More Religious Characters, Please

I concur with most everything said here, especially Katie’s note about 21st century literature. As I read, I strained my memory for “books [with religious/Christian characters] other than just The Shack and weird Amish-romances.”

The books or authors that most immediately come to mind when I think of good Christian fiction (whether they feature practicing Christians or not) are either Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien), Catholic literary revivalists (Waugh, Percy, Greene, O’Connor), or somewhat-adjacent folk (Sayers), all publishing ca. 1920-1980. And, you know, I’ll go on recommending the Lord Peter books, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited, or the Cosmic Trilogy until my mind dissolves. I’ll commend anything by L’Engle even if it’s technically 20th century writing and I still have yet to read most of it.

But as Katie says, it’s harder to find representation in contemporary books. The field seems ripe for some solid idea-wrestling – what does it look like to be Orthodox in 2019?  What tension exists between you, the culture at large, and individuals around you when you’re a Calvinist?  How does your Catholicism manifest, and how do you reconcile confessing “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” with the abuses wrought by some priests and hidden by others? – all of which is to say, maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Perhaps, as with stories about contentedly single women, I’d have to write it myself.

Some possibilities that occur:

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell. 1996, set in 2019/2060. Features Jesuits, Judaism, and agnosticism, in the context of interstellar travel.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson. 2004, set 1956. A Congregationalist minister’s theological and philosophical struggles as he looks back on his life and his family history.

Flavia de Luce series, Alan Bradley. 2009-2019, set in 1950. Not about faith so much as it’s about crime-solving via chemistry, but it at least depicts Catholics and Anglicans going about their lives.

The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera. 2013, set…well, sometime after 1970. Depicts a woman entering a community in the style of the Benedict Option.

I’d also like to mention Luci Shaw again. She’s a poet, not a novelist, so insofar as her work discusses faith, it does so directly rather than mediated through a character. She’s been publishing since the 1970s.

Edited to add:  Krysta of Pages Unbound has talked about this on multiple occasions, and one of the Pages Unbound readers has assembled this list of titles which feature POF, ie, People of Faith.

What books do you know of that represent Christianity in any depth?

What books do you know that represent Judaism, Islam, or other religions with nuance?

Never Not Reading

Today I’m going to talk about something that a lot of people are going to disagree with me about. This is something that has been quietly bothering me for some time, but came to a head in recent months, and I hope you’ll give me a chance to have my say.

There’s a lot of talk about representation in literature. Most often in 2019 we talk about diversity in terms of race/ethnicity and sexuality, however there is a growing movement calling for positive representation of mental health and people with disabilities. You don’t hear much about diversity in terms of religion. And if you do, you expect to hear about Muslim characters.

However, I am here to tell you, friends, that in 21st century literature, religious characters are highly underrepresented.


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Levertov Week: To Speak

To Speak

To speak of sorrow
works upon it
moves it from its
crouched place barring
the way to and from the soul’s hall —

out in the light it
shows clear, whether
shrunken or known as
a giant wrath —
discrete
at least, where before

its great shadow joined
the walls and roof and seemed
to uphold the hall like a beam.

 

I keep trying to decide if I agree with this premise or not.  “Sorrow shared is sorrow halved,” supposedly, but aren’t there times when even the most carefully-chosen words fail to convey the truth of the matter?

But there’s something to be said for making an assay at expressing and naming it, and also something to be said for having anyone to listen.

Levertov Week: To the Muse

To the Muse

I have heard it said,
and by a wise man,
that you are not one who comes and goes

but having chosen
you remain in your human house,
and walk

in its garden for air and the delights
of weather and seasons.

Who builds
a good fire in his hearth
shall find you at it
with shining eyes and a ready tongue.

Who shares
even water and dry bread with you
will not eat without joy

and wife or husband
who does not lock the door of the marriage
against you, finds you

not as unwelcome third in the room, but as
the light of the moon on flesh and hair.

He told me, that wise man,
that when it seemed the house was
empty of you,

the fire crackling for no one,
the bread hard to swallow in solitude,
the gardens a tedious maze,

you were not gone away
but hiding yourself in secret rooms.
The house is no cottage, it seems,

it has stairways, corridors, cellars,
a tower perhaps,
unknown to the host.

The host, the housekeeper, it is
who fails you.  He had forgotten

to make room for you at the hearth
or set a place for you at the table
or leave the doors unlocked for you.

Noticing you are not there
(when did he last see you?)
he cries out you are faithless,

have failed him,
writes you stormy letters demanding you return
it is intolerable

to maintain this great barracks without your presence,
it is too big, it is too small, the walls
menace him, the fire smokes

and gives off no heat.  But to what address
can he mail the letters?
And all the while

you are indwelling,
a gold ring lost in the house.
A gold ring lost in the house.
You are in the house!

Then what to do to find the room where you are?
Deep cave of obsidian glowing with red, with green, with black light,
high room in the lost tower where you sit spinning,

crack in the floor where the gold ring
waits to be found?

                                No more rage but a calm face,
trim the fire, lay the table, find some
flowers for it: is that the way?
Be ready with quick sight to catch
a gleam between the floorboards,

there, where he had looked
a thousand times and seen nothing?
                                              Light of the house,

the wise man spoke
words of comfort.  You are near,
perhaps you are sleeping and don’t hear.

Not even a wise man
can say, do thus and thus, that presence
will be restored.
                            Perhaps

a becoming aware a door is swinging, as if
someone had passed through the room a moment ago – perhaps
looking down, the sight
of the ring back on its finger?

 
How heartening this is, even though inspiration is never guaranteed.  Keep turning ideas over in your head, and beauty in your eyes, and words in your mouth.  Go about your day, keep at your work, show up on time and make sure the muse knows where to find you: thread-worn but intact advice.

It reassures me in other directions as well.  “When it seemed…the fire [was] crackling for no one, / the bread hard to swallow in solitude, / the gardens a tedious maze,” the muse is still there.  When I am only writing to myself, when I set out my thoughts and no one engages with them, that act of utterance remains needful for me and beneficial to all conversations that come later.

The conceit of the soul-house, particularly the difficulty of maintaining the ‘great barracks’ without assistance, rather reminds me of David Wilcox’s “That’s What the Lonely is For.”  In both cases, one finds that the house is more extensive than anticipated: initially inconvenient, but not without design.

Should you be seeking a muse to sing to you, I hope you find that ring on your own finger.

Levertov Week: Annuals

Annuals

All I planted came up,
balsam and nasturtium and
cosmos and the Marvel of Peru

first the cotyledon
then thickly the differentiated
true leaves of the seedlings,

and I transplanted them,
carefully shaking out each one’s
hairfine rootlets from the earth,

and they have thriven,
well-watered in the new-turned earth;
and grow apace now –

but not one shows signs of a flower,
not one.
                  If August passes
flowerless,
and the frosts come,

will I have learned to rejoice enough
in the sober wonder of
green healthy leaves?

 

As they say: #mood.  To piggyback on yesterday’s poem and my own reality…what do you make of your life if you don’t find yourself bearing any flower, much less fruit?  Do you redefine green healthy leaves as a sort of success?

This is the question threaded through my search for a single story, the question I am asking every tired workday, the thing I wonder every lonesome bednight.  All my uhtceare and self-analysis and storytelling wrap around this question: what is the point?  What am I here for, what am I doing?

Again, as Levertov’s “The Old Adam” puts it:

Where is my life? Where is my life?
What have I done with my life?

Levertov Week: The Ache of Marriage

Sometimes I get impatient with poetry about married life, because I’m doing my best not to be bitterly single, and failing.

Sometimes it’s a pleasant sort of pain, to catch any glimpse of what it’s like.

 

The Ache of Marriage

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

 

I’m sharing it mostly because it’s a poem within a poem to me:  “looking for joy, some joy / not to be known outside it.”  My life in a nutshell, really.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Levertov Week: The Thread

In the interest of posting again, ever, I thought I’d share some poems by Denise Levertov this week (and possibly next week as well).

I first encountered her poetry through friends from undergrad – denizens of the Wake and Donnybrook – sharing “The Servant Girl at Emmaus” and “St. Thomas Didymus.”  These prompted me to look for more of her work.

Generally speaking, Levertov is valued by many for her more political work – opposition to the Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars, social concerns, nuclear disarmament – whereas my friends and I are generally more interested in her framing of the sacred (both before and after her conversion to Catholicism).

Today’s poem is, I think, an example of that: one long allusion to Chesterton’s Father Brown, or to its notable quotation by Cordelia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited.

But God won’t let them go for long, you know. I wonder if you remember the story Mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk — I mean, the bad evening. Father Brown said something like ‘I caught him’ (the thief) ‘with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.’

The Thread

Something is very gently,
invisibly, silently,
pulling at me – a thread
or net of threads
finer than cobweb and as
elastic. I haven’t tried
the strength of it. No barbed hook
pierced and tore me. Was it
not long ago this thread
began to draw me? Or
way back? Was I
born with its knot about my
neck, a bridle? Not fear
but a stirring
of wonder makes me
catch my breath when I feel
the tug of it when I thought
it had loosened itself and gone.