The popularity of Marilynne Robinson manages to be at once both thoroughly deserved and entirely unexpected. That is, if popularity is the right word for what remains a relatively niche (if approaching cult) literary following among those who enjoy the plot-lite, highly poetic end of the literary fiction spectrum – but also many who don’t.
“Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is clearly a modern classic, and it hasn’t even been in print for five minutes,” boggled Nick Hornby in a 2005 review of the first of Robinson’s (now three) novels set in the tiny Iowa town of Gilead. “I didn’t even mind that it’s essentially a book about Christianity, narrated by a Christian … In fact, I am writing these words in a theological college somewhere in England, where I will spend the next several years,” he jested, “[which] only goes to show you that you never know how a novel’s going to affect you.”
The phrase Christian literary fiction doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. Some would call it a contradiction in terms. The devout too often project (or have projected onto them) a stereotype of narrowness, perpetual alarm, or else otherworldliness. Men and women whose basic response to the world is disapproval or unconcern are unlikely to make great novelists – candid, receptive, courageous observers of human impulses and human weaknesses, and the grand or sordid or humdrum theatres in which they play out.
The history of English literature does, of course, place a few difficulties in the way of the theory that religious faith and literary sophistication are mutually exclusive: Milton, for example; Charlotte Bronte; T.S. Eliot. It was really only about fifty or so years ago that English literature entered a new phase, in which we might estimate that the majority of those reading it no longer shared the beliefs – or at least worldview – of the majority of those who wrote it.
T.S. Eliot, actually, wrote an essay about this newly ticklish relationship between religion and literature. The aptly-enough titled “Religion and Literature” (1932) charts the secularisation of English literature over the previous 200 years, from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when, Eliot claims, faith began to be taken for granted and omitted from literary work (as in the novels of Fielding, Dickens and Thackeray), through the Victorians’ self-conscious worriting about faith and doubt (George Eliot, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy) to his own time, when Christian faith had become a mere anachronism for all modern authors, he suggests, except Joyce.
With this divorce of religion from literature came a new category: “religious literature.” Eliot divides this more or less dismissible class into (1) religious writings that have some literary value (think Pilgrim’s Progress); (2) that specialised field of still-legit lit that takes religion as its subject (the devotional poetry of George Herbert, perhaps); and (3) sheer propaganda, “the literary works of men [sic] who are sincerely desirous of forwarding the cause of religion.” None of these forms, explains Eliot, can be taken seriously when written today, “because they are conscious operations in a world in which it is assumed that Religion and Literature are not related.” What he calls for, and implies is rather unlikely to come when called, is “a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and definitely, Christian.”
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SOURCE: Religion & Ethics