The novelist as a doubting Christian

April 17, 2014
Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2014
Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2014

As Christians prepare to celebrate Easter, the new issue of Virginia Quarterly Review offers an essay by Carlene Bauer called “A Difficult Balance: Some Thoughts on the Intersection of Faith and Fiction.” It’s a searching, candid piece about the discomfort of hovering between certainties.

Raised in an evangelical tradition, Bauer begins her reflections in the New York church where she once converted to Catholicism. She sits in the cathedral not so much hungry for God’s presence as nostalgic for it. Just as the homily seems about to offer her comfort, she feels the prick of exclusivity in the priest’s words that drove her from the pews years ago. A firm believer in the open table, Bauer confesses that she’s “easily discouraged at the first sound of exclusion or judgment. . . . Everything in me flinches at the certainties and sanctimony, and I think no, I can’t go back.”

But for Bauer, the orthodoxy of unbelief is no easier to adopt. “I want to believe,” she writes, “because doubt is unbearable.” Prompted to think about the faithful nature of her work, she begins to realize that writing fiction is, for her, a kind of prayer, even though “the literary novel, current American edition, does not seem to be where we go to work out our relation to the numinous.”

For a time, Bauer’s essay wanders in the wilderness, speculating about the treatment of romance in American fiction and the way it corresponds to contemporary novelists’ skeptical regard for faith. That’s a fascinating line of criticism, but it needs more room than she gives it here. This is an ongoing conversation, of course, picking up from Paul Elie’s essay in the New York Times “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” (2012). Michael Cunningham’s “The Snow Queen,” coming May 6, about a lapsed Catholic who experiences a celestial vision in Central Park, is sure to inspire more discussion of these issues.

Bauer is most eloquent on the quandary of being a sophisticated liberal in a society that regards faith – and even unsettled doubt – as a kind of personal embarrassment, like believing in leprechauns. “Educated to think critically at all times, I’m hesitant to announce a lingering curiosity about the possible existence of a benevolent, miraculous beyond,” she writes. “Religious doubt in particular is still seen as a kind of sin – the sin of not taking a side that has infected our political discourse. . . . It’s much easier to explain why you are or are emphatically not religious than to admit to want for a God you are not sure exists.”

For Christians waiting – expectantly, faithfully, skeptically – through the days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, this thoughtful essay has special resonance. Anyone interested in the deepest spirit of fiction will find something here worth pondering, too.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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