The Protestant Novel?

This post got me thinking about whether Protestantism has produced novelists the way that Roman Catholicism allegedly has. For instance, several months ago Dana Gioia wrote about “the Catholic writer”:

Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints. (It is not only that sinners generally make more interesting protagonists. Their failings also more vividly demonstrate humanity’s fallen state.) John Kennedy Toole’s ? A Confederacy of Dunces , for example, presents a huge cast of characters, lost souls or reprobates all, who, pursuing their assorted vices and delusions, hilariously stumble toward grace and provisional redemption. The same dark comic vision pervades the novels of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess, and Muriel Spark. Ron Hansen’s Atticus begins with the investigation of a murder. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is full of resentment, violence, and anger. “Good and evil appear to be joined in every culture at the spine,” she observed, and violence is “strangely capable” of returning her characters “to reality and preparing them to accept their moments of grace.” When Mary Karr titled her poetry collection Sinners Welcome , she could have been describing the Catholic literary tradition.

Perhaps the problem is that Protestants are too devout and guard what qualifies as genuinely Christian while non-Protestant Christians are more used to the big tent of mixing and matching. That old irony of Roman Catholics accusing Protestantism of antinomianism when three fingers are pointing back at the accuser.

But what about John Updike? The Wikipedia page on Protestant novelists includes him under Congregationalists along with Jonathan Edwards; I had not realized that Religious Affections was fictional. (I feel better.) But David Lodge thought otherwise:

David Lodge suggested that “If there was ever such a species as the Protestant novelist…Mr. Updike may be its last surviving example.” His preachers, as literary characters, certainly reflect the diversity and complexity of late-twentieth-century mainstream American Protestantism while continuing an American literary tradition of problematic preachers, a lineage extending at least from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Arthur Dimmesdale to Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry to James Baldwin’s John Grimes, to highlight but a few examples. Consider the dueling conceptions of ecclesiology and clerical authority represented in the Lutheran Fritz Kruppenbrach (a Barthian in no uncertain terms who appears in Rabbit, Run) and his foil, the young, personable, and disconcertingly pastoral Jack Eccles (who turns up throughout the Rabbit Tetralogy). Consider Updike’s conflicted lothario Tom Marshfield (whose own relationship to a certain “Ms. Prynne” invokes Dimmesdale and the Scarlet Letter) in A Month of Sundays (1975), or the Presbyterian preacher Clarence Wilmot from In the Beauty of the Lillies (1996), who undergoes a crisis of faith and yet continues to peddle both “the word” and “cosmology” as an encyclopedia salesman. Updike’s preachers are ordained to God’s service, yet continually compelled by the messy, and corporeal, limitations that confront humankind. For an author whose sexually charged narrative communicates a coherent and strident theological vision, one can’t help but find some kindred sympathy between Updike as a wordsmith and his own ministers of “the Word.”

Or maybe the paucity of Protestant novelists is really a vindication of 2k. Protestants intuitively know (but often refuse to admit) that novels don’t need to be Christian, that the question of whether a novel is Christian is actually silly. Some of the worst novels have tried to be redemptive, while some of the best don’t make the slightest reference to religion, let along sin and grace.


35 thoughts on “The Protestant Novel?

  1. I suppose that most readers of Oldlife probably know about this volume but they might not know that Always Reformed contains an essay by Oldlife contributor, John Muether on Updike. It’s also available for Kindle on Amazon. It’s all about me, well, my books but since it’s also always about Darryl he has an excellent essay on Machen’s Warrior Children in the same volume. Here endeth the shameless plug.


  2. Is there really a paucity of Protestant novelists? There are the commercially successful superstars like J.K. Rowling (church of Scotland) and John Grisham (Baptist), the middlebrow detective novelists such as P.D. James (Anglican) and Dorothy Sayers (Christy, Marsh, and Allingham are all Anglican as well presumably), and then there are the high brow types like Upton and Robinson (what is it with Congregationalists?). I’ve always thought the amazing productivity of the Catholic novelists was overrated.


  3. Marilynne Robinson is a professed Calvin lover–and written defender of him, with a Pulitzer prize to boot for “Gilead,” which is rich with theology. Maybe she proves the exception to the rule, but it’s a pretty powerful exception.


  4. None of these writers were writing “Roman Catholic” or “Anglican” or “Baptist” novels. They were writing good stories. Christian is a noun, not an adjective.

    What I am interested in knowing is, what is a good theological story (sound writing AND sound theology)? Those are very hard to come by. Pilgrims Progress and Hammer of God are the only two I can think of.


  5. ‘Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car”, by John Updike

    “Taken purely as a human recreation, what could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean for use one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison and sing and recite creeds and petitions that are like paths worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts?….Belief builds itself unconsciously and in consciousness is spent.”


  6. A thread that goes on for this long without mentioning “CS Lewis” feels like a trap. But the real answer, of course, is LaHaye & Jenkins.


  7. @Katy I think P.D. James’s “The Children of Men” is a theological novel. Her work isn’t exactly in the same class as Updike or Robinson perhaps, but it isn’t LaHaye either.


  8. 1. I thought Updike grew up Lutheran and lived as an Episcopalian.

    2. I tried a Robinson novel, and I just couldn’t complete it. Too sentimental.

    3. Yes, you don’t need to bring religion into a work of fiction. Fiction either rings true to life and experience or it doesn’t. But what would Updike be if it were not for the religious angst of his writing?


  9. Bill,
    Robinson’s novel was “too sentimental”? Good grief, you could say that of Tolstoy’s stuff as well. “Gilead” is about the most perfectly put-together novel I’ve read in a long time.


  10. RE: C.S. Lewis, I think the real question is not, where are the Protestant Novelists, but where are the Reformed Novelists. Our history of iconoclasm seems to have infected non-visual art as well. Marylinne Robinson, and Frederick Buechner are the only names I can think of.


  11. Well, Rube, there is an OPC type of guy who is a respectable author, Larry Woiwode. Check him out.


  12. Maybe Bill Smith is too young yet to appreciate the two old preachers in Gilead and Home, but I would encourage the rest of you to read the first two novels by Robinson, since the third is coming out in October.

    LIla, the third of three novels set in the fictional plains town of Gilead, Iowa, is a masterpiece of prose in the service of the moral seriousness that distinguishes Robinson’s work. This time the narrative focuses on Lila, the young bride of elderly Reverend Ames, first met in Gilead.


  13. As much talk as there’s been of Robinson, it’s questionable whether she can even qualify. There is a striking passage in her book Death of Adam where she says something to the effect that she doesn’t really identify as a believer, but when out of town, she nevertheless finds herself driving all night to be home for church on Sunday morning. It’s a passage that’s always left me ill-at-ease.


  14. Christopher, well that is a big question. If someone isn’t a Protestant or Roman Catholic in good standing, is your novel religious? And if your own communion has higher standards for fellowship than another where things are loose, it might be easy to cherry pick the looser Christians for your side.


  15. Rube, ding. It’s the particularly bad story telling of the NT that may drive some to make up for it in images like “The Passion of the Christ.”


  16. Stanley Hauerwas’ 1988 book, Christian Existence Today, “Taking Time for Peace: The Ethical Significance of the Trivial”

    “We do have an alternative to the desperation that fuels our fear of war. That alternative is, quite simply, the need to reclaim the significance of the trivial. For it is my belief that there is no more powerful response to totalitarians than ….refusing to let the transformationists claim every aspect of our life as politically significant… Therefore there is noting more important for us to do in the face of the threat of war than to go on living – that is, to take time to enjoy a walk with a friend, to read all of Trollope’s novels, to maintain universities, to have and care for children, and most importantly, to worship God. (256)

    “Peace creates time by its steadfast refusal to force another to submit in the name of order. Peace is not a static state but an activity which requires constant attention and care…. We know how to characterize duration only by noting that we did this first, and then this second, and so on, until we either get somewhere or accomplished this or that task. So peace is the process through which we make time our own rather than be determined by “events” over which, it is alleged, we have no control. (p. 258)


  17. Literary historians have argued for some time that the genre of the novel is a protestant phenomenon – it emerges within late c17th dissent (Pilgrim’s Progress being cited as the first notable example), continues through Defoe and I would argue comes into full blossom with the rise of the Gothic, which in its earliest phases is all about describing European Catholicism as everything that British protestantism is not.


  18. Bill Smith on Updike—

    n my opinion this kind goeth not out by Van Til. You don’t pull Wilmot back from the brink by telling him he must begin by assuming the whole Bible and every tenet of the Christian faith or he will never get his faith back. Perhaps part of his problem was with too much reliance on the evidentialist apologetics of the Hodges and Warfield, but presuppositionalism will not put solid ground under his feet. Telling him he is suppressing the truth in unrigheousness will feel to him like what he had been doing before he gave up his faith. To tell him his problem is not intellectual but moral will seem strange to him when he feels like he is finally being honest.

    Nor in my opinion will it work to point out the implications and/or consequences of his new beliefs (or non-beliefs). He saw these things for himself – the meaninglessness, bleakness, and hopelessness of a world without God. But, implications or consequences are themelves not good reasons to reject beliefs. Wilmot’s problem was that he became convinced of atheisim and then, rather than pretending he still believed, faced the results of not believing. You don’t overturn a conviction a person believes is grounded in reality simply by showing them that the conviction has bad consquences if followed to its logical conclusion. The issue is not, “What are the consequences of this belief?” but, “Is this belief true or not?” For Paul it is not just that he should be pitied but that faith and preaching are in vain, and he is a liar, if Christ has not been raised.


  19. I had a point?

    In a 2013 essay about Catholicism and the arts, the poet Dana Gioia wrote, “Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent.” And in a brief online reply, the Protestant theologian D. G. Hart suggested that “perhaps the problem is that Protestants are too devout and guard what qualifies as genuinely Christian while non-Protestant Christians are more used to the big tent of mixing and matching.” Admitting “the paucity of Protestant novelists”—by which he seems to mean something like the difficulty he would have assembling a Protestant parallel to Gioia’s list of Catholic writers—Hart concluded with a dismissal of both Gioia and the project of identifying religious fiction: “Protestants intuitively know (but often refuse to admit) that novels don’t need to be Christian, that the question of whether a novel is Christian is actually silly.”

    Silly is a curious word to use for either Gioia’s particular study or the more general search for the truths of Christianity in a major art form of Western Christendom for nearly three centuries—especially when the complaint is made by someone writing in English. The greatest contributions of Great Britain and the United States to the arts have come in literature, after all. We could lose the paintings of all Anglophones, just as we could lose their classical-music compositions, without absolutely terminal damage to the history of those arts. But the novel would be destroyed beyond repair.

    Still, D. G. Hart is not exactly wrong. Novels don’t need to seem especially Christian to Protestant readers and writers, because the novel itself is a Protestant-inflected art form—always influenced by the definitions it obtained from its birth in English literature as a central art of Western culture: the device by which, more than any other, modernity tried to understand itself.


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