On Dec. 29, 2006, an ageing John Updike accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award presented at the Conference on Christianity and Literature in Philadelphia. In his acceptance speech, Updike noted the nuances of his own faith and humbly feigned his connection with Christianity to be unremarkable. Yet, Updike, who never saw himself as a Christian apologist in either his fiction or his poetry, noted that certain of his novels such as The Poorhouse Fair (his first) and Terrorist (one of his last) serve as bookends to a career that, at the very least, touched on the tensions of Christianity evidenced most clearly in a private faith.
Indeed, Updike may be regarded as the last novelist whose fiction would, from time to time, touch on the distinct struggles of personal faith—as embodied in the mundane questions of family, career, politic and sex (especially sex). Updike himself was aware of this, and wrote often of it, and of the religious discourse that was passing away from American letters. As he put it in another speech (More Matter, p. 848): “I am not aware of much comparable now [with references to Christian faith in literature] in the writing produced by men and women much younger than myself.”
Still, while fiction on the whole has passed from the public discourse in American society (when was the last time you heard people on the street talking about a work of literature, or the last time you heard a novel quoted from the pulpit?), novels continue to be published, and in this digital age have an ability to transcend the usual paltry sales figures nominally gleaned from a fast-growing literature-less society (think Harry Potter, The Hunger Games). Even so, the novel does have a reach, and some works, such as The Kite Runner, surprisingly reach tens of millions.
It is a rare to find a pastor, however, who reads widely in fiction, who is aware of the contemporary literary landscape and the novelists who populate it. Knowing the publishing industry as I do, I sense that most pastors across the spectrum are more inclined to read a book about leadership, fundraising, or how to use technology in worship than they are to read a novel of some purported literary weight. The former are books that most pastors would regard as containing practical information, while novels might typically be regarded as figments of imagination. As one pastor remarked to me recently, “I don’t read novels because they are not true.”
As any novelist will maintain, fiction is, in fact, the very medium that grapples with truth and that is the most truthful writing of all. Non-fiction books may, of course, contain facts that are useful; but novels can contain truth that histories, and biographies, and the thousands of self-help titles cannot penetrate.
Which brings us to the question: Can pastors use novels in preaching?
Personally, I always have found the answer to be yes. I assume Jesus would agree.
Throughout the synoptic gospels, we most commonly encounter Jesus as a storyteller—a weaver of supreme fiction, offered in the condensed form of the parable, which was a rabbinic form, common to the time, and which populated the first century religious landscape as evidenced in the gospels and the Talmud. In other words, fiction reigned supreme as the art form of choice, and no rabbi worth his salt could have grown a following without this storytelling skill. Many portions of the Talmud begin, “And he told them a parable.” When we see Jesus at work in His pulpit, we see Him in the traditional posture of the seated sage, His disciples gathered around, swapping stories.
There is a central place for fiction in preaching, but we may have forgotten the art of the telling and the interplay between author and reader.
As for more modern practitioners of the art, while there may be few new voices grappling with the Christian faith as a central theme, we can find ample supply in the not too distant past. There were, at a time, remarkable Catholic voices as evidenced by T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Flannery O’Connor and J.F. Powers—the latter of whose short stories tended to focus on parish priests and congregants struggling with the forces of modernity and the idols of the age. One could also access Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, or even Muriel Spark or Walter Percy, to discover perceptive insights about faith.
Consider how, articulating a Jewish consciousness, writers such as Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth populated their stories and novels with struggling Jews who both embodied and questioned the articles of their religion. There also are a few Islamic writers, too (think Salman Rushdie) who can speak to this.
The contemporary preacher, however, now has to read widely in order to discover these gems, and many pastors have relegated themselves to critic of all things novel, as if proclaiming the Satanic influence of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games treats them to high status in the pantheon of spiritual luminaries and will guard their parish from the influence of fiction.
Jesus, of course, would have nothing of this; but He would continue to spin His fictions about inanimate objects such as seeds and rocks, or offer metaphoric questions about sparrows and lost coins. After telling His short stories, He would want to know: Where do you see the kingdom of God? or What does this story say to you?
This is the wonderful thing about fiction: It offers the reader (listener) questions to ponder. Parables do not offer “10 Easy Steps to Creating a Better Prayer Life” or “Three Ways to a Better You” or “Four Methods for Growing Stewardship in Your Church.” All fiction (except for the most unabashedly entertaining) is an attempt to get at some root of human experience, to dissect it, to bring it into the light of day. When we encounter those novelists who are concerned with faith and the spirit, there are questions that we ourselves discover. In the discovering, we also may arrive at certain answers.
Such is the power of fiction, of the parable.
Updike was correct in his assessment of his late contemporaries. There are few writers, and perhaps none of note, who currently are grappling with the deeper intersections of the Christian faith and modern life. At best, some novelists insert references to the Bible, or depict people attending worship as a kind of backdrop to other themes, but few penetrate their meanings; or we encounter Christianity running through the ringer of history, as in the excellent novels of Ken Follett (The Pillars of the Earth Trilogy).
These novel realities, however, make the novel all the more powerful in preaching when find truth in fiction. There is a story to tell. As did Jesus, we can offer pertinent questions in the retelling that may have our congregations sitting on edge.
Among the current crop of novelists who might offer, from time to time, something of faith to chew on, Anne Tyler has a voice, as does John Irving. Others, such as the late David Foster Wallace, offer periodic episodes of reflection beaten to death with moribund exploits of their respective heroes. Wendell Berry, that gentleman farmer, still entertains and delights with his faithful fiction. Wally Lamb was remarkable, too, and we wish he would write more.
There may be younger writers still developing whose pens will eventually stir a new generation to these reflections. The preacher should be on the ready for them—reading at least a steady dose of book reviews (even on Amazon.com) that might hint at gems in the rough.
The novel no longer occupies a central place in our collective consciousness, but novels can still preach and certainly have a place on the pastor’s shelves. Pastors still need the work of fiction. We would do well to keep, always, a novel in hand on our way to the study.