faith? Karl Ove Knausgaard, best known for his sprawling novel-cum-memoir My Struggle, spent two years as an adviser to scholars retranslating the Bible into modern Norwegian. “It was there I learned to read,” he told the Paris Review, explaining how the endlessly unspooling sentences of My Struggle were inspired by the Old Testament, where “everything is concrete, nothing is abstract. God is concrete, the angels are concrete, and everything else has to do with bodies in motion, what they say, what they do, but never what they think.”

Before My Struggle, Knausgaard published A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, a 518-page novel about the history of angels, based on the research of a fictional Renaissance scholar who saw two “wild and lamenting” winged creatures as a boy. In the course of the book (which will be republished in English next year as A Time for Everything) Knausgaard reimagines the stories of Cain and Abel and Noah and the flood, set against a Scandinavian landscape of fjords, pine forests and roving deer. With God’s death in the body of Jesus, the divine ceases to communicate to humanity. The angels, God’s messengers, assume the form of seagulls. They wind up stranded on the Norwegian coast, where they are observed by an intense young man, Henrik Vankel, in hiding after the death of his father: the very event that inaugurates My Struggle.

Vankel, who takes over the narration at this point, places emphasis on the “thoroughly animated world, where I sensed the special personality and presence of every­thing”. The section that closes the book resembles nature writers – Annie Dillard, Roger Deakin, Philip Hoare – in its acute observations and latent spirituality. Knausgaard has spoken of the Protestant influence on his writing, mainly in its barrier of “deep shame”, and it is curious that religion provided the means for him to overcome it, at least in part, before the blistering honesty of My Struggle.

In her Pulitzer-winning debut, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote:

It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly at its hem.

Perhaps this would stand as a definition of the most compelling engagement with religion in modern fiction – not “miracles from on high [which] interfere with choice, chance, destiny or paragraph endings”, as Tóibín wrote in his review of Lila in the London Review of Books, but a more scientific, receptive and mystical kind of writing. Robinson, writing about Dillard’s most recent novel, The Maytrees, coined the term “cosmic realism” to describe a literature that evokes the mystery and grandeur of time and nature. The movement towards that state of awe is captured in A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven, which engages imaginatively with scripture and theology without demanding assent to either.

In Lila, the question of assent is fundamental. Lila wrestles with her newfound status as an “insider” after she marries Gilead’s Congregationalist minister and moves into his settled house. Her earlier life had been among migrant labourers, and for some time in a St Louis brothel. She copies out lines from the Bible, returning repeatedly to a passage in Ezekiel where Jerusalem is depicted as an infant, “weltering in thy blood”, to whom God says simply, “Live.” “It isn’t that it has to be right or edifying,” Rowan Williams says of this scene, “it’s just that it pours in and sheds light from all angles. Suddenly Lila sees her life interpreted, reflected in new ways.”

Williams argues that these kinds of “linguistic extremity” have the effect of dispossessing us in some way, leading to new perceptions. “Any kind of verbal art is meant to slow you down – to say: stop and look again, or listen again,” he says. “You think you’ve heard that, or seen it, but actually you haven’t. You haven’t even begun. Anything we call the sacred – never mind whether somebody is coming at it from a confessional point of view – involves that sort of backing away.”

Robinson’s use of the Bible, however, is about not backing away but identifying with the worst kinds of human suffering. “It is as if a truly sacred book should be more polite, a little less insistent on bringing up painful subjects,” she says. In Lila she examines the idea that “the importance of these subjects in scripture means that scripture is very largely addressed to those who know this side of experience, those who labour and are heavy laden, those who mourn, who hunger and thirst. Lila discovers that her life is acknowledged in the Bible, together with the lives of everyone she has cared for.”

Another reason for the upsurge in writing about religion may lie in the failure of a convincing anti-capitalist discourse to emerge after the financial crisis. “One of the problems for a post-Christian age is what on earth to do with the figure of Jesus who – ha ha! – just won’t stay buried,” Spufford says, unsure whether or not to be pleased with his pun. Even after we dispense with the miracles, the figure of Christ remains attractive because, as history has shown, he cannot be reduced to a single narrative account of what a person should be, but can be incorporated into several others. “Many consider him the last bit of demolition work that needs to be done [to rid Britain of religion], precisely because he is opposed to a utilitarian account of people: the figure of Jesus resists speaking in terms of prudence or cost-benefit analysis about individuals of limitless value.”

Although this is not an exclusively religious position, it is one that might prove useful to novelists intent on muddying the water, on making humanity mysterious again. It amounts to a re-engagement with what Lila refers to as “the wildness of things”. 

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