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A dearth of faith in modern mainstream literature

January 10, 2013

Over the past couple years, I’ve toyed with the idea of writing something about faith in contemporary culture–mostly in response to people who say it’s not represented. After all, arguably the biggest band on the face of the earth, U2, typically records songs that can seem prayerful. And until recently, there was a popular television show featuring an Oklahoma City cop with a guardian angel, and some faith-related struggles that felt real to me (Saving Grace). And it wasn’t that long ago, that Jim Carrey’s Bruce Nolan kneeled in the road and surrendered to God’s will, only to get hit by a semi.


You can’t kneel down in the middle of a highway and live to talk about it, son.

You might not feel like U2, Saving Grace, or Bruce Almighty are necessarily deep expressions of faith, but they weren’t cliches, either. People with far more theological weight than mine appreciated the authenticity of some of the messages in Bruce Almighty.

Given the weight of the Christian market in this country, imagine my surprise in stumbling over a New York Times article bemoaning the lack of real faith in mainstream fiction.

Sure, there’s a vibrant Christian fiction market, but that market is largely aimed at and consumed by Christians. There’s not a lot of crossover to mainstream readers. And that’s where the article, by a writer named Paul Elie, draws its conclusions, contrasting the works of Flannery O’Connor and John Updike, with more current works that have faith elements, but whose characters’ central faith-related journey is minimal, empty, or unfulfilling.

To draw a comparison with TV, which might be a little more universal than individual books, it’s like the faith in the TV show Seventh Heaven, where there was a lot of attention paid to goodness, but not much attention paid to spiritual life or God. Elie argues that a real, three-dimensional faith life is almost non-existent in the characters created in mainstream fiction.

To take his analysis a step farther, perhaps that has to do with the fact that the Christian fiction market siphons off too many readers. Any mainstream book with real spiritual themes may not get the commercial attention because many of the people who might read it stick with Christian fiction.

Or maybe it has to do with some of the polling data that sees many Christians as judgmental and angry–not the vision of a God that would welcome hurting people struggling to rise above sin. Or maybe it’s because a lot of the media focuses on judgmental Christians. The Westboro Baptist Church measures its congregation in dozens, and gets more coverage than almost any other religious institution in this country.

Whatever the reason, there aren’t authentic stories about faith and the faithful in mainstream literature just now. It’s not being done.

Then again, a few years ago, there wasn’t a lot of fantasy crossing over to mainstream–and then Harry Potter happened.

One Comment
  1. January 11, 2013 2:20 am

    I immediately had to look at that NY Times article you mentioned.

    Most of my writing has so far been for the Orthodox Jewish market, which is a niche where faith plays a strong role. Lately, I’ve been branching out, but even when I’m not writing specifically Jewish material, my underlying beliefs set the universe of my stories in motion, and they contrast wildly from contemporary American ones.

    Like Elie mentions, there are quite a few contemporary Jewish (not always Orthodox writers) who address serious religious questions in their books. These include Dara Horn, Anne Roiphe, Risa Miller, and Ruchama King Feuerman.

    There are a few Christian or “spiritually-minded” authors who come to mind, now that I think about it, such as Linda Sue Park and Philip Reeve (in Here Lies Arthur). And Mormon Orson Scott Card. Maybe they aren’t “literary” enough for Elie’s taste. Maybe he has to read outside his comfort zone.

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