The Easter List-icle
Six writers who tackle God in their work
It's Easter! And just in case you want some topical books to go with your chocolate, we've put together a list of six authors who write about Christianity and God (and all the feelings, politics and complexity that goes with those themes) from different perspectives. There's something for everyone, from modernists to contemporary authors, novels, to short stories and travel writing essays.
In her first novel, Homegoing, Gyasi explores the ways in which Christianity was woven into the colonial projects of the West, and the ways in which it was then absorbed and transformed by those who original received it as part of their oppression.
In Akua's chapter, for example, she addersses the subject directly when we hear about her mother and why she chose to leave the missionary and a lot of the undercurrent themes about religion and colonialism are given voice.
In an interview with Paste, she talked about how she felt she had presented Christianity in the novel and the complicated place she thinks it has in society today:
"Christianity is really complex, and its relationship to Africa and to African-American is really complex. So there’s a character like Willie, who sings in church and gets great joy from that, and it restored something to her that she lost. She feels redeemed. And I get that—the joy and beauty and sense of community, and all of the wonderful things that religion brings. But on the other hand, there is Akua, who’s feeling religion as this symbol of colonialism. This missionary who’s come to proselytize to the Gold Coast people, but is also there to impose British imperialism. There’s another character early on who points out that, had the white people not come to Africa, black people wouldn’t even be Christian, and it further complicates that question of religion. For some characters it’s a source of joy, and for others it’s a source of trauma."
They way she presents Christianity embodies some of the difficulties of contemporary Western black identity more broadly that she seeks to explore: were it not for colonial history there would not be the contemporary trauma, but a lot of other aspects of identity that many now cherish would be lost too. For those who have ancestors directly affected by colonialism, this is just one way that they feel the direct touch of that past reality in their lives today. And Gyasi presents contemporary characters who have to navigate their identity, mixed as it is with the culture of oppressors who continue racist attitudes to this day. There can be triumph in the re-possession of the oppressor's culture, and its transformation into something that serves you, but there is also the ghost of a painful past in how Christianity is represented by Gyasi.
Some books are undeniable. There's force but somehow also beauty in this story. What should I say it's about? The fear that faith can strike into the heart of a political regime, and the horrors that a regime will resort to in order to obtain the public display of religious conformity. The ways that faith can be questioned, can falter, can endure in situations so awful that they seem to defy God. The labarynthine confusion of trying to do the right thing as a Christian: all those paradoxes of life from death, trampling Jesus to glorify God, Jesus dying to save humanity, the mysterious possibilities of switching places that Jesus seems to embody, the pragmatics required to end earthly suffering and how they mesh with a macro idea of Christian right and wrong.
Written partly in the style of a journal, Endo really gets at the conscience element of Christianity and the struggle, in complex human situtations to know right from wrong. And he gets at the political side of religion too, charting a real historical era - 17th century Japan after the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion led to Christians going into hiding and facing persecution.
Perhaps because of the unflinching look at the moralit of a God who does not end human suffering that Endo offers, the novel was not received well by Japanese Catholics, which only adds further contect to his exploration of the impossibility of questioning the morality of God as a believer, but the disconnection from moral human behaviour that Christians frequently have to admit that their God displays.
It's just not possible to write this list without including Graham Greene. He is the man who writes about God. He's so much the benchmark for fiction dealing with Christianity that Shusaku Endo was called 'The Graham Greene of Japan', a similarity which Greene himself must have been pleased with because he held Endo's work up as some of the best of the era.
Taking its title from part of the Lord's Prayer, The Power and the Glory Greene's novel tells the story of a renegade Roman Catholic 'whisky priest' (a term coined by Greene) living in the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930s, a time when the Mexican government was attempting to suppress the Catholic Church. That suppression had resulted in the Cristero War (1927-1929), so named for its Catholic combatants' slogan Viva Cristo Rey (long live Christ the King). The novel sees the priest move from renegade status through a journey of attaining genuine piety and the trials and tribulations of his existence are elevated to a kind of biblical status in and of themselves. There's violence, there's introspection, there's redemption, there are choices about whether and how to save souls, ones own and other peoples'.
It's a strange narrative to read in the twenty-first century because the lieutenant chasing the priest, the character who we don't want to succeed, perhaps holds views more similar to the majority of people today: that the church is corrupt, that priests abuse their power, and that religion is a delusion pushed upon people in order to manipulate and pacify them. The novel is a good reminder, though, in these times of refreshed disgust at wrongs committed by the Catholic Church, that you cannot force faith out of a person or a town or a country, and that the personal freedom to choose ones own faith should be considered sacred in itself.
She died with lupus at only 39 years old, but before then found the time to write two novels and 32 short stories and, althought contemporaries often criticised her work as grotesque and too ugly to read, she claimed that 'I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic.' Often described as a 'Southern' writer, her settings are often Southern, featuring the kind of intensely physical life that one thinks of as characterising the region. You can see some of the same features, but diluted, in writers like Steinbeck's depiction of the maimed and the broken people scraping out a visceral life against a hostile social and meteological backdrop.Her stories are full of violence, there's not one I don't think that doesn't feature a senseless killing, and they are profoundly physical and graphic narratives to be obviously deemed religious. But that's the amazing thing that O'Connor does in her work: deals with that weird proximity between the material and the spiritual worlds that defines Catholicism: the ornate clothes, the magnificent churches with the sensory overload of coloured glass, incence, richly coloured sculptures and paintings, the broken body of Christ dwelled on in such explicit detail in the art... The more intense and sensory the lived moment, the paradoxically closer to God a person can come. Heather McRobie teased ou that dialectic a bit more clearly in her Guardian article about the writer: "O'Connor was influenced by Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who she began reading in the late 1950s. O'Connor took Chardin's belief that there was an ever-elusive Omega point, whereby all things converged in God, and would place a character in each of her stories in a moment where they 'converged' with a force that remained mysterious to them, but which left them with something approaching insight. Perhaps the fact that this moment often combined with extreme violence or death in her stories was a device to ensure her readers were paying close attention to this mystery."
Everything That Rises Must Converge is a great work of hers to start with.
For all O'Connor has to offer as a writer, she's not an unproblematic figure, with her readers having to come to terms with a kind of casual bigotry that persists particularly in her 'juvenilia'.
Obviously he was going to be included here. Brideshead Revisited is certainly one of the most famous novels in the English Language that deals with religion - Catholicism to be precise. Even thouh Waugh was himself a Catholic, the novel is by no means a straightforwad celebration of faith. The Flyte family, the first Catholics we meet, are problematic to say the least; the parents living apart, the father with a new woman, the son a homosexual, the sister sexually 'forward', they are none of them the model of piety. But faith is something that ultimately anchors them together. Not joining them in prayer when he visits them, the central character is marked out as alone when he watches them in the chapel. Although they are all individuals straining at the bonds of their family unit, faith is something that they each, in their own way, join together in.
The father does come back to faith on his deathbed, the sister cannot marry someone who will divide her from her religion, the brother ends up overcoming addiction in a monastery and even the proudly atheist central character says a prayer when he finds himself revisiting the house, Brideshead, during the war. There's redemption through faith in the story, and its a forgiving faith too that welcomes all who need it. For someone who is thought of as a conservative writer, Waugh's vision of Catholicism is attainable by all, albeit through some self denial. But after thoroughly revelling in the debauchery of the novel's beginning and middle, it would be hard to argue that the best or most important part of a Catholic life is in the confession and forgiveness; the best part is knowing you're allowed to stray as long as even the thinnest tendrel of belief and practice holds you close to God. And Waugh's vision of religion is an attempt at surmounting the tension between individualism and the shared values and lifestyle that faith offers/demands
D. H. Lawrence
I feel like I've really saved something of a hidden gem until last.: Twilight in Italy, a book of kind of travel writing, kind of anthropological findings. In the first essay, D. H. Lawrence uses differences in the kinds of crucifixes built along mountain roads, observed when walking in Bavaria and Asutria, to break into profound regional and national characteristics. For him, the peasants who carved crucifixion figures in the Bavarian mountains were expressing their own lives of servitude and sacrifice that nonetheless didn't diminish something that Lawrence identifies as their unmoveable will.
He writes: "It is this, this endless heat and rousedness of physical sensation which keeps the body full and potent, and flushes the mind with a blood heat, a blood sleep. And this sleep, this heat of physical experience, becomes at length a bondage, at last a crucifixion. It is the life and the fulfilment of the peasant, this flow of sensuous experience. But at last it drives him almost mad, because he cannot escape."
Again, as with Waugh, as with O'Connor, Lawrence works to understand and articulate the relationship between the physical and the spiritual that Christianity embodies. How can self optimisation and self sacrifice exist in the same place, or come about through the same means? It's the mystery of how Jesus 'works' in Christian stories, and how cultures have interpreted the co-existence of both those drives defines, for Lawrence, something essential about them.
Another essay, 'The Spinner and the Monk', navigates the deathly and the life affirming aspects of life: one image sees Lawrence gathering primroses, beautful and bright, in the damp and shadowy stream behind San Tomasso church, before plunging back out into the evening sunlight. He evokes the ways that movement, natural beauty, and meditatively keen observation can lead to a kind of spiritual transcendence: "Across, above them, was the faint, rousing dazzle of snow. They never looked up. But the dazzle of snow began to glow as they walked, the wonderful, faint, ethereal flush of the long range of snow in the heavens, at evening, began to kindle. Another world was coming to pass, the cold, rare night. It was dawning in exquisite, icy rose upon the long mountain-summit opposite. The monks walked backwards and forwards, talking, in the first undershadow."