Writing About Faith II: This Time It’s Personal

So, I had a great response, as well as a few good conversations, about my last post concerning writing about faith, so I thought I’d continue the thought.

But isn’t faith a personal thing? One thing that was brought up that got me thinking about why faith can be difficult to write about was its very personal nature. It’s true, I think. It’s only proven at the individual level, but then again, isn’t everything? Isn’t 2+2? “It’s 5!” shouts Winston Smith.

No, I don’t think this is much of a holdup, necessarily, but it’s true, if the person has not internalized this aspect of their lives, if they simply put it on, as a friend of mine said, “Like an Abercrombie sweater,” they’ll be about as interesting to hear from as someone who parrots the talking heads of political media. So, in this way, yeah, writing about faith can be restricted by the very personal nature, but in general, I’d say no. It is that personal proof that is so compelling, that wish to see what others see or to understand why they see the world as they do.

What’s been done? Well, I talked about Flannery O’Connor and her use of faith in her works the other day. A good friend of mine brought up the excellent book by Graham Greene, The Power & The Glory (one of my favorite titles in fiction), and I began to think about Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s famous work, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.” I’d like to focus on this story for a moment, as I think it is representative of all of these works.

Marquez is critical of the way we carry out faith. This seems to be the commonality. Essentially, (spoiler alert) an angel drops into this town, and no one knows what to do with it but poke it with sticks, treat it like a freak show, and make money from it. Kind of like how people treat faith? Maybe. Even the town priest doesn’t know what to do. You’d think if anyone would see it for what it is, he would, but he doesn’t. We can often use writing as an indictment of how people use faith, but rarely are we able to see it in a positive light (without being corny) or to bring up other conflicts.

Well, what can the conflicts be? That’s a great question. I mean, if we write a story that includes some involvement by the Judeo-Christian God, we must then accept the things that define God. In which case, where can the conflict be? We’ve just established that there is an all-powerful, all-good, all-just agent in the story, so that doesn’t exactly leave the reader hanging on the edge of his seat in suspense.

No, it seems, as it often does in the Old Testament, that the conflict is exactly as O’Connor or Greene or Marquez imagine it: how man carries out his faith. In Job, the conflict is not man against his trials or man against God, really, but it’s a story where a man must come to grips with the fact that there are things he is not given to know. The conflict seems to always be with himself. In the New Testament, we see this when Jesus says things like “Oh ye, of little faith,” or “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.” The problems always come down to man and his perpective on life, on God, on problems, etc.

There are exceptions. Fiction rarely, though sometimes, takes on God directly. Some would argue that Paradise Lost, terrible as it is, does this very thing. A few other famous books have done this as well, though, having not read many, I will reserve comment, but this approach seems more the exception than the rule.

So, what’s hard about this? I’m not sure exactly. It’s just a funny thing to me that faith can be so central to peoples’ lives, and yet, we struggle to write about it in meaningful and personal ways. The best writers seem to be able to come at this topic through curiosity, human interest, and personal experience, but that skill seems rare. Why? Perhaps it comes down to identity. Maybe faith, even more than politics (these two things becoming far too wedded for my liking), is so central to the core of our identities that we struggle to talk about it fairly or with any distance. At best, we talk about the worldview of others, but even then, we can often do no better than to act as a skeptic. And writing that only acts as an intellectual bludgeon to tear down another’s worldview serves little purpose.

Believe in him or not, God is an interesting character. He’s far more complex than any of us like to grant him, and he affects all of us in some manner or another, whether by personal experience, belief, or simply being affected by a person of faith close to us. I do try to explore faith, as I do most topics, in my writing, but I wish I was better at approaching the topic more honestly and more personally.

Besides Greene, C.S. Lewis, O’Connor, Marquez, Tolkien, or Marilynne Robinson, are there other writers that grapple with this topic effectively? If so, how?

About Adam Nannini

The greatest writer of his generation ... which isn't saying much.
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