Essays

Counter and Strange: Contemporary Catholic Literature

By posted at 12:00 pm on April 16, 2013 12

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Gerard Manley Hopkins was correct: Catholicism is made of “all things counter, original, spare, strange.” In 1968, almost a decade after graduation, my father’s college roommate called. Charlie said he wanted to visit. My parents were raising my oldest brothers in Dover, New Jersey. Crucifixes hung on some walls, but this was not the seminary my father imagined he might join after studying at Jesuit-staffed Holy Cross. Charlie and my father played football there, and went together to daily morning Mass. Afterward they walked across packed snow to the mess hall. Fed by the Eucharist, and then fed with scrambled eggs.

Charlie waited until after dinner to speak candidly: he had become an atheist after intensive, personal study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He did not have his two youngest children baptized. He was finished with the Church. Then he left, as if he had only come to make that pronouncement. At this point in the story, my father always shares the Jesuits’ advice: never study the Bible on your own. Reasonable translations of the Judeo-Christian Bible are a patchwork of literary forms, written and revised in specific contexts and for specific purposes. Their literary construction does nothing to lessen their efficacy as spiritual texts, but that literary construction must be historically and aesthetically acknowledged. My father would augment my necessarily simple CCD lessons with brief explanations of context and contour: he claimed that a thinking Catholic was the best kind of Catholic.

Yet I am equally drawn to the strange corners of Catholicism, where, again, my father was my guide. In one apocryphal tale, while lifeguarding at Bertrand Island Amusement Park, my father watched a man fall from a roller coaster. Mid-century coasters were wooden and clunky, and the man’s limp body dangled from the rails. My father rushed down from his high-dive perch, but stopped to see a man dressed in black climb up the boards, his preconciliar cassock flapping. A priest, determined to give the dying man his Last Rites a hundred feet in the air.

My Catholicism has been defined by these intellectual and ritual modes, a dialectic of mind and soul. Unlike Charlie, the deeper I wade into Biblical and theological scholarship, the stronger my Catholic faith becomes, and the more willing I am to negotiate and accept ambiguities and paradoxes. Through liturgical celebration, adoration of saints, and celebration of sacraments, Catholic ritual is a complex interaction between the prosaic, the palpable, and the metaphysical. In the Gospels, as well as in canonical and lay writings, those dialectics become dramatic through narrative. In both classic and contemporary Catholicism, story matters.

I was surprised to read Robert Fay’s 2011 article here at The Millions, where he claims a “literary vacuum” of contemporary Catholic writing. While I strongly disagree with Fay’s overall thesis that postconciliar liturgical retranslation led to a decline in Catholic art, his short essay introduces important points. Fay writes elegiacally about the postconciliar shift from Latin to English, or local, Mass: “what for centuries had seemed eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism — the very marrow that feeds artists — was suddenly being conducted in the same language as sitcoms, TV commercials, and business meetings.” Was Fay’s observation convenient hindsight, or lived reality?

I needed Fay to ask the implicit question, and in the past year I’ve attempted to provide the answer in The Fine Delight, my new book on American Catholic writing after the Second Vatican Council. My conclusion: Catholic literature is thriving. Postconciliar Catholic literature is full of nuanced representations of faith by a litany of writers with varying Catholic identities: Ron Hansen, Andre Dubus, Paul Mariani, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Brian Doyle, Salvatore Scibona, Kaya Oakes, J.F. Powers, Paul Lisicky, Joe Bonomo, Mary Biddinger, Patrick Madden, Amanda Auchter, Jeffrey Eugenides, Alice McDermott, John Reimringer, Erin McGraw, Tom Bailey, and Anthony Carelli. Some are Catholic, some write about Catholic themes and characters, and some react against Catholicism. As I was not writing an encyclopedia, my book coverage required abbreviation, but the list of necessary postconciliar Catholic writers is even wider: Noelle Kocot, C. Dale Young, Sarah Vap, Richard Russo, John L’Heureux, William Kennedy, Andrew McNabb, Mary Gordon, Mary Karr, Daniel Berrigan, Thomas McGuane, Annie Dillard, David Griffith, Robert Clark, Franz Wright, Jon Hassler, Luisa Igloria, R. A. Lafferty, Tobias Wolff, Ai, Jim Shepard, T.A. Noonan, Jamie Iredell, Joe Wilkins, Brian Oliu, Joseph Scapellato, Matthew Salesses, Sam Ruddick, Richard McCann, Matthew Minicucci, Mark Jay Brewin, Jr., and more, including writers who represent Catholicism on the page in sharp, brief glimpses, or whose literary and personal faiths are lapsed. I would have to take another year to build an international list. And these are only writers; consider the important work done by Gregory Wolfe at Image, and the new writing published in Dappled Things. Plus the curiously intersecting, artistic and intellectual Catholic faiths of Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol, as well as Andrew Sullivan’s current cultural commentary, which often returns to his Catholic faith. Add to the list Tim Padgett, Garry Wills, George Weigel. It is refreshing that I am unable to document all the variations of literary Catholicism.

How to account for any possible perceived dearth of contemporary Catholic literature and art? I have learned the problem is one of definition. In the same way that paradox is endemic to Catholic doctrine, and that postconciliar Catholic writing is wrought with personal and parochial tensions, Catholic imaginative literature remains a conundrum to many critics, both Catholic and secular. In Commentary, D.G. Myers prefaces his recent meditation on “The New Catholic Fiction” with a disclaimer: “As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction,” admitting elsewhere that he knows “just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.” Myers posits that this new Catholic fiction is exemplified in recent novels by two lapsed Catholics: William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha. Their literary Catholicism is concerned with “sick soul[s]” who are “unreconcilied to heaven and grace.” The emphases of their novels are “not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil.”

covercovercoverMyers ends his essay with the observation that although Giraldi and Beha “will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists…they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers…[and to a secular] generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.” Such defining does not only occur from the outside: Catholic literature is marked by the act of self-definition. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy all dramatize central characters who define and redefine their personal Catholicism. These novels are not aberrations; rather, nearly the rule. Catholic literary self-definition is even more complicated in the postconciliar era, where contemporary writers investigate Catholic ritual and culture through sometimes more jaded lenses.

These considerations are applicable to dynamic, imaginative works, not devotional writing. Ron Hansen has lamented when Christian writers mistake their form: proselytizing does not belong in fiction. Dramatic tension requires action, not argument. The stereotype of simplistic Catholic-themed or influenced writing is often earned by one-note spiritual narratives with no basis in the hard work of real faith. Have writers forgotten the narrative arc of Luke, the complexities of John? Christ suffered; salvation requires sacrifice. No easy redemption in life, so why expect it on the page?

coverPaul Elie has considered the curious absence of a contemporary Catholic critical aesthetic, which should not be confused with an absence of Catholic literature. Unfortunately, the perceived absence of the former often results in skewed discussions of the latter. The Catholic Writers Guild, an Indiana-based nonprofit founded in 2006, is “a professional group of writers, artists, editors, illustrators, and allies whose mission is to build a vibrant Catholic literary culture.” I think such a culture already exists, but can recognize the desire for artistic fraternity. What confounds me, though, is the organization’s “Seal of Approval.” A member-writer “can get your book evaluated and approved for its Catholicity with the Seal of Approval… [which] is meant to be a signal to Catholic bookstores that they can carry the book without concern about its content.” They admit the seal is simply an observation that “neither the work nor its author go against the Mageristerium (sic) authority of the Catholic Church”; the seal is not an evaluation of the work’s “writing style or quality.” Once gained, seals can be ordered in groups of 25 for 10 dollars and are affixed, by the author or publisher, on the covers. For the first half of 2012, many books receiving the group’s seal were self-published. Undercover Papist, one title that received the approval, was written by Christian N. Frank, a composite of a “team of young Catholic authors.” From the book’s synopsis: “So you’ve just been sent on Mission Impossible, to get the most popular girl in your school to come back to the Catholic Church…Brian goes to Bible Camp undercover to rescue Allie, but it looks like a lost cause. Allie seems to be getting on just fine: helping her new Christian friends love God, and dating the camp’s hot worship leader.” I am not sure whom to pray for: Brian, Allie, the world entire.

The Catholic Writers Guild also sponsors the Catholic Arts and Letters Award, an annual prize given for a work of fiction that represents Catholic tradition and values. A laudable idea, yet the award is only given to work that has the “CWG Seal of Approval or an Imprimatur”; that latter, ecclesiastical distinction is given in the form of a nihil obstat, a note declaring the text free of doctrinal or moral error, a pronouncement rarely, if ever, given to a work of fiction.

Certainly any writing organization is welcome to cultivate its own aesthetic. But for an organization that bills itself as “the Rebirth of Catholic Arts and Letters,” some Christian humility is needed. I must have missed the funeral for Catholic literature. The Catholic Writers Guild’s tone is merely a symptom of a larger concern, something strange occurring in Catholic literary culture. Many have taken the fragmentation in postconciliar Catholic identity to mean an absence of that identity; somehow coloring has been mistaken for blanching. Paul Elie’s recent essay, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”, appeared in The New York Times to much fanfare. While Elie’s essay is concerned with generally Christian writers, his Catholic lens is unmistakable. Elie’s nuance has been lost on some readers: his lament “is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time.” This is an extremely narrow critical focus. His concern is one genre within one writing mode, and his language intimates a proactive faith. Elie’s elegiac tone is admittedly hyperbolic. Like a good Catholic, he prefaces his words: “Forgive me if I exaggerate.” Curiously, Elie folds Catholicism into a general Protestant literary aesthetic while identifying Flannery O’Connor as an axis point. His worry that contemporary novelists are “writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively” is to be expected when O’Connor is the contrast. Elie prefers stories like Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”: fiction that “suggest[s] the ways that instances of belief can seize individual lives.” It sounds as if Elie is less lamenting the dearth of Catholic or Christian literature and more the cultural conversation that might provide the intellectual architecture to locate and revere such work.

“Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World” is a nuanced response to Elie’s thought-provoking essay. Gregory Wolfe notes that such “lament[s] over the decline and fall of the arts” have become an almost annual ritual. Wolfe explains that “faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.” There is no need for a rebirth of Catholic literature. Thankfully, it has never died. But there is a need for a wider swath of reasoned, Catholic-informed literary critics to articulate that literature to the reading public. To explain Wolfe’s observed truth that “today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted.” Thinkers like Denis Donoghue, Mark Bosco SJ, James Martin SJ, and Peggy Rosenthal, who allow the beauty of Catholic literature and artistry to shine without buffing away “all things counter, original, spare, strange.” It is time to be catholic in consideration of a literary Catholicism: such paradoxical inclusivity is in concert with the life, and mystery, of Christ.

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12 Responses to “Counter and Strange: Contemporary Catholic Literature”

  1. paula
    at 1:56 pm on April 16, 2013

    This is great. I wanted to add the excellent poet Ed Mullany, with whom I was able to discuss how his faith effects his work at BigOther.

  2. James
    at 5:44 pm on April 16, 2013

    No mention of Gene Wolfe?

  3. Joseph Simmons
    at 11:44 pm on April 16, 2013

    Or Cormac McCarthy? Since he’s become nationally recognized in recent years I’d have thought he would make the list. Granted he’s often pretty far out on the “reacting against Catholicism” end of the spectrum, but his novels are filled with priests and expriests and religious speculation galore, and his imagination is rather violent but also rather sacramental.

    The absence of Gene Wolfe is disappointing, but not surprising. It’s rather unfortunate how even the most artful science fiction is by default excluded from the category of “literary fiction.” Though both Wolfe and McCarthy should I suppose be excluded if the category is “nuanced representations of faith.” Neither of them is big on realistic representation.

  4. DAS
    at 1:30 am on April 17, 2013

    Gerard Manley Hopkins was able to express his faith in a unique, surprising, and exhilarating way with his sprung rhythm.

    John Newman in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua was able to describe his Catholic faith in the most strange, disturbing, and antagonistic way only to turn his argument to reveal facets of his faith that transformed the seemingly absurd into rational necessities.

    Chesterton is a verbal magician with his turn of phrase. Has anything more profound been said by a human being than: “The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.” ?

    Catholic literature has always been rejuvenated by keen minds that don’t depend on moralistic themes didactically jammed down our throats. We don’t need to depend on pseudo and lapsed Catholics for quality Catholic literature that stirs the heart, mind and soul.

    And dude: that first paragraph is a swamp. I had to read it three times to figure out what the heck you were trying to say. Don’t go all Pynchon on us if there’s not much to the story.

  5. First Links — 4.17.13 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog
    at 9:01 am on April 17, 2013

    [...] Counter and Strange: Contemporary Catholic Literature Nick Ripatrazone, The Millions [...]

  6. Robert Fay
    at 11:50 am on April 17, 2013

    Certainly an interesting piece by a fine writer. I was certainly humbled to see that my 2011 essay in The Millions was referenced, and that in part it influenced the writing of his current book. Yet one can’t avoid the inevitable discussion of what it means to be called “a Catholic” today. The author casts a very wide net and includes writers who might be baptized Catholics or perhaps raised in some kind of cultural Catholic context, but do not practice the Catholic faith or are actively opposed to its teachings. I still think that trying to practice the faith, day in and day out, as it actually IS, should distinguish one from someone who was baptized at the age of two, and hasn’t been in a Church since they were 11-years-old.

  7. paula
    at 2:24 pm on April 17, 2013

    Agreed on Cormac McCarthy. In fact, I argued that No Country For Old Men is a Catholic novel, and that Anton is an avenging angel. It’s my only Wikipedia entry. He was raised Catholic and although he is divorced and I believe he doesn’t practice the faith, I feel he still has a Catholic vision of the world. It’s as if it can’t leave him. Which brings me to Flannery O’Connor and how I find her radical – and unlike Fray- believes that Catholicism just IS- and whether people believe it or not doesn’t affect that reality. I wrote a long essay on Parker’s Back stating as such.

  8. Courtney J
    at 1:15 pm on April 21, 2013

    I agree with Fay that practicing the faith certainly “distinguishes.” And by “distinguishes” I mean that the Catholic perspective from which their work is coming from is notably different than the perspective of someone who is not currently practicing. And should be recognized as such. But, to Paula’s point, I do believe the cultural context of a writer (or any artist, for that matter) can be distinctly Catholic in its roots without them being a current practitioner of the religion. A work can be distinctly Catholic in its ideological perspective and origins, and at the same time penned by a writer who hasn’t been to mass in years.

  9. JohnO
    at 10:04 pm on April 21, 2013

    No mention of Gene Wolfe (or Tim Powers!), but he does mention the woefully neglected R.A. Lafferty!

  10. Jddavidson
    at 10:18 am on April 24, 2013

    I weighed in on Paul Elie’s essay here, at First Things – http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/01/has-american-fiction-lost-sight-of-god

  11. JOB
    at 11:18 am on April 24, 2013

    Also, there’s this which is attempting to find that balance between form and content which it is hoped serves as a perfect crucible for genius:

    http://www.tuscanypress.com/

    JOB

  12. Catholic Writers and Literature after Vatican Two | Robert Fay
    at 10:25 am on August 30, 2013

    […] this week the essay surfaced again when Nick Ripatrazone penned an article in The Millions titled “Counter and Strange: Contemporary Catholic Literature.” Ripatrazone is the author of a new book titled The Fine Delight on what he describes as […]

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