Is the novel a distinctly atheistic art form?

This is the opinion of Ian McEwan, because novels train us in empathy.  I’m not sure what that has to do with religion, but most atheists do strike me as nauseatingly sentimental, so maybe there is a connection.  In the linked article, M. M. Owen analyzes three of McEwan’s novels, finding their treatment of storytelling to be more ambiguous than McEwan’s public position.  It sounds like McEwan is too good a novelist to keep himself on message.

Certainly, there does seem to be something about the novel that makes it a poor vessel for religious or mythical narratives.  I think it’s that novels describe their events in such great detail.  Archetypes may be invoked, but no character or event can simply be its archetype because it has been so thoroughly individualized.  Myths reside in “sacred time” beyond profane localizations, like Platonic Forms.  When the story is recited, or a like event occurs, the myth becomes present.  Novels are too long and too detailed to be “made present” through communal, liturgical reading.

Christians are always being told that we need to retake the culture.  Don’t bother with politics; reach people through the arts.  We should not assume that this just means to excel at the art forms of the contemporary world:  that we should aspire to write the best novels, movies, and pop music and somehow instill it with our values.  It may be that we will need to develop other art forms as proper bearers of our culture.

8 Responses

  1. I once went through a list of all the contemporary poets I thought were really good. Every one of them grew up in a devoutly religious home.

    I haven’t gone through a similar list of novelists, but, going off the top of my head, I don’t think you could say the same thing about the better contemporary novelists. Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy may be exceptions.

  2. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky may be the exceptions that prove the rule.

  3. By the same argument (in paragraph two), wouldn’t “real life” be an atheistic experience because it is incarnate and particular? That doesn’t seem right to me. Different art forms express truth, beauty, and the good in different ways (including degrees of excellence — and failure — in how they manifest such). Latter day novelists tend to write heathen works because latter day novelists are largely heathen.

    Moreover, if a writer assumes the position of all knowing scold who derides religion, then that writer’s works tend towards atheism, I guess. However, the humility of the writer matters. A nonbeliever who is less doctrinaire about his atheism might treat the religious views or devotional actions of his characters with more respect, refusing to dismiss them as outdated or foolish. His narrator might be more of an agnostic observer than the omniscient judge of affairs. He might, like George Eliot, at least in her later work, portray human affairs and leave it up to the reader to discern the metaphysical significance of the drama. Just as we must in “real life.”

    (It’s funny that the linked article mentions George Eliot and Iris Murdoch — two writers [and thinkers] whom I especially respect and, yes, love . . . both English women who were wise moralists despite their personal life choices — and both with an extensive encounter with the philosophical tradition. Perhaps, those are related facts.)

    Anyway, I think that there is an unsettling streak in monotheism that sees any attention spent on creation as a form of idolatry, holding that the one thing needful is mindfulness of God (and only God, as if that were possible for us). From Augustine’s later years to white walled Calvinism to evangelicals who disapprove of any music that doesn’t explicitly praise Jesus — they’re all very concerned about God’s supposedly greedy attention-seeking. For such folks, the novel tends toward heathenism because its subject matter is human situations. Art about man, for them, means art without God.

    The novel is atheistic because there is no God beyond the novelist? This isn’t correct, though the divine presence in novels tends to be indirectly exhibited in stories about men. The same holds true of normal life, and this is where I think that our Puritans throughout history (pre- and post- English Calvinism) get it wrong. The world reflects God, and it is through looking at the world that we (typically) come to see God — not unlike the veils that the Areopagite mentions or Paul’s glass through which we see darkly. The world of sights and sounds might seem like chaos, or atoms in the void, or meaningless tragedy. Yet, whereas the carnal eye sees only men, their continual troubles, and their fleeting joys, the spiritual eye can see God. That is one beautiful truth consequent to the sacramental, iconic understanding of creation. So, writers who faithfully examine the human condition depict the world, whether they see God in it or not. To the extent that their art represents the world accurately, it depicts God. Hence, even an unbeliever like George Eliot cannot escape God’s presence in her novels, even if she might reduce providence and the divine economy to the human, all too human in her own interpretation of her work and of the human story it tells. For what is human but the image of God — for those that have eyes to see?

  4. Yes, it absolutely is.

  5. Hmm. Of the ten best selling novels of all time, two (Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) are by a Catholic author and certainly suffused by Christianity. #11 is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The best seller among books written in this century is The Da Vinci Code. While it’s pagan trash, religion (both Christianity and goddess-worship) is a central plot point.

    Of note, many of the all-time best sellers have some element of the supernatural. Don Quixote, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, etc. So I don’t think it’s at all clear that the novel as a literary form is inherently atheistic, at least not in terms of the buying habits of the reading public.

  6. @manwhoisthursday I concur. I am an atheist mostly because I am incorrigible empiricist, rational arguments don’t do for me, only experiences. My Russian friend, an Orthodox, told me I am an animal and not in an insulting sense, in his culture there is a tradition that being human means taking abstractions truly seriously on their own and not just a handy tool to predict experiences we can touch and taste as it is with the scientific method. I am a smart animal, who can logic out where the feed is and understand why it is not in the same place as it used to be. Disappointing but kinda true.

    Anyhow, the point is, that it is poetry that gives me at least some kind of experience, touch, taste of what religion is. I find Kipling’s Hymn Before Battle quite moving, or Eliot’s Little Gidding.

    Popularize your favorite poems. It really makes you guys more understandable.

  7. I have sometimes wondered if the ultra-realism that is made possible by modern art forms, in particular the novel and film, makes us less able to appreciate other art forms with a more venerable tradition. Should someone today try to write an epic poem, would anyone even care to read it? Listening to poetry used to be a common pastime in the 19th century among even the lower classes (Longfellow was very popular in America). I can’t imagine anyone doing that today except for academics in obscure fields.

    It has even afflicted our appreciation of older realistic paintings: I’ve heard people criticize Renaissance art (despite it being much more realistic than what came before) because it is full of anachronisms, a criticism that seems wildly off-base to me. Evidently people didn’t care much about anachronism in painting until Benjamin West.

    I find it utterly ridiculous when one hears of actors who stay in character for months on end in order to prepare for a role (Daniel Day-Lewis) or who lose 50 pounds for a role (Christian Bale). This is how over the top we moderns take our realism.

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