Literary Fiction as Spiritual Journey: Part I Observations

(Transcribed from the November 2003 Image Conference)

Now let me tell you what I’ve observed about serious writing as spiritual journey. Most of my comments will focus on literary fiction, but I want to start with memoirs.

Peter Jenkin’s “Walk Across America” is an example of how memoirs are reflecting spiritual journey. Many of you know that, his career as a writer started with “Walk Across America.” This was the story of a guy who went to college in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ60s, then hiked across America, meeting interesting people and writing about his adventures. Peter came from a completely irreligious background, but in the middle of his hike across America the strangest thing happens. He ends up at a revival meeting in Texas with James Robison, who he describes as a total hot gospel flame thrower. Peter Jenkins doesn’t know any better than to just write about his experience. So tucked in the middle of “Walk Across America,” which went on to sell a few million copies, is his description of his conversion experience. He entered as a detached spectator. “Oh, this is cool. I’ll be here like an anthropologist, like a sociologist. This is kind of like a whole ¢â‚¬Ëœnother phenomena.” He mentions that part of his trip was paid for by National Geographic — and he said, “I’d read and seen where National Geographic went to some of the various spiritual events over in Africa and Tibet. The deep south was like a foreign country to me at the time. This will be a cool assignment.” So he goes to this revival, and in the middle of the revival he says, “Wow man, these are great pictures I’m getting¢â‚¬¦there are like lightning bolts coming out of Robison’s hand¢â‚¬¦ And he kept preaching… and then I dropped the camera and basically started paying attention. And I honestly felt like it was like when he was saying, preaching the gospel that it was like a huge sword that was slicing me into a whole bunch of pieces”. And this is just in a best-selling book of a guy talking about his journey.

Obviously, Kathleen Norris has written a lot about her journey and after Cloister Walk and some books that were considered kind of nice and mainstream, safe, regardless of your religious tradition, she writes The Virgin of Bennington, which is a much messier book as far as many people are concerned in terms of her story. But she says the point of the story is that “this book shows where religious conversion comes from. It doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It might come out of a very messy life.” And she says, “When I wrote the book I was very conscious that God was really present and active all along, it’s just that I was too dumb to notice him.”

We, of course, have been exposed to Annie Lamott, Traveling Mercies. I started interviewing Annie before she wrote Operating Instructions, and before she wrote Bird by Bird, and before she began to get some notice. And she told me the story of her conversion prior to writing about it because I was, as she would put it, “the only Jesus guy she knew in the media.” And if you know her story, you know that she had just had an abortion, she had a plate of cocaine in her houseboat, she felt like Jesus showed up in the corner of the room. And she looked over at him and she says, “You’ve got to be kidding.” And she uses some very colorful language in her conversion story. And she talks about, in Traveling Mercies, not feeling worthy of the gospel. And talking to a pastor who says, “Well, what you don’t understand is you don’t have to measure up. This is the business God is in. He’s in the business of loving people that are screwed up.” And then her classic line, “Well, does it say that somewhere?” And he takes her to the Bible. Yeah, it says it somewhere.

The younger generation, remembers when Douglas Copeland wrote Life After God, with the famous passage near the end of the book, “Here’s my secret. I tell it with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again. I pray that you are in a quiet room when you hear these words. My secret is that I need God.” It’s a guy that describes a completely irreligious background. No religious instruction in his life at all. On his own, out there in culture, comes to this dramatic conclusion.

So memoirs are a category where we see spiritual journey. But there are also the parable and seeker stories. Ron Hansen’s Atticus, is a wonderful re-telling of the Prodigal Son story.

Robert Stone’s Damscus Gate.. If you didn’t read the book it’s the story of a young journalist who goes to Israel at the end of the 20th century to study the apocalyptic traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. His father was Jewish, his mother was Catholic, and that’s kind of the starting point for who this character is. When I interviewed Robert Stone I said to him, “You know, I read somewhere that your father was Jewish and your mother was Catholic.” And I said, “I read that you said 20 years ago you left religion and 20 years later you woke up and felt like half your head was missing.” I was telling Joy Williams earlier today that’s one of the few times in my studio where an author has teared up. And Robert Stone said, “I think it happens to a lot of people. You leave religion with a tremendous sense of liberation, and then years later you discover that something really important is missing. And you either start all over again and you go back and try to reclaim it or you substitute something else for it.” And then he said, and this is where he teared up, “There is that element of man as Pascal said, ¢â‚¬ËœThe world everywhere gives evidence of a vanished God, and man, in all his actions, gives evidence of a longing for that God.'” It was a most moving moment. And he, of course, continues to write on that subject.

David Guterson, I mentioned, has just written this book, Our Lady of the Forest, and he describes himself quite openly as an agnostic. Raised by agnostics, himself an agnostic, raising three children who are agnostics, and yet he spends five years of his life writing this story about this woman who starts to have visions of the Virgin Mary out in the woods. And he shows that he’s done an extensive bit of research about the whole Mariology tradition. In our interview he said, “Well, we’re all on a spiritual search. Questioning our existence makes us human. Answers scare me, but questions brought to the surface, I think, are really important.”

When I’m in a studio I don’t view myself as an interviewer, I view myself as a human being having a conversation with another human being ¢€œ but I am conscious of moments and opportunities where I have to decide, what do I say? How do I respond? Do I let that comment go? Or do I probe? Or do I¢â‚¬¦ And I have to confess when David Guterson talked about this answers scare me, questions, et cetera, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis who said of agnostics, “Amiable, agnostics will talk cheerfully about man’s search for God.” (he’s describing when he himself was an agnostic) “To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.” So there is in American fiction this glorification and glamorization of the search, but you do often stand back and ask, How sincere is this search? How serious is this search?

There is, in addition to the parable/seeker-type stories, there are theological questions at the heart of many novels. Irish novelist, Niall Wiliams, wrote a book, As it is in Heaven. And within the first five pages of this novel you read this sentence, “There are only three great puzzles in the world. The puzzle of love, the puzzle of death, and between each of these and part of both of them, the puzzle of God. God is the greatest puzzle of all. When a car drives off the road and crashes into your life, you feel the puzzle of God.” This is a novel about a man who loses his wife and child in an automobile accident.

The weird thing about this ¢€œ and this is why I believe it is so important that we pay attention to literary fiction ¢€œ the day after I read this book for an interview that was to be on Monday, Sunday I showed up at church and there was a guy wandering around in the lobby who looked very distressed, disheveled. And I walked up and said, Hi, my name is Dick Staub, can I help you? And he says, I want to know what’s going to happen to Marie. And I said, Do you want to talk about it? And he said, Yes. And we sat down. And he said, “A year ago today a drunk driver named Marie was in a head-on collision with my wife of 28 years and she was killed instantly. I’m here today because I want to know what’s going to happen to Marie.” The synchronization of having thought about those questions and reading Niall Williams’ book, and having a guy walk off the street in my church the next day was eerie.

I think literary fiction, at its best, in part serves as kind of the canary in the cage. What are the issues that we’re dealing with? What are the questions that we’re dealing with? Amy Bloom wrote a book, Love Invents Us, about a teenage girl coming of age. And she interacts with the idea that she’s been told when a young child dies that God just wanted that child to be one of his angels. Her character is in junior high. She thinks this is outrageous. The narrative goes like this. “Sometimes God makes a mistake, just carelessness. He doesn’t check the calendar. If he had checked, he might have seen that Elizabeth was overbooked for loss. Elizabeth didn’t believe in a real God, but she had a God character in her head, part Mr. Klein, that’s a teacher at the school, part Santa. In grade school when Mimi Tadechi’s little brother died, Mimi leaned forward from two seats back to whisper that God took him to be one of his angels. Elizabeth almost stood up in the middle of spelling to scream. Who could believe such ugly, cruel nonsense, that God would steal babies from their families because he was lonely? Snuff the life out of them because he needed company?”

That’s the kind of conversation you’re having today in literary fiction that you wish you could have in your local Bible study group or your local small group experience. It’s beyond the superficial. Rick Moody who, of course, wrote The Ice Storm said, “That the soul of my job as a writer is to unearth and explore my fears.” He wrote a series of short stories titled, Demonology, that had very mixed critical reviews. The context for those stories was that his, in real life, his sister had just died. And not very far into one of these short stories his character is talking to his dead sister. “Sis, have I mentioned that I had a lot of questions I’ve been meaning to ask? Have I asked, for example, why you were taking the winding country road along our side of the great river when the four lines along the west side were faster, more direct, and in heavy rain less dangerous? Have I asked why you were driving at all? Why I was not driving you to the rehearsal dinner?” In the story the girl is killed the night before her wedding. “Have I asked why your car was in the shop for muffler repair on such an important day?” She borrowed a car. “Have I asked why you were late? Have I asked why you were lubricating your nerves before the dinner? Have I asked why four gin and tonics, as you call them G & T’s, before your own rehearsal dinner were not maybe in excess of what needed? Have I asked you if there was a reason for you to be so tense on the evening of your wedding? Do you feel you had to go through with it, that there was no alternative?”

It goes on and on and on. I’ll confess, I read this earlier this morning before I left my house. My wife came downstairs to my office and she found me with tears in my eyes because I’d been reading this and thinking, This guy is so connected. I mean, he has so connected. Knowing that his sister died, knowing that he believes the soul of his job is to unearth and explore his fears, and to read his short story posing question after question after question. My wife understood because her mother died of cancer four years ago. Her grandmother died just last year. The two best closest people in her life. Her father died when she was six years old. When you read somebody who’s being honest and stripping away the questions of life, you’re reading theological questions, you’re reading spiritual questions.

Of course there’s also in literary fiction the archetypes, the references to spiritual stuff. Joy Williams book, the title itself, The Quick and the Dead. Even if you didn’t know anything about Joy Williams, if you knew something about what the Bible says you know that there’s something interesting going to happen here around that phrase.

Having Margaret Atwood was on my show was a very interesting experience. I learned that she was raised by atheists in Canada. Her father was an entomologist who would go out in the woods every summer. So they would rough it. They’d live out in kind of completely primitive conditions for the summer while her dad studied bugs. In Canadian schools at the time they would start class with the reading of a Bible verse. Margaret Atwood got very interested in the Bible. Didn’t know anything about it because her family was completely a blank slate. So she asked her parents if she could go to church. She ended up at a Presbyterian church. At the age of 11 and 12 she began having spirited, knock-down, drag-out battles with the pastor about predestination and about Calvinism–rigorous conversations.

In the course of the interview I said, Well Margaret, what kind of reaction did you get from conservative Christians about the Handmaid’s Tale? To which she said, “Well, they don’t read, you know.” And what she meant by that was “hey don’t read serious stuff. So I wouldn’t get a reaction because they’re not there.” And then the indicting phrase, “You can’t,” she said, “understand my writing if you don’t understand the great stories of the Bible. You can’t understand my writing unless you understand the narrative in the stories that have shaped the Judeo-Christian world views.”

T.C. Boyle was just nominated for the National Book Award, for a book that I learned this morning that some of you absolutely hate. The book is Drop City. T.C. Boyle is a guy that is very straight up front that he’s an atheist. He really likes to make provocative statements about how there’s absolutely no meaning in the universe, there’s no purpose, et cetera, et cetera. I pointed out to him in the book, Drop City, that he had a reference to St. Paul in the context of what a marriage would be ¢€œ Drop City is about a commune in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ60s, kind of re-inventing everything ¢€œ but there’s this marriage that’s a counterfoil to the commune. And so he’s interacting with St. Peter’s idea of the woman submitting to the man, or the wife submitting to the husband. Then at two very pivotal points in the book, he has these meals and uses communion languages and metaphors around these meals. And then he has another scene where they’re deciding who’s going to go in the cars, who’s going to go on the bus. And the guy stands on top of the bus he says like Noah on the ark dividing the¢â‚¬¦ And so I waited for an appropriate time. And my basic philosophy is I want to get into the author’s work, but at some appropriate moment I want to at least raise some issues that I have found provocative about their work that will link to spiritual stuff. And in T.C. Boyle’s case it didn’t happen ¢â‚¬Ëœtil the fourth of four nine-minute segments, so it was about 30 minutes into the interview. I pointed out to him that I’m seeing these kind of references. Submission, communion, Noah. And he kind of gets ¢€œ and he was very engaging, we had a great time. He tells me at one level these are references to the common mythologies of humans in the west. We know these stories. Then he gets into this really interesting thing where he says, “there are times when I am stuck. I don’t know what I’m going to write. And I go into this room alone and I find myself going to a place that’s almost like a point of unconsciousness. At that point there is a spiritual dimension to my enterprise as a writer¢â‚¬¦For the reader, it would not surprise me at all that there becomes a spiritual connection between the writer and the reader.”

I wish I had jotted down some of the specific quotes this morning before I came, but it was this most interesting discussion from an atheist about this level of spiritual conversation and journey. And then, I mentioned to him the Robert Stone issue, because Stone and he are friends. And he says, “Well, the thing that I believe about ¢€œ both Robert and I ¢€œ is that when you reach the place where you believe there is no meaning or purpose to anything, the very fact that you continue to write is itself a spiritual exercise, that you still want to believe that there will be something, that you will find something. It’s at that point that you’re acknowledging that there still is something,” This from an atheist!

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