Editor’s note: As a complement to her piece in our Spring 2014 issue, “A Difficult Balance,” Carlene Bauer offers these five books on faith and fiction.
Everything That Rises Must Converge
by Flannery O’Connor
What is there to say? She’s Flannery O’Connor. Increasingly when I read these stories it’s not O’Connor’s theological intent that compels me, because her notion that grace is always delivered with an ax blow can grow a little tiresome. What compels is the fact that there is theological intent coexisting with an ability to be truly, deeply, unsettlingly hilarious, as in these lines from “Parker’s Back”: “Long views depressed Parker. You look out into space like that and you begin to feel as if someone were after you, the navy or the government or religion.”
The End of the Affair
by Graham Greene
A successful novelist falls in love with a woman married to a civil servant in London during the Blitz. She breaks off the relationship abruptly, he suspects there’s another man, and there is—God. We descend into the novelist’s heart, a place as black and bombed-out as the city he haunts. He says: “I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever.” She says: “If I’m a bitch and a fake, is there nobody who will love a bitch and a fake?” The novel reminds us, unapologetically, that we who ask for God’s love and pardon are hateful, jealous, despairing, despondent, cold, resentful animals. (Who like a drink.) If O’Connor’s stories remain startling because of the coexistence of faith and impeccable comic timing, Greene’s novel remains startling because of the anger unleashed in a story about belief.
by Walker Percy
Binx Bolling is a Louisiana stockbroker on a desultory existential quest that finds him in a standoff with God and with the quote-unquote modern condition—with what he calls “the malaise,” a state in which humans can’t find it within themselves to do much of anything, even sin or search properly. According to Binx, “Abraham saw signs of God and believed. Now the only sign is that all the signs in the world make no difference. Is this God’s ironic revenge? But I am onto him.” Meanwhile he sees movies, sees pretty girls, keeps an eye on his unstable cousin Kate. Nothing much happens in this novel, really, but who cares, because you’re just reading to hear Percy’s character perform a valiant, raffish, despairing, loopy hymn of doubt.
Passage to India
by E. M. Forster
In which British rationalism is tested by the chaos of India, and each side is spiritually rattled by the encounter. Forster’s ability to credibly render moments of the soul’s longing and disarray—moments, even, of mysticism—may be made all the more credible by the fact that he did not believe, though belief figured in his family background. This was O’Connor’s favorite Forster novel, according to her letters. Perhaps because of these sentences, which describe a fury of riotous antics during a ceremony celebrating the birth of Krishna? “All laughed exultantly at discovering that the divine sense of humour coincided with their own…. There is fun in heaven. God can play practical jokes upon Himself, draw chairs away from beneath His own posteriors, set His own turbans on fire, and steal His own petticoats when He bathes. By sacrificing good taste, this worship achieved what Christianity has shirked: the inclusion of merriment. All spirit as well as all matter must participate in salvation, and if practical jokes are banned, the circle is incomplete.”
I Want to Show You More
by Jamie Quatro
I’m very lucky to call this author a friend, but I’d call her a friend even if I didn’t know her, because these stories are for every believer, current or former, who ever wore themselves out trying to be as perfect as their churches taught them God wanted them to be. An underserved population, if you ask me. “It’s nothing against you, or your theology. I’m just worn out from thinking all the time,” a woman says to her pastor while admitting that she might need to take a break from her family and her church because of an affair she’s been having. The stories are revolutionary in their frankness about sexual desire and spiritual wrestling. They’re beautiful, wonderfully strange, and not without hope.