Does Religion Matter?

Not long ago I read an interview with a writer who insisted he’s given up reading reviews of his work. He said, (and I paraphrase): The bad ones kill me, and the good ones are never good enough. At first blush, a funny line. But now that my own novel is garnering reviews, I go back to that quote with a sympathetic nod, the thousand-mile stare. I trace the outline of those words on newsprint and softly whisper, “I know what you mean.”

The fact is: I’ve mostly been delighted by the reviews Dancing With Gravity has received. Reviewers—whether in print or the blogosphere—take their work seriously. I’ve been surprised and gratified by the time and effort they’ve put into their work. And I am grateful for the recommendations they share with their many followers.

My own reactions to reading what others think of my work have been varied. Whether I bloom under a reviewer’s praise, or head straight to the Pecan Sandies (a truly delightful shortbread cookie) to quell my feelings of being misunderstood, I must admit: there is really nothing I can do. My novel is written. These reviewers are not fellow-writers sitting across from me at the seminar table—each harboring good wishes or secret agendas. I will not listen to (or ignore) their comments, then revise my work. My novel is written. It’s all reaction from this point on.

Aside from the rude realization of my own helplessness, I’ve had another surprise: some reviewers have labeled my work as “Christian fiction.” Even “Christian fiction with a message.”

By way of disclosure: I’m a convert to Catholicism. My relationship with my faith…and the Catholic Church…is complex, layered, and beside the point. Because this is about my work—which must be judged by its own merits.  The central character in Dancing With Gravity is a Catholic priest. In the course of the novel, he performs priestly duties, thinks about his faith, and discusses it with others. He even bristles against its restrictions. But take it from me—the author—I didn’t see this as a Christian (or Catholic) novel when I was writing it. And that’s the mystery of writing for the writer: you find out what you think after you write it.

John Steinbeck once wrote a letter to a friend about an English major at some university who contacted him about the symbolism in one of his novels. He told his friend that the English major might well be correct, but he was leaving interpretation to her—his concern was with the story.

And that’s my camp, too. Father Whiting is a Catholic priest. And his vocation certainly shapes much of his life. I respect his faith and I trust that I treated it with dignity. But he is a man whose suffering is as unique as yours or mine. His vocation informs his life, but it does not define every reaction, nor does it erase his history. Those are still his to address as the man he is…and will become.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote: “The writer, without softening his vision, is obligated to capture or conjure readers. And this means any kind of reader. It means whatever is there. I used to think that it should be possible to write for some supposed elite, for the people who attend the universities and sometimes know how to read, but I have since found that, though you may publish your stories in the Yale Review, if they are any good at all you are eventually going to get a letter from some old lady in California, or some inmate of the Federal penitentiary, or the state insane asylum, or the local poorhouse, telling you where you have failed to meet his needs. And his need of course is to be lifted up. There is something in us as story-tellers, and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance of restoration. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but he has forgotten the cost of it. His sense of evil is deluded or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. He has forgotten the cost of truth, even in fiction.” (The Catholic Novelist in the South)

O’Connor was a Catholic writer living in Georgia. Her stories stand among my favorites. But Hazel Motes, founder of the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ (Wise Blood) and the Bible salesman who steals Hulga’s leg (Good Country People) are two examples of important characters whose stories transcend religion. O’Connor was not writing Christian fiction so much as literature about who we are. What we do to ourselves … and to one another. And this is the great preoccupation of our species. Faith? Religion? Certainly they’re part of the story. But that’s just the beginning.

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3 Responses to Does Religion Matter?

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I think where it matters, or is at least noticeable and annoying (to me), is when a book goes beyond just having facets to it that happen to be religious – as I would describe yours – to being a book that comes across in a heavy-handed way as “promoting” or taking a stance on the religion. DANCING WITH GRAVITY, to me, featured a man who just happened to be a Catholic priest, but whose struggles were, in a larger sense, universal. His being a priest was his job, just as if he had been a mechanic or stock broker or physician. It was there, but not what the book revolves around per se.

  2. Mark says:

    Your friend from Global here. I finally got around to looking at your blog, and next will read your novel. But we can discuss that in Bali after we divide our lottery winnings…

    This post can’t help but force me to recall my Lit Theory class as an undergrad, and my somehow sensing, without doing any research (and still having done almost no “true” research into the subject, aside from reading select Barthes and Fish about 5 years ago), that it truly was the way most (all?) people read novels. The words on the page, the authors intentions, the thousands of decisions that go into selecting a particular word in a particular line on a particular page, mean so very little to the reader. In the end, I think we, as respective readers, are almost intrinsically unable to remove ourselves from ourselves (damn that sounds trite) as an active agent in the process of discerning “meaning” (as nebulous a term as that may be). I cannot imagine how frustrating that mast be for you, as the author, to hear definitions given to your work that you had no idea existed.

    In the end, I suppose it’s the way a parent views their child versus how the world views that child. The parent knows exactly what work went into shaping that child into the human it is today; I, as the clerk at the grocery store, am limited by my experience by what I see before me, and how that child (as a human) and I interact. Therefore, we have intrinsically different perspectives on this being before us. I guess all you, as the author, can do is hope that you gave enough shape to this work that it is able to stand on its own, without constant attention from the parent. This metaphor is becoming strained, so I’ll simply stop.

    I’ve enjoyed my cursory reading of this blog, and very much look forward to reading the novel.

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