Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Religious novels

John Updike’s smug recommendation that Sarah Palin ought to read his Month of Sundays, because she “is religious and so am I,” raises the question of novels that are more genuinely religious.

The de Vries novel that Updike struggles mightily to reproduce is The Mackerel Plaza (1958). It too is a first-person account by a liberal Protestant minister—the spiritual leader of “P.L.,” People’s Liberal. There the resemblance stops. Rev. Mackerel looks upon the Awakening of the fifties as backsliding. To buck up his congregation, he delivers sermons on the difference between American and British pronunciation. De Vries himself believed in something like Puritanism, which he comes perilously close to affirming in Mrs. Wallop (1970), and he has great fun bumping the Rev. Mackerel against a less tentative Christianity. He also has something that Updike lacks: genuine comic talent.

Frederick Buechner is himself a Protestant minister—a Presbyterian—who wrote a series of novels, collected as The Bebb Book, about a flawed minister. His best, though, is Godric (1980), a historical novel about the hermit St. Godric of Finchale (ca. 1065–1170). A stylistic triumph, Buechner’s novel is written entirely in an English reduced to its Anglo-Saxon roots just as St. Godric himself would have. The account of Godric’s self-purification is not merely marvelous to behold, however; it is genuinely moving.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Baal Teshuvah, translated into English as The Penitent (1983), adopts the universal convention of the profligate—sexually profligate—sinner who only partially and intermittently manages to turn his life around. But it is the only account I know of the B.T. experience, as Orthodox Jews call it. (A baal teshuvah [literally, “master of return”] is a Jew who “returns” to Judaism: a “born-again” Jew.)

The best religious novelist now writing is, of course, Marilynn Robinson. I have pressed Gilead on so many friends that they cross the street when they see me coming. And I intend to review her recent Home, and so I won’t say anything about it here. Suffice it to say that Mark Sarvas caught her, at an event last Thursday at the Los Angeles Public Library, saying “There’s nothing in the world I admire more than a good sermon.” And try to imagine any other working novelist saying something like that.