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467 Christianity and Literature Vol. 63, No. 4 (Summer 2014) Interrogating A Mercy: Faith, Fiction, and the Postsecular Mara Willard In his essay in the The New York Times Book Review, the literary critic Paul Elie declares an interest in “how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time.” Throughout his excellent 2004 account of writers of religious life, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, Elie demonstrates how deeply compelled he is by novelists harboring “Christian convictions” (he borrows the term from Flannery O’Connor). Now, nearly a decade later, he seeks new “works of fiction about the quandaries of Christian belief.” He craves literary accounts of subjects whose lives are organized through faith, and who must grapple with the existential, moral, and aesthetic challenges of the world. Elie’s fundamental claim runs thus: You hope to find the writer who can dramatize belief the way it feels in your experience, at once a fact on the ground and a sponsor of the uncanny, an account of our predicament that still and all has the old power to persuade. You look for a story or a novel where the writer puts it all together. That would be enough. That would be something. That would be unbelievable. Elie bespeaks a yearning for a fresh consummation of fiction and faith that would satisfy our creaturely cravings for order, meaning, and wholeness. This appeal for fresh fiction of faith in the twenty-first century appears at the same time that literary critics are considering the insufficiency of “religion” (what Elie might call “faith”) and “the secular” as useful categories of analysis. John A. McClure, Amy Hungerford, Tracy Fessenden, and other literary critics interested in depictions of religion consistently conclude that binary categorizations hinder, rather than help us.1 Fessenden explains that the teleology of inevitable secularism, which has implicitly organized 468 Christianity and Literature thinkingintheUnitedStates,mustbesubjecttonewscrutinyandskepticism (“Problem” 154-67). She is thus particularly interested in the work being done by the term “the postsecular.” The term is a placeholder that “describes an environment in which the categories of the religious and the secular no longer divide the world cleanly between them, and signals the need for new ones,” she continues. The rubric of the postsecular thus acknowledges for the internal complexity of many powerful American novels in which binary of “the religious” and “the secular” breaks down. Fessenden’s analysis opens up new questions and concerns for contemporary literary structures and depictions of religion. Perhaps most significantly, the postsecular exposes implicit expectations of overcoming religion and realizing “the secular” to be a constructed narrative that must begin to be historicized and contextualized. Againstthisconversationoftheearlytwenty-tens,Elie’slamentresounds as a kind of nostalgia for a Garden of Eden long since repatriated with new species. This may be unfair to Elie, given the brevity of his essay in the Times. Yet Elie’s yearning for a renaissance of a fiction of faith is in tension not only with fiction informed by modernist literary experimentation, but also (oddly) with the very obscurity of Christian narratives. “[W]riters with Christian preoccupations have taken [to] … writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively,” Elie objects. Is this new? O’Conner’s stories are compelling because grace is so outrageously inexplicable to human reason, and the tragedies animating the novels of Walker Percy and Graham Greene follow from confounding contingencies. These midcentury works may present powerful depictions of a human experience of God, the soul, and free will. Yet surely these authors are good because they refuse to domesticate belief, refuse to render divine action as transparent to human understanding or reducible to human time and place. Both to enrich the content given to the category of the postsecular, and to push further on whether Elie seeks literary depiction that is somehow at odds with the “post-” era, I look at Toni Morrison’s 2008 A Mercy as a rich and uneasy exemplar of this analytical category’s constituent parts. Already, Morrison’s major mid-career works, such as Beloved and Paradise, have received significant analyses of their “post-” status. In particular, critical works including McClure’s Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2056-5666
Print ISSN
0148-3331
Pages
pp. 467-487
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-04
Open Access
No
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