In the most recent Australian Literary Review, Delia Falconer suggests the decline of God as a source of meaning in the West has occurred side by side with the rise of the novel.
She makes the observation as the opening statement in her review of literary critic James Wood’s book “How Fiction Works”.
It’s an especially relevant comment, given Wood believes fiction has taken over as the measure of authenticity and power of the sacred. He says although fiction requires a different kind of belief to religion, it creates a parallel sense of “the real”.
It’s true that society today looks to narrative to understand and find meaning in the world. We turn to television, film, poetry and theatre to explore and analyse issues and ideas. In this context, the novel is as powerful as ever.
And this raises interesting questions about the place of narrative in religion, and why religion longer has the power it once had in the West.
Falconer says that for Wood, the best novels seem to create an approximate reality so intense and morally driven, that they may temporarily mend the world as a godless "broken estate". (And obviously, Wood is picking his reading material from the literary section, although I have no doubt there are religious experiences to be had in chick lit…)
Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr (who I’ve mentioned before on this blog), believes the decline of popularity of Christianity in particular has been the result of perverting the religion’s original narrative.
He notes that while Eastern nations are – generally – deeply proud and protective of their religious heritage (be it Islamic, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist), Christian nations in the West tend not to be.
Rohr believes the reason is that the narrative at the heart of Christianity has been turned into a bad novel: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. When instead, he says the narrative of the New Testament is about sacrifice, suffering, transformation, and redemption. It’s not about “us” and “them”. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s not even about getting it right. Quite the opposite.
I agree with Wood that effective narrative has the power to move people in ways that are essentially spiritual.
It’s a shame so many of our spiritual leaders have forgotten that lesson, and turned Christianity into a narrative devoid of its original revelation and power.
(Image: Daniel Marsula/Post-Gazette)