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.