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Books: Authors talking shop

Books | Religious novelists take hits from both sides

Issue: "Clinton: Final straw?," March 28, 1998

Who in his right mind would want to be a novelist who takes religion seriously? The literary establishment doesn't know what to do with your peculiar interests, and some Christians are just plain suspicious of all artists. Yet some today-like Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene in the past-carry on.

W. Dale Brown, in Of Fiction and Faith, introduces 12 such writers: Doris Betts, Frederick Buechner, Robert Olen Butler, Will Campbell, Elizabeth Dewberry, Clyde Edgerton, Denise Giardina, Robert Goldsborough, Jon Hassler, Garrison Keillor, Peggy Payne, and Walter Wangerin. For each of these authors, Mr. Brown provides a photograph and a chronological list of their works. Others such as Larry Woiwode could have been included, but the 12 here are plenty.

A professor of English at Calvin College, Mr. Brown has taught these authors, and, in preparation for this book, seems to have read all of their writings. Thus, in each chapter, the reader is a fly on the wall as a learned scholar and a literary artist carry on a fascinating conversation.

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Here, Garrison Keillor talks about religion and Lake Wobegon; Will Campbell reminisces about his days in the civil-rights movement; and Doris Betts speaks kindly words about a small congregation. The thread that runs through the whole book, though, is the inherent tension of the novelist concerned with religious faith.

For example, this exchange with Jon Hassler: "WDB: Do you think in general there's a suspicion of writers who write seriously about faith? Annie Dillard tells me, for example, that to be classified as religious is a death knell. JH: I think that's right. WDB: You think publishers are wary of too much religious stuff? JH: I think so. I think certain people in publishing fear it; I think certain booksellers fear it. I don't know if fear is the right word, but they're suspicious of it."

Or this conversation with Walter Wangerin: "WDB: Is it difficult to get around the minister thing? Is there some assumption that, because you are an ordained minister, you will logically write religious stuff? WW: Yes, exactly. I remember a New York Times Review that said I'd written a pretty good book for a minister."

Mr. Brown shows that there is a great gulf fixed between the religious and literary publishing worlds, with the Family Bookstore featuring novels emphasizing religion by writers who are often mediocre and the B. Daltons selling literary fiction by writers who are often immoral. It's like H.G. Wells's two races in The Time Machine, the Morlocks and the Eloi: Both are flawed; both are out of balance.

Bad writing concerning religion is like bad religious architecture-sooner or later it comes crashing down on your head. Worse is literary fiction from a godless author-it destroys your soul. The problem for a real Christian novelist is that to write an authentic story he has to really engage the world; the problem for the secular novelist is that to write an authentic story he has to really grapple with the existence and intrusions of God.

There is ultimately more hope for the genuine Christian to bridge the gap. After all, he worships a God who entered this world and became flesh in his son Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the sacred/secular tension is palpable in Mr. Brown's book of conversations. So support your local Christian writer. Somewhere, someday, in all this activity, a great Christian novelist will arise.

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