This is the way that Paul Elie, in an essay in the New York Times, describes the state of faith in novels:
“Belief as upbringing, belief as social fact, belief as a species of American weirdness: our literary fiction has all of these things. All that is missing is the believer.”
I’d call what Paul Elie is describing as “nonreligious religious” fiction. This fiction bears all the markers of religion—churches, people, prejudices, rituals—yet none of the reasoning or reflection. Belief forms part of the matrix, but only as yet another cultural artifact, taking an equal place alongside politics, sex, and power (To use the terms of postmodernism, it is a petite narrative rather than a metanarrative). It has no supernatural, no redemptive or transformative power (Elie says it has no “explanatory” power). In this type of fiction, the religious more frequently lean toward evil than good. Although characters might define their identity by a religious marker, this marker offers no weight, makes no positive demands, and poses no thorny conundrums. It’s religion, neutered.
The patron saint of such nonreligious religious writing is J.G. Powers, who, although he wrote almost exclusively about Catholic men of the cloth, focused on their external factors rather than the internal, the desire for promotion and petty jealousy rather than the internal movements of faith. What you have are short stories with all the trappings of religion but none of its power. Even though the characters are religious, what is at stake is not. The effect ends up being a rather harsh critique of these saints, who are defenseless without any rich inner life to bolster them.
Elie rightly points out Marilynne Robinson as a counterpoint to his theory, for both in Gilead and in Home she presents a religious character in the round, making her normal character likeable in his full flush of religious beliefs. Far fewer novelists follow her lead because it’s just too difficult, as Elie points out: “The writer realizes just how hard it is to make belief believable.” It’s much easier, from a craft point of view, to write about Anarchristians (the word alone represents so many delicious narrative possibilities) than it is to write about a normal, unexceptional believer. This is why so many missionary stories end up with the missionary committing suicide, abandoning faith, or illicit sex—because in narrative, it’s much easier to represent a fall from holiness than it is to have a revered, holy figure increase in holiness.
How did we get here?
This state isn’t unique to fiction, for religious thought has been exiled to our cultural margins. It makes people extremely uncomfortable to discuss religious positions—it’s much easier to talk about sex, politics, and even money—and that discomfort in life has spilled over into fiction. At least in certain quadrants of society, the mantle of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been shifted to the shoulders of a new population—the religious.
Where do we go?
I cannot envision a resurrection of realist religious fiction. Marilynne Robinson aside, I cannot even image its possibility. The power and the future of religious fiction lies in the surreal, in the strange, in the magical, in the mysterious. Some of my favorite writers that broach religious topics are Chris Adrian and Pinckney Benedict; the former who wrote of the Noah’s ark-like novel Children’s Hospital, and the latter who writes of professional animal exorcists and daredevil motorcyclist preachers. We need religious fiction that does not merely replay the stylistic approaches of previous generations because we live in a new age, with new neurosis about frank religious dialogue and new cultural guidelines, and this requires a new vision.