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A Difficult Balance

  Thoughts on the Intersection of Faith and Fiction

ISSUE:  Spring 2014


On a gray but mild New York City morning on the fourth Sunday in Advent, a friend and I took seats in a Catholic church—​a Jesuit parish—​at the corner of the West Village and Chelsea. I had converted to Catholicism in this church and served as a bridesmaid in a wedding here; my friend grew up Catholic and lived in the neighborhood. I arrived there just as lapsed and nostalgic for the liturgy as my friend, whose idea it was to come to Mass. It was my idea to observe it here. 

Strands of white lights and feathery greens warmed the cold marble of the columns and the grandeur of the altar. “We should have come in Ordinary Time,” murmured my friend, acknowledging with a conspiratorial smile that we were no better than Christmas-​and-​Easter rubberneckers. And then we caught up a little. She asked me if I knew a young writer who had committed suicide a few days earlier; she told me of another suicide she’d received news of that week, a friend of a friend, a young woman she would see at parties and on the street. We exchanged a few thoughts about these events and then fell silent, for that was as far as that conversation could and should go, neither of these people belonging to us. We also may have been thinking that, in the end, God was no match for despair and did not want to speak aloud of it in this, his house. 

Down jackets, jeans, and sneakers filled the pews around us, and soon the procession to the altar began. We buckled up; faced front. When the priest, having reached the pulpit, extended his arms in welcome, the sound of sleepers awaking, finding their feet, filled the sanctuary. Creaking wood, nylon whispers. The Lord be with you, said the priest. And with your spirit, we responded, and it occurred to me that some might have said I was here looking to score like an addict. Twelve years had passed since I’d converted, twelve years had passed since I’d attended Mass regularly or professed belief. But I had yet to relinquish myself to atheism, and what remained was a yearning to be struck blind or swallowed by a whale so that I would know once and for all that God was real. So I’d haunted churches when their doors were left open, lit candles, flipped paddocks, and gotten down on my knees. I’d begged God to show me he existed, because the still, small voice he was said to use was too weak a signal for my own confusions. I’d walked the city wondering whether my heart was restless, as Augustine says, whether it had felt broken for so long, because it did not rest in him. This was what my parents thought, and I’d been thinking lately that perhaps they were right. 

Thoughts of friends and relations in great pain crowded my heart. I didn’t know any of the hymns and couldn’t follow the antiphons, so I stood silent as my friend gamely sang along. I noticed in the program that we would soon be asked to sing the chorus from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” instead of the usual alleluia after the reading of the gospel and sang a hymn of my own: Oh, New York! New York. Only in New York. But when the cantor opened her mouth, she gave voice to a humbled, servile Mary instead of those cold and broken words of Cohen’s. I am the handmaiden of God / I am the handmaiden of God / Do to me according to your word, she trilled. My friend, who loved Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young as much as she loved anything, turned to me with her eyebrows raised as if to say, Do you hear what I hear

During the homily, the priest spoke of the way things sometimes work out for the good not in a spectacular way, as we might wish, but in a subtle way. I sat up straighter; inclined my ear. Would there be good news I could bring back to my friends in pain, my friends who did not believe but were desperate for their own such signs? Some wisdom? No, because the priest followed that statement with a conditional clause: Things come to good for those who love the Lord. 

Because a church had closed its doors, once again, however gently, on those I love, I found it even harder to sing. The line “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah” kept coming to mind. A lyric of Lou Reed’s followed close: “Life’s good / But not fair at all.” Out on the street, my friend and I enveloped in the drowsy clatter of a city still waking, I wondered if this was going to prove the hour I last believed in believing and was finally delivered from my indecision. When you stand in a church waiting for God and the songs of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed make more sense to you than the promises of divine grace and all-​conquering love, even though you would not say that the darkness of those songs tell the whole story of life on Earth—​then shouldn’t you stand outside of its doors permanently? 

It’s been my position that I should. And yet I want to believe, because doubt is unbearable. I go back and forth, back and forth, watching and waiting for a sign that I should return. But I am easily discouraged at the first sound of exclusion or judgment. The moment I come into contact with any of these things—​whether in conversation, comments online, or reading the popular devotional Jesus Calling over someone’s shoulder on the subway, everything in me flinches at the certainties and sanctimony, and I think no, I can’t go back. 

To more formally wrestle with the doubt, I’ve written books. A few months before the publication of my second one, a novel, another writer, formerly Mormon, asked me if writing the book was analogous to prayer. I had not thought of it that way, but I had to answer yes. I wrote it because there was no other structure in which to contemplate the possibility of believing again, or the ramifications of doubt. I couldn’t go to church, I couldn’t pray in any traditional sense, and divinity school wasn’t an option. I had no satisfying outlet, other than occasional conversations with sympathetic friends and strangers, for the thoughts and questions you have about God or faith when you declare yourself a nonbeliever, or for the unfinished business. And my sense, from these conversations with friends and strangers, is that many more of us than we hear about have this kind of unfinished business. You can be formerly Orthodox Jewish from Brooklyn, Muslim from New Jersey, Mormon from Idaho, Tennessee Baptist, Massachusetts Catholic, Texas Church of God, Staten Island Lutheran, California Seventh Day Adventist, or Michigan Dutch Reformed, and, even if the bad eventually outweighed the good for you, even if you think it might have wounded you or screwed you up, you might still feel the pull of religion and say that it conferred some blessings. 

After a false start, the second book took much less time than the first, which was shocking, because I have been for nearly all of my life a very slow writer. The last page hurried out of me after a few weeks of worry as if God had blown a dandelion and its needles scattered on my blank screen just so. Sometimes, standing slumped and enervated on the subway platform, too exhausted to think rationally or originally, I wished for that last page to have been a letter from someone trying to woo me back. That gust of inspiration made me wonder if, finally, ironically, now that I did not believe, I was meeting the Holy Spirit for the first time in my life. Was God really that kind of God after all, to visit me while typing, to favor a woman in the throes of thinking? Impossible. After it happened, alone in the house, wearing pajamas, I stood up from the couch, and, having no liquor with which to celebrate save a bottle of beer that had been sitting in the refrigerator for two years, I headed to the kitchen, where, filled with joy and relief, I leaned against the counter and ate some leftover pizza. Flannery O’Connor thought that illustrations of grace should be anchored very firmly in the concrete. So do these details make this account more credible? 

But was it grace? Educated to think critically at all times, I’m hesitant to announce a lingering curiosity about the possible existence of a benevolent, miraculous beyond. If you describe yourself as a thinking person, it’s hard to speak of sensing an outside force moving through you. Neither do you want to sound like you’re talking around a mouthful of gauze that you’re about to expectorate and pass off as ectoplasm. Because how else do you sound when you avow that you have felt vibrations of an otherworldly or sacred sort? Recalling, in the privacy of one’s own mind, that William James felt those vibrations too and bravely, sanely communicated his own and others’ experiences with them isn’t enough, at least for me. Growing up in churches can leave you with a longing for group efforts—​and these are, after all, gargantuan, eternal questions that might crush an individual should she attempt to grope her way to answers alone. 

But outside of graduate programs or church, there aren’t that many places to go to speak collectively, searchingly, and rigorously about that kind of experience, if you’re someone who is unwilling to repeat every line of the Nicene Creed, or any of it at all. And I tend not to expect novels to help me out in this regard. If the ones arrayed on tables in bookstores and splayed in the hands of subway commuters can be enlisted as evidence, the literary novel, current American edition, does not seem to be where we go to work out our relation to the numinous. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t any writers exploring the sacred—​I would argue that Denis Johnson, with his novel Angels, and Charles Baxter, with his novella Believers, have done just that, and I would tell you to go read my friend Jamie Quatro’s stories right now. But such fiction is rare. And our literary culture—​critics, publishers, readers, writers—​may not know how to engage these themes without seeming to give credence to magical thinking, closed-​mindedness, or fanaticism. I speak as someone who has noticed reviews of her novel often eliding her own engagement with those themes. When we talk about Johnson, we talk about drugs, not God—​and even Johnson doesn’t want to talk about God when you ask him. “If I’ve discussed these things in the past, I shouldn’t have,” he recently told the Yale Literary Magazine. “I’m not qualified. I don’t know who God is, or any of that. People concerned with those questions turn up in my stories, but I can’t explain why they do. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t.” 

As a person concerned with those questions and with stories, and as a person who has observed with interest the recent debates over the presence—​or lack of presence—​of faith in fiction, I want to say that in this country, over the last forty years, our political system has suffered the weakened separation of church and state, while a deep black chasm has developed between faith and art. And as someone who grew up evangelical in the 1980s, and took creative-​writing classes and browsed the shelves of Borders Books in the 1990s, I can tell you that I was not often assigned, nor did I often come across, a lauded fiction writer of my generation or beloved by my generation—​okay, Generation X—​who very publicly, unabashedly cited faith as a primary force in her work, like Marilynne Robinson does and Flannery O’Connor did. A partial list of contemporary American writers my aspiring writer friends and I were sold, or sold on: Mary Gaitskill, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Sherman Alexie, Rick Moody, Donald Barthelme, William Gaddis, John Barth, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Chabon. These writers may have addressed faith in their work, but it is not the prime mover. And if these writers, and the ones readers currently, frequently take with them onto the subway—​Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Franzen, Karen Russell, George Saunders—​do not center narratives around an exploration of the sacred, why would that be? 

To make the obvious plain: Writers write against orthodoxies. They write against the accepted fictions. They may be temperamentally and philosophically unsuited to the role of true believer. Especially writers whose educations introduced them to the works of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, and who were taught that novels written in the wake of the First World War, which put God in a grave with the men who died for it, were the apex of Art. And the Protestant Christianity that came to be synonymous with American Christianity, the one that preached a personal, passionate faith to millions, may have forced itself into American politics, but it has not forced itself into the American academy: As it created sanitized novels for its believers, so did it create sanitized schools and universities for its young people, because this brand of Christianity does not encourage belief in anything other than God, or its rules about God. It is suspicious of art, of intellect, of anything that can cause a fissure in the bond between you and Jesus. As such, it’s not a religion that can tolerate ambiguity, ambivalence, or a great deal of questioning of truth or the limits of language—​all markers of serious writing. 

It’s also possible that the belief described above has performed itself in a way that resists or defies dramatization. Evangelical Christianity’s emphasis on a highly personal relationship with God and Jesus may have created a problem that Flannery O’Connor, who thought quite a bit about faith and fiction, never had to deal with. Here’s what she said in her talk “Novelist and Believer”: 

When I write a novel in which the central action is a baptism, I am very well aware that for a majority of my readers, baptism is a meaningless rite, and so in my novel I have to see that this baptism carries enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance… . Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story or novel has been made what it is because of belief. This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal.

Since the Christianity that so many Americans are familiar with and subscribe to is extremely literal about the extent to which Jesus is involved in one’s daily life, and encourages a vociferous profession of faith, this may make a truly revelatory distortion difficult to achieve. In the incessant conscription into daily life, Jesus himself has been distorted—​into your best friend, into your diet coach, into your boyfriend, into your therapist. The absurd and deeply depressing niche marketing that Jesus has fallen victim to in the last forty years might have made O’Connor, for all her skills as a cartoonist, throw up her hands at the difficulty of topping it. Having come of age witnessing this distortion firsthand and then as a distressed cultural observer, I sometimes wonder if fiction is a truly strong enough sword to slay this dragon. 

I stand outside church warily, reluctant to cloud a sanctuary with my doubt. I stand in front of a blank page with trepidation, afraid to look like a sentimental fool because I want to talk about what cannot be apprehended by reason alone. The latter is what’s going to keep me creeping into pews, no matter how sheepishly or querulously, because Christianity, when it is not being perverted, allows you to use the words love, hope, joy, and even miracle without asking you to qualify or ironize your desire for each. It gives you a vocabulary with which to imagine and articulate the possible forms of each. What kept me believing for so long might be expressed by the title of that famous poem of Richard Wilbur’s: “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” That was how I understood Christianity. It called us to pay attention to pain and injustice and commanded us to ameliorate it. It called us to pay attention to the beauty around us and be glad for it, because the Earth was the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof. The Catholicism that I drifted from gives anyone who believes the gift of the concept of the sacramental, which, in the words of Augustine, presents to us “a visible sign of invisible grace,” whether through ritual, or, when we have eyes to see, in our very ordinary daily lives. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, it means that one believes that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” To return again to the Wilbur poem: “Oh let there be nothing on earth but laundry,” his speaker exclaims at the sight of a chock-​full clothesline, and then goes on this way: “Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves; / Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone, / And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating / of dark habits, / keeping their difficult balance.” There is laundry and there is love. There is the sacred and the mundane. I turned to Catholicism because it was a faith that kept that duality in mind—​we are flesh and we are spirit—​and its adherents, more specifically its writers, did not deny this. 

Where else do flesh and spirit meet? In a love story. To write a love story is to suggest you believe that others are an instance of the sacramental. Contemporary American writers don’t seem to want to base whole novels on that kind of magical thinking, either; nor do we as their readers want to be seen as succumbing to it. 

The Monday after that Mass on the fourth Sunday of Advent, taking the L train home from work, I found myself sitting near two women, probably about twenty-​seven or twenty-​eight, strap-​hanging and talking about books they’d just read. Erect posture, rapid, precise speech, professional, demure dresses in sober shades of wine and navy. One of them had just read Milan Kundera’s Immortality and recommended it to the other. “It’s not just a love story, like The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” she said, with a touch of the officious. The other woman nodded sagely. 

That second book I’d written was what you might call a love story. I fantasized about asking these women what they’d say about Anna Karenina or War and Peace. Or all of Jane Austen or Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Or Jude the Obscure. Or Middlemarch. And last time I looked into it, which, admittedly, was right after college, wasn’t The Unbearable Lightness of Being a philosophical meditation, as they say, on the human condition? So what, I wanted to ask these two women, did they mean by saying the novel was just a love story? But I knew what they meant. Two people going on and on about each other soap operatically rather than engaging with the political, philosophical, or economic crises shaking the world around them. Love stories, meaning romantic comedies with cardboard characters whose pains are wiped away by a happy ending that’s too good to be true. Or too sodden with melancholy, not stoic, bleak, or nihilistic enough to be True Art. A narrative predicated on emotion that makes you feel that emotion itself has been debased. Or: Women’s work, not unlike pregnancy, that reminds us that we are, after all, very different from men and trapped in that difference, hostage to our hormones and thus strangers to reason. These were serious young women, after all. They did not want to be mistaken for women who had escaped into Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. 

Did they think we’d really gotten to the end of what can be said about what men and women feel for each other? Vivian Gornick says in The End of the Novel of Love that romance can no longer be an adequate anchor for plots because it is no longer a vehicle for self-​discovery. But have we truly settled those matters so thoroughly that there’s no use exploring them? I thought of A Lover’s Discourse, in which Roland Barthes writes that “it is no longer the sexual which is indecent, it is the sentimental,” and as such we’d much rather hear about someone’s sexual travails than about their broken heart. That book was published in 1977. Thirty years later, David Foster Wallace wrote this to his fiction editor at the New Yorker: “My own terror of appearing sentimental is so strong that I’ve decided to fight against it, some; but the terror is still there.” Those two women had contracted some of that terror, though they may not have known it. I had, too, because it wasn’t just subway etiquette keeping my mouth shut, it was shame. All three of us had been inculcated with the secular, literary orthodoxies Wallace fought hard against: an aversion to the sentimental and a tendency to apply that term to any sincere description of the contents of one’s heart. 

To ask that literature refuse this experience is Puritanical with a capital P. And in these last few decades, many American writers, because of certain developments in literary theory, have chosen to be in love with language, which means that the real romance in American fiction might be with sentences, not characters. Which may be why people will not stop talking about HBO’s current hit Girls the way they would not stop talking about Sex and the City, or why in the twenty-​first century they will not let go of Jane Austen or Alice Munro: These are narratives that acknowledge that questions of romantic and sexual desire are also existential and moral ones. (Twilight and Fifty Shades being the madwomen in the attic, their popularity a symptom of too-​repressed desires, in the way that the recent enthusiasm for tales of zombies, werewolves, and vampires may be a symptom of our culture’s refusal to entertain a serious discussion of the supernatural or inexplicable.) 

Our culture makes it difficult to speak of the complexities of romantic love and belief without pieties and clichés. We want the certainties of our dogmas and our cynicisms, but we do not like questions put to the institutions of love and religion, lest they finally be exposed as flawed receptacles for our fragile hopes. 

What is related to this fear of what might happen if we looked hard at romantic love and faith is the difficulty we have of speaking openly and without pessimism about one’s doubt—​that form of sincerity in which you are honest about what you do and do not know. And religious doubt in particular is still seen as a kind of sin—​the sin of not taking a side that has infected our political discourse and all other discourse as well. If it’s hard to talk honestly to a secular audience about living as a believer, in many ways it’s riskier to lay yourself open as someone who’s not quite sure what she believes without shielding yourself with the word atheist. It’s much easier to explain why you are or are emphatically not religious than to admit to a want for a God you are not sure exists. 

Doubt can render us unstable, squirrely, surly. It can bury us in despair. But it can also be a state of waiting in which we stand curious, expectant. In doubt, like love, one can be wistful, wary, exhausted, even greedy. In doubt we have not said no, we have merely not said yes to what is currently in front of us because we are holding out for another version. We could see doubt as an active hope, which is what love is. 

It’s a slippery state to try to evoke. Try to articulate it and the response might be deaf ears, outrage, willful misreading. But the difficulty of describing moments where one is caught between ambivalence and commitment may mean it’s all the more necessary to do it. So many of the people I know live with a searching doubt. All of us pass through it daily—​as we parent, as we vote, as we marry, as we fight for our country, as we muddle through. It is perhaps one of the most human sounds we can make. We need to hear more of it. We need to be less afraid of it. 

Like a friend of mine, a writer, a believer. This past summer the two of us were walking in the woods in New England, digging deep, churning out confidences as we ground our way up and down a gravel path, the August heat and our exertion tendriling the hair at our temples and cheeks. 

“You’ve been saying you don’t believe,” she said. “But what do you mean when you say that?” 

“I doubt too much,” I said, and explained to her that the pulpits and sanctuaries of my youth required such a fervency of assent—​raised hands, swaying bodies, fevered tongues, hymns that put passionate pledges in your mouth—​that anything less seemed traitorous. 

“But I think,” she said, “that faith without doubt isn’t faith at all.” Her voice encouraging, extending a discovery to me. Why not take it? 

Of course, anything is possible in August, hidden in the green mountains, shaded by the green leaves, while the sun, unrelenting, spreads a vast blessing on us all. 

To let that contradiction remain a revelation—​one that keeps announcing some truth in winter’s dark—​and to accept the stumbling that comes along with keeping that difficult balance—​if I can I will offer up a cold and broken hallelujah. 


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Carol Buchanan's picture
Carol Buchanan · 10 years ago

Hello, Carlene,

Your essay is a beautiful rumination not only on the intersection of faith and literature, but on belief and doubt also. I'm a novelist, too, and I stand right at those same intersections. I come from a Lutheran background, denied God for 27 years and returned to faith in 1992. In the wake of the revision, or perhaps overthrow of Lutheranism within the church, I have wandered without a church for several years.

In my wanderings, I do not feel God has abandoned me. Rather, I learned to separate church from God. (By God, I mean the triune God-in-three-persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.)

Churches come from humans' attempts to understand God in ways they can understand. All the various denominations and non-denominations are human institutions, who interpret and reinterpret and misinterpret God's word because perhaps in part they cannot comprehend Him. None of us can. We can't comprehend -- understand or wrap our minds around -- the vastness of the universe, which is God's creation, whether in seven days by fiat or in billions of years by evolution. So how, then, can we begin to think we comprehend God?

God is a mystery. Being a mystery, He is incapable of being reduced to something I at least can grasp whole. I love that about Him. Now and then I have small inklings as though something waits around a corner, shadows forth behind me in a clouded mirror, and my spine tingles.

Sometimes, this tenuous grasp of God seems to close on nothingness, and my inner doubter mutters, "What if it's all a lie? What if you're wasting mental energy trying to hold onto faith?"

Then I remember Peter's wonderful letter to the Stranger in Bithynia, who had never heard of Jesus or seen Him, and I recall that I am that stranger, too. There's proof enough for me, as Peter writes, "I have seen this. I do not lie." This eyewitness, and all others including the "untimely born" Paul, have all been dead for about 1800-1900 years. But they don't strike me as liars when I read their writings.

I have to admit, though, that my favorite saint is Thomas, the apostle forever slapped with the nickname "Doubting Thomas." I've adopted his prayer as my own: "I believe. Help thou my unbelief." Because for me, as for your friend,  doubt is part of faith.

In the novel I'm working on now, the hero is in deep spiritual confusion. He does not think God would forgive his prior acts because under the same circumstances he would do them again. He believes he has risked his soul to protect other people in his community -- and lost it. Perhaps he will never have the faith his wife has, never "know Jesus as his personal savior," but all Jesus required is faith the size of a mustard seed. That's not much.  Grace makes up the rest.

Carol Buchanan

Tina Bustamante's picture
Tina Bustamante · 9 years ago

I loved reading this. I brought tears. Thank you.


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